Category Archives: Space Science

Space sciences roundup – June.5.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items:

[ Update: The InSight Mars lander team has come up with a plan for diagnosing and then testing a possible fix for the ground temperature probe that is stuck at a depth that is too shallow to do its job correctly: InSight’s Team Tries New Strategy to Help the ‘Mole’ | NASA

More details on the problem in this earlier report: More Testing for Mars InSight’s ‘Mole’ – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander

]

** A binary asteroid zipped past earth recently: Binary asteroids, key to Earth’s planetary defence – ESA

Humankind has had its closest look yet at a binary asteroid. As 1999 KW4 skimmed past our planet at 70 000 km/h, the most advanced visible-light telescope on Earth resolved the 1.3-km diameter asteroid and its 360-m sized moon. An even closer spacecraft-based encounter will come next decade, when NASA will send a probe to deflect the moon of the distant Didymos binary. Then ESA’s Hera mission will perform a follow-up survey right down to the body’s surface.

The International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) coordinated a cross-organisational observing campaign of the asteroid 1999 KW4 as it flew by Earth, reaching a minimum distance of 5.2 million km on 25 May. Since its orbit is well known, scientists were able to predict this flyby and prepare the observing campaign.

Side by side observation and artist's impression of Asteroid 199
“The unique capabilities of the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope have enabled it to obtain the sharpest images of a double asteroid as it flew by Earth on 25 May. While this double asteroid was not itself a threatening object, scientists used the opportunity to rehearse the response to a hazardous Near-Earth Object (NEO), proving that ESO’s front-line technology could be critical in planetary defence. The left-hand image shows SPHERE observations of Asteroid 1999 KW4. The angular resolution in this image is equivalent to picking out a single building in New York — from Paris. An artist’s impression of the asteroid pair is shown on the right.” – ESA

** Update on Japan’s Hayabusa2’s visit to Ryugu, a near-earth asteroid: Hayabusa2 drops second target marker, targets artificial crater for sample collection | The Planetary Society

Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft has successfully dropped a second target marker on Ryugu. The reflective softball-sized sphere, which contains the names of Planetary Society members and other supporters, will give the spacecraft a visual guide if mission planners send it back to the surface to attempt a second sample collection.

JAXA is now considering collecting the sample directly from the area where Hayabusa2 created an artificial crater in early April, thanks to updated imagery collected during an aborted touchdown marker drop attempt in mid-May.

Hayabusa2 second target marker drop
“Hayabusa2 drops its second marker on asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of about 10 meters on 30 May 2019. These images were taken from altitudes between 10 and 40 meters.” Credits: JAXA, Chiba Inst. of Tech. Via The Planetary Society

** Comets provided earth with much of its water: Comet Provides New Clues to Origins of Earth’s Oceans – NASA JPL

The mystery of why Earth has so much water, allowing our “blue marble” to support an astounding array of life, is clearer with new research into comets. Comets are like snowballs of rock, dust, ice, and other frozen chemicals that vaporize as they get closer to the Sun, producing the tails seen in images. A new study reveals that the water in many comets may share a common origin with Earth’s oceans, reinforcing the idea that comets played a key role in bringing water to our planet billions of years ago.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory, observed Comet Wirtanen as it made its closest approach to Earth in December 2018. Data collected from the high-flying observatory found that this comet contains “ocean-like” water. Comparing this with information about other comets, scientists suggest in a new study that many more comets than previously thought could have delivered water to Earth. The findings were published in Astronomy and Astrophysics Letters.

** Jupiter’s magnetic field exhibits unexpected variations over time: Juno space probe identifies changes in Jupiter’s magnetic field – Physics World

An important question for the researchers to answer now is what is the cause of the shift in Jupiter’s magnetic field? On Earth, the change is thought to originate in the planet’s core, however the best explanation for secular variation on Jupiter is in its deep atmospheric (zonal) winds. These winds extend up to 3000 km into the surface of the planet, where the conductive metal fluid is situated. Although the origin of zonal winds is still uncertain, they are believed to interrupt the magnetic field distribution.

The discovery will likely have implications for the study of our Solar System. Kimee Moore, a graduate student  from the University of Cambridge and lead author of the report on the findings, says that in the future “scientists will be able to make a planet-wide map of Jupiter’s secular variation” and this latest finding may even help “scientists studying Earth’s magnetic field, which still contains many mysteries to be solved”

** Latest on the Sun’s spot count: Sunspot update May 2019: The long ramp down | Behind The Black

The Sun in May continued to show the exact same amount of activity as it had shown for March and April. This steady uptick in sunspot activity once again shows that the ramp down to full solar minimum will be long and extended.

That we are definitely ramping downward to minimum, even with the slight increase in the past three months, is shown by the fact that the Sun has shown no sunspots for the past fifteen days. In fact, all the activity shown in May comes from the first half of the month. This pattern is actually a reflection of the Sun’s 27-day rotation period. …

** A film of a solar eclipse in 1900 was found and restored: First movie of solar eclipse rediscovered | Behind The Black

The magic of a real solar eclipse filmed on 28 May, 1900 by a famous magician, Nevil Maskelyne, while on an expedition by The British Astronomical Association to North Carolina. In 1898 he travelled to India to photograph an eclipse. He succeeded but the film can was stolen on his return journey home.

It was not an easy feat to film. Maskelyne had to make a special telescopic adapter for his camera to capture the event. This is the only film by Maskelyne that we know to have survived. The original film fragment held in The Royal Astronomical Society’s archive has been painstakingly scanned and restored in 4K by conservation experts at the BFI National Archive, who have reassembled and retimed the film frame by frame.

The film is part of BFI Player’s recently released Victorian Film collection, viewers are now able to experience this first film of a solar eclipse since the event was originally captured over a century ago.

** The Stars of Cepheus as seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope:

Soar through this cosmic landscape filled with bright nebulas, as well as runaway, massive and young stars. The image comes from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which sees the universe in infrared light. For more about Spitzer, visit https://www.nasa.gov/spitzer or http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/.

** Mars:

*** An update on Europe’s ExoMars Rover mission, which ESA plans to launch in July 2020 for a landing in March 2021: ESA Prepares for ExoMars Rover 2020 Launch at Mars and on Earth | The Planetary Society

Preparations for the ExoMars rover mission are in their final stages. ESA made two announcements today: ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is shifting orbit, and they officially opened a new Rover Operations Control Centre (ROCC) in Turin, Italy. ROCC will support the Rosalind Franklin rover’s deployment from the Kazachok lander and surface operations after that. Along with the announcements they posted some cool images.

*** Ten things about Mars are revealed in an interactive display from ESA.

*** Signs of even more water on Mars:

From Space.com:

Scientists think they’ve stumbled on a new cache of water ice on Mars — and not just any ice but a layered mix of ice and sand representing the last traces of long-lost polar ice caps.

That’s according to new research based on data gathered by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the Red Planet since 2006 and has just marked its 60,000th trip around Mars. On board the spacecraft is a radar instrument that can see about 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) below the planet’s surface — and in that data, scientists see lots and lots of ice.

Alternating ice and sand layers on Mars
“A composite image showing alternating layers of ice and sand in an area where they are exposed on the surface of Mars. The photograph, taken with the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, was adjusted to show water ice as light-colored layers and sand as darker layers of blue. The tiny bright white flecks are thin patches of frost.” Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona. [Via AGU.org]
*** The Space Show – Fri, 05/24/2019Dr. Gilbert Levin and Dr. Patricia Ann Straat talked about the “Viking Labeled Release experiment, life detection on Mars, From Mars With Love by Dr. Straat and more”.

*** Mars reports from Bob Zimmerman:

**** Rover update: May 30, 2019 – Latest on Curiosity’s explorations (and also an update on China’s Yutu-2 rover on Moon). The image below

… one of a number taken by the rover in the past week, showing water clouds drifting over Gale Crater.

Mars clouds as seen by Curiosity
Mars clouds over Gale crater as seen by Curiosity. Via Behind the Black.

According to NASA JPL:

These are likely water-ice clouds about 19 miles (31 kilometers) above the surface. They are also “noctilucent” clouds, meaning they are so high that they are still illuminated by the Sun, even when it’s night at Mars’ surface. Scientists can watch when light leaves the clouds and use this information to infer their altitude.

But Curiosity wasn’t just looking at the clouds:

While these clouds teach us something about Martian weather, the big rover news this week was that the data obtained from the two drill holes taken in April show that the clay formation that Curiosity is presently traversing is definitely made of clay, and in fact the clay there has the highest concentration yet found by the rover.

**** Crater? Pit? Volcano? – A puzzling feature might be an impact crater but maybe not:

I would not bet much money on this conclusion. The overall terrain of the Eridania quadrangle is filled with craters, large and small. There does not seem to be any obvious evidence of past volcanic activity, and if there had been it has not expressed itself in large volcanoes.

Eridania crater
This circular feature in the Eridania region could be a meteoroid crater or a volcano caldera. Via Behind the Black.

However, other images of this mountain show many circular features that at first glance appear to be craters like the featured image. They appear slightly raised above the surrounding terrain, though not in as pronounced a manner.

They all could be small volcanoes. Or maybe they are impacts that hit a dense surface which prevented them from drilling too deep down, and instead caused the crater to be raised above the surrounding terrain.

‘Tis a puzzle. The irregular pit in this particular feature adds to the mystery. It does not look like the kind of pits one sees in calderas. Instead, its rough edge suggests wind erosion.

**** The mysterious slope streaks of Mars – Streaks on the sides of sloped surfaces are puzzling…

… and appear to possibly represent a phenomenon entirely unique to Mars. I became especially motivated to write about these mysterious ever newly appearing features when, in reviewing the May image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found four different uncaptioned images of slope streaks, all titled “Slope Stream Monitoring.” From this title it was clear that the MRO team was re-imaging each location to see if any change had occurred since an earlier image was taken. A quick look in the MRO archive found identical photographs for all four slope streak locations, taken from 2008 to 2012, and in all four cases, new streaks had appeared while older streaks had faded.

Example of streaks on Martian slopes.
Example of streaks on Martian slopes. Via Behind the Black

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Brief Answers to the Big Questions
– Stephen Hawking

Space sciences roundup – May.22.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items:

** Update on China’s Chang’e-4 lunar rover:

From the Planetary Society article:

The first science results from the unprecedented Chang’e-4 lunar far side mission are in. The mission’s Yutu-2 rover, deployed from the lander shortly after the Chang’e-4 landing on 3 January, has, with the help of the Queqiao relay satellite, returned data which suggests it has discovered material derived from the Moon’s mantle, according to research published today in Nature. The possibility of accessing mantle rocks exposed within an enormous impact basin was a major reason for attempting the challenging farside landing.

The Visible and Near Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) aboard Yutu-2 made the first in situ observations—detecting scattered or reflected light from surface materials—on the lunar far side. These spectra have been interpreted by the paper’s authors to represent the presence of olivine and low-calcium pyroxene, materials that may originate from the Moon’s mantle.

Yutu-2 VNIS exploration area
VNIS payload and observation footprint – Yutu-2’s Visible and Yutu-2 rover’s Near Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) measures an area a few centimeters across. Credits: Chunlai Li et al via Planetary Society

** SpaceIL‘s Beresheet lunar vehicle makes a mark on the Moon:

Lunar surface before/after Beresheet impact
Lunar surface before/after Beresheet impact. Planetary Society: “Left: Beresheet impact site as seen by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on 22 April 2019. Right: An image processed to highlight changes near the landing site among photos taken before and after the landing, revealing a white impact halo. Other craters are visible in the right image because there is a slight change in lighting conditions among the before and after images. Scale bar is 100 meters. North is up. Both panels are 490 meters wide.”

** Greek high school student team flies experiment on the Blue Origin New Shepard: ACS Athens STEAM Experiment Blasts off into Space with Blue Origin Rocket – The National Herald

How will Greek honey and olive oil behave under microgravity conditions? What about ouzo and grape juice molasses? Will bubbles grow bigger and last longer? ACS Athens students sealed their experiment within the capsule carried by the groundbreaking Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable rocket where it will tested at an altitude of 100 km.

ACS Athens High School students are conducting one complex STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) experiment, investigating how honey behaves at an altitude of 100 km. ACS Athens is one of the three non-US-based K-12 schools to have ever sent an experiment with Blue Origin

More about the team’s experiments: ACS Athens | Modeling education for the 21st Century

  • spACS 1 scientific goal is to investigate the viscosity of honey under microgravity conditions, a Physics-based experiment on fluidity. 
  • spACS 2, which won the first place in the Hellenic Physical Society’s 1st aerospace contest (November 2018), combines Physics, Chemistry, and Biology to investigate the behavior of foams and emulsions under microgravity conditions focusing on Greek traditional products (olive oil, ouzo, petimezi). 

** Update on OSIRIS-REx at the Bennu asteroid: Here’s a Roundup of Recent OSIRIS-REx Postcards from Bennu | The Planetary Society

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is continuing to chug along at asteroid Bennu. It’s currently sweeping arcs between the asteroid’s north and south poles, gathering scientific data that will also be used to select 12 possible sites for sample collection. The OSIRIS-REx team has also been releasing stunning new images from the mission’s prior phase.

More about the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and mission:

** Examining the rough plains of the Marineris Valles: The floor of Marineris Valles | Behind The Black

The photograph, uncaptioned, is titled “Terminus of Pitted Materials Emanating from Oudemans Crater.” Oudemans Crater is about 55 miles across and is located near the head of Marineris Valles to the east of the giant volcanic region dubbed the Tharsis Bulge. The meteorite that caused this crater is estimated to have been a little less than 3 miles in diameter. It is believed by some scientists that the impact heated up subsurface carbon dioxide permafrost which then explosively flooded down the Valles Marineris into the Northern Plains of Mars, pushing a lot of pulverized debris in front of it.

A section of the floor of Marineris Valles.
A section of the floor of Marineris Valles. Credits: MRO/HiRISE via Bob Zimmerman

** NASA’s Curiosity Finds Climate Clues on a Martian Mountain – A brief update on Curiosity’s travels:

After spending the better part of a year exploring Mars’ Vera Rubin Ridge, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has moved to a new part of Mount Sharp. Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada gives a tour of the rover’s new home in the “clay unit,” as well as other areas scientists are excited to visit. Find out what they could tell us about watery ancient Mars versus the dry Red Planet we see today.

** Charon, Pluto’s Companion: What We Learned from New Horizons – Dr. Ross Beyer (SETI Institute) gave this recent public lecture in the Silicon Valley Astronomy Series:

Pluto’s large moon Charon turned out to be far more interesting than astronomers expected. Pluto was the star of the New Horizons show, but the features on Charon’s surface tell a fascinating tale of how icy worlds could form far from the gravitational influences of the giant planets. There is evidence of a world-wide sub-surface ocean early on, and of global expansion as that ocean froze solid. Dr. Beyer is your expert (and humorous) guide through this story of formation and change in the frozen reaches of the outer Solar System.

** Dr. Linda Spilker spoke about the latest findings from the Cassini Mission data, “new information on Saturn’s ring system, Titan, Enceladus, liquid methane oceans, life, NASA missions and more” – The Space Show – Friday, 05/17/2019

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Chasing New Horizons:
Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto

Space sciences roundup – May.2.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items:

** Latest Mars exploration news:

“Navcam Right image showing the newest “Kilmarie” drill hole on the right, <1 m away from the “Aberlady” drill hole on the left.” – NASA JPL
“Landslide in Hydraotes Chaos” – Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

… In perusing the April image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across the image above, cropped and reduced to post here, of the discovery of another landslide within Hydraotes Chaos, one of the largest regions of chaos terrain on Mars. The image above was taken on February 9, 2019, and has since been followed up with a second image to create a stereo pair.

This is not the first landslide found in Hydraotes Chaos. I highlighted a similar slide on March 11. Both today’s landslide as well as the previous one likely represent examples of gravitational collapses as shown in this science paper about Martian ground water. Some scientists have proposed that Hydraotes Chaos was once an inland sea, and as the water drained away the loss of its buoyancy is thought to cause this kind of landslide at the base of cliffs and crater rims.

The past presence of water also helps explain the soft muddy look of this landslide. When this collapse occurred the material was likely saturated with water. Today it is most likely quite dry and hardened, but when it flowed it flowed like wet mud. Its size, almost a mile long and a quarter mile across, speaks to Mars’s low gravity, which would allow for large singular collapses like this.

** Ocean Worlds in the Outer Solar System is the title of a Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture given recently by Kevin Hand of NASA JPL:

Dr. Kevin Hand of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory asks where the best place is to find life beyond Earth. He concludes it may be that the small, ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn harbor some of the most habitable real estate in our Solar System. Life loves liquid water and these moons have lots of it! Dr. Hand explains the science behind our understanding of these worlds, with a special focus on Jupiter’s intriguing moon Europa, which is a top priority for future NASA missions.

** Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) are discussed by Bill Diamond, director of the SETI Institute, and Andrew Siemion, director of the UC Berkeley SETI Research Center:

** Highlights of CRS-17 science payloads that will go to the ISS on the upcoming SpaceX Cargo Dragon mission:

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Moon Rush: The New Space Race

Space sciences roundup – April.24.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items:

** The InSight Mars Lander detects its first Marsquake using the seismometer set on the ground next to the spacecraft:

From NASA:

NASA’s Mars InSight lander has measured and recorded for the first time ever a likely “marsquake.”

The faint seismic signal, detected by the lander’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, was recorded on April 6, the lander’s 128th Martian day, or sol. This is the first recorded trembling that appears to have come from inside the planet, as opposed to being caused by forces above the surface, such as wind. Scientists still are examining the data to determine the exact cause of the signal.

This image, taken March 19, 2019 by a camera on NASA’s Mars InSight lander, shows the rover’s domed Wind and Thermal Shield, which covers its seismometer, the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, and the Martian surface in the background. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The seismometer signals can be converted to audio:

This video and audio illustrates a seismic event detected by NASA’s Mars InSight rover on April 6, 2019, the 128th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Three distinct kinds of sounds can be heard, all of them detected as ground vibrations by the spacecraft’s seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS): noise from Martian wind, the seismic event itself, and the spacecraft’s robotic arm as it moves to take pictures. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP/Imperial College London.

The new seismic event was too small to provide solid data on the Martian interior, which is one of InSight’s main objectives. The Martian surface is extremely quiet, allowing SEIS, InSight’s specially designed seismometer, to pick up faint rumbles. In contrast, Earth’s surface is quivering constantly from seismic noise created by oceans and weather. An event of this size in Southern California would be lost among dozens of tiny crackles that occur every day.

“The Martian Sol 128 event is exciting because its size and longer duration fit the profile of moonquakes detected on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters.

Note that the signals’ frequencies “have been sped up by a factor of 60” since otherwise the vibrations would not be audible to the human ear.

** More quakes in the Cosmos are being detected more quickly with newly upgraded gravity wave observatories in the US and Italy. The sensitivities of the detectors have been increased to a level such that signals picked up at the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) installations in Louisiana, and Washington plus the European Virgo detector in Italy will result in roughly one gravity wave detection per week. A new public alert system will let everyone know when a detection occurs:

From PSU:

Two new probable gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by cataclysmic cosmic events and first predicted by Albert Einstein over 100 years ago — have been detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo observatory in Italy in the first weeks after the detectors were updated. The source of both waves is believed to be the merging of a pair of black holes.

LIGO announced the discovery of the first new gravitational wave in its first-ever open public alert on April 8, and quickly followed up with a second announcement on April 12. LIGO detected the first-ever gravitational wave in September 2015, and announced the discovery in February 2016. Ten more gravitational waves were detected over the following three years, but with updates to LIGO and Virgo, scientists expect to see as many as one per week, which so far has proven true.

Updates to LIGO and Virgo have combined to increase its sensitivity by about 40 percent over its last run. Additionally, with this third observing run, LIGO and Virgo transitioned to a system whereby they alert the astronomy community almost immediately of a potential gravitational wave detection. This allows electromagnetic telescopes (X-ray, UV, optical, radio) to search for and hopefully find an electromagnetic signal from the same source, which can be key to understanding the dynamics of the event.

“The region of sky believed to contain the source of the gravitational wave detected on April 8, 2019. The area spans 387 square degrees, equivalent to nearly 2000 full-Moons, roughly meandering through the constellations Cassiopeia, Lacerta, Andromeda, and Cepheus in the northern hemisphere. IMAGE: LIGO/Caltech/MIT”

… The source of both gravitational waves is suspected to be compact binary mergers — the collision of two massive and incredibly dense cosmic objects into one another. Compact binary mergers can occur between two neutron stars, two black holes, or a neutron star and a black hole. Each of these different types of mergers create gravitational waves with strikingly different signals, so the LIGO team can identify the type of event that created the gravitational waves.

** Huge gallery of Rosetta mission images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is now available on line at the OSIRIS Image Archive:

The ESA release says the image shown below

… was taken on 6 October 2014 from a distance of 18.6 km to the comet. This is just one of almost 70 000 images taken with Rosetta’s high-resolution imaging system OSIRIS that are now available via a new online and mobile-friendly ‘comet viewer’ created in a joint project with the Department of Information and Communication at Flensburg University of Applied Sciences, and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, who lead the OSIRIS team.

A feature of  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: “Seen from afar, the comet is usually likened to a duck in shape, but in this enchanting close-up view its profile resembles that of a cat’s face seen side-on. The two ‘ears’ of the cat make up the twin peaks either side of the ‘C. Alexander Gate’ – named for US Rosetta Project Scientist Claudia Alexander who passed away in July 2015. These impressive cliffs lie at the border between the Serqet and Anuket regions on the comet’s head.”

The image viewer hosts the full archive, but also has subsections organising image sets into themes: for example, images showing towering cliffs and bizarre cracks on the comet surface, or those focusing on spectacular dust fountains as the comet launched gas and dust jets into space as its surface ices were warmed as it came closer to the Sun on its orbit.

The collection of OSIRIS images captured the farewell of lander Philae as it dropped towards the surface of the comet, and later, towards the end of the mission, the feverish search for the hidden robot.

Within the new comet viewer, each of the nearly 70 000 images is supplemented with the date on which it was taken, the distance to the comet, and a short accompanying text briefly describing what is seen in the image. The images can be downloaded in full resolution and can also be directly shared to Twitter and Facebook.

** The Southern Crab Nebula shines in a new Hubble image marking 29 years in orbit for the space telescope: Hubble Celebrates its 29th Birthday with Unrivaled View of the Southern Crab Nebula | ESA/Hubble

This incredible image of the hourglass-shaped Southern Crab Nebula was taken to mark the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s 29th anniversary in space. The nebula, created by a binary star system, is one of the many objects that Hubble has demystified throughout its productive life. This new image adds to our understanding of the nebula and demonstrates the telescope’s continued capabilities.

The Southern Crab Nebula — Hubble’s 29th anniversary image.

On 24 April 1990, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope was launched on the space shuttle Discovery. It has since revolutionised how astronomers and the general public see the Universe. The images it provides are spectacular from both a scientific and a purely aesthetic point of view.

Each year the telescope dedicates a small portion of its precious observing time to take a special anniversary image, focused on capturing particularly beautiful and meaningful objects. This year’s image is the Southern Crab Nebula, and it is no exception [1].

This peculiar nebula, which exhibits nested hourglass-shaped structures, has been created by the interaction between a pair of stars at its centre. The unequal pair consists of a red giant and a white dwarf. The red giant is shedding its outer layers in the last phase of its life before it too lives out its final years as a white dwarf. Some of the red giant’s ejected material is attracted by the gravity of its companion.

More highlights from Hubble’s 29 years in orbit:

** Latest Mars updates from Bob Zimmerman:

Comparison of an area near Olympus Mars before (left) and after (right) the global dust storm of 2018. Credits: Bob Zimmerman & HiRISE camera on NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)
White streaks atop avalanche debris on this Mars slope appear to be water frost. Credits: Bob Zimmerman + HiRISE camera on NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)

Check out a new MRO avalanche image released today by NASA: Landslides in Mars’ Cerberus Fossae | NASA.

The Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover captured this image after “it drilled a rock nicknamed “Aberlady,” on Saturday, April 6, 2019 (the 2,370th Martian day, or sol, of the mission). The rock and others nearby appear to have moved when the drill was retracted. This was the first time Curiosity has drilled in the long-awaited “clay-bearing unit.” See also a GIF animation showing before and after the drilling. Credits: NASA JPL
  • How fast do things change on Mars? – A comparison of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images of a dune-like feature on Mars taken 12 years apart show some differences. “Overall, however, not much is different. Though dunes definitely change on Mars, they do so much more slowly than on Earth. And in some cases what look like dunes are not really dunes at all, but a form of cemented sandstone, exhibiting even fewer changes over long time spans.”

** Some space sciences webcasts:

>> Weekly Space Hangout: Apr 17, 2019 – Dr. Dorothy Oehler Talks “Is there Methane on Mars?”

>> SETI Institute: Tiny Neptune Moon Spotted by Hubble May Have Broken from Larger Moon

>> SETI Institute: Mars Exploration Rovers: Spirit and Opportunity with Nathalie Cabrol

>> SETI Institute: Turkish Meteorite Traced to Impact Crater on Asteroid Vesta

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Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past

Space sciences roundup – April.10.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space related science news:

** Radio telescope array images a black hole for the first time. This is the big news not just of the week but for 2019: First Image of a Black Hole | ESO

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration — was designed to capture images of a black hole. In coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole in the centre of Messier 87 and its shadow.

The shadow of a black hole seen here is the closest we can come to an image of the black hole itself, a completely dark object from which light cannot escape. The black hole’s boundary — the event horizon from which the EHT takes its name — is around 2.5 times smaller than the shadow it casts and measures just under 40 billion km across. While this may sound large, this ring is only about 40 microarcseconds across — equivalent to measuring the length of a credit card on the surface of the Moon.

Although the telescopes making up the EHT are not physically connected, they are able to synchronize their recorded data with atomic clocks — hydrogen masers — which precisely time their observations. These observations were collected at a wavelength of 1.3 mm during a 2017 global campaign. Each telescope of the EHT produced enormous amounts of data – roughly 350 terabytes per day – which was stored on high-performance helium-filled hard drives. These data were flown to highly specialised supercomputers — known as correlators — at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and MIT Haystack Observatory to be combined. They were then painstakingly converted into an image using novel computational tools developed by the collaboration.

Chandra X-ray Observatory close-up of the core of the M87 galaxy. Credits: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen

More at:

** SpaceIL Beresheet spacecraft will land on the Moon tomorrow April 11th, hopefully softly. The Israeli privately developed vehicle made orbit corrections this past week that brought the vehicle into the final close lunar orbit in preparation for the landing firing: Find updates at Israel To The Moon (@TeamSpaceIL) | Twitter.

Resources for the mission:

There will be a webcast of the landing. The estimated landing times:

  • 22:00 – 23:00 Israel
  • 19:00 – 20:00 UTC
  • 15:00 – 16:00 EDT
  • 12:00 – 13:00 PDT

Some info on the landing site: Beresheet lunar landing site revealed 3 April 2019 – Weizmann Institute of Science.

** Launch of the Indian Chandrayaan 2 lunar lander/rover mission will be delayed somewhat due to some minor damage during a test: Chandrayaan 2: Vikram hurt during practice, puts Chandrayaan-2 on bench – Times of India

Vikram, the Lander on India’s ambitious mission that envisages to land a probe on Moon, has suffered minor injuries in two of its legs during a test late February, putting Chandrayaan-2 on the bench at least until May. But the need to find the most suitable launch window could see the mission take off only in the second half of the year.

A source in the know, said: “The rover and orbiter are in good health and tests met all the parameters. However, after the ‘Lander Drop Test’, we found that Vikram (the lander) needed to be strengthened in its legs. Prima facie, it appears that not all parameters were set correctly before the test, it could also be that the additional mass—a result of the new configuration—caused the problem.”

** Curiosity captures Demos and Phobos eclipses of the Sun: Curiosity Captured Two Solar Eclipses on Mars | NASA

When NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover landed in 2012, it brought along eclipse glasses. The solar filters on its Mast Camera (Mastcam) allow it to stare directly at the Sun. Over the past few weeks, Curiosity has been putting them to good use by sending back some spectacular imagery of solar eclipses caused by Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ two moons.

Phobos, which is as wide as 16 miles (26 kilometers) across, was imaged on March 26, 2019 (the 2,359th sol, or Martian day, of Curiosity’s mission); Deimos, which is as wide as 10 miles (16 kilometers) across, was photographed on March 17, 2019 (Sol 2350). Phobos doesn’t completely cover the Sun, so it would be considered an annular eclipse. Because Deimos is so small compared to the disk of the Sun, scientists would say it’s transiting the Sun.

** More Martian image commentaries from Bob Zimmerman:

  • A dance of dust devils – “Many of my image posts about Mars have emphasized how slowly things change there. This post will highlight the exact opposite. When it comes to dust devils, it appears they can leave their trace frequently and often, and for some reason they seem to also favor specific locations.
  • Monitoring the ice scarps on Mars for changes – “Monitoring these scraps will be crucial for future exploration. The ice here is very readily available, as it is exposed and should be relatively easy to access. Moreover, tracking might tell us whether it will be easier to get at this ice from the top of the cliff by drilling down, or approach it from the bottom. Some of the ice bands in these scarps was very close to the surface at the top of the cliff.
  • A decade of changes at the Martian south pole – “The mystery here is that these images were both taken at almost the same moment in the late southern summer, though about five Martian years apart. Why should the white areas have shrunk? We would expect a reduction from winter to summer, but these were both taken in summer. While it would make sense to see changes, with some areas growing and others shrinking, we should expect to see about the same amount of white area.
Dust devil trails in southern highlands of Mars. Credits: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera.

** Martian soil studies may bring medical spinoff benefits: Martian soil detox could lead to new medicines – ESA

“During their experiments they noticed that when bacteria grew in partial gravity, they became stressed as they accumulated waste around them that they couldn’t get rid of. This holds great potential because when microbes belonging to the Streptomyces family become stressed, they usually start making antibiotics,” adds Prof. Claessen.

“Seventy percent of all the antibiotics humans use are derived from Streptomyces bacteria and we know they have the potential to produce even more. Using the RPM to stress them in new ways may help us to find ones we’ve never seen before.”

** Hayabusa2 successfully fired a projectile into Ryuga to investigate the asteorid’s surface structure:

Debris from the impact of the projectile shot from Hayabusa2 can be seen in this cropped section of an image taken by the DCAM3 free-flying imager. Hayabusa2 went to the far side of Ryuga to wait for the debris to settle back to the surface.


Here is the full image:

** Parker Solar Probe makes another close pass of the Sun

From the Parker Solar Probe mission:

Parker Solar Probe has successfully completed its second close approach to the Sun, called perihelion, and is now entering the outbound phase of its second solar orbit. At 6:40 p.m. EDT on April 4, 2019, the spacecraft passed within 15 million miles of our star, tying its distance record as the closest spacecraft ever to the Sun; Parker Solar Probe was traveling at 213,200 miles per hour during this perihelion.

The Parker Solar Probe mission team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland scheduled a contact with the spacecraft via the Deep Space Network for four hours around the perihelion and monitored the health of the spacecraft throughout this critical part of the encounter. Parker Solar Probe sent back beacon status “A” throughout its second perihelion, indicating that the spacecraft is operating well and all instruments are collecting science data.

“The spacecraft is performing as designed, and it was great to be able to track it during this entire perihelion,” said APL’s Nickalaus Pinkine, Parker Solar Probe mission operations manager. “We’re looking forward to getting the science data down from this encounter in the coming weeks so the science teams can continue to explore the mysteries of the corona and the Sun.”

Parker Solar Probe montage. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

** Will the Sun remain quiet or not? Bob Zimmerman reports on the latest sunspot activity and on predictions for the next phase of the solar cycle: Sunspot update March 2019: An upcoming Grand Minimum? | Behind The Black

Even though we are now deep into the beginning of what might become the first grand minimum in sunspot activity since the invention of the telescope, that does not mean the Sun has as yet stopped producing sunspots. Yesterday NOAA released its the monthly update of its tracking of the solar cycle, adding sunspot activity for March 2019 to its graph. Below is that graph, annotated by me to give it some context.

It shows the Sun with a slight burst in activity in March, suggesting that though we are now in the solar minimum that minimum still has the ability to produce sunspots.

** Sounding rockets produced a  spectacular sky show after releasing tracer gases. The goal of the NASA project is to help better understand the flow of charged particles in the earths magnetic fields at the poles: Two rockets dropped tracers into the northern lights and the result was glorious | Ars Technica

Late Friday night, two sounding rockets launched from a small spaceport in northern Norway. The two skinny rockets soared to an altitude of 320km, and along the way each released a visible gas intended to disperse through and illuminate conditions inside the aurora borealis. Some of the resulting images were stunning.

This NASA-funded AZURE mission, which stands for Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment, is one of a series of sounding rocket missions launching over the next two years as part of an international collaboration known as “The Grand Challenge Initiative – Cusp.” The goal of these flights is to study the region where Earth’s magnetic field lines bend down into the atmosphere, and particles from space mix with those from the planet.

See also Sounding Rocket Mission Will Trace Auroral Winds | NASA.

April 8, 2019: The Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment or AZURE mission was successfully conducted April 5 from the Andøya Space Center in Norway. The first Black Brant XI sounding rocket was launched at 6:14 p.m. EDT and flew to an altitude of 200 miles, followed by the launch of the second Black Brant XI at 6:16 p.m. EDT flying to an altitude of 202 miles. The initial assessment from the field showed that the rockets were launched into a good science event and ground based photos/data of the vapor releases were obtained from at least two locations.  Preliminary reports state that the scientist for the mission were very pleased with the results.

** The next Northrop-Grumman Cygnus cargo mission to the ISS will carry an array of experiments: Cygnus Carries Tech and Science Investigations to Space Station | NASA

A Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft scheduled to liftoff on April 17 carries supplies and scientific experiments to the International Space Station. It uses a new late load capability that allows time-sensitive experiments to be loaded just 24 hours before liftoff. Previously, all cargo had to be loaded about four days prior to launch, creating challenges for some types of experiments.

The launch on the company’s Antares rocket departs from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. This Cygnus mission is the 11th and final under Northrop’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-1 contract with NASA; a CRS-2 contract begins with a cargo launch in the fall. Resupply missions from U.S. companies ensure NASA’s capability to deliver critical science research to the space station and significantly increase its ability to conduct new investigations in the only laboratory in space.

Continue to the article to see a list of the experiments.

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Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking