Space sciences roundup – Jan.4.2020

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

** Reviews of major space science news in 2019 and the past decade:


** Is Betelgeuse about to go supernova?  Recent dimming of the red super giant star got people discussing the possibility, but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon (on a human timescale). Here are a couple of discussions of Betelgeuse by Scott Manley and Fraser Cain:


** NASA’s ASTERIA goes silent after successfully demonstrating a low-cost smallsat can do exoplanet searches. Tiny Satellite for Studying Distant Planets Goes Quiet – NASA JPL

ASTERIA observed a handful of nearby stars and successfully demonstrated that it could achieve precision measurements of the stars’ brightness. With that data, scientists look for dips in a star’s light that would indicate an orbiting planet passing between the satellite and the star. (This planet-hunting technique is called the transit method.) Mission data is still being analyzed to confirm whether ASTERIA spotted any distant worlds.

Since completing its primary mission objectives in early February 2018, ASTERIA has continued operating through three mission extensions. During that time, it has been used as an in-space platform to test various capabilities to make CubeSats more autonomous, some of which are based on artificial intelligence programs. ASTERIA also made opportunistic observations of the Earth, a comet, other spacecraft in geo-synchronous orbit and stars that might host transiting exoplanets.

“Left to right: Electrical Test Engineer Esha Murty and Integration and Test Lead Cody Colley prepare the ASTERIA spacecraft for mass-properties measurements in April 2017 prior to spacecraft delivery ahead of launch. ASTERIA was deployed from the International Space Station in November 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech” > Larger view

** Planetary Imaging Concept Testbed Using a Recoverable Experiment – Coronagraph (PICTURE-C)  tests techniques for direct imaging of exoplanets: A real-life deluminator for spotting exoplanets by reflected starlight – The Conversation

PICTURE-C’s coronagraph creates artificial eclipses to dim or eliminate starlight without dimming the planets that the stars illuminate. It is designed to capture faint asteroid belt like objects very close to the central star.

While a coronagraph is necessary for direct imaging of exoplanets, our 6,000 pound device also includes deformable mirrors to correct the shape of the the telescope mirrors that get distorted due to changes in gravity, temperature fluctuations and other manufacturing imperfections.

Finally, the entire device has to be held steady in space for relatively long periods of time. A specially NASA-designed gondola called Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP) carried PICTURE-C and got us part way. An internal image stabilization system designed by my colleagues provided the “steady hand” necessary.


** Sunspots return. After an unusually long period of about six months with few or zero spots, several appeared on the face of the Sun in December. They also displayed the change in magnetic polarization that indicates they belong to the next phase of the solar cycle. The Next Solar Cycle is Coming –

The pace of new-cycle sunspots is definitely intensifying. 2020 is only three days old, and already there is a Solar Cycle 25 ‘spot on the sun: AR2755. The sunspot is inset in this magnetic map from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory:

We know that AR755 belongs to the next solar cycle because of its magnetic polarity. It’s reversed. According to Hale’s Law, sunspot polarities flip-flop from one solar cycle to the next. During old Solar Cycle 24, we grew accustomed to sunspots in the sun’s southern hemisphere having a -/+ pattern. AR2755 is the reverse: +/-, marking it as a member of new Solar Cycle 25.

This is the 3rd consecutive month that Solar Cycle 25 sunspots have appeared: Nov. 2019, Dec. 2019, and now Jan. 2020. The quickening pace of new cycle sunspots does not mean that Solar Minimum is finished. On the contrary, low sunspot counts will likely continue for many months and maybe even years. However, it is a clear sign that Solar Cycle 25 is coming to life. The doldrums won’t last forever.

Bob Zimmerman wrote back in December about the current minimum in the solar cycle, which, even with the rise of a few new spots, is unusually long: Sunspot update Nov 2019: The longest flatline in centuries | Behind The Black

The Sun is now in what appears to be the longest stretch ever recorded, since the 11-year solar sunspot cycle reactivated in the 1700s after the last grand minimum, of sunspot inactivity. This record-setting dearth of practically no sunspots has now stretched to six months in a row.


** China’s Chang’e 4 lander and rover mission continues 1 year after landing on the far side of the Moon on January 3rd, 2019.

Asteroids and Comets

** Planetary Society announces winners of latest Shoemaker NEO Grant awards: Announcing the 2019 Shoemaker NEO Grant Winners | The Planetary Society

[The] grants support very advanced amateur astronomers around the world in their efforts to find, track, and characterize near Earth asteroids. 

The world’s professional sky surveys alone cannot handle the burden of defending the Earth from potentially dangerous asteroids. Our Shoemaker grant winners contribute in particular to two areas of planetary defense: 

    • Characterization: Some winners focus on asteroid characterization to determine asteroid properties. They typically carry out photometry (brightness) studies to determine properties like spin rate and whether what looks like one asteroid is actually two asteroids—a binary pair. This type of information will be crucial when an asteroid deflection is required, and in the meantime, for understanding the near-Earth asteroid population in general. 
    • Tracking: Other winners focus on astrometric (sky position) tracking observations that are necessary for calculating orbits, which tells us whether an asteroid will hit Earth. Without these follow-up observations of newly discovered asteroids, the asteroids can even be lost.

** SETI Institute‘s Senior Astronomer Seth Shostak discusses Comet 2I/B Borisov:

** OSIRIS-REx mission selects spot on asteroid Bennu to collect the sample that will be returned to Earth: X Marks the Spot: NASA Selects Site for Asteroid Sample Collection – OSIRIS-REx Mission

“The sample site Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx’s primary sample collection site on asteroid Bennu. The image is overlaid with a graphic of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to illustrate the scale of the site. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona”


** First Drive Test of NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover – NASA JPL

On Dec. 17, 2019, engineers took NASA’s next Mars rover for its first spin. The test took place in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This was the first drive test for the new rover, which will move to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the beginning of next year to prepare for its launch to Mars in the summer. Engineers are checking that all the systems are working together properly, the rover can operate under its own weight, and the rover can demonstrate many of its autonomous navigation functions. The launch window for Mars 2020 opens on July 17, 2020. The rover will land at Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

More about the Mars 2020 rover: Media Get a Close-Up of NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover – NASA’s Mars Exploration Program

Scheduled to launch in July or August 2020, the Mars 2020 rover will land in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. There it will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize Mars’ climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Both to ensure that as few Earthly microbes as possible hitch a ride to Mars and to keep out particles that could interfere with the rover’s operations, High Bay 1 comes with strict cleanliness standards: Anyone entering the clean room, whether a technician or a journalist, must wear a “bunny suit,” booties, a hair cover, a face mask and latex gloves. Because notepads and writing implements could shed dust and other particles, specially-approved paper and pens were provided to visiting media members on request.

In the coming weeks, engineers and technicians will pack the 2020 rover into a specially-designed container. After it arrives at the Cape, Mars 2020 will undergo final processing and testing before launch.

Mars 2020 Media Day

** Updates on Curiosity’s roving from Leonard David:

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera photo taken on Sol 2634, January 3, 2020. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

** More analysis of images of the marvelous Martian surface – Bob Zimmerman

Darkened craters on the Elysium Planitia plain. Credits: NASA/Arizona State Univ. via Behind the Black. Full image.

** Are We About to Find Life on Mars? – SETI Institute

Over the past six months, numerous articles have reported weird anomalies in the atmosphere of Mars, from an outburst of methane in June 2019 to patterns in oxygen concentrations that cannot be explained by any known atmospheric or surface processes on the Red Planet. Perhaps more intriguing is the Viking Lander (Viking LR) experiment. In 1976, each of the two Viking landers performed experiments on Martian soil samples. The samples tested positive for metabolism, and researchers recently claimed that like on Earth, this is a sign for the presence of a Martian life. Finally, an Ohio scientist claims to have found photographic proof of “insect and reptile-like” life on Mars. This controversial result has been discussed at length in the media, even though most scientists rejected it.

What does this mean? Are we on the verge of announcing the most profound story since humans first wondered about the existence of life elsewhere? Or are these coincidences that can be explained by geological processes, failed experiments or pareidolia?

We invited two SETI Institute scientists who are experts on Mars to discuss these exciting and out of this world results. Biologist Kathryn Bywaters who has studied life in some of the most extreme environments on Earth and planetary scientist Pascal Lee who focuses on water on Mars and human exploration of the Red Planet. Both scientists will tell us if indeed we are about to discover life on Mars and the consequences of this significant discovery.

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