Space news (The search for life beyond Earth) – An artist’s rendition of the Europa spacecraft orbiting Jupiter–
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released this artist‘s rendering of the Europa spacecraft, which is set to head to Jupiter sometime in the 2020s. The Europa Mission spacecraftconfiguration in early 2016 is shown in this image. The final spacecraft configuration at launch could easily be different, so stay tuned here for more news. The position of Jupiter in the sky relative to Europa and the spacecraftare also off in this drawing.
Two large solar arrays are shown extending from the sides of the Europa spacecraft to which the ice-penetrating radar antennas are attached in this artist’s rendition. On the side of the craft, a saucer-shaped high gain antenna is depicted next to a magnetometer boom. On the forward section is a remote-sensing palette with the remaining science instruments.
The Europa Mission profile has a very capable, radiation-resistant spacecraft traveling to Jupiter, where it enters into a long, looping orbit of the giant planet in order to perform at least 45 repeated flybys of Europa at altitudes ranging from 1700 miles to 16 miles (2700 kilometers to 25 kilometers) above its surface. Planetary scientists want to take a closer look at the evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. An ocean of liquid water that could be the habitat of alien lifeforms we want to get to know better.
In order to better understand intricate operations and detailed planning needed to capture multi-ton boulder from asteroid surface
Space news (Asteroid Redirect Mission: testing of prototype of robotic capture module system) – The Robotic Operations Center of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center –
Inside the Robotic Operations Center (ROC) of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center engineers are at work preparing the robotic section of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The most recent work involved testing a prototype of the asteroid capture system with a mock boulderbuilt by NASA and students from West Virginia University. This work will help engineers learn more about the intricate operations needed to capture a multi-ton boulder from the surface of an asteroid. The robotic section of ARM is targeted for a 2021 launch window.
The capability built into the ROC allows engineers to create a simulation of the capture of a boulder from the surface of an asteroid. Here they can also simulate servicing of the satellite, fine tuning of systems and controllers, and even optimize all performance factors for future repairs and refueling. An important capabilitywhen building spacecraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars and even more. One that saves money and time.
The report reflects the findings of a two-month study conducted by members of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG). It explains many of ARM’s potential contributions to the future of the human journey to the beginning of space and time.
“This report is an important step in identifying ways that ARM will be more scientifically relevant as we continue mission formulation for the robotic and the crew segments,” said Gates. “We’re currently in the process of selecting hosted instruments and payloads for the robotic segment, and hope to receive an updated analysis from the SBAG after we announce those selections in spring 2017.”
During the same relative time period, other clues indicate more oxygen was present in the atmosphere thanfound currently
Space news (planetary science: Martian rocks containing manganese oxide minerals; indicating a wetter surface with more atmospheric oxygen than presently found on Mars) – Mars (the Red Planet), 154 million miles (249 kilometers) from Sol, or 141 million miles (228 million kilometers) from Earth, on average –
NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has found rocks at a place called Windjana containing manganese oxide minerals according to reports from planetary scientists studying samples from the region. On Earth rocks of this type formed during the distant past in the presence of abundant water and atmospheric oxygen. This news added to previous reports of ancient lakes and other groundwater sources during Mar’s pastpoints to a wetter environment in the study region Gale Crater during this time.
Planetary scientists used the laser-firing instrument on the Curiosity Mars rover to detect high levels of manganese-oxide in mineral veins found at Windjana. “The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”
Planetary scientists are looking at other processes that could create the manganese-oxide they found in rocks in Mar’s Gale Crater region. Possible culprits at this point include microbes, but even optimistic planetary scientists are finding little fan fair accompanyingtheir ideas. Lanza said, “These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions. Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”
Geologists have found high concentrations of manganese oxide minerals is an important marker of a major shift in Earth’s atmospheric composition, from relatively low oxygen levels during the distant past, to the oxygen-rich environment we live in today. Planetary scientists studying the rocks they found in Gale Crater suggest the presence of these materials indicates oxygen levels on Mars rose also, before declining to the present low levels detected. The question is how was Mar’s oxygen-rich atmosphere formed?
“One potential way that oxygen could have gotten into the Martian atmosphere is from the breakdown of water when Mars was losing its magnetic field,” said Lanza. “It’s thought that at this time in Mars’ history, water was much more abundant. Yet without a protective magnetic field to shield the surface, ionizing radiation started splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Because of Mars’ relatively low gravity, the planet wasn’t able to hold onto the very light hydrogen atoms, but the heavier oxygen atoms remained behind. Much of this oxygen went into rocks, leading to the rusty red dust that covers the surface today. While Mars’ famous red iron oxides require only a mildly oxidizing environment to form, manganese oxides require a strongly oxidizing environment, more so than previously known for Mars.“
Lanza added, “It’s hard to confirm whether this scenario for Martian atmospheric oxygen actually occurred. But it’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated. Abundant atmospheric oxygen has been treated as a so-called biosignature or a sign of extant life, but this process does not require life.“
The Curiosity rover has been investigating Gale Crater for around four years and recent evidence supports the possibilityconditions needed to form these deposits were present in other locations. The concentrations of manganese oxide discovered were found in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in a region of the crater called “Kimberley”. NASA’s Opportunity rover has been exploring the surface of the planet since 2004 and recently reported similar high manganese deposits in a region thousands of miles away. Supporting the idea environments required to form similar deposits could be found well beyond Gale Crater.
What’s next for Curiosity?
NASA’s Curiosity rover’s currently collecting drilled rock powder from the 14th drill site called the Murray formation on the lower part of Mount Sharp. Plans call for NASA’s mobile laboratory to head uphill towards new destinations as part of a two-year mission extension starting near the beginning of October.
The rover will go forward about a-mile-and-a-half (two-and-a-half-kilometers) to a ridge capped with material rich in the iron-oxide mineral hematite first identified by observations made with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Just beyond this area, there’s also a region with clay-rich bedrock planetary scientists want to have a closer look.
NASA has been exploring these key exploration sites on lower Mount Sharp as part of an effort to investigate evidence the Red planet was once a much wetter environment, which contrasts with the pictures of Mars we have received from our orbiters and rovers. A wetter environment where life could have taken root and grown.
“We continue to reach higher and younger layers on Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Even after four years of exploring near and on the mountain, it still has the potential to completely surprise us.”
Planetary scientists found the Murray formation consists primarily of mudstone, which on Earth would form from mud accumulated on the bottom on an ancient lake. This seems to indicate any lake environment that existed on the Red Planet lasted awhile, but we’ll need to investigate this possibility more. Plans are for Curiosity to investigate the upper regions of the Murray formation, ahead, for at least one year of the mission.
“We will see whether that record of lakes continues further,”Vasavada said. “The more vertical thickness we see, the longer the lakes were present, and the longer habitable conditions existed here. Did the ancient environment change over time? Will the type of evidence we’ve found so far transition to something else?”
Vasavada said, “The Hematite and the Clay units likely indicate different environments from the conditions recorded in the older rock beneath them and different from each other. It will be interesting to see whether either or both were habitable environments.”
Most isolated young star discovered launching jets of material into surrounding gas and dust
Space news (astrophysics: massive, young stars in star-forming regions; unusual, isolated young star baffles astronomers) – approximately 27,000 light-years from Earth in an isolated region of the bulge of the Milky Way –
Astronomers surveying the universe looking for unusual celestial objects to study to add to human knowledge and understanding have found something they haven’t seen before. Unusual celestial object CX 330 was first noticed in data obtained during a survey of the bulge of the Milky Way in 2009 by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory as a source of X-ray light. Additional observations of the source showed italso emitted light in optical wavelengths, but with so few clues to go on, astronomers had no idea what they were looking at.
During morerecent observations of CX 330 during August of 2015, astronomers discovered it had recently been active, launching jets of material into gas and dust surrounding it. During a period from 2007 to 2010, ithad increased in brightness by hundreds of times, which made scientists curious to examine previous data obtained from the same region of the bulge.
Looking atdata obtained by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) in 2010, theyrealized the surrounding gas and dust was heated to the point of ionization. Comparing this data to observations taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2007, astronomers determined they were looking at a young star in an outburst phase, forming in an isolated region of the cosmos.
“We tried various interpretations for it, and the only one that makes sense is that this rapidly growing young star is forming in the middle of nowhere,” said Chris Britta postdoctoral researcher at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, andlead author of a study on CX330 recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
By combining this data with observations taken by a variety of both ground and space-based telescopes they were able to get an even clearer picture of CX330.An object very similar to FU Orionis, but likely more massive, compact, and hotter, and lying in a less populated region of space. Launched faster jets of outflow that heated a surrounding disk of gas and dust to the point of ionization, and increased the flow of material falling onto the star.
“The disk has probably heated to the point where the gas in the disk has become ionized, leading to a rapid increase in how fast the material falls onto the star,” said Thomas Maccarone, study co-author and associate professor at Texas Tech.
The fact CX 330 lies in an isolated region of space, unlike the previous nine examples of this type of star observed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, tweaks the interest of astronomers. The other nine examples all lie in star-forming regions of the Milky Way galaxy with ample material for new stars to form from, but the closest star-forming region to this young star is over 1,000 light-years away.
“CX330 is both more intense and more isolated than any of these young outbursting objects that we’ve ever seen,” said Joel Green, study co-author and researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “This could be the tip of the iceberg — these objects may be everywhere.”
We really know nothing about CX 330. More observations are required to determine more. It’s possible all young stars go through a similar outburst period as observed in the case of CX 330. The periods are just too brief in cosmological time for astronomers to observe with current technology. The real clue’s the isolation of this example as compared to previous models.
How did CX 330 become so isolated? One idea often floated is the possibility it formed in a star-forming region, before being ejected to a more isolated region of space. This seems unlikely considering astronomers believe this young star’s only about a million years old. Even if this age’s wrong, this star’s still consuming its surrounding disk of dust and gas and must have formed near its current location. It just couldn’t have traveled the required distance from a star-forming region to its current location, without completely stripping away its surrounding disk of gas and dust.
Astronomers are learning more about the formation of stars studying CX 330, that’s for sure. Using two competing ideas, called “hierarchical” and “competitive” models, scientists search for answers to unanswered questions concerning CX 330. At this point, they favor the chaotic and turbulent environment of the “hierarchical” model, as a better fit for the theoretical formation of a lone star.
It’s still possible material exists nearby CX 330, such as intermediate to low-mass stars, that astronomers haven’t observed, yet. When last viewed in August 2015, this young star was still in an outburst phase. During future observations planned with new telescopes in different wavelengths, we could get a better picture of events surrounding this unusual celestial object. Stay tuned to this channel for more information.
For people wondering if planets could form around this young star? Some astronomers are hopingplanets will form from the disk of CX 330, they’ll be able to examine closer for the chemical signature of the scars left by the outbursts observed. Unfortunately, at the rate this star’s consuming its surrounding disk of gas and dust, having enough left over for the formation of planets seems unlikely.
“You said you like it hot, right!” If CX 330’s a really massive star, which seems likely. It’s short, violent lifespan would be a truly hot time for any planet and inhabitants.
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.”
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.
Transform surrounding regions and actively evolve host galaxies
Space news (astrophysics: spinning black holes; bigger, brighter plasma jets) – in the core of galaxies across the cosmos, observing the spin of supermassive black holes –
Have you ever had the feeling the world isn’t the way you see it? That reality’s different than the view your senses offer you? The universe beyond the Earth is vast beyond comprehension and weird in ways human imagination struggles to fathom. Beyond the reach of your senses, the fabric of spacetime warps near massive objects, and even light bends to the will of gravity. In the twilight zone where your senses fear to tread, the cosmos twists and turns in weird directions and appears to leave the universe and reality far behind. Enigmas wrapped in cosmic riddles abound and mysteries to astound and bewilder the human soul are found.
Imagine an object containing the mass of millions even billions of stars like the Sun. Squeeze that matter into a region of infinitely small volume, a region so dense the gravitational force it exerts warps spacetime and prevents even light from escaping its grasp. This object’s what astronomers call a supermassive black hole, a titanic monster your eyes can’t see with a gravitational pull that would stretch your body to infinity as you approached and crossed its outer boundary, the event horizon. Beyond this point, spacetime and reality take a turn toward the extreme, and the rules of science don’t apply. You have entered the realm of one of the most mysterious and enigmatic objects discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.
Astronomers hunting for supermassive black holes have pinpointed their realms to be the center of massive galaxies and even the center of galaxy clusters. From this central location in each galaxy, the gravitational well of each supermassive black hole appears to act as an anchor point for the billions of stars within, and astronomers believe a force for change and evolution of every galaxy and galaxy cluster in which they exist. Surrounded and fed by massive clouds of gas and matter called accretion disks, with powerful particle jets streaming from opposite sides like the death ray in Star Wars, fierce, hot winds sometimes moving at millions of miles per hour blow from these supermassive monsters in all directions.
“A lot of what happens in an entire galaxy depends on what’s going on in the minuscule central region where the black hole lies,” said theoretical astrophysicist David Garofalo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Garofalo is the lead author of a new paper that appeared online May 27 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Other authors are Daniel A. Evans of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., and Rita M. Sambruna of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Astronomers studying powerful particle jets streaming from supermassive black holes use to think these monsters spin either in the same direction as their accretion disks, called prograde black holes, or against the flow, retrograde black holes. For the past few decades, Garofalo and team have worked with a theory that the faster the spin of a black hole, the more powerful the particle jets streaming from it. Unfortunately, anomalies in the form of some prograde black holes with no jets have been discovered. This has scientists turning their ideas upside down and sideways, to see if flipping their “spin paradigm” model on its head explains recent anomalies in the theory.
Using data collected during a more recent study that links their previous theory with observations of galaxies at varying distances from Earth across the observable universe. Astronomers found more distant radio-loud galaxies with jets are powered by retrograde black holes, while closer radio-quiet black holes have prograde black holes. The study showed supermassive black holes found at the core of galaxies evolve over time from a retrograde to prograde state.
“This new model also solves a paradox in the old spin paradigm,” said David Meier, a theoretical astrophysicist at JPL not involved in the study. “Everything now fits nicely into place.”
Astrophysicists studying backward spinning black holes believe more powerful particle jets stream from these supermassive black holes because additional space exists between the monster and the inner edge of the accretion disk. This additional space between the monster and accretion disk provides more room for magnetic fields to build-up, which fuels the particle jet and increases its power. This idea is known as Reynold’s Conjecture, after the theoretical astrophysicist Chris Reynolds of the University of Maryland, College Park.
“If you picture yourself trying to get closer to a fan, you can imagine that moving in the same rotational direction as the fan would make things easier,” said Garofalo. “The same principle applies to these black holes. The material orbiting around them in a disk will get closer to the ones that are spinning in the same direction versus the ones spinning the opposite way.”
Scientists believe the powerful particle jets and winds emanating from supermassive black holes found at the center of galaxies also play a key role in shaping their evolution and eventual fate. Often even slowing the formation rate of new stars in a host galaxy and nearby island universes as well.
“Jets transport huge amounts of energy to the outskirts of galaxies, displace large volumes of the intergalactic gas, and act as feedback agents between the galaxy’s very center and the large-scale environment,” said Sambruna. “Understanding their origin is of paramount interest in modern astrophysics.”
What lies just beyond the reach of our senses and technology, beneath the exterior of these supermassive black holes? Scientists presently study these enigmatic stellar objects looking for keys to the doors of understanding beyond the veil of gas and dust surrounding these titanic beasts. Keys they hope one day to use to unlock even greater secrets of reality just beyond hidden doors of understanding.