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.


Brief Answers to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking