Category Archives: Astronomy

Space sciences roundup – Oct.4.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items (find previous roundups here):

Astronomy

** Enigmatic radio burst illuminates a galaxy’s tranquil ​halo | ESO

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time observed that a fast radio burst passed through a galactic halo. Lasting less than a millisecond, this enigmatic blast of cosmic radio waves came through almost undisturbed, suggesting that the halo has surprisingly low density and weak magnetic field. This new technique could be used to explore the elusive halos of other galaxies.

** Hubble Reveals Latest Portrait of Saturn | ESA/Hubble

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 observed Saturn on 20 June 2019 as the planet made its closest approach to Earth this year, at approximately 1.36 billion kilometres away.

Since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, its goal has been to study not only distant astronomical objects, but also the planets within our Solar System. Hubble’s high-resolution images of our planetary neighbours can only be surpassed by pictures taken from spacecraft that actually visit these bodies. However, Hubble has one advantage over space probes; it can look at these objects periodically and observe them over much longer periods than any passing probe could.

 Saturn as seen by Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera
Saturn as seen by Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera.

** A Cosmic Pretzel | ESO

Astronomers using ALMA have obtained an extremely high-resolution image showing two disks in which young stars are growing, fed by a complex pretzel-shaped network of filaments of gas and dust. Observing this remarkable phenomenon sheds new light on the earliest phases of the lives of stars and helps astronomers determine the conditions in which binary stars are born.

The two baby stars were found in the [BHB2007] 11 system – the youngest member of a small stellar cluster in the Barnard 59 dark nebula, which is part of the clouds of interstellar dust called the Pipe nebula. Previous observations of this binary system showed the outer structure. Now, thanks to the high resolution of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and an international team of astronomers led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Germany, we can see the inner structure of this object. 

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) captured this unprecedented image of two circumstellar disks, in which baby stars are growing, feeding with material from their surrounding birth disk. The complex network of dust structures distributed in spiral shapes remind of the loops of a pretzel. These observations shed new light on the earliest phases of the lives of stars and help astronomers determine the conditions in which binary stars are born.

Cosmology

**  If the universe is only 14 billion years old, how can it be 92 billion light years wide? – The light of the most distant stars and galaxies comes from a time not long after the Big Bang. So why didn’t that light pass us back then when we were all “close” together? Here is the explanation:

The size and age of the universe seem to not agree with one another. Astronomers have determined that the universe is nearly 14 billion years old and yet its diameter is 92 billion light years across. How can both of those numbers possibly be true? In this video, Fermilab’s Dr. Don Lincoln tells you how.

Exoplanets

** Hubble Finds Water Vapor on Habitable-Zone Exoplanet for the First Time | ESA/Hubble

With data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, water vapour has been detected in the atmosphere of a super-Earth within the habitable zone by University College London (UCL) researchers in a world first. K2-18b, which is eight times the mass of Earth, is now the only planet orbiting a star outside the Solar System, or exoplanet, known to have both water and temperatures that could support life.

The discovery, published today in Nature Astronomy, is the first successful atmospheric detection of an exoplanet orbiting in its star’s habitable zone, at a distance where water can exist in liquid form.

Asteroids & Comets

** Europe and US teaming up for asteroid deflection – ESA – NASA  will launch the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test)  spacecraft in late 2021 to the near-Earth binary asteroid Didymos where it will smack into the smaller of the two objects in Sept. 2022. The goal is to test whether an asteroid on track to impact earth could be diverted from its path. DART will be accompanied by the Italian CubeSat LICIACube (Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids), which will record the impact event .

Another European contribution is the Hera spacecraft, which will launch in 2024. The Hera spacecraft

will perform a close-up survey of the post-impact asteroid, acquiring measurements such as the asteroid’s mass and detailed crater shape. Hera will also deploy a pair of CubeSats for close-up asteroid surveys and the very first radar probe of an asteroid.

The results returned by Hera would allow researchers to better model the efficiency of the collision, to turn this grand-scale experiment into a technique which could be repeated as needed in the event of a real threat.

The combined DART and HERA projects fall under the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission.

Astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Brian May describes the HERA mission.

** Visitor from Interstellar SpaceSETI Institute.

Planetary Astronomer Michael Busch and Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak discuss a recent visit from Comet Borisov, C/2019 Q4.

Mars

** NASA’s InSight ‘Hears’ Peculiar Sounds on Mars

NASA’s InSight lander placed a seismometer on the Martian surface to study marsquakes. While it’s found many, it has also detected other kinds of seismic signals, including some produced by the spacecraft itself. That includes wind gusts, InSight’s robotic arm moving around and “dinks and donks,” friction caused by parts inside the seismometer moving against each other as the temperature changes. Put on your headphones and you can hear sonifications of this seismic “noise” recorded on March 6, 2019, the 98th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Around 2 p.m. local Mars time, the spacecraft’s arm was moving and snapping pictures with its cameras, surveying InSight’s “workspace.” This audio would be too faint for the human ear to heart it on Mars. It’s been sped up by 10 times and processed so you can hear the kinds of signals InSight sends back for its scientists to study.

** NASA InSight’s Robotic Arm Helps Out its Mole on Mars

NASA’s InSight lander on Mars is trying to use its robotic arm to get the mission’s heat flow probe, or mole, digging again. InSight team engineer Ashitey Trebbi-Ollennu, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explains what has been attempted and the game plan for the coming weeks. The next tactic they’ll try will be “pinning” the mole against the hole it’s in. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) built the mole. It is designed to dig under the Martian surface to measure heat flowing out of the planet. Scientists want this data to learn how Mars and other rocky planets form.

** A recent Curiosity update from Leonard David: Curiosity Mars Rover: “Dumping Dirt on its Back”

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has just initiated Sol 2543 duties.

Reports Roger Wiens, Geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico: “Curiosity has been at this same location for all of August and September, which included a number of days of waiting for Mars to pass behind the Sun (‘conjunction’), drilling two holes, and processing the samples.”

Curiosity Chemistry and Camera RMI (Remote Micro-Imaging) photo taken on Sol 2541, September 29, 2019. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

** A selection of Bob Zimmerman‘s analyses of interesting features on the surface of Mars:

Changes in the sand dunes in the Hellas Basin region on Mars in 8 years. Images credit: MRO/HiRISE, NASA JPL/Univ. Arizona. Cropped and annotated by Bob Zimmerman

Webcasts:

** How Do Astronomers Define Latitude & Longitude on Other Planets – Scott Manley:

t took centuries for the people on Earth to decide on a common meridian to measure longitude from, but other planets also need everyone to agree about the origins of their mapping systems. In the case of the terrestrial planets a single bright spot was chosen in the early stages of exploration, and as maps improved the exact location is defined with increasing accuracy. For tidally locked moons the meridian is defined based on orientation relative to the parent body, but even then there’s a lot of room for improvement as data improves. Finally some bodies are just not suited to spherical coordinated, because they’re not particularly spherical.

** Weekly Space Hangout: September 25, 2019 – Seth Lockman & Aaron Lockman: The Astronomy Brothers – YouTube

** All your astronomy questions answered | Space InterviewTMRO.tv

Jared and Tony Darnell from Deep Astronomy lost track of time answering a bunch of community questions ranging from why James Webb Space Telescope is being intentionally launched out of focus, what’s the *next* telescope after JWST gets launched (FINALLY) to why Uranus and Neptune deserve their own dedicated space missions.

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Fire in the Sky:
Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and
the Race to Defend Earth

Night sky highlights for October 2019

** What’s Up Video: October 2019 Skywatching Tips from NASA – NASA JPL

What can you see in the October sky? Join the global celebration of International Observe the Moon Night on Oct. 5th, then try to catch the ice giant planets Uranus and Neptune, which are well placed for viewing in the late-night sky.

** Tonight’s Sky: October 2019 – Space Telescope Science Institute

Crisp, clear October nights are full of celestial showpieces. Find Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek myth, to pinpoint dense globular star clusters and galaxies, including our neighbor Andromeda. Keep watching for space-based views of M15, NGC 7331, and the Andromeda Galaxy.

** What’s in the Night Sky October 2019 – Alyn Wallace

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Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space.

Space sciences roundup – Sept.6.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items (find previous roundups here):

[ Update 2: Unfortunately, contact with the Vikram lander was lost shortly before the landing:

Update: Below is the live feed from the Chandrayaan-2 control center. The landing is set for some time between 4:00 and 5:00 pm EDT. The webcast will start around 3:00 EDT.

]

** India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission set for landing on the Moon. The Vikram Lander separated from the orbiter spacecraft on Monday and will touch down on the surface on Friday sometime between 4:00-5:00 pm EDT.

Vikram Lander

The landing area is near the Moon’s south pole. From Space.com:

That spot is a highland that rises between two craters dubbed Manzinus C and Simpelius N. On a grid of the moon’s surface, it would fall at 70.9 degrees south latitude and 22.7 degrees east longitude. It’s about 375 miles (600 kilometers) from the south pole.

The Pragyan rover will be deployed from the lander not long after the landing. The polar regions have craters with permanently shadowed floors and orbital studies indicated they contain water ice.  The extent of the exploration activities will be limited, however. The lander and rover will operate for just one lunar day, which spans 14 earth days. They are not expected to survive the extremely frigid 14 earth day long lunar night.

Pragyan Rover

** China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 comes upon odd substance in a small crater:  China’s Lunar Rover Has Found Something Weird on the Far Side of the Moon | Space.com

The Chang’e 4 lander/rover combo touched down on the far side of the Moon on Jan. 3, 2019 and 12 hours later the rover Yutu-2 was deployed. Since then, the rover has traveled few hundred meters. In late July, Chinese scientists examined images from the rover and noticed an “unusually colored, ‘gel-like’ substance”.

The mission’s rover, Yutu-2, stumbled on that surprise during lunar day 8. The discovery prompted scientists on the mission to postpone other driving plans for the rover, and instead focus its instruments on trying to figure out what the strange material is.

The rover was maneuvered back to the location where the images were taken and the mission team began studies of the material with the rover’s various cameras. So far they have not

… offered any indication as to the nature of the colored substance and have said only that it is “gel-like” and has an “unusual color.” One possible explanation, outside researchers suggested, is that the substance is melt glass created from meteorites striking the surface of the moon.

Crater with Gel-like substance
“Impact crater with mysterious material”. Credits: Yutu No. 2 Driving Diary 6

** Candidate spots on asteroid Bennu selected for OSIRIS-REx  to grab a sampling:  NASA Selects Final Four Site Candidates for Asteroid Sample Return | NASA

After months grappling with the rugged reality of asteroid Bennu’s surface, the team leading NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission has selected four potential sites for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft to “tag” its cosmic dance partner.

Since its arrival in December 2018, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has mapped the entire asteroid in order to identify the safest and most accessible spots for the spacecraft to collect a sample. These four sites now will be studied in further detail in order to select the final two sites – a primary and backup – in December.

The team originally had planned to choose the final two sites by this point in the mission. Initial analysis of Earth-based observations suggested the asteroid’s surface likely contains large “ponds” of fine-grain material. The spacecraft’s earliest images, however, revealed Bennu has an especially rocky terrain. Since then, the asteroid’s boulder-filled topography has created a challenge for the team to identify safe areas containing sampleable material, which must be fine enough – less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) diameter – for the spacecraft’s sampling mechanism to ingest it.

OSIRIS REx sample site candidates
Pictured are the four candidate sample collection sites on asteroid Bennu selected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. Site Nightingale (top left) is located in Bennu’s northern hemisphere. Sites Kingfisher (top right) and Osprey (bottom left) are located in Bennu’s equatorial region. Site Sandpiper (bottom right) is located in Bennu’s southern hemisphere. In December, one of these sites will be chosen for the mission’s touchdown event. Credits: NASA/University of Arizona”

** An overview of the missions – past, present, and future – to the small objects in our solar system:  Asteroids, comets and moons – ESA

We have learned a lot from visiting the Moon, and even more from visiting other planets, but what about the thousands of other small objects that share our Solar System? Space agencies have sent several spacecraft to asteroids, comets, dwarf planets and small moons, and have ambitious plans to send more in the future.

Asteroids and comets are believed to be leftover debris from the formation of the Solar System, meaning they can help trace its history. What’s more, these objects may have played a vital role in the development of our planet and terrestrial life by colliding with Earth in catastrophic impact events, bringing life-sparking organic compounds. Such collisions were more common in the early Solar System, but small objects can still impact Earth, damaging life, nature and infrastructure.

Such objects may also have brought organic matter to other planets and moons, some of which – Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example – may possess the right conditions for hosting some form of life. For all these reasons, and many more, it is important to study these objects and find out more about them.

** An update on the exoplanet search with the TESS space observatory:

A discussion between NASA researcher Jon Jenkins & SETI Institute Astronomer Franck Marchis about TESS spacecraft and its recent discoveries.

** A beautiful view of Jupiter from Hubble:  Hubble Showcases New Portrait of Jupiter | ESA/Hubble

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds in this new image taken on 27 June 2019[1]. It features the planet’s trademark Great Red Spot and a more intense colour palette in the clouds swirling in the planet’s turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years.

Among the most striking features in the image are the rich colours of the clouds moving toward the Great Red Spot. This huge anticyclonic storm is roughly the diameter of Earth and is rolling counterclockwise between two bands of clouds that are moving in opposite directions toward it. 

As with previous images of Jupiter taken by Hubble, and other observations from telescopes on the ground, the new image confirms that the huge storm which has raged on Jupiter’s surface for at least 150 years continues to shrink. The reason for this is still unknown so Hubble will continue to observe Jupiter in the hope that scientists will be able to solve this stormy riddle. Much smaller storms appear on Jupiter as white or brown ovals that can last as little as a few hours or stretch on for centuries. 

Jupiter’s Colourful Palette
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope reveals the intricate, detailed beauty of Jupiter’s clouds in this new image taken on 27 June 2019 by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, when the planet was 644 million kilometres from Earth — its closest distance this year. The image features the planet’s trademark Great Red Spot and a more intense colour palette in the clouds swirling in the planet’s turbulent atmosphere than seen in previous years. The observations of Jupiter form part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) programme.

** The VLT Survey Telescope (VST) captures a magnificent stellar bird: Anatomy of a Cosmic Seagull | ESO

Colourful and wispy Sharpless 2-296 forms the “wings” of an area of sky known as the Seagull Nebula — named for its resemblance to a gull in flight. This celestial bird contains a fascinating mix of intriguing astronomical objects. Glowing clouds weave amid dark dust lanes and bright stars. The Seagull Nebula — made up of dust, hydrogen, helium and traces of heavier elements — is the hot and energetic birthplace of new stars.

** Parker Solar Probe completes two orbits around the sun since launch in August of 2018: One Year, 2 Trips Around Sun for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe | NASA

In the year since launch, Parker Solar Probe has collected a host of scientific data from two close passes by the Sun.

“We’re very happy,” said Nicky Fox, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “We’ve managed to bring down at least twice as much data as we originally suspected we’d get from those first two perihelion passes.”

The spacecraft carries four suites of scientific instruments to gather data on the particles, solar wind plasma, electric and magnetic fields, solar radio emission, and structures in the Sun’s hot outer atmosphere, the corona. This information will help scientists unravel the physics driving the extreme temperatures in the corona — which is counter intuitively hotter than the solar surface below — and the mechanisms that drive particles and plasma out into the solar system.

Follow the solar mission via:

** Mars

*** Mars Curiosity Rover continues on a trail of discoveries after 7 years on Mars:  New Finds for Mars Rover, Seven Years After Landing | NASA

NASA’s Curiosity rover has come a long way since touching down on Mars seven years ago. It has traveled a total of 13 miles (21 kilometers) and ascended 1,207 feet (368 meters) to its current location. Along the way, Curiosity discovered Mars had the conditions to support microbial life in the ancient past, among other things.

And the rover is far from done, having just drilled its 22nd sample from the Martian surface. It has a few more years before its nuclear power system degrades enough to significantly limit operations. After that, careful budgeting of its power will allow the rover to keep studying the Red Planet.

Curiosity is now halfway through a region scientists call the “clay-bearing unit” on the side of Mount Sharp, inside of Gale Crater. Billions of years ago, there were streams and lakes within the crater. Water altered the sediment deposited within the lakes, leaving behind lots of clay minerals in the region. That clay signal was first detected from space by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) a few years before Curiosity launched.

Check out this 360 degree view of Mars:

Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama of a location on Mars called “Teal Ridge” on June 18, 2019. This location is part of a larger region the rover has been exploring called the “clay-bearing unit” on the side of Mount Sharp, which is inside Gale Crater. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth. Scientists are looking for signs that Mars could have supported microbial life billions of years ago, when rivers and lakes could be found in the crater.

*** Where Curiosity has been and where its going: Mid-2019 Map of NASA’s Curiosity Rover Mission – NASA JPL

This map shows the route driven by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, from the location where it landed in August 2012 to its location in August 2019, and its planned path to additional geological layers of lower “Mount Sharp.” The blue star near top center marks “Bradbury Landing,” the site where Curiosity arrived on Mars on Aug. 5, 2012, PDT (Aug. 6, EDT and Universal Time). Curiosity landed on Aeolis Palus, the plains surrounding Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp) in Gale Crater.

Mid-2019 Map of NASA's Curiosity Rover MissionMore about the planned route for the rover from Bob Zimmerman: Curiosity’s future travels | Behind The Black.

*** And more reports from Bob on images of interesting features on Mars as seen by the orbiters:

*** Bob was also the first to see the locations that SpaceX is examining for potential landings of Starships in the coming decade:

*** The Mars 2020 mission will deploy a drone for the first time. The Mars Helicopter was recently installed onto the rover:

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have attached a flying helicopter drone to the belly of the Mars 2020 rover set for launch next July.

The solar-powered Mars Helicopter stands about 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) tall when fully deployed, and will become the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The robot drone will ride to the Red Planet with NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which has been assembled at JPL to begin testing in the coming weeks.

The Mars 2020 mission is scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral on July 17, 2020, the first day of a nearly three-week window for the rover to depart Earth and head for Mars. The rover will blast off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

The rover will land at Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, a small, autonomous rotorcraft, will travel with the agency’s Mars 2020 rover to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Fire in the Sky:
Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and
the Race to Defend Earth

Videos: Night sky highlights for August 2019

A preview of the night sky this August courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute:

In August, a flock of star-studded figures soars overhead. Look for the Vega and Lyra constellations, which point to Epsilon Lyrae and the Ring Nebula. You can also spot three bright summer stars: Vega, Deneb, and Altair, which form the Summer Triangle. Keep watching for space-based views of these and other stars and nebulas.

** NASA JPL’s What’s Up episode for the coming month:

What can you see this month? In the August sky, look for the “shooting stars” of the annual Perseid meteor shower for some stargazing delights, but be warned — the bright Moon will overwhelm the fainter meteors this year. Plus, the Moon’s evening visits to Jupiter and Saturn. Additional information about topics covered in this episode of What’s Up, along with still images from the video, and the video transcript, are available at https://go.nasa.gov/2KijnRU

** Alyn Wallace – What’s in the Night Sky August 2019

 

If you want to image something in the night sky this month, here is some intro advice: Astrophotgraphy For Beginners: A Complete A-Z Guide (2019).

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Telescopes and Binoculars at Amazon