Space sciences roundup – Feb.25.2020

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


** Resolving the surface of Betelgeuse 700 light years away with the VLT‘s enormous mirrors: ESO Telescope Sees Surface of Dim Betelgeuse | ESO

Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have captured the unprecedented dimming of Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star in the constellation of Orion. The stunning new images of the star’s surface show not only the fading red supergiant but also how its apparent shape is changing.

Betelgeuse has been a beacon in the night sky for stellar observers but it began to dim late last year. At the time of writing Betelgeuse is at about 36% of its normal brightness, a change noticeable even to the naked eye. Astronomy enthusiasts and scientists alike were excitedly hoping to find out more about this unprecedented dimming.

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse, in the constellation of Orion, has been undergoing unprecedented dimming. This stunning image of the star’s surface, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope late last year, is among the first observations to come out of an observing campaign aimed at understanding why the star is becoming fainter. When compared with the image taken in January 2019, it shows how much the star has faded and how its apparent shape has changed.

** Meanwhile, Betelgeuse has stopped dimming:

The red supergiant star Betelgeuse appears to have finally stopped its unprecedented dimming, Villanova University astronomer Edward Guinan told me this afternoon. He says that although he’s unsure what has caused its strange brightness fluctuations, Betelgeuse is not likely to undergo a supernova explosion anytime soon. 

“The star has been nearly steady in brightness now over the last 10 days,” said Guinan.

** Weekly Space Hangout: February 5, 2020 – “More Things in the Heavens” – YouTube

Tonight we welcome Dr. Michael Werner and Dr. Peter Eisenhardt, authors of the new book More Things in the Heavens[: How Infrared Astronomy Is Expanding Our View of the Universe – Amazon commission link] which looks at how infrared astronomy is aiding the search for exoplanets and extraterrestrial life, and is transforming our understanding of the history and evolution of our universe. Included in their book are many spectacular images that have been captured by the Spitzer space telescope over its lifetime.

Solar system

** New Horizons fly-by of distant Arrokoth reveals clues to solar system formation: New Horizons Team Discovers a Critical Piece of the Planetary Formation Puzzle – New Horizons

Data from NASA’s New Horizons mission are providing new insights into how planets and planetesimals – the building blocks of the planets – were formed.

The New Horizons spacecraft flew past the ancient Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth (2014 MU69) on Jan. 1, 2019, providing humankind’s first close-up look at one of the icy remnants of solar system formation in the vast region beyond the orbit of Neptune. Using detailed data on the object’s shape, geology, color and composition – gathered during a record-setting flyby that occurred more than four billion miles from Earth – researchers have apparently answered a longstanding question about planetesimal origins, and therefore made a major advance in understanding how the planets themselves formed.

“This brief animation moves between two New Horizons spacecraft views of Arrokoth, the spacecraft’s New Year’s 2019 flyby target in the Kuiper Belt. The 3D effects come from pairing or combining images taken at different viewing angles, creating a “binocular” stereo effect, just as the separation of our eyes allows us to see three-dimensionally. The 3D information from these images provides scientists with critical insight on the object’s shape and structure and, subsequently, origin.”
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

A New Horizons panel discussion of the latest findings:

See also How a space snowman called Arrokoth sheds light on planetary origins – GeekWire


** A ULA Atlas V rocket launched the Solar Orbiter, a joint ESA-NASA project, on Feb. 9th from Cape Canaveral. The spacecraft will eventually go in close to the Sun and use the gravity of Venus to sling it into an orbit out of the ecliptic plane so that it can study the Sun’s polar regions.

** New spacecraft and earth sensors expected to produce a brilliant era for solar researchWe are entering the Golden Age of studying our Sun | Ars Technica

These new probes will build upon astronomers’ existing information about the Sun. Already, this body of knowledge has grown considerably over the last decade thanks to instruments such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which is in geostationary orbit around the Earth and has provided a great amount of high-resolution imaging data. With the three new scientific tools, we are about to have a much more complete view of our Sun as a star, which matters not only for us, but also as we look to worlds around other stars.

“Over the course of the next 5 to 10 years we will have a much deeper understanding of the Sun as a star, which can have a significant impact on our understanding of exoplanet environments and as a consequence improve our understanding of what makes a planet habitable,” Alexander said.

** Sunspots made a small comeback in the New Year: Sunspot update: A tiny burst of activity that might mean something | Behind The Black

Despite their low number and general weakness, the continuing appearance of sunspots with polarities aligned with the new cycle strongly indicates that we will have a solar maximum in the next five years, not a grand minimum lasting decades that some scientists are predicting. While the year is young and it is certainly too soon to trust any trends, the fact that January saw an increase in activity over the past seven months suggests that we might have passed the low point of the minimum. We shall find out this year.


** China’s far side lunar rover ends 14th lunar day and restarts on the 15th:

** Asteroids and Comets

** OSIRIS-REx altimeter misbehaves on close pass of candidate sampling spot on BennuStatus Update: OSIRIS-REx Osprey Flyover – OSIRIS-REx Mission

On Feb. 11, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft safely executed a 0.4-mile (620-m) flyover of the backup sample collection site Osprey as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance B phase activities. Preliminary telemetry, however, indicates that the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) did not operate as expected during the 11-hour event. The OLA instrument was scheduled to provide ranging data to the spacecraft’s PolyCam imager, which would allow the camera to focus while imaging the area around the sample collection site. Consequently, the PolyCam images from the flyover are likely out of focus.

The other science instruments, including the MapCam imager, the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES), and the OSIRIS-REx Visual and InfraRed Spectrometer (OVIRS), all performed nominally during the flyover. These instruments and the spacecraft continue in normal operations in orbit around asteroid Bennu.

The mission team is currently reviewing the available data from the flyover in order to fully assess the OLA instrument. The entire data set from the flyover, including the PolyCam images, will be completely downlinked from the spacecraft next week and will provide additional insight into any impact that the loss of the OLA data may have.


** ESA’s CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite.(CHEOPS) begins examination of exoplanets; CHEOPS Just Opened Its Eyes to Start Studying Known Exoplanets, We Should See the First Picture in a Few Weeks – Universe Today

The CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) spacecraft just opened the cover on its telescope. The spacecraft was launched on December 18th 2019 and has so far performed flawlessly. In one or two weeks we could get our first images from the instrument.

CHEOPS is an ESA mission in partnership with Switzerland’s University of Bern. Its mission is not to find exoplanets, but to look more closely at stars with known exoplanets, and to watch as those planets transit in front of their star. It will watch those transits with a keen eye, and will determine the size of those planets with greater accuracy and precision. That will lead to better measurements of their mass, density, and composition.

An artist’s view of the CHEOPS spacecraft as it searches for exoplanets. Credits: ESA


** Scott Manley looks at ways to explore Venus’s ferociously hot surface: Venus Rover Concepts That Beat The Killer Atmosphere

How do you build a rover that can happily work at 500C, 90 Atmospheres of pressure and the problems of dust and corrosion? NASA has 2 approaches – one seeks to harden electronics against the heat, the other replaces electronic logic with mechanical hardware. NASA and HeroX are crowdsourcing solutions for a mechanism to detect obstacles and allow the rover to head in a different direction with a $15,000 prize to the best entry:


** Mars northern hemisphere differs significantly from the southern half: Two halves of a whole – ESA

The morphology and characteristics of the martian surface differ significantly depending on location. The northern hemisphere of Mars is flat, smooth and, in places, sits a few kilometres lower than the southern. The southern hemisphere, meanwhile, is heavily cratered, and peppered with pockets of past volcanic activity.

A transition zone known as ‘dichotomy boundary’ separates the northern lowlands and southern highlands. Large parts of this region are filled with something scientists call fretted terrain: blocky, broken-up, fragmented swathes of terrain where the rough, pockmarked martian south gives way to the smoother north.

The topography of Nilosyrtis Mensae. Mars north is to the right. Credits: ESA

** Insight Lander detects over 450 small Mars quakes: A Year of Surprising Science From NASA’s InSight Mars Mission – NASA’s InSight Mars Lander

… the ultra-sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), has enabled scientists to “hear” multiple trembling events from hundreds to thousands of miles away.

Seismic waves are affected by the materials they move through, giving scientists a way to study the composition of the planet’s inner structure. Mars can help the team better understand how all rocky planets, including Earth, first formed.

Mars trembles more often — but also more mildly — than expected. SEIS has found more than 450 seismic signals to date, the vast majority of which are probably quakes (as opposed to data noise created by environmental factors, like wind). The largest quake was about magnitude 4.0 in size — not quite large enough to travel down below the crust into the planet’s lower mantle and core. Those are “the juiciest parts of the apple” when it comes to studying the planet’s inner structure, said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL.

** Update on Insight Lander‘s Mole digger: NASA’s Mars InSight Lander to Push on Top of the ‘Mole’ | NASA

The mole found itself stuck on Feb. 28, 2019, the first day of hammering. The InSight team has since determined that the soil here is different than what has been encountered on other parts of Mars. InSight landed in an area with an unusually thick duricrust, or a layer of cemented soil. Rather than being loose and sandlike, as expected, the dirt granules stick together.

The mole needs friction from soil in order to travel downward; without it, recoil from its self-hammering action causes it to simply bounce in place. Ironically, loose soil, not duricrust, provides that friction as it falls around the mole.

This past summer, the InSight team started using the robotic arm’s scoop to press on the side of the mole, a technique called “pinning” that added just enough friction to help it dig without coming in contact with the fragile science tether connected to the mole’s back cap.   

While pinning helped, the mole popped back out of the Martian soil on two occasions, possibly from soil building up from beneath. With few alternatives left, the team has decided to try helping the mole dig by carefully pressing on its back cap while attempting to avoid the tether.

It might take several tries to perfect the back-cap push, just as pinning did. Throughout late February and early March, InSight’s arm will be maneuvered into position so that the team can test what happens as the mole briefly hammers.

Meanwhile, the team is also considering using the scoop to move more soil into the hole that has formed around the mole. This could add more pressure and friction, allowing it to finally dig down. Whether they pursue this route depends on how deep the mole is able to travel after the back-cap push.

** China plans to launch an orbiter/rover combo spacecraft to Mars this summer. Here are some hints as to where the rover will land: China’s candidate landing site on Mars | Behind The Black

This location, on the northern lowlands plains of Utopia Planitia, makes great sense however for a first attempt by anyone to soft land on Mars. In fact, in 1976 these plains were the same location that NASA chose for Viking 2, for the same reasons. (The Viking 2 landing site was to the northeast of the Chinese site, just beyond the right edge of the overview map) While there are plenty of craters and rough features, compared to most of Mars’s surface, Utopia could be considered as smooth as a bowling ball.

** The ESA/Roscosmos Mars Rover needs a solar panel fix: Europe’s Rosalind Franklin Mars rover to make ‘pit stop’ for repair – BBC News

Europe’s Mars rover will have to make a “pit stop” for a minor repair when it is moved from France to Italy.

The vehicle, which is currently undergoing final preparations in Cannes prior to a summer launch, has developed a small problem with its solar panels.

Glue that holds brackets in place on the folding arrays has come unstuck.

It’s not considered a serious problem and will be fixed when the “Rosalind Franklin” robot passes through Turin on its way to the launch site.

Rosalind Franklin, also known by its codename ExoMars, is a joint venture of the European and Russian space agencies (Esa and Roscosmos)

** Looking for life under the Martian surface: Scientists eye the Martian underground in search for alien life |

Conference attendees generally agreed that the best places to look for extant Mars life are in the deep subsurface caves, and in salt and ice.

While the cold, dry surface of Mars, with its harsh radiation environment, is widely considered to be uninhabitable, the subsurface has been hypothesized to be a viable, long-lived habitable environment, protected from the punishing surface conditions of Mars and a place where water could be stable.

Vlada Stamenković, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, backed the underground approach at the conference. 

“The surface of Mars is a very oxidizing, radiation-heavy environment where liquid water is not really stable for an extended amount of time,” Stamenković said. “It’s the worst place to look for life-sites on Mars. Groundwater might be the only habitat for extant life on Mars, if it still exists today.” 

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

** Tour more sites on the marvelous Martian surface with Bob Zimmerman

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