Astronauts on the International Space Station get food that’s carefully chosen for its nutritional value and specially prepared and packaged to be easily accessible to them in a weightless world on orbit. Could the same food feed the needs of people stuck on planet Earth? We conducted an experiment to find out how well two regular people could get by eating only astronaut food for a full week—a week that included a holiday weekend feast, just to up the difficulty factor. Could they resist the lure of their favorite foods? Take a look at how they fared…
A tool that has helped guide sailors across oceans for centuries is now being tested aboard the International Space Station as a potential emergency navigation tool for guiding future spacecraft across the cosmos. The Sextant Navigation investigation tests use of a hand-held sextant aboard the space station.
Sextants have a telescope-like optical sight to take precise angle measurements between pairs of stars from land or sea, enabling navigation without computer assistance. NASA’s Gemini missions conducted the first sextant sightings from a spacecraft, and designers built a sextant into Apollo vehicles as a navigation backup in the event the crew lost communications from their spacecraft. Jim Lovell demonstrated on Apollo 8 that sextant navigation could return a space vehicle home. Astronauts conducted additional sextant experiments on Skylab.
Astronomers using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, have made the most precise test yet of Einstein’s general theory of relativity outside the Milky Way. The nearby galaxy ESO 325-G004 acts as a strong gravitational lens, distorting light from a distant galaxy behind it to create an Einstein ring around its centre. By comparing the mass of ESO 325-G004 with the curvature of space around it, the astronomers found that gravity on these astronomical length-scales behaves as predicted by general relativity. This rules out some alternative theories of gravity.
Using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s VLT, a team led by Thomas Collett from the University of Portsmouth in the UK first calculated the mass of ESO 325-G004 by measuring the movement of stars within this nearby elliptical galaxy.
“We used data from the Very Large Telescope in Chile to measure how fast the stars were moving in ESO 325-G004 — this allowed us to infer how much mass there must be in the galaxy to hold these stars in orbit.”
But the team was also able to measure another aspect of gravity. Using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, they observed an Einstein ring resulting from light from a distant galaxy being distorted by the intervening ESO 325-G004. Observing the ring allowed the astronomers to measure how light, and therefore spacetime, is being distorted by the huge mass of ESO 325-G004.
Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts that objects deform spacetime around them, causing any light that passes by to be deflected. This results in a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. This effect is only noticeable for very massive objects. A few hundred strong gravitational lenses are known, but most are too distant to precisely measure their mass. However, the galaxy ESO 325-G004 is one of the closest lenses, at just 450 million light-years from Earth.
“We know the mass of the foreground galaxy from MUSE and we measured the amount of gravitational lensing we see from Hubble. We then compared these two ways to measure the strength of gravity — and the result was just what general relativity predicts, with an uncertainty of only 9 percent. This is the most precise test of general relativity outside the Milky Way to date. And this using just one galaxy!”
General relativity has been tested with exquisite accuracy on Solar System scales, and the motions of stars around the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way are under detailed study, but previously there had been no precise tests on larger astronomical scales. Testing the long range properties of gravity is vital to validate our current cosmological model.
These findings may have important implications for models of gravity alternative to general relativity. These alternative theories predict that the effects of gravity on the curvature of spacetime are “scale dependent”. This means that gravity should behave differently across astronomical length-scales from the way it behaves on the smaller scales of the Solar System. Collett and his team found that this is unlikely to be true unless these differences only occur on length scales larger than 6000 light-years.
“The Universe is an amazing place providing such lenses which we can use as our laboratories,” adds team member Bob Nichol, from the University of Portsmouth. “It is so satisfying to use the best telescopes in the world to challenge Einstein, only to find out how right he was.”
A storm of tiny dust particles has engulfed much of Mars over the last two weeks and prompted NASA’s Opportunity rover to suspend science operations. But across the planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been studying Martian soil at Gale Crater, is expected to remain largely unaffected by the dust. While Opportunity is powered by sunlight, which is blotted out by dust at its current location, Curiosity has a nuclear-powered battery that runs day and night.
The Martian dust storm has grown in size and is now officially a “planet-encircling” (or “global”) dust event.
Though Curiosity is on the other side of Mars from Opportunity, dust has steadily increased over it, more than doubling over the weekend. The sunlight-blocking haze, called “tau,” is now above 8.0 at Gale Crater — the highest tau the mission has ever recorded. Tau was last measured near 11 over Opportunity, thick enough that accurate measurements are no longer possible for Mars’ oldest active rover.
For NASA’s human scientists watching from the ground, Curiosity offers an unprecedented window to answer some questions. One of the biggest is: why do some Martian dust storms last for months and grow massive, while others stay small and last only a week?
“We don’t have any good idea,”
says Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, leading Curiosity’s dust storm investigation.
Curiosity, he points out, plus a fleet of spacecraft in the orbit of Mars, will allow scientists for the first time to collect a wealth of dust information both from the surface and from space. The last storm of global magnitude that enveloped Mars was in 2007, five years before Curiosity landed there.
In the animation above, Curiosity is facing the crater rim, about 18.6 miles (30 kilometers) away from where it stands inside the crater. Daily photos captured by its Mast Camera, or Mastcam, show the sky getting hazier. This sun-obstructing wall of haze isabout six to eight times thicker than normal for this time of season.
Curiosity’s engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have studied the potential for the growing dust storm to affect the rover’s instruments, and say it poses little risk. The largest impact is to the rover’s cameras, which require extra exposure time due to the low lighting. The rover already routinely points its Mastcam down at the ground after each use to reduce the amount of dust blowing at its optics. JPL leads the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission.
Martian dust storms are common, especially during southern hemisphere spring and summer, when the planet is closest to the Sun. As the atmosphere warms, winds generated by larger contrasts in surface temperature at different locations mobilize dust particles the size of individual talcum powder grains. Carbon dioxide frozen on the winter polar cap evaporates, thickening the atmosphere and increasing the surface pressure. This enhances the process by helping suspend the dust particles in the air. In some cases, the dust clouds reach up to 40 miles (60 kilometers) or more in elevation.
Though they are common, Martian dust storms typically stay contained to a local area. By contrast, the current storm, if it were happening on Earth, is bigger than North America and Russia combined, says Guzewich.
The dust storm may seem exotic to some Earthlings, but it’s not unique to Mars. Earth has dust storms, too, in desert regions such as NorthAfrica, the Middle East, and the southwest United States.
But conditions here prevent them from spreading globally, said Ralph A. Kahn, a Goddard senior research scientist who studies the atmospheres of Earth and Mars. These include the structure of our thicker atmosphere and stronger gravity that helps settle dust. Earth also has vegetation cover on land that binds the soil with its roots and helps block the wind and rain that wash the particles out of the atmosphere.
Taking samples of other worlds is an important step towards discovery, but it is an expensive and complex process. Honeybee Robotics and The Planetary Society teamed up to solve this problem. This is PlanetVac.
After a few prototypes, PlanetVac is ready to be tested in Mojave, CA on a Xodiac rocket made by Masten Space Systems. NASA selected PlanetVac to fly on a Xodiac rocket as part of its Flight Opportunities program. If this PlanetVac Xodiac test is successful, it will significantly increase its chance of being selected on a real space mission.
PlanetVac Xodiac was supported by Planetary Society members. Over 800 people joined the team by donating. Thank you to the 887 donors from 35 countries who supported PlanetVac Xodiac in 2018. Special thanks to Pendleton Ward and Dustin Roberts who provided generous matching funds to inspire the community in support of the project.