Videos: “Space to Ground” ISS report + Soyuz-ISS docking + China cargo vehicle launch

This week’s Space to Ground report from NASA on activities related to the International Space Station:

Here is a video of a Russian Soyuz blasting off on Thursday to take a Russian cosmonaut and a NASA astronaut to the station:

Just six hours later the Soyuz spacecraft docked to the ISS:

China also has a space station. On Thursday launched a Long March 7 rocket with the Tianzhou-1 cargo vehicle at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China’s Hainan Province. The spacecraft will dock with the unoccupied Tiangong-2 space station. It will transfer fuel to the station so that it can maintain its orbit.

 

Sci-Tech: Lilium Jet electric VTOL vehicle makes first demo flights

The German startup company Lilium has now flown the first full-scale prototype of their electric-powered vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft called the Lilium Jet:

They explain what they mean by electric jet as follows:

The electric jet engines work like turbofan jet engines in a regular passenger jet. They suck in air, compress it and push it out the back. However, the compressor fan in the front is not turned by a gas turbine, but by a high performance electric motor. Therefore, they run much quieter and completely emission-free.

The vehicle will have a range of 300 km (186 miles) at 300km/hour. The goal is to fly in 2019 “the first fully functional jet”, which can carry up to five passengers. The key target market is dial-up taxi service by early 2020s.

The current design of the production vehicle looks like this:

Announcement about the prototype test flights:

Lilium celebrates successful flight tests and introduces 5-seater VTOL jet

We have incredibly exciting news to share. The Lilium Jet successfully completed its maiden test flight series in the skies above Bavaria. The 2-seater Eagle prototype executed a range of complex maneuvers, including its signature mid-air transition from hover mode to wing-borne forward flight.

Seeing the Lilium Jet take to the sky and performing sophisticated maneuvers with apparent ease is testament to the skill and perseverance of our amazing team. We have solved some of the toughest engineering challenges in aviation to get to this point. The successful test flight programme shows that our ground-breaking technical design works exactly as we envisioned. We can now turn our focus to designing a 5-seater production aircraft.

We are now developing a larger, 5-seater version of our Lilium Jet, designed for on-demand air taxi and ridesharing services. A typical journey with the Lilium Jet will be at least 5x faster than by car, with even greater efficiencies in busy cities. So a flight from Manhattan to New York’s JFK Airport will take around 5 minutes, compared to the 55 minutes it would take you by car.

Please make sure you read more about Lilium’s mission and technology.

As well as making great progress in the air, we’ve also updated our Lilium brand. Enjoy our new website, we hope you like it!

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A couple of articles about Lilium:

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Hubble sees first gravitationally lensed “standard candle” supernova

A galaxy or other massive object can bend light. Light from a star far beyond and behind such an object from our point of view can be bent just like light going through a lens. This lens effect can result in multiple views of the same star. This gravitational lens phenomena has been studied for many years but no one till now has used it to see a special kind of “standard candle” supernova that provides a way to measure distances in the universe. Here is a report on these new observations with the Hubble space telescope:

Hubble observes first multiple images of explosive distance indicator

A Swedish-led team of astronomers used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to analyse the multiple images of a gravitationally lensed type Ia supernova for the first time. The four images of the exploding star will be used to measure the expansion of the Universe. This can be done without any theoretical assumptions about the cosmological model, giving further clues about how fast the Universe is really expanding. The results are published in the journal Science.

This composite image shows the gravitationally lensed type Ia supernova iPTF16geu, as seen with different telescopes. The background image shows a wide-field view of the night sky as seen with the Palomar Observatory located on Palomar Mountain, California. The leftmost image shows observations made with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). The central image was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and shows the lensing galaxy SDSS J210415.89-062024.7. The rightmost image was also taken with Hubble and depicts the four lensed images of the supernova explosion, surrounding the lensing galaxy. [Larger images]
An international team, led by astronomers from the Stockholm University, Sweden, has discovered a distant type Ia supernova, called iPTF16geu [1] — it took the light 4.3 billion years to travel to Earth [2]. The light from this particular supernova was bent and magnified by the effect of gravitational lensing so that it was split into four separate images on the sky [3]. The four images lie on a circle with a radius of only about 3000 light-years around the lensing foreground galaxy, making it one of the smallest extragalactic gravitational lenses discovered so far. Its appearance resembles the famous Refsdal supernova, which astronomers detected in 2015 (heic1525). Refsdal, however, was a core-collapse supernova.

This animation shows the phenomenon of strong gravitational lensing. This effect caused the supernova iPTF16geu to appear 50 times brighter than under normal circumstances and to be visible on the sky four times. Credit: ESA/Hubble, L. Calçada

Type Ia supernovae always have the same intrinsic brightness, so by measuring how bright they appear astronomers can determine how far away they are. They are therefore known as standard candles. These supernovae have been used for decades to measure distances across the Universe, and were also used to discover its accelerated expansion and infer the existence of dark energy. Now the supernova iPTF16geu allows scientists to explore new territory, testing the theories of the warping of spacetime on smaller extragalactic scales than ever before.

The supernova iPTF16geu exploded at a distance corresponding to a time 4.3 billion years ago. It could only be detected because a foreground galaxy lensed the light of the explosion, making it 50 times brighter for observers on Earth. It also caused the supernova to appear in four distinct places on the sky, surrounding the lensing galaxy in the foreground. [Larger versions]

“Resolving, for the first time, multiple images of a strongly lensed standard candle supernova is a major breakthrough. We can measure the light-focusing power of gravity more accurately than ever before, and probe physical scales that may have seemed out of reach until now,” says Ariel Goobar, Professor at the Oskar Klein Centre at Stockholm University and lead author of the study.

The critical importance of the object meant that the team instigated follow-up observations of the supernova less than two months after its discovery. This involved some of the world’s leading telescopes in addition to Hubble: the Keck telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. Using the data gathered, the team calculated the magnification power of the lens to be a factor of 52. Because of the standard candle nature of iPTF16geu, this is the first time this measurement could be made without any prior assumptions about the form of the lens or cosmological parameters.

Last month saw the inauguration of a new Hubble observing program: Frontier Fields. This will use the powerful magnifying properties of massive galaxy clusters to peer even deeper into the space around us. Hubblecast 70 takes a look at this phenomenon — known as gravitational lensing — exploring how it works, and how it can help us to uncover the secrets of the very distant Universe.

Currently the team is in the process of accurately measuring how long it took for the light to reach us from each of the four images of the supernova. The differences in the times of arrival can then be used to calculate the Hubble constant — the expansion rate of the Universe — with high precision [4]. This is particularly crucial in light of the recent discrepancy between the measurements of its value in the local and the early Universe (heic1702).

The galaxy SDSS J210415.89-062024.7 is located 2.5 billion light years away. It acted as a lens for a supernova at an even greater distance, creating four distinct images of the explosion — an effect created by strong gravitational lensing. [Larger images]
As important as lensed supernovae are for cosmology, it is extremely difficult to find them. Not only does their discovery rely on a very particular and precise alignment of objects in the sky, but they are also only visible for a short time.

“The discovery of iPTF16geu is truly like finding a somewhat weird needle in a haystack,” remarks Rahman Amanullah, co-author and research scientist at Stockholm University. “It reveals to us a bit more about the Universe, but mostly triggers a wealth of new scientific questions.”

Studying more similarly lensed supernovae will help shape our understanding of just how fast the Universe is expanding. The chances of finding such supernovae will improve with the installation of new survey telescopes in the near future.

Notes

[1] iPTF16geu was initially observed by the iPTF (intermediate Palomar Transient Factory) collaboration with the Palomar Observatory. This is a fully automated, wide-field survey delivering a systematic exploration of the optical transient sky.

[2] This corresponds to a redshift of 0.4. The lensing galaxy has a redshift of 0.2.

[3] Gravitational lensing is a phenomenon that was first predicted by Albert Einstein in 1912. It occurs when a massive object lying between a distant light source and the observer bends and magnifies the light from the source behind it. This allows astronomers to see objects that would otherwise be to faint to see.

[4] For each image of the supernova, the light is not bent in the same way. This results in slightly different travel times. The maximum time delay between the four images is predicted to be less than 35 hours.

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Video: NASA radar images Asteroid 2014 JO25 before it passes near earth

NASA has released images and a short video clip of radar observations made this week of Asteroid 2014 JO25, which will make a flyby of earth today:

NASA Radar Spots Relatively Large Asteroid Prior to Flyby

Radar images of asteroid 2014 JO25 were obtained in the early morning hours on Tuesday, with NASA’s 70-meter (230-foot) antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. The images reveal a peanut-shaped asteroid that rotates about once every five hours. The images have resolutions as fine as 25 feet (7.5 meters) per pixel.

This composite of 30 images of asteroid 2014 JO25 was generated with radar data collected using NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California’s Mojave Desert. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

Asteroid 2014 JO25 was discovered in May 2014 by astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona — a project of NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Observations Program in collaboration with the University of Arizona. The asteroid will fly safely past Earth on Wednesday at a distance of about 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers), or about 4.6 times the distance from Earth to the moon. The encounter is the closest the object will have come to Earth in 400 years and will be its closest approach for at least the next 500 years.

“The asteroid has a contact binary structure – two lobes connected by a neck-like region,” said Shantanu Naidu, a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who led the Goldstone observations. “The images show flat facets, concavities and angular topography.”

The largest of the asteroid’s two lobes is estimated to be 2,000 feet (620 meters) across. Radar observations of the asteroid also have been conducted at the National Science Foundation’s Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Additional radar observations are being conducted at both Goldstone and Arecibo on April 19 20, and 21, and could provide images with even higher resolution.

Radar has been used to observe hundreds of asteroids. When these small, natural remnants of the formation of the solar system pass relatively close to Earth, deep space radar is a powerful technique for studying their sizes, shapes, rotation, surface features, and roughness, and for more precise determination of their orbital path.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages and operates NASA’s Deep Space Network, including the Goldstone Solar System Radar, and hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program within the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

More information about asteroids and near-Earth objects can be found at:

For more information about NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, visit:  http://www.nasa.gov/planetarydefense

For asteroid and comet news and updates, follow AsteroidWatch on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AsteroidWatch

ESO: New exoplanet is good candidate in search for signs of life

The latest report from ESO (European Southern Observatory):

Newly Discovered Exoplanet May be Best Candidate
in Search for Signs of Life
 

An exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth may be the new holder of the title “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. Using ESO’s HARPS instrument at La Silla, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered a “super-Earth” orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere. This, along with the fact that it passes in front of its parent stars as it orbits, makes it one of the most exciting future targets for atmospheric studies. The results will appear in the 20 April 2017 issue of the journal Nature.

This artist’s impression shows the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and may be the new holder of the title “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. Using ESO’s HARPS instrument at La Silla, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered this super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere. [Larger version.]
The newly discovered super-Earth LHS 1140b orbits in the habitable zone around a faint red dwarf star, named LHS 1140, in the constellation of Cetus (The Sea Monster) [1]. Red dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than the Sun and, although LHS 1140b is ten times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, it only receives about half as much sunlight from its star as the Earth and lies in the middle of the habitable zone. The orbit is seen almost edge-on from Earth and as the exoplanet passes in front of the star once per orbit it blocks a little of its light every 25 days.

This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade,” said lead author Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (Cambridge, USA). “We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.

The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable — LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars,” explains team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from Geneva Observatory, Switzerland [2].

For life as we know it to exist, a planet must have liquid surface water and retain an atmosphere. When red dwarf stars are young, they are known to emit radiation that can be damaging for the atmospheres of the planets that orbit them. In this case, the planet’s large size means that a magma ocean could have existed on its surface for millions of years. This seething ocean of lava could feed steam into the atmosphere long after the star has calmed to its current, steady glow, replenishing the planet with water.

This artist’s impression video shows an imaginary trip to the exoplanet LHS 1140b, which orbits a red dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and may be the new holder of the title “best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System”. Using ESO’s HARPS instrument at La Silla, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered this super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere. Credit: ESO/spaceengine.org

The discovery was initially made with the MEarth facility, which detected the first telltale, characteristic dips in light as the exoplanet passed in front of the star. ESO’s HARPS instrument, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, then made crucial follow-up observations which confirmed the presence of the super-Earth. HARPS also helped pin down the orbital period and allowed the exoplanet’s mass and density to be deduced [3].

This planet is located in the liquid water habitable zone surrounding its host star, a small, faint red star named LHS 1140. The planet weighs about 6.6 times the mass of Earth and is shown passing in front of LHS 1140. Depicted in blue is the atmosphere the planet may have retained. [Larger versions]
The astronomers estimate the age of the planet to be at least five billion years. They also deduced that it has a diameter 1.4 times larger than the Earth — almost 18 000 kilometres. But with a mass around seven times greater than the Earth, and hence a much higher density, it implies that the exoplanet is probably made of rock with a dense iron core.

This super-Earth may be the best candidate yet for future observations to study and characterise its atmosphere, if one exists. Two of the European members of the team, Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils both at the CNRS and IPAG in Grenoble, France, conclude:

The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterisation of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1. This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries!” [4,5].

In particular, observations coming up soon with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope will be able to assess exactly how much high-energy radiation is showered upon LHS 1140b, so that its capacity to support life can be further constrained.

Further into the future — when new telescopes like ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope are operating — it is likely that we will be able to make detailed observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets, and LHS 1140b is an exceptional candidate for such studies.

This chart shows the location of the faint red star LHS 1140 in the faint constellation of Cetus (The Sea Monster). This star is orbited by a super-Earth exoplanet called LHS 1140b, which may be best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System. [Larger versions]
Notes

[1] The habitable zone is defined by the range of orbits around a star, for which a planet possesses the appropriate temperature needed for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface.

[2] Although the planet is located in the zone in which life as we know it could potentially exist, it probably did not enter this region until approximately forty million years after the formation of the red dwarf star. During this phase, the exoplanet would have been subjected to the active and volatile past of its host star. A young red dwarf can easily strip away the water from the atmosphere of a planet forming within its vicinity, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect similar to that on Venus.

[3] This effort enabled other transit events to be detected by MEarth so that the astronomers could nail down the detection of the exoplanet once and for all.

[4] The planet around Proxima Centauri (eso1629) is much closer to Earth, but it probably does not transit its star, making it very difficult to determine whether it holds an atmosphere.

[5] Unlike the TRAPPIST-1 system (eso1706), no other exoplanets around LHS 1140 have been found. Multi-planet systems are thought to be common around red dwarfs, so it is possible that additional exoplanets have gone undetected so far because they are too small.

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