Tag Archives: solar system

Europa, Europa


A couple of days ago, September 26, 2016, tens of millions of us tuned in to the gory — and usually devoid of fact — spectacle that is the US Presidential election debate. On the same day, something else rather newsworthy took place; some would say much more important than watching two adults throw puerile nonsense at one another.

NASA has found evidence of water plumes spouting from a subsurface ocean on Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. The agency used the Hubble Space Telescope to look for signs of plumes as the icy moon transited Jupiter.

This should make for an fascinating encounter when NASA launches a mission in 2020 to examine Europa more closely, especially to investigate whether it could harbor conditions suitable for life.

Image: Trailing hemisphere of Jupiter’s ice-covered satellite, Europa. Europa is about 3,160 kilometers (1,950 miles) in diameter, or about the size of Earth’s moon. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/DLR (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luftund Raumfahrt e.V., Berlin, Germany).

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Tantalizing Enceladus


Sorry, Moon but my favorite satellite doesn’t even orbit the Earth.

Enceladus is my favorite moon, despite its diminutive size — its diameter is only around 500 km. It circles Saturn and while it only ranks as the ringed planet’s sixth largest moon, it is perhaps the most fascinating.

A decade of images courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope show amazing  plumes of icy material spouting from one or more underground sources. To date, astronomers and planetary scientists have catalogued over 90 geyser-like jets on the surface of Enceladus.

More recently, a couple of year’s ago, NASA’s researchers confirmed the presence of a vast subsurface ocean of liquid water beneath Enceladus’ icy crust. Scientists believe this ocean powers its many geysers or cryovolcanoes. Moreover, the many geysers spew a particle cocktail of ices and organic compounds. It is this mixture of liquid water and organic chemistry that has many scientists agog — pondering the possibility of life beyond the shores of our home planet.

Catch the latest on the search for possible signs of life on Enceladus from Scientific American, here.

Image: Fountains of Enceladus. Recent Cassini images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus backlit by the sun show the fountain-like sources of the fine spray of material that towers over the south polar region. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Public Domain.


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Osiris-Rex and Bennu


You might be mistaken for thinking Osiris-Rex and Bennu are the names of two rather exotic dogs. No.

Bennu is a 1,500 foot wide space rock, which circles the Sun at around 60,000 mph. OSIRIS-REx is the space probe which aims to catch the near-Earth asteroid in 2018 and return samples back to Earth in 2023. NASA is scheduled to launch OSIRIS-REx from aboard an Atlas V rocket on September 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Follow NASA’s asteroid mission here.

In case you were wondering, as is NASA’s wont, OSIRIS-REx is of course a convoluted acronym for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft.

From the Guardian:

At Cape Canaveral air force station on the Florida coast stands an Atlas V rocket bearing the Osiris-Rex probe, Nasa’s first hope to smash-and-grab material from a speeding asteroid and bring it safely back to Earth.

The size of a transit van, the two-tonne spacecraft is set to blast off Thursday night on a seven-year mission to a 500m-wide ball of rubble called Bennu, which circles the sun at more than 100,000km per hour.

The probe is the third of Nasa’s ambitious New Frontiers missions. It follows on the heels of the New Horizons spacecraft, which last year beamed home stunning images from Pluto, and the Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in July.

In returning a pile of asteroid to Earth, scientists hope to learn more about the source of water in the solar system and the origins of organic molecules from which life first arose. But getting their hands on pristine asteroid will also give researchers fresh clues about how to mine the bodies for valuable materials, and defend against wayward space rocks that may one day threaten our planet.

The mission has a title that is unwieldy even for the US space agency. Osiris-Rex stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer. “It is a mouthful,” said Ed Beshore, deputy principal investigator on the mission at Arizona State University. “But the name really does speak to our principal mission objectives.”

Bennu orbits the sun on a similar path to Earth. Classified as a “potentially hazardous asteroid”, it swings close to the Earth – in cosmic terms, at least – once every six years. The nearest encounter scientists can predict is slated for 2135, when the coal-black space rock will hurtle between Earth and the moon at a distance of 300,000km.

One major question the mission will ask is how sunlight affects the orbits of asteroids. As they spin close to the sun asteroids are constantly heating up and cooling down. The heat the asteroid re-emits to space provides a minuscule thrust which over time can alter its course. But the effect is hard to quantify. “Often when we look at asteroids that may be a hazard to Earth, the limiting factor in predicting the orbit is this process called the Yarkovsky effect,” said Beshore. “We’d like to understand that and measure it much more precisely when we’re at Bennu and in doing so improve our predictive accuracy for other asteroids that may represent a future threat to Earth.”

Osiris-Rex aims to catch up with Bennu in August 2018 and spend two years mapping the surface. When mission scientists find a good spot, it will swoop down, blast the asteroid with a powerful jet of nitrogen, and collect dislodged material with a robotic arm. Once the material is safely aboard, the spacecraft will retreat and later send it home in a capsule due to land via parachute in the Utah desert in 2023.

Read the whole story here.

Image: Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx probe traveling to near-Earth asteroid Bennu on a sample return mission. Courtesy: NASA.

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The Transit of Dione


This gorgeous image of Saturn’s moon Dione as it transits the gas giant was snapped by the Cassini spacecraft on May 27, 2015. For more beautiful views of the stunning ringed planet and its curious moons visit NASA’s Cassini mission site.

Image: Saturn’s moon Dione transits the giant ringed planet. Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.



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Juno on the 4th of July

Jupiter and Ganymede

Perhaps not coincidentally, NASA’s latest foray into the great beyond reached a key milestone today. The Juno spacecraft entered orbit around the gas giant Jupiter on the 4th of July, 2016.

NASA is still awaiting all the cool science (and image-capture) to begin. So, in the meantime I’m posting an gorgeous picture taken of Jupiter by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Image: Jupiter and Ganymede, Taken April 9, 2007. Courtesy: Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona).

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What Keeps NASA Going?

Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan on lunar rover

Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan is the last human to have set foot on a world other than Earth. It’s been 44 years since he last stepped off the moon. In fact, in 1972 he drove around using the lunar rover and found time to scribble his daughter’s initials on the dusty lunar surface. So, other than forays to the International Space Station (ISS) and trips to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) NASA has kept humans firmly rooted to the homeland.

Of course, in the intervening decades the space agency has not rested on its laurels. NASA has sent probes and robots all over the Solar System and beyond: Voyager to the gas giants and on to interstellar space,  Dawn to visit asteroids; Rosetta (in concert with the European Space Agency) to visit a comet; SOHO and its countless cousins to keep an eye on our home star; Galileo and Pioneer to Jupiter; countless spacecraft including Curiosity Rover to Mars; Messenger to map Mercury; Magellan to probe the clouds of Venus; Cassini to survey Saturn and its fascinating moons; and of course, New Horizons to Pluto and beyond.

Spiral galaxies together with irregular galaxies make up approximately 60% of the galaxies in the local Universe. However, despite their prevalence, each spiral galaxy is unique — like snowflakes, no two are alike. This is demonstrated by the striking face-on spiral galaxy NGC 6814, whose luminous nucleus and spectacular sweeping arms, rippled with an intricate pattern of dark dust, are captured in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. NGC 6814 has an extremely bright nucleus, a telltale sign that the galaxy is a Seyfert galaxy. These galaxies have very active centres that can emit strong bursts of radiation. The luminous heart of NGC 6814 is a highly variable source of X-ray radiation, causing scientists to suspect that it hosts a supermassive black hole with a mass about 18 million times that of the Sun. As NGC 6814 is a very active galaxy, many regions of ionised gas are studded along  its spiral arms. In these large clouds of gas, a burst of star formation has recently taken place, forging the brilliant blue stars that are visible scattered throughout the galaxy.

Our mechanical human proxies reach out a little farther each day to learn more about our universe and our place in it. Exploration and discovery is part of our human DNA; it’s what we do. NASA is our vehicle. So, it’s good to see what NASA is planning. The agency just funded eight advanced-technology programs that officials believe may help transform space exploration. The grants are part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The most interesting, perhaps, are a program to evaluate inducing hibernation in Mars-bound astronauts, and an assessment of directed energy propulsion for interstellar travel.

Our science and technology becomes more and more like science fiction each day.

Read more about NIAC programs here.

Image 1: Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene A. Cernan makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the early part of the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Courtesy: NASA.

Image 2: Hubble Spies a Spiral Snowflake, galaxy NGC 6814. Courtesy: NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

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The Case For Planet Nine


First, let me say that Pluto should never have been downgraded to the status of “dwarf planet”. The recent (and ongoing) discoveries by NASA’s New Horizons probe show Pluto’s full, planetary glory: kilometer high mountains, flowing glaciers, atmospheric haze, organic compounds, complex and colorful landforms. So, in my mind Pluto still remains as the ninth planet in our beautiful solar system.

However, many astronomers have moved on and are getting excited over the possibility of a new Planet Nine. The evidence for its existence is mounting and comes mostly from models that infer the presence of a massive object far-beyond Pluto, which is influencing the orbits of asteroids and even some of the outer planets.

From Scientific American:

The hunt is on to find “Planet Nine”—a large undiscovered world, perhaps 10 times as massive as Earth and four times its size—that scientists think could be lurking in the outer solar system. After Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, two planetary scientists from the California Institute of Technology, presented evidence for its existence this January, other teams have searched for further proof by analyzing archived images and proposing new observations to find it with the world’s largest telescopes.

Just this month, evidence from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn helped close in on the missing planet. Many experts suspect that within as little as a year someone will spot the unseen world, which would be a monumental discovery that changes the way we view our solar system and our place in the cosmos. “Evidence is mounting that something unusual is out there—there’s a story that’s hard to explain with just the standard picture,” says David Gerdes, a cosmologist at the University of Michigan who never expected to find himself working on Planet Nine. He is just one of many scientists who leapt at the chance to prove—or disprove—the team’s careful calculations.

Batygin and Brown made the case for Planet Nine’s existence based on its gravitational effect on several Kuiper Belt objects—icy bodies that circle the sun beyond Neptune’s orbit. Theoretically, though, its gravity should also tug slightly on the planets.* With this in mind, Agnès Fienga at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France and her colleagues checked whether a theoretical model (one that they have been perfecting for over a decade) with the new addition of Planet Nine could better explain slight perturbations seen in Saturn’s orbit as observed by Cassini.* Without it, the other seven planets in the solar system, 200 asteroids and five of the most massive Kuiper Belt objects cannot perfectly account for it.* The missing puzzle piece might just be a ninth planet.

So Fienga and her colleagues compared the updated model, which placed Planet Nine at various points in its hypothetical orbit, with the data. They found a sweet spot—with Planet Nine 600 astronomical units (about 90 billion kilometers) away toward the constellation Cetus—that can explain Saturn’s orbit quite well.* Although Fienga is not yet convinced that she has found the culprit for the planet’s odd movements, most outside experts are blown away.* “It’s a brilliant analysis,” says Greg Laughlin, an astronomer at Lick Observatory, who was not involved in the study. “It’s completely amazing that they were able to do that so quickly.” Gerdes agrees: “That’s a beautiful paper.”

The good news does not end there. If Planet Nine is located toward the constellation Cetus, then it could be picked up by the Dark Energy Survey, a Southern Hemisphere observation project designed to probe the acceleration of the universe. “It turns out fortuitously that the favored region from Cassini’s data is smack dab in the middle of our survey footprint,” says Gerdes, who is working on the cosmology survey.* “We could not have designed our survey any better.” Although the survey was not planned to search for solar system objects, Gerdes has discovered some (including one of the icy objects that led Batygin and Brown to conclude Planet Nine exists in the first place).

Read the entire article here.

Image: Artist’s impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune’s orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. Courtesy: Tomruen, nagualdesign / Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

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To Another Year

Let me put aside humanity’s destructive failings for a moment, with the onset of a New Year, to celebrate one of our most fundamental positive traits: our need to know — how things work, how and why we’re here, and if we’re alone. We are destined to explore, discover and learn more about ourselves and our surroundings. I hope and trust that 2016 will bring us yet more knowledge (and more really cool images). We are fortunate indeed.


Image: New Horizons scientists false color image of Pluto. Image data collected by the spacecraft’s Ralph/MVIC color camera on July 14, 2015 from a range of 22,000 miles. Courtesy: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.


Image: Highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows huge blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. The mountains end abruptly at the shoreline of the informally named Sputnik Planum, where the soft, nitrogen-rich ices of the plain form a nearly level surface, broken only by the fine trace work of striking, cellular boundaries. Courtesy: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.



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Titan Close Up

You could be forgiven for thinking the image below is of Earth. Rather, it is Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as imaged in infra-red by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on November 13, 2015. Gorgeous.

Titan-Cassini- flyby-13Nov2015

Image: Composite image shows an infrared view of Saturn’s moon Titan from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, acquired during the mission’s “T-114” flyby on Nov. 13, 2015. Courtesy NASA.

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H2O and IQ

There is great irony in NASA’s recent discovery of water flowing on Mars.

First, that the gift of our intelligence allows us to make such amazing findings on other worlds while we use the same brain cells to enable the rape and pillage of our own.


Second, the meager seasonal trickles of liquid on the martian surface show us a dire possible future for our own planet.


From the Guardian:

Evidence for flowing water on Mars: this opens up the possibility of life, of wonders we cannot begin to imagine. Its discovery is an astonishing achievement. Meanwhile, Martian scientists continue their search for intelligent life on Earth.

We may be captivated by the thought of organisms on another planet, but we seem to have lost interest in our own. The Oxford Junior Dictionary has been excising the waymarks of the living world. Adders, blackberries, bluebells, conkers, holly, magpies, minnows, otters, primroses, thrushes, weasels and wrens are now surplus to requirements.

In the past four decades, the world has lost 50% of its vertebrate wildlife. But across the latter half of this period, there has been a steep decline in media coverage. In 2014, according to a study at Cardiff University, there were as many news stories broadcast by the BBC and ITV about Madeleine McCann (who went missing in 2007) as there were about the entire range of environmental issues.

Think of what would change if we valued terrestrial water as much as we value the possibility of water on Mars. Only 3% of the water on this planet is fresh; and of that, two-thirds is frozen. Yet we lay waste to the accessible portion. Sixty per cent of the water used in farming is needlessly piddled away by careless irrigation. Rivers, lakes and aquifers are sucked dry, while what remains is often so contaminated that it threatens the lives of those who drink it. In the UK, domestic demand is such that the upper reaches of many rivers disappear during the summer. Yet still we install clunky old toilets and showers that gush like waterfalls.

As for salty water, of the kind that so enthrals us when apparently detected on Mars, on Earth we express our appreciation with a frenzy of destruction. A new report suggests fish numbers have halved since 1970. Pacific bluefin tuna, which once roamed the seas in untold millions, have been reduced to an estimated 40,000, yet still they are pursued. Coral reefs are under such pressure that most could be gone by 2050. And in our own deep space, our desire for exotic fish rips through a world scarcely better known to us than the red planet’s surface. Trawlers are now working at depths of 2,000 metres. We can only guess at what they could be destroying.

A few hours before the Martian discovery was announced, Shell terminated its Arctic oil prospecting in the Chukchi Sea. For the company’s shareholders, it’s a minor disaster: the loss of $4bn; for those who love the planet and the life it sustains, it is a stroke of great fortune. It happened only because the company failed to find sufficient reserves. Had Shell succeeded, it would have exposed one of the most vulnerable places on Earth to spills, which are almost inevitable where containment is almost impossible. Are we to leave such matters to chance?

At the beginning of September, two weeks after he granted Shell permission to drill in the Chukchi Sea, Barack Obama travelled to Alaska to warn Americans about the devastating effects that climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels could catalyse in the Arctic. “It’s not enough just to talk the talk”, he told them. “We’ve got to walk the walk.” We should “embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it”. Human ingenuity is on abundant display at Nasa, which released those astounding images. But not when it comes to policy.

Let the market decide: this is the way in which governments seek to resolve planetary destruction. Leave it to the conscience of consumers, while that conscience is muted and confused by advertising and corporate lies. In a near-vacuum of information, we are each left to decide what we should take from other species and other people, what we should allocate to ourselves or leave to succeeding generations. Surely there are some resources and some places – such as the Arctic and the deep sea – whose exploitation should simply stop?

Read the entire article here.

Images: Lake Oroville, California, Earth, courtesy of U.S. Drought Portal. Recurring slope lineae, Mars, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

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Europa Here We Come


With the the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Philae lander firmly rooted to a comet, NASA’s Dawn probe orbiting dwarf planet Ceres and its New Horizon’s spacecraft hurtling towards Pluto and Charon it would seem that we are doing lots of extraterrestrial exploration lately. Well, this is exciting, but for arm-chair explorers like myself this is still not enough. So, three cheers to NASA for giving a recent thumbs up to their next great mission — Europa Multi Flyby — to Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Development is a go! But we’ll have to wait until the mid-2020s for lift-off. And, better yet, ESA has a mission to Europa planned for launch in 2022. Can’t wait — it looks spectacular.

From ars technica:

Get ready, we’re going to Europa! NASA’s plan to send a spacecraft to explore Jupiter’s moon just passed a major hurdle. The mission, planned for the 2020s, now has NASA’s official stamp of approval and was given the green light to move from concept phase to development phase.

Formerly known as Europa Clipper, the mission will temporarily be referred to as the Europa Multi Flyby Mission until it is given an official name. The current mission plan would include 45 separate flybys around the moon while orbiting Jupiter every two weeks. “We are taking an exciting step from concept to mission in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a press release.

Since Galileo first turned a spyglass up to the skies and discovered the Jovian moon, Europa has been a world of intrigue. In the 1970s, we received our first look at Europa through the eyes of Pioneer 10 and 11, followed closely by the twin Voyager satellites in the 1980s. Their images provided the first detailed view of the Solar System’s smoothest body. These photos also delivered evidence that the moon might be harboring a subsurface ocean. In the mid 1990s, the Galileo spacecraft gave us the best view to-date of Europa’s surface.

“Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions,” Grunsfeld said. “Mainly, is there life beyond Earth?”

Sending a probe to explore Jupiter’s icy companion will help scientists in the search for this life. If Europa can support microbial life, other glacial moons such as Enceladus might as well.

Water, chemistry, and energy are three components essential to the presence of life. Liquid water is present throughout the Solar System, but so far the only world known to support life is Earth. Scientists think that if we follow the water, we may find evidence of life beyond Earth.

However, water alone will not support life; the right combination of ingredients is key. This mission to Europa will explore the moon’s potential habitability as opposed to outright looking for life.

When we set out to explore new worlds, we do it in phases. First we flyby, then we send robotic landers, and then we send people. This three-step process is how we, as humans, have explored the Moon and how we are partly through the process of exploring Mars.

The flyby of Europa will be a preliminary mission with four objectives: explore the ice shell and subsurface ocean; determine the composition, distribution, and chemistry of various compounds and how they relate to the ocean composition; map surface features and determine if there is current geologic activity; characterize sites to determine where a future lander might safely touch down.

Europa, at 3,100 kilometers wide (1,900 miles), is the sixth largest moon in the Solar System. It has a 15 to 30 kilometer (9 to 18 mile) thick icy outer crust that covers a salty subsurface ocean. If that ocean is in contact with Europa’s rocky mantle, a number of complex chemical reactions are possible. Scientists think that hydrothermal vents lurk on the seafloor, and, just like the vents here on Earth, they could support life.

The Galileo orbiter taught us most of what we know about Europa through 12 flybys of the icy moon. The new mission is scheduled to conduct approximately 45 flybys over a 2.5-year period, providing even more insight into the moon’s habitability.

Read the article here.

Image: Europa. Europa is Jupiter’s sixth-closest moon, and the sixth-largest moon in the Solar System. Courtesy of NASA.

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An Eleven Year Marathon

While 11 years is about how long my kids suggest it would take me to run a marathon, this marathon is entirely other-worldly. It’s taken NASA’s Opportunity rover this length of time to cover just over 26 miles. It may seem like an awfully long time to cover that short distance, but think of all the rest stops — for incredible scientific discovery — along the way.

Check out a time-lapse that compresses Opportunity’s incredible martian journey into a mere 8 minutes.

Video courtesy of NASA / JPL.

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Hello Pluto


Today NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reached the (dwarf) planet Pluto and its five moons. After a 9.5 year voyage covering around 3 billion miles, the refrigerator-sized probe has finally reached its icy target. Unfortunately, New Horizons is traveling so quickly it will not enter orbit around Pluto but continue its 30,000 mph trek into interstellar space. The images, and science, that the craft will stream back to Earth over the coming months should be spectacular.

Check out more on the New Horizon’s mission here.

Image: Pluto as imaged by New Horizons, last image prior to its closest approach on July 14, 2015. Images courtesy of NASA.

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Pale Blue 2Dot0


Thanks to the prodding of Carl Sagan, just over 25 years ago, on February 14, 1990 to be exact, the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera towards Earth and snapped what has since become an iconic image. It showed our home planet as a very small, very pale blue dot — much as you’d expect from a distance of around 3.7 billion miles.

Though much closer to Earth, the Cassini spacecraft snapped a similar shot of our planet in 2013. Cassini is in its seemingly never-ending orbits of discovery around the Saturnian system, which it began over 10 years ago. It took the image in 2013: Earth in the distance at the center right is dwarfed by Saturn’s rings in the foreground. A rare, beautiful and remarkable image!

Image: Saturn’s rings and Earth in the same frame. Taken on July 19, 2013, via the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

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The (Space) Explorers Club


Thirteen private companies recently met in New York city to present their plans and ideas for their commercial space operations. Ranging from space tourism to private exploration of the Moon and asteroid mining the companies gathered at the Explorers Club to herald a new phase of human exploration.

From Technology Review:

It was a rare meeting of minds. Representatives from 13 commercial space companies gathered on May 1 at a place dedicated to going where few have gone before: the Explorers Club in New York.

Amid the mansions and high-end apartment buildings just off Central Park, executives from space-tourism companies, rocket-making startups, and even a business that hopes to make money by mining asteroids for useful materials showed off displays and gave presentations.

The Explorers Club event provided a snapshot of what may be a new industry in the making. In an era when NASA no longer operates manned space missions and government funding for unmanned missions is tight, a host of startups—most funded by space enthusiasts with very deep pockets—have stepped up in hope of filling the gap. In the past few years, several have proved themselves. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, delivers cargo to the International Space Station for NASA. Both Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and rocket-plane builder XCOR Aerospace plan to perform demonstrations this year that will help catapult commercial spaceflight from the fringe into the mainstream.

The advancements being made by space companies could matter to more than the few who can afford tickets to space. SpaceX has already shaken incumbents in the $190 billion satellite launch industry by offering cheaper rides into space for communications, mapping, and research satellites.

However, space tourism also looks set to become significantly cheaper. “People don’t have to actually go up for it to impact them,” says David Mindell, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and a specialist in the history of engineering. “At $200,000 you’ll have a lot more ‘space people’ running around, and over time that could have a big impact.” One direct result, says Mindell, may be increased public support for human spaceflight, especially “when everyone knows someone who’s been into space.”

Along with reporters, Explorer Club members, and members of the public who had paid the $75 to $150 entry fee, several former NASA astronauts were in attendance to lend their endorsements—including the MC for the evening, Michael López-Alegría, veteran of the space shuttle and the ISS. Also on hand, highlighting the changing times with his very presence, was the world’s first second-generation astronaut, Richard Garriott. Garriott’s father flew missions on Skylab and the space shuttle in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. However, Garriott paid his own way to the International Space Station in 2008 as a private citizen.

The evening was a whirlwind of activity, with customer testimonials and rapid-fire displays of rocket launches, spacecraft in orbit, and space ships under construction and being tested. It all painted a picture of an industry on the move, with multiple companies offering services from suborbital experiences and research opportunities to flights to Earth orbit and beyond.

The event also offered a glimpse at the plans of several key players.

Lauren De Niro Pipher, head of astronaut relations at Virgin Galactic, revealed that the company’s founder plans to fly with his family aboard the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket plane in November or December of this year. The flight will launch the company’s suborbital spaceflight business, for which De Niro Pipher said more than 700 customers have so far put down deposits on tickets costing $200,000 to $250,000.

The director of business development for Blue Origin, Bretton Alexander, announced his company’s intention to begin test flights of its first full-scale vehicle within the next year. “We have not publicly started selling rides in space as others have,” said Alexander during his question-and-answer session. “But that is our plan to do that, and we look forward to doing that, hopefully soon.”

Blue Origin is perhaps the most secretive of the commercial spaceflight companies, typically revealing little of its progress toward the services it plans to offer: suborbital manned spaceflight and, later, orbital flight. Like Virgin, it was founded by a wealthy entrepreneur, in this case Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The company, which is headquartered in Kent, Washington, has so far conducted at least one supersonic test flight and a test of its escape rocket system, both at its West Texas test center.

Also on hand was the head of Planetary Resources, Chris Lewicki, a former spacecraft engineer and manager for Mars programs at NASA. He showed off a prototype of his company’s Arkyd 100, an asteroid-hunting space telescope the size of a toaster oven. If all goes according to plan, a fleet of Arkyd 100s will first scan the skies from Earth orbit in search of nearby asteroids that might be rich in mineral wealth and water, to be visited by the next generation of Arkyd probes. Water is potentially valuable for future space-based enterprises as rocket fuel (split into its constituent elements of hydrogen and oxygen) and for use in life support systems. Planetary Resources plans to “launch early, launch often,” Lewicki told me after his presentation. To that end, the company is building a series of CubeSat-size spacecraft dubbed Arkyd 3s, to be launched from the International Space Station by the end of this year.

Andrew Antonio, experience manager at a relatively new company, World View Enterprises, showed a computer-generated video of his company’s planned balloon flights to the edge of space. A manned capsule will ascend to 100,000 feet, or about 20 miles up, from which the curvature of Earth and the black sky of space are visible. At $75,000 per ticket (reduced to $65,000 for Explorers Club members), the flight will be more affordable than competing rocket-powered suborbital experiences but won’t go as high. Antonio said his company plans to launch a small test vehicle “in about a month.”

XCOR’s director of payload sales and operations, Khaki Rodway, showed video clips of the company’s Lynx suborbital rocket plane coming together in Mojave, California, as well as a profile of an XCOR spaceflight customer. Hangared just down the flight line at the same air and space port where Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is undergoing flight testing, the Lynx offers seating for one paying customer per flight at $95,000. XCOR hopes the Lynx will begin flying by the end of this year.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Still from the Clangers TV show. Courtesy of BBC / Smallfilms.

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A Subsurface Anomaly


Researchers published details of this “subsurface anomaly” in the journal Science, on April 4, 2014. The summary reads as follows:

Our results indicate the presence of a negative mass anomaly in the south-polar region, largely compensated by a positive subsurface anomaly compatible with the presence of a regional subsurface sea at depths of 30 to 40 kilometers and extending up to south latitudes of about 50°. The estimated values for the largest quadrupole harmonic coefficients (106J2 = 5435.2 ± 34.9, 106C22 = 1549.8 ± 15.6, 1?) and their ratio (J2/C22 = 3.51 ± 0.05) indicate that the body deviates mildly from hydrostatic equilibrium. The moment of inertia is around 0.335MR2, where M is the mass and R is the radius, suggesting a differentiated body with a low-density core.

In effect this means that the researchers are reasonably confident that an ocean of water lies below the icy surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s most intriguing moons.

From NYT:

Inside a moon of Saturn, beneath its icy veneer and above its rocky core, is a sea of water the size of Lake Superior, scientists announced on Thursday.

The findings, published in the journal Science, confirm what planetary scientists have suspected about the moon, Enceladus, ever since they were astonished in 2005 by photographs showing geysers of ice crystals shooting out of its south pole.

“What we’ve done is put forth a strong case for an ocean,” said David J. Stevenson, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and an author of the Science paper.

For many researchers, this tiny, shiny cue ball of a moon, just over 300 miles wide, is now the most promising place to look for life elsewhere in the solar system, even more than Mars.

“Definitely Enceladus,” said Larry W. Esposito, a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado, who was not involved in the research. “Because there’s warm water right there now.”

Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-a-dus) is caught in a gravitational tug of war between Saturn and another moon, Dione, which bends its icy outer layer, creating friction and heat. In the years since discovering the geysers, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has made repeated flybys of Enceladus, photographing the fissures (nicknamed tiger stripes) where the geysers originate, measuring temperatures and identifying carbon-based organic molecules that could serve as building blocks for life.

Cassini has no instruments that can directly detect water beneath the surface, but three flybys in the years 2010-12 were devoted to producing a map of the gravity field, noting where the pull was stronger or weaker.

During the flybys, lasting just a few minutes, radio telescopes that are part of NASA’s Deep Space Network broadcast a signal to the spacecraft, which echoed it back to Earth. As the pull of Enceladus’s gravity sped and then slowed the spacecraft, the frequency of the radio signal shifted, just as the pitch of a train whistle rises and falls as it passes by a listener.

Using atomic clocks on Earth, the scientists measured the radio frequency with enough precision that they could discern changes in the velocity of Cassini, hundreds of millions of miles away, as minuscule as 14 inches an hour.

They found that the moon’s gravity was weaker at the south pole. At first glance, that is not so surprising; there is a depression at the pole, and lower mass means less gravity. But the depression is so large that the gravity should actually have been weaker.

“Then you say, ‘A-ha, there must be compensation,’ ” Dr. Stevenson said. “Something more dense under the ice. The natural candidate is water.”

Liquid water is 8 percent denser than ice, so the presence of a sea 20 to 25 miles below the surface fits the gravity measurements. “It’s an ocean that extends in all directions from the south pole to about halfway to the equator,” Dr. Stevenson said.

The underground sea is up to six miles thick, much deeper than a lake. “It’s a lot more water than Lake Superior,” Dr. Stevenson said. “It may even be bigger. The ocean could extend all the way to the north pole.”

The conclusion was not a surprise, said Christopher P. McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., who studies the possibility of life on other worlds, but “it confirms in a really robust way what has been sort of the standard model.”

It also makes Enceladus a more attractive destination for a future mission, especially one that would collect samples from the plumes and return them to Earth to see if they contain any microbes.

Read the entire article here.

Image: View of Saturn’s moon Enceladus on July 14, 2005, from the Cassini spacecraft. Courtesy of NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute.

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Above and Beyond

According to NASA, Voyager 1 officially left the protection of the solar system on or about August 25, 2013, and is now heading into interstellar space. It is now the first and only human-made object to leave the solar system.

Perhaps, one day in the distant future real human voyagers — or their android cousins — will come across the little probe as it continues on its lonely journey.

From Space:

A spacecraft from Earth has left its cosmic backyard and taken its first steps in interstellar space.

After streaking through space for nearly 35 years, NASA’s robotic Voyager 1 probe finally left the solar system in August 2012, a study published today (Sept. 12) in the journal Science reports.

“Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before, marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science, and as it enters interstellar space, it adds a new chapter in human scientific dreams and endeavors,” NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said in a statement. “Perhaps some future deep-space explorers will catch up with Voyager, our first interstellar envoy, and reflect on how this intrepid spacecraft helped enable their future.”

A long and historic journey

Voyager 1 launched on Sept. 5, 1977, about two weeks after its twin, Voyager 2. Together, the two probes conducted a historic “grand tour” of the outer planets, giving scientists some of their first up-close looks at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the moons of these faraway worlds.

The duo completed its primary mission in 1989, and then kept on flying toward the edge of the heliosphere, the huge bubble of charged particles and magnetic fields that the sun puffs out around itself. Voyager 1 has now popped free of this bubble into the exotic and unexplored realm of interstellar space, scientists say.

They reached this historic conclusion with a little help from the sun. A powerful solar eruption caused electrons in Voyager 1’s location to vibrate signficantly between April 9 and May 22 of this year. The probe’s plasma wave instrument detected these oscillations, and researchers used the measurements to figure out that Voyager 1’s surroundings contained about 1.3 electrons per cubic inch (0.08 electrons per cubic centimeter).

That’s far higher than the density observed in the outer regions of the heliosphere (roughly 0.03 electrons per cubic inch, or 0.002 electrons per cubic cm) and very much in line with the 1.6 electrons per cubic inch (0.10 electrons per cubic cm) or so expected in interstellar space. [Photos from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 Probes]

“We literally jumped out of our seats when we saw these oscillations in our data — they showed us that the spacecraft was in an entirely new region, comparable to what was expected in interstellar space, and totally different than in the solar bubble,” study lead author Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa, the principal investigator of Voyager 1’s plasma wave instrument, said in a statement.

It may seem surprising that electron density is higher beyond the solar system than in its extreme outer reaches. Interstellar space is, indeed, emptier than the regions in Earth’s neighborhood, but the density inside the solar bubble drops off dramatically at great distances from the sun, researchers said.

Calculating a departure date

The study team wanted to know if Voyager 1 left the solar system sometime before April 2013, so they combed through some of the probe’s older data. They found a monthlong period of electron oscillations in October-November 2012 that translated to a density of 0.004 electrons per cubic inch (0.006 electrons per cubic cm).

Using these numbers and the amount of ground that Voyager 1 covers — about 325 million miles (520 million kilometers) per year — the researchers calculated that the spacecraft likely left the solar system in August 2012.

That time frame matches up well with several other important changes Voyager 1 observed. On Aug. 25, 2012, the probe recorded a 1,000-fold drop in the number of charged solar particles while also measuring a 9 percent increase in fast-moving galactic cosmic rays, which originate beyond the solar system.

“These results, and comparison with previous heliospheric radio measurements, strongly support the view that Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause into the interstellar plasma on or about Aug. 25, 2012,” Gurnett and his colleagues write in the new study.

At that point, Voyager 1 was about 11.25 billion miles (18.11 billion km) from the sun, or roughly 121 times the distance between Earth and the sun. The probe is now 11.66 billion miles (18.76 billion km) from the sun. (Voyager 2, which took a different route through the solar system, is currently 9.54 billion miles, or 15.35 billion km, from the sun.)

Read the entire article here.

Image: Voyager Gold Disk. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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The Richest Person in the Solar System

Forget Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Carlos Slim or the Russian oligarchs and the emirs of the Persian Gulf. These guys are merely multi-billionaires. Their fortunes — combined — account for less than half of 1 percent of the net worth of Dennis Hope, the world’s first trillionaire. In fact, you could describe Dennis as the solar system’s first trillionaire, with an estimated wealth of $100 trillion.

So, why have you never heard of Dennis Hope, trillionaire? Where does he invest his money? And, how did he amass this jaw-dropping uber-fortune? The answer to the first question is that he lives a relatively ordinary and quiet life in Nevada. The answer to the second question is: property. The answer to the third, and most fascinating question: well, he owns most of the Moon. He also owns the majority of the planets Mars, Venus and Mercury, and 90 or so other celestial plots. You too could become an interplanetary property investor for the starting and very modest sum of $19.99. Please write your check to… Dennis Hope.

The New York Times has a recent story and documentary on Mr.Hope, here.

From Discover:

Dennis Hope, self-proclaimed Head Cheese of the Lunar Embassy, will promise you the moon. Or at least a piece of it. Since 1980, Hope has raked in over $9 million selling acres of lunar real estate for $19.99 a pop. So far, 4.25 million people have purchased a piece of the moon, including celebrities like Barbara Walters, George Lucas, Ronald Reagan, and even the first President Bush. Hope says he exploited a loophole in the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits nations from owning the moon.

Because the law says nothing about individual holders, he says, his claim—which he sent to the United Nations—has some clout. “It was unowned land,” he says. “For private property claims, 197 countries at one time or another had a basis by which private citizens could make claims on land and not make payment. There are no standardized rules.”

Hope is right that the rules are somewhat murky—both Japan and the United States have plans for moon colonies—and lunar property ownership might be a powder keg waiting to spark. But Ram Jakhu, law professor at the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal, says that Hope’s claims aren’t likely to hold much weight. Nor, for that matter, would any nation’s. “I don’t see a loophole,” Jakhu says. “The moon is a common property of the international community, so individuals and states cannot own it. That’s very clear in the U.N. treaty. Individuals’ rights cannot prevail over the rights and obligations of a state.”

Jakhu, a director of the International Institute for Space Law, believes that entrepreneurs like Hope have misread the treaty and that the 1967 legislation came about to block property claims in outer space. Historically, “the ownership of private property has been a major cause of war,” he says. “No one owns the moon. No one can own any property in outer space.”

Hope refuses to be discouraged. And he’s focusing on expansion. “I own about 95 different planetary bodies,” he says. “The total amount of property I currently own is about 7 trillion acres. The value of that property is about $100 trillion. And that doesn’t even include mineral rights.”

Read the entire article after the jump.

Video courtesy of the New York Times.

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Distance to Europa: $2 billion and 14 years

Europa is Jupiter’s gravitationally tortured moon. It has liquid oceans underneath an icy surface. This makes Europa a very interesting target for future missions to the solar system — missions looking for life beyond our planet. Unfortunately, NASA’s planned mission has yet to be funded. But should the agency (and taxpayers) come up with the estimated $2 billion to fund a spacecraft, we could well have a probe circling Europa by 2027.

From the Guardian:

Nasa scientists have drawn up plans for a mission that could look for life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter that is covered in vast oceans of water under a thick layer of ice.

The Europa Clipper would be the first dedicated mission to the waterworld moon, if it gets approval for funding from Nasa. The project is set to cost $2bn.

“On Earth, everywhere where there’s liquid water, we find life,” said Robert Pappalardo, a senior research scientist at Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory in California, who led the design of the Europa Clipper.

“The search for life in our solar system somewhat equates to the search for liquid water. When we ask the question where are the water worlds, we have to look to the outer solar system because there are oceans beneath the icy shells of the moons.”

Jupiter’s biggest moons such as Ganymede, Callisto and Europa are too far from the sun to gain much warmth from it, but have liquid oceans beneath their blankets of ice because the moons are squeezed and warmed up as they orbit the planet.

“We generally focus down on Europa as the most promising in terms of potential habitability because of its relatively thick ice shell, an ocean that is in contact with rock below, and that it’s probably geologically active today,” Pappalardo said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

In addition, because Europa is bombarded by extreme levels of radiation, the moon is likely to be covered in oxidants at its surface. These molecules are created when water is ripped apart by energetic radiation and could be used by lifeforms as a type of fuel.

For several years scientists have been considering plans for a spacecraft that could orbit Europa, but this turned out to be too expensive for Nasa’s budgets. Over the past year Pappalardo has worked with colleagues at the applied physics lab at Johns Hopkins University to come up with the Europa Clipper.

The spacecraft would orbit Jupiter and make several flybys of Europa, in the same way that the successful Cassini probe did for Saturn’s moon Titan.

“That way we can get effectively global coverage of Europa – not quite as good as an orbiter but not bad for half the cost . We have a validated cost of $2bn over the lifetime of the mission, excluding the launch,” Pappalardo said.

A probe could be readied in time for launch around 2021 and would take between three to six years to arrive at Europa, depending on the rockets used.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Complex and beautiful patterns adorn the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, as seen in this color image intended to approximate how the satellite might appear to the human eye. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk.

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Happy Birthday Neptune

One hundred and sixty-four years ago, or one Neptunian year, Neptune was first observed by telescope. Significantly, it was the first planet to be discovered deliberately; the existence and location of the gas giant was calculated mathematically. Subsequently, it was located by telescope, on 24 September 1846, and found to be within one degree of the mathematically predicted location. Astronomers hypothesized Neptune’s existence due to perturbations in the orbit of its planetary neighbor, Uranus, around the sun, which could only be explained by the presence of another object in nearby orbit. A triumph for the scientific method, and besides, it’s beautiful too.

Image courtesy of NASA.

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