Giving us a rare, unique window into the environment and emission history of the strongest magnets in the cosmos
Space news (astrophysics: wind nebulas; Swift J1834.9-0846) – 13,000 light-years toward the constellation Scutum in the midst of a vast cloud of high-energy, particles surrounding supernova remnant W41 –
Astronomers studying the strongest magnets discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, magnetars, have detected one they haven’t seen before.A magnetar, a rare highly magnetic neutron star with a vast cloud of high-energy, recently-emitted particles called a wind nebula streaming from it. Offeringa unique window into the characteristics, environment and emission history of one of the most enigmatic and eye-opening objects ever detected.
“Right now, we don’t know how J1834.9 developed and continues to maintain a wind nebula, which until now was a structure only seen around young pulsars,” said lead researcher George Younes, a postdoctoral researcher at George Washington University in Washington. “If the process here is similar, then about 10 percent of the magnetar’s rotational energy loss is powering the nebula’s glow, which would be the highest efficiency ever measured in such a system.”
An object around 13 miles (20 kilometers) in diameter, or about the length of Manhattan Island, only 29 magnetars have been detected, so far. In this particular case, the source of detected emissionsis called Swift J1834.9-0846, a rare type of ultra-magnetic neutron stardetected by the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Satellite on August 7, 2011. It was subsequently looked at closer a month later by a team led by Younes using the European Space Agency’s (ESA) XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory. It was at this time astronomers realized and confirmed the first wind nebula ever detected around a magnetar.
“For me, the most interesting question is, why is this the only magnetar with a nebula? Once we know the answer, we might be able to understand what makes a magnetar and what makes an ordinary pulsar,” said co-author ChryssaKouveliotou, a professor in the Department of Physics at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
Neutron stars are the crushed cores of massive stars left over after they have gone supernova and the densest objects astrophysicists have been able to directly observe during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. All neutron star magnetic fields detected, so far, are 100 to 10 trillion times stronger than Earth’s, and magnetar fields reach levels thousands of times stronger. Astrophysicists have no ideas on howmagnetic fields of such immense strength are formed.
“Making a wind nebula requires large particle fluxes, as well as some way to bottle up the outflow so it doesn’t just stream into space,” said co-author Alice Harding, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We think the expanding shell of the supernova remnant serves as the bottle, confining the outflow for a few thousand years. When the shell has expanded enough, it becomes too weak to hold back the particles, which then leak out and the nebula fades away. This naturally explains why wind nebulae are not found among older pulsars, even those driving strong outflows.“
“The nebula around J1834.9 stores the magnetar’s energetic outflows over its whole active history, starting many thousands of years ago,” said team member Jonathan Granot, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at the Open University in Ra’anana, Israel. “It represents a unique opportunity to study the magnetar’s historical activity, opening a whole new playground for theorists like me.”
Astrophysicists think a magnetar outburst’s powered by energy stored in itssuper-strong magnetic fieldproduced gamma rays and x-rays, along with the gales of accelerated particles making up the nebulawind detected in the case of Swift J1834.9-0846. Now, they have a mystery to figure out, and new theories to deduce to explain the way a magnetar produces anebula wind.
To investigate Martian rocks for evidence of past life in advance of sending humans to work and live on the Red Planet
Space news (missions to Mars: successor to Curiosity rover; Mars 2020 rover) – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California –
NASA managers are looking forward to shifting gears on the Mars rover program in the 2020s. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover’s expected to arrive at the Red Planet around February 2021, carrying a science instrument package designed to build upon the success of NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. It will investigate regions of the planet astrobiologists think were once favorable to microbial life, by collecting soil and rock samples, and then leaving them on the surface for a future Mars mission to collect for the possible return to Earth.
“The Mars 2020 rover is the first step in a potential multi-mission campaign to return carefully selected and sealed samples of Martian rocks and soil to Earth,” said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This mission marks a significant milestone in NASA’s Journey to Mars, to determine whether life has ever existed on Mars, and to advance our goal of sending humans to the Red Planet.”
NASA engineers, scientists and mission planners are ready to begin final design and construction of the next Mars rover. In the end, Mars 2020 will looklike its six-wheeled, one-ton predecessor, Curiosity, but with a science instrument package designed to begin a new phase of exploration of the surface of Mars. It will begin exploring specifically selected regions of the planet for signs of life and the resources needed for future colonists to survive. Using two science instruments mounted on the rover’s robotic arm and two instruments on the mast, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover’s expected to show us new things about the Red Planet.
Current plans call for the Mars 2020 rover to use an upgraded version of the same sky crane landing system used by Curiosity. Engineers and designers have added a few improvements to the system opening up more potential landing sites on Mars with this edition. Giving mission planners more options to explore the Red Planet to a greater degree and hopefully provide a few more answers to the questions we have all been asking ourselves about Mars.
“By adding what’s known as range trigger, we can specify where we want the parachute to open, not just at what velocity we want it to open,” said Allen Chen, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “That shrinks our landing area by nearly half.”
Engineers and designers have also added a suite of cameras and a microphone providing data onboard computers will analysis during descent and landing of the rover. This will help the spacecraft land in a safe zone and capture the sounds and imagery of the entry, descent, and landing as never before. We expect this data to eventually make for a thrilling video and improve the chances of future Mars missions.
“As it is descending, the spacecraft can tell whether it is headed for one of the unsafe zones and divert to safe ground nearby,” said Chen. “With this capability, we can now consider landing areas with unsafe zones that previously would have disqualified the whole area. Also, we can land closer to a specific science destination, for less driving after landing.”
“Nobody has ever seen what a parachute looks like as it is opening in the Martian atmosphere,” said JPL’s David Gruel, assistant flight system manager for the Mars 2020 mission. “So this will provide valuable engineering information.”
“This will be a great opportunity for the public to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time, and it could also provide useful engineering information,” said Mars 2020 Deputy Project Manager Matt Wallace of JPL.
Mars 2020 rover goes forward
As the optimist said, “So far, so good.” NASA has completed stage three of a four-stage approval process needed for the Mars 2020 rover to go for launch. Now engineers and designers get to work assembling the final systems of NASA’s next Mars rover. Fortunately, they have already done a lot of the work during the building of Curiosity, and even have some spare parts and hardware that should work just fine laying around somewhere in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Since Mars 2020 is leveraging the design and some spare hardware from Curiosity, a significant amount of the mission’s heritage components have already been built during Phases A and B,” said George Tahu, Mars 2020 program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With the KDP to enter Phase C completed, the project is proceeding with final design and construction of the new systems, as well as the rest of the heritage elements for the mission.”
In the design of an item or tool astronauts living and working on the International Space Station could use to complete a number of different tasks
Space news (Space Education Programs: Future Engineers; 3D Printing in Space Challenges, “Think Outside the Box” challenge) – design an item that assembles, telescopes, hinges, accordions, grows, or expands to become larger than the printing bounds of the AMF 3D printer on the International Space Station –
Junior and teen aspiring engineers recently put theirthinking hats on and came up with a few tools and items star voyagers on the International Space Station will find useful.Founding member of innovative education platform Future Engineers and partner NASA issued a challenge to young innovators to “thinkoutside the box” in solving problems astronauts (star voyagers) will face while living and working in space during the decades ahead. Thechallengeto design a tool or item star voyagers on the International Space Station could use to make living in a microgravity environment easier. Aspiring inventors and young innovators answered the challenge with some stunning, innovative tools and items we’re sure astronauts living and working on the space station will find valuable. You can check out the aspiring engineers and their innovative space tools here.
Planners under pressure to provide details of long-term plans before Presidential election
Space news (Deep space missions: go for Mars; Orion spacecraft) – Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama –
NASA plans to travel to the Red Planet for a three-year mission to set up operations for future missions and possible colonization recently took one step forward. NASA mission managers and other experts gavethe Safety Oversight Board an update on thecurrent status of plans to travel to Mars duringthe latest Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting. The committee members took a very close look at their plans and pointed out America and NASA can’t afford to fumble the ball at this point in history. That with the Presidential election taking place, they‘ll need to see more on NASA’s future plans to travel to Mars, before more funding for futuremissions will be forthcoming.
NASA at this point’s trying to get work completed on the planned debut for the Space Launch System (SLS) with the launch of Exploration Mission Orion (EM-1) in 2017-2018. The second test of the Space Launch System (SLS) is scheduled for around 2021, with a crew this time, but NASA’s presently trying to reduce the five-year gap between the first two SLS missions. This launch system or something similar is needed for plans to travel to Mars and colonize the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.
At this point in time, these are the only scheduled SLS missions, but NASA’s documents do show preliminary plans for 41 SLS missions between 2018 to 2046 towards future surface missions on Phobos and then the Red Planet. NASA also provided a generalized plan calling for astronauts to journey to the fourth planet from the Sun for a permanent stay sometime in the 2030s. At this point, however, concrete long-term plans surrounding future manned trips to Mars are hazy due to NASA’s funding outlook, which isonly estimated for long-term space mission requirements. Experts agree, though, a hefty increase in funding’s going to be needed for a realistic, viable plan and tripto the Red Planet. Getting it ready for more colonizers is a different question, though, requiring additionalthought, planning, and funding.
NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaierstated the SLS will launch at least once a year when questioned about the tight schedule of EM-1. NASA’s monster rocket system isn’t scheduled to take astronauts into space until sometime in the next decade, so expectations are for NASA to plan and execute a range of different unmanned space missionsto test the system. This could include a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, to take a dip in the ocean of water planetary scientists think exists below its icy crust.
Bill Hill, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development (ESD) for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), updated board members on the status of current plans for astronauts to travel to Mars by the 2030s. At this point in the planning, program managers are still reviewing options, rather than adding a foundation to present plans.
NASA planners have significant hurdles to overcome if they’re to successfully send astronauts to the Red Planet and allow them to get back into orbit. The first obstacle’s going to be designing, engineering and testing a Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system capable of generating enough energy to get a spacecraft up to a significant percentage of the speed of light. The Helios space probes hold the record for the fastest recorded human spacecraft at around 150,000 miles per hour as they whip around the Sun measuring the solar wind and environment. The second significant hurdle’s collecting enough oxygen from the frozen regions of Mars to provide the fuel required to travel from the surface back into orbit. Plans for a three-year mission are also of concern to scientists, engineers and planners worried about the dangers and problems astronauts will face living, working and staying healthy during a long-duration space mission.
Of concern previously and still a problem the committee mentioned was the need for engineers and scientists to producea heat shield for the Orion spacecraft capable of surviving reentry. The spacecraft will have to survive a 13.5 kilometers per second entry velocity and planners indicated this capability’s on the agency’s must-do list. At present, Orion isn’t going to survive the fall to Earth after it returns from Mars, according to engineers and scientists. Committee members also noted they have been asking NASA managers for a formal outline of their plans to send astronauts to Mars for awhile. They specifically wanted to know what new technologies will be needed to successfully allow astronauts to travel to the Red Planet to begin colonization.
NASA officials responded to committee member requests by stating the agency was in the process of “adding meat to the bones” of the transitional phase of their plans to send astronauts to Mars. During this phase 0, NASA’s turns its attention toward successful test flights for the SLS and Orion, while using the International Space Station (ISS) to test the effects of living and working in space for long periods of time.
The Asteroid Redirect Mission’s (ARM) phase 1 of NASA’s three-part plan to send astronauts to the Red Planet. Initially, this mission had a nominal date of around 2021, but planners have recently updated the mission launch date to around 2026. They’ll need to complete this mission successfully in order to learn some of the things they’ll need to know to send astronauts to Mars to begin colonization. During this phase, engineers and scientists will test the flight capability of the system using the Exploration Missions.
Phase 2 of NASA’s plans to send astronauts to Mars will test all flight elements needed to travel to the Red Planet, during planned Beyond Earth Orbit test missions. The committee thanked Mars Mission managers but asked to see more detail and definite plans on NASA’s current outline.
Mankind goes for Mars
Mr. Hill commented that NASA’s already learned many needed lessons towards phase 0 of their Mars Mission plans. He added that the nation had already invested significantly in the technology neededto send astronauts to Mar during the decades ahead. That more work needed to be done in order to not loose this work and get the job done within a specific time period. Specific milestones have been met and Exploration Mission 1’s (EM-1) on target for a launch window between September to November 2018.
By studying lightechoes, rings of x-rays observed around binary star system Circinus X-1
Space news (astrophysics: measuring distances of objects; light echoes) – 30,700 light-years from Earth in the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy, observing X-rays emitted by a neutron star in double star system Circinus X-1 reflecting off massive, surrounding clouds of gas and dust –
Determining the apparent distance of objects tens of thousands of light-years from Earth across the breadth of the Milky Way was a difficult problem to solve duringthe early days of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. During the years since these early days, astronomers have developed a few techniques and methods to help calculate distances to stellar objects on the other side of the galaxy.
The most recently measured distance to an object on the other side of the Milky Way used the newest method developed. By detecting the rings from X-ray light echoes around the star Circinus X-1, a double star system containing a neutron star. Astronomers were able to determine the apparent distance to this system is around 30,700 light-years from Earth.
“It’s really hard to get accurate distance measurements in astronomy and we only have a handful of methods,” said Sebastian Heinz of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who led the study. “But just as bats use sonar to triangulate their location, we can use the X-rays from Circinus X-1 to figure out exactly where it is.”
The rings are faintechoes from an outburst of x-rays emitted by Circinus X-1 near the end of 2013. The x-rays reflected off of separate clouds of gas and dust surrounding the star system, with some being sent toward Earth. The reflected x-rays arrived from different angles over a three month period, which created the observed X-ray rings. Using radio data scientists were able to determine the distance to each cloud of gas and dust, while detected X-ray echoes and simple geometry allowed for an accurate measurement of the distance to Circinus X-1 from Earth.
“We like to call this system the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but this one has nothing to do with Sauron,” said co-author Michael Burton of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “The beautiful match between the Chandra X-ray rings and the Mopra radio images of the different clouds is really a first in astronomy.”
In addition to this new distance measurement to Circinus X-1, astrophysicists determined this binary system’s naturally brighter in X-rays and other light than previously thought. This points to a star system that has repeatedly passed the threshold of brightness where the outward pressure of emitted radiation is balanced by the inward force of gravity. Astronomers have witnessed this equilibrium more often in binary systems containing a black hole, not a neutron star as in this case. The jet of high-energy particles emitted by this binary system’s also moving at 99.9 percent of the speed of light, which is a feature normally associated with a
The jet of high-energy particles emitted by this binary system’s also moving at 99.9 percent of the speed of light, which is a feature normally associated with a relativistic jet produced by a system containing a black hole. Scientistsare currently studying this to see if they can determine why this system has such an unusual blend of characteristics.
“Circinus X-1 acts in some ways like a neutron star and in some like a black hole,” said co-author Catherine Braiding, also of the University of New South Wales. “It’s extremely unusual to find an object that has such a blend of these properties.”
Astronomers think Circinus X-1 started emitting X-rays observers on Earth could have detected starting about 2,500 years ago. If this is true, this X-ray binary system’s the youngest detected, so far, during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.
This new X-ray data is being used to create a detailed three-dimensional map of the dust clouds between Circinus X-1 and Earth.
Astrophysicists are preparing to measuredistances to other stellar objects on the other side of the Milky Way using the latest distance measurement method. This new astronomy tool’s going to come in handy during the next leg of the human journey to the beginning of space and time.