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Monday, 2 March 2015

Going where spacecraft can't...


Going where spacecraft can't:

As amazing as the current era of exploration is, there's problem with spacecraft - they can go only as fast, and as far, as our best engine technologies. Even when a world is reachable they can take a very, very long time to get there. This is kind of a problem for something like Saturn exploration, where the Cassini spacecraft (which has been exploring the gisnmt planets collection of moons and rings) will eventually run out of fuel, and be immiolated in the giant planets atmosphere. Another visit to Saturn could be a very, very long time coming. And worlds further away, like Urabus and Neptune, have gone for decades with out a visit - our robot ships could reahc them, but political will and funding for missions that would take so long is hard to drum up.

Not to mention that other solar systems still remain out of reach....

Enter the Space Telescopes.

Ground based telescopes have made incredible strides with things like adaptive optics, but some frequencies of radiation just don't come through our atmosphere, and others are still hard to work with from the ground. Space travel gives us a way around this: We can take the eyes and ears of planet Earth above the air, into space.
Everyone knows about Hubble, but there're a lot more space telesopes exploring the universe than just that grand old space platform, and some very interesting new ones are planned.  Here are just a handul of the currently active space telescopes (if you know of a cool one I've missed then please leave a note in the comments section):

This space pl;atform studies gamma rays, the most powerful form of light (and the thing that makes Hulk), and X-rays, both of which come from things like black holes and supernova. Launched in 2007 it's recently passed a milestone of 40,000 orbits about Earth.

Above: AGILE sees flares from a black hole. ourtesy of Andrea Bulgalleri.

Swift works in gamma rays, X-rays, UV, and visible light, studying things like pulsar gamma ray emissions:

Above: Swift tracks the pulses of gamma rays exploding away from a series of massive flares on a magnetar. Courtesy of NASA

A European Space Agency mission, INTEGRAL uses gamma rays and X-rays to study parts of the universe that don't behave as expected - like dead stars that flare violently back to life.

Above: A quick run down on the INTEGRAL mission, which is something of a veteran these days. Courtesy of ESA.
This one is fairly famous and is involved in some very high end research. As well as studying distant regions of space it images things much closer to home, like gamma emissions from thunderstorms:
Above: Fermi turns its eyes towards Earth. That's not an invasion of privacy, unless you emit gamma rays. If you do, nothing personal, but please stay away from my house. Courtesy of NASA.
Needs no introduction - works in UV, optical wavelengths. The grand old man of space telescopes is nearing its 25th anniversary...

Above: Hubble begins. If I said 'courtesy of NASA' you'd all go: 'DUH'.
This spacecraft, one of NASA's missions to find planets around other stars, is also unusual in that it is floating free in space, away from Earth. An equipment failiure almost scuppered the mission, but some inventive engineering bought it back.

Another that is located in deep space away from Earth, at a gravitational 'null point' called 'Sun-earth Langrangian point 2'. The Gaia mission is to produce the most accurate map of our galaxy ever.

The veteran infra red mission is still revealing an unseen universe to us.

IBEX is one of a handful of missions detecting not radiation, but sub atomic particles from space. A while back it discovered a strange ribbon of particles at the edge of our solar system hinting at unknown processes at work in interstellar space...

Above: IBEX  finds... something. Something odd, that no-one can explain very well. That's pretty much what science is meant to do, so yay!
And more, and more, with names like : Chandra, HETE, NU-STAR, XMM-Newton, Hisaki, IRIS, MOST, ODIN, Radioastron, AMS-02, PAMELA....., we've pretty much got the sky covered at all frequencies. True, space probes cqan do a lot more in depth stuff on site, but for general exploration -  and especially learning about parts of the universe our space ships can't reach - the space telescope reigns supreme. And the future? Gravitaional wave telescopes, the James Webb space telescope, the (bizzare) Aragoscope...... there's a lot of sky out there......

Elsewhere in the universe:
Speaking of Saturn, its biggest moon, Titan is a test of life: The giamt moon is loaded with the kind of organic chemistry that drives and builds life, and is awash (well... in places) with liquids to help that chemistry. The catch is that the liquids are liquid methane and ethane, and the whole shebang is over 200 degrees below freezing. Still, even Earth like life has been shown to work at temperatrures below freezing, so could some exotic kind of life have arisen there?

Above: The third Death Star under constru....I mean, a simulation of the hypothetical cell membrane. Courtesy of Cornell University.
There are many odd occurences on the surface and there is evidence of a the kind of chemicasl imbalances that could drive a low temperature metabolism. Now Cornell university researchers Paulette Clancy, James Stevenson, and Jonathan Lunine have designed a cell membrane that could work in liquid methane. Dubbed an azotosome it would be able to self assemble from molecules present in titans atmosphere, and could form a bubble that might act as the liquid methane equivilent of a protocell. Protocells are not considered life, but have many of the characteristics and behavoirs of life, and are cinsidered an important step from com,plex chremistry to life, so if nothing else this hints at what strange thinsg Titan's chemistry  might be up to....

Elsewhere on the internet:

Ceres's bright spot still a mystery

Have you met our other moon?

LISA space mission advances

Europes new Earth observing mission

AI learns computer games by watching

Robot Moon racers to share a rocket

UK to generate power from tides

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