Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Blue Origin's New Shepherd spacecraft flies to space and back!

Blue origin reaches space!

Start saving for ticket money folks, there's a new ride going into space, and, without any doubt, there will be masses about this all over the news for the next couple of days: The private space flight company Blue Origin have succeeded in flying their New Shepherd spacecraft to the edge of space, and landing it intact. The company is the brainchild of Jeff Bezo's and has stayed relatively low key compared to the PR campaigns of companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, but today they've made a major splash (or, thankfully, haven't because the rocket landed safely on dry land) when the suborbital craft successfully reached its planned test altitude of100.5 kilometres before executing a safe landing back at the launch site in West Texas. Here's the video:


Space mining law, Rosetta's top 3 finds, and monitoring wildfires from space...

If the moon were 1 pixel wide....

I've seen a lot of attempts to represent the vast size of our solar system, but this is still one of the best. How far do you get before your patience gives out?

Above: A screen shot of a tiny part of Josh Worth's to scale solar system.

Three things Rosetta taught us - and three mysteries

The Rosetta space probe has shown us a lot about comets during its time at comet 67-P... but what are it's top three?

Unregulated space mining

Although the idea of mining the Moon or asteroids has been around for, well, as long as I've been alive and then some, the hurdles to making it happen (and profitable) have always been two fold: The technology, and the legality of it. While the tech is coming along, this is the first time I've heard of a big stride being made on the legal front - a US law is waiting to be signed into law by President Obama (the U.S. commercial space launch competitiveness act) that puts limits on the regulation needed for both private space flight and in-space mining, to encourage growth.

Above: A sample from an asteroid, etched and polished to show the pattern of iron crystals within.

Support a space mission that could save lives:

Fire sat is a kickstarter project for a constellation of heat sensing satellites that would monitor the world in real time for sudden increases in temperature. As our world warms the risk of wildfires will increase - and monitoring temperature flare ups is useful in other ways too: Oil spills, unlicensed flaring of gas, impending volcanic activity could all be monitored by the system. But rather than go the traditional route, the Firesat team are attempting to gain support for their idea through a kickstarter! 

Massive flood in Mars' 'grand canyon' 

Although Mars is known to have had a lot more water activity than today in the deep past, how much water activity can sometimes be a surprise:  ESA has found evidence of gigantic floods rushing through the regions of Aurora chaos and Ganges chasma, two to three billion years ago.

Above: The flood channels in Aurora Chaos and Ganges Chasma, as seen by ESA's Mars Express spacecraft.

Mission for Lunar Resource Prospector laid out 

The Lunar Resource Prospector is a rover mission to the Moon, designed to seek out usable materials like water. But the mission is still in the design phase, and exactly what it would do and how hasn't been laid out. This presentation sets out the goals and some of the likely methods the mission would use. 

Above:A shadowed crater on the Moon. In some craters the Sun is never seen, and the ultracold temperatures have trapped water ice and other useful things. Courtesy of NASA.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

SpaceX's first manned mission, helicopters on Mars, and impossible galaxies...

I'll have to keep things short and sweet this week, as a few things in real-life are still main priorities:

Space X to start flying humans in 2017

SpaceX has become the first of the new private spaceflight companies to be contracted by NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. “Commercial crew launches are really important for helping us meet the demand for research on the space station because it allows us to increase the crew to seven,” said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist. “Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low- Earth orbit."

Above: CGI artwork of SpaceX's manned Dragon capsule. courtesy of SpaceX.

Next Mars rover may get flying companion

NASA may have plans for the Mars 2020 rover to use a small flying scout. A scouting drone could help the Mars 2020 rover avoid the sort of mission-ending misstep that got the smaller Spirit rover — the twin of the still-operational Opportunity rover — stuck in martian sand in 200.
“By March of next year — we’re actually building a full-scale helicopter, 1 kilogram size — we’re going to put it in a chamber and simulate, exactly, the Mars atmosphere. We have done some tests and we’re confident it will [fly],” JPL Director Charles Elachi said

Above: Artists impression of the Mars drone. Courtesy of JPL.

Space weather threatens equatorial power grids:

Although the effects of space weather on the power grids of more northerly countries are well understood, it's less well known how severely they can damage the infra structure of equatorial countries  and these new results suggest they may be more damaging that previously thought.

Space storms may have made a hospitable planet uninhabitable:

Massive versions of the coronal mass ejections thrown out by our Sun may be thrown out by the star of one of the most Earth-like exoplanets ever identified, rendering it uninhabitable.

Above: An artists impression of the poor little planet getting toasted.

Impossibly ancient galaxies

Some of the most ancient giant galaxies ever discovered have astronomers baffled - they're from such an early time in the universe that they have no shape, yet have grown to massive size by some unknown mechanism.

Relativity video earns $400,000:

Ryan Chester, a teenager from North Royalton in Ohio, submitted his video for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, winning  $250,000 of which will go towards a scholarship, $50,000 to his teacher Richard Nestoff and $100,000 for his school to fund a science lab.

Above: Ryan Chester's prize winning video.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Is there life on Mars? How space travel helps find food and water, tectonic activity on Ceres, and why the Moon might be a planet...

Hi all, some real life tasks I've been putting off have reached the point where I need to deal with them, so I'm taking a few days break. I should be back early next week. John.

Is there life on Mars?

The title sums the subject of this Physics World podcast up: The possibilities for Martian life and what forms it might take.

Above: Artwork depicting a pool of life-sustaining water on the Red Planet.

Using space resources to watch our crops.....

While it hasn't got the 'wow' factor of landing on Mars, or figuring out how to build habitats on the Moon, this is a good demonstration of how space as a resource can improve lives here on Earth: Stanford researchers have hit upon a novel way to monitor the growth of crops from space using solar-induced fluorescence, a type of light only emitted by growing plants.

Above: A video rundown of the new crop monitoring system. Courtesy of Stanford University. 

...and find drinkable water.

Along a very similar vein: India is launching four more 'Indian Regional Navigation Satellite Systems'  in the first quarter of the next academic year. So far India has benefited hugely from its space program, which has found sites for wells, warned of approaching tropical storms, helped disaster relief, and  guided fishermen to their catch.

Under new definition the Moon would be a planet.

The never ending argument over what constitutes a planet goes on, with one interesting twist: Under a definition recently suggested by  Jean-Luc Margot at the University of California the Earth-Moon system would be classed as a double planet.  Jean-Luc's definition is based on whether or not a world has enough mass to clear out it's orbit, and as both the earth and moon are over this limit they would jointly be considered a double planet.
“Of course it’s just a proposal,” says Margot. “I don’t know whether it will stick, whether people will love it, hate it or be indifferent.”

Above: The Moon would be a planet, under the proposed definition. So there.

Flowers grown on the ISS

The ISS crew have started using the 'Veggie' system to grow flowering plants in space. the investigation is part of ongoing studies to see how microgravity influences growth and reproduction, and this is the first time that the crew have tried to grow flowering plants. The results could impact how fresh fruit and vegetables are grown (or if they're grown) on future space missions, as well as feeding into studies of plant growth and productivity on Earth.

Above: Zinias, the type of flower being grown and tested. I think. I know nothing about botany, although I'm sure they're not tulips.

Dawn sees evidence of tectonic activity on Ceres

The Dawn space probe has seen hints of ancient tectonic activity on the dwarf planet Ceres. Although the mission has been fairly quite recently team have been hard at work with the probe, in its new Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO), and they're seeing more and more evidence that Ceresmust have been quite an active place in its youth - although they still don't have a definitive answer for what those bright spots are.... 

Above: Dantu crater on Ceres, which shows signs of tectonic activty in the past. Courtesy of NASA.

50 years of infra red astronomy 

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the start of infra red astronomy. CalTech has been celebrating with a two day symposium, in honour of the fields founders. Today infra red astronomy is used to study everything from dust clouds, to stars nearing the end of their lives, to the black hole at the centre of our galaxy. 

Above: A mock up of the James Webb space telescope, which will work in the infra red. Courtesy of JPL.

Monday, 16 November 2015

India's new mission to study the Sun, new jet pack technology for NASA, ESA to hunt gravity waves....

My sincere and deep sympathies to the the people of France, the citizens of Paris, the families of those killed, and those injured in Saturday's attacks. My sympathies to the people of Beirut who suffered similar attacks the day before.

Long live the people of Beirut.
Vive la grande nation de France, Vive le peuple de Paris.

Jet pack for flying around asteroids

NASA plans to go to an asteroid... well, to be accurate, NASA plans to kidnap and asteroid, park it in orbit around the Moon, and then go visit it - it's called the Asteroid Redirection Mission. That's all fine, ambitious, and so on - but once you're at the asteroid you need to be able to get around it. Now this asteroid is planned to be small, maybe not a lot bigger than the Orion spaceship visiting it, so it won't have any gravity worth speaking of. Loosing your grip and floating pathetically away from the asteroid would be kind of embarrassing, so Draper engineer Michele Carpenter, Draper fellow Todd Sheerin, and some  MIT students have been working on 'control moment gyroscope (CMG) hardware' - essentially the beginnings of a gyroscope controlled jetpack.

Michele Carpenter, told Popular Science that “The CMGs enable a finer level of control by operating continuously. Thrusters aren’t well suited for this function because they are discrete actuators (they need to turn on and off). If an astronaut tried to use them to stay in place, they would repeatedly bounce back and forth while the thrusters turned on and off.

 Above: CMG being demonstrated aboard parabolic flights on a NASA DC-9. Courtesy of NASA

LISA pathfinder mission: 

Gravitational waves are one of the last predictions of Einstein's theory of general relativity to be verified - they are 'waves' of distorting space time that ripple out from the most immensely powerful cosmic events, like super massive black holes colliding, and as they pass space itself stretches first one way, then the other. Luckily we live in quiet stretch of universe, so around here gravitational waves are incredibly faint - so faint that they haven't yet been detected, remaining just a theory.
ESA's LISA ( Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) mission, which launches in just over two weeks, will pave the way for future missions by testing in space the technology for gravitational wave detection: It will put two test masses into orbit and control and measure their motion with incredible  accuracy. To stand any chance of picking up gravitational waves the mission needs to minimise the extra forces on the test masses, so it has bleeding edge technology: Inertial sensors, the laser metrology system, the drag-free control system and an ultra-precise micro-propulsion system. 

Above: A video explaining ESA's LISA pathfinder mission, starting the hunt in space for gravitational waves. Courtesy of ESA.

India launches first solar mission

It's not a big surprise that space agencies are interested in studying the Sun: As well as being the only star we can study up close, it controls the space weather around Earth (which can influence and damage our power grids and communications) and is the source of 99% of all energy on Earth. India's space agency, ISRO, is building on it's recent successes and aiming launch a solar mission called Aditya. All they're waiting for is the final go-ahead from India's prime minister.
“A combination of imaging and spectroscopy in multi-wavelength will enhance our understanding of the solar atmosphere. It will provide high time cadence sharp images of the solar chromosphere and the corona in the emission lines. These images will be used to study the highly dynamic nature of the solar corona including the small-scale coronal loops and large-scale Coronal Mass Ejections,” said Dipankar Banerjee, physicist from IIA, who is part of the project.

 Above: The solar corona the Sun's atmosphere - seen during a solar eclispe. Courtesy of Astrobob

New evidence in the hunt for where Earth got its water

In case anyone hasn't noticed; Earth has a lot of water - in fact it covers two thirds of the planet's surface. But where it all came from is a bit of a mystery: Comet strikes have been proposed, but recent readings on the isotope ratios of comet water don't seem to match Earth's. A new paper (here, pay to view) by the University of Hawaii at Manoa has focused on results from rocks that have been preserved from Earth's earliest days, and which contain tiny bubbles of water from those times. The analysis points to the water being incorporated into Earth right at the start, as water rich dust from the protosolar nebular - the cloud of dust and gas from which the planets grew.

Above: Baffin island, where the rocks were found. Courtesy of Peter Dronkers at summitpost.org

Cygnus spacecraft being readied for cargo mission

Orbital ATK are readying a Cygnus robotic cargo ship for the next cargo run to the International Space Station. This will be Orbital's fourth commercial resupply flight to the station and will carry supplies, equipment and research to keep the station stocked. Maybe not the biggest news in space travel this year, but it's good to see the commercial spaceflight company getting back on it's feet, after the disastrous explosion of one of its Antares rockets earlier this year

Above: A Cygnus spacecraft on approach to the ISS. Courtesy of Orbital ATK.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

New space habitat to be tested, natural wormholes, mystery object burns up...

My sincere and deep sympathies to the the people of France, the citizens of Paris, the families of those killed and those injured in last nights attacks.

Vive la grande nation de France, Vive le peuple de Paris.

Progress towards deep space habitats

NASAspaceflight.com has an very interesting article on NASA's recent review of progress towards developing next gen habitats for astronauts (title link). These could be used on Lunar and Mars missions, expanding the International Space Station, or building new research facilities in near Earth space. A few highlights are:
  • 78% Of their milestones (many of which involved building actual hardware) were met.
  • In January next year Bigelow aerospace will launch its BEAM inflatable habitat, which will become an extension to the ISS. 
  • Four companies – Lockheed Martin, Bigelow, Orbital ATK, and Boeing – were awarded contracts to address habitat concept development for the Next Space Technology Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) initiative, which is seeking concepts for the next generation of space habitats.
  • Bigelow already has a design - the B330 - which it hopes to demonstrate will suit long term human spaceflight.
The overall thrust of all this seems to be opening opportunities to expand human activity in space - for private as well as government bodies - and I find that a happy thought on a day when the world needs happy thoughts.

Above: Bigelow Aerospace's BA330 habitate. Courtesy of Bigelow aerospace.

Doug Litteken, a NASA engineeer, discusses the importance of using inflatable structures for a human mission to Mars

Oldest surviving stars in our galaxy seen

The elements that go into making up, well, this planet and everything we see around us, had their origins in the deaths of massive stars. Those early supernova acted as nuclear forges, creating heavier elements in a universe that was originally made mainly of hydrogen and helium gas. That makes spotting the oldest stars in our own galaxy - which could teach us the most about the earliest days of our universe - fairly easy in theory: We just need to look for stars with little or no heavier elements. In practice - not so easy - our galaxy contains 200 billion stars, and survivors from the most ancient eras will be scattered thinly between them.

So it's quite an achievement for an international team of astronomers to have discovered what may be only the second generation of stars to shine, huddled near the core of our galaxy

Above: The centre of our galaxy, as seen from Earth. Courtesy of Joe Bergeron.

Wormholes may form naturally

This is a theory and math heavy paper, and to be honest a lot of the detail is beyond my understanding. That said the upshot of it is fairly clear: According to some theories describing gravity, black holes might not just crush everything in their centres, but instead may naturally form wormholes - passageways  through spacetime. Although wormholes are strictly theoretical, they offer the possibility of circumventing the light speed speed limit by allowing shortcuts, through distorted space-time, to distant parts of the universe.

This is definitely a theory only, and I have no idea how it might ever be proved. But the implication would be that our universe is full of naturally occurring shortcuts through space - so in case it does one day pan out, you heard it here first folks.

Rather than take the long route across space (pink line), a wormhole allows a shortcut through space and time (blue funnel) (Detlev van Ravenswaay/SPL)

Mysterious object WT119F probably was artificial - but now it's dust!

For a while now an mysterious but unidentified object, designated WT1190F, has been nearing a collision with Earth. Late this week it finally hit our atmosphere, and  a multinational team of observers took to the skies in a specially prepared aircraft to follow it's fiery demise. The pattern of the objects breakup strongly suggests that this was an artificial object, possible part of an old Moon mission, although we may never know exactly what it was. The video below follows the team that took to the skies to follow it.

Amazing view of Marathon Valley

Based on the images taken by the Opportunity Mars rover, this is a simply stunning view down Marathon valley on Mars. The overall image was stitched together, and accurate colours added, by James Sorenson.

Winter hits Titan with vengeance

After a warmer than usual autumn we had our first blast of winter here in Scotland yesterday, with snow, high winds, and flooding (I do love this country). But that's nothing, compared to the winters on Saturn's moon Titan. lasting for seven and a half earth years, the temperatures can drop to minus a hundred and fifty degrees Celsius, and NASA's Cassini mission has now found that a truly monstrous cloud of ice particles is settling over titan's south pole as winter hits: The cloud already covers most of the immediate polar region, and towers to 200 kilometres in height.
Of course, the Cassini team are fascinated; “Titan's seasonal changes continue to excite and surprise," said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "Cassini, with its very capable suite of instruments, will continue to periodically study how changes occur on Titan until its Solstice mission ends in 2017.”

Above: The massive ice cloud sits over Titan's south pole. Image courtesy of NASA.

My sympathies....

My sincere and deep sympathies to the the people of France, the citizens of Paris, the famillies of those killed and those injured in last nights attacks.

Vive la grande nation de France, Vive le peuple de Paris.