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Saturday, 30 January 2016

X-ray Aurora above Earth....

Above: The surprising view of an violently X-ray emitting aurora, that the INTEGRAL space craft got. Courtesy of ESA

ESA’s INTEGRAL space telescope usually looks into deep space at x ray sources, like black holes and neutron stars. But in November it got a surprise: As it turned to map a section of deep spacer in X-rays it saw a powerful X-ray emission coming from somewhere else: Earth's atmosphere.
The blast of X-rays was coming from the polar regions, where a storm of high energy particles from the Sun was crashing into our upper atmosphere, causing Aurora - these huge curtains of light in the polar sky:

As the high speed particles of a solar storm are funnelled by Earths magnetism into the atmosphere over the poles, different molecules and atoms  in the atmosphere glow like a flourescent tube to create these curtains,  typically in green and red. But auroras also emit X-rays, generated as the incoming particles decelerate - and on this occasion they shone so brightly in X-rays they blotted out the cosmic sources Integral was set to map.
That said the observations weren't a waste: The Earth's magnetic field and how interacts with the solar wind and storms is a source of mysteries to science - which is great, because it means we can use the space around Earth as a huge laboratory to test our theories on magnetism, plasma, and electricity. In fact whole fleets of unmanned probes have been launched to do just that.

Above: Results from ESA's SWARM mission, a fleet of space craft studying Earth's magnetic field.

What Integral saw will help NASA understand the pattern of electrons raining into Earth’s upper atmosphere, and they reveal interactions between the solar wind and Earth’s protective magnetic bubble. “Auroras are transient, and cannot be predicted on the timeframe that satellite observations are planned, so it was certainly an unexpected observation,” comments Erik Kuulkers, Integral project scientist. “Although the original background X-ray measurements didn’t go quite to plan this time, it was exciting to capture such intense auroral activity by chance.”

Friday, 29 January 2016

Remember Challenger - a memory that spurs us on.

There are a lot of tragedies in this world, ongoing today and throughout history. The destruction of the Challenger space shuttle, and the loss of its seven crew are no more or less against this backdrop: Seven people snuffed out. 
Above: The Challenger crew.

They died believing that humanity could achieve amazing as well as terrible things, and set out that day to prove it. Their mission may have ended in their deaths, but looking at all the great things that have been done with space travel, to help humankind and to learn more about our universe, I cannot say it ended in failure. 


Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Tabby's star: The mystery deepens

'Tabby's star' is an oddly unassuming name for a star that is so mysterious, and has attracted so much wild speculation, but it seems to have stuck. 
In case you've not been obsessively following the astronomy news in the way way I do, Tabby's star (real name KIC 8462852, but nicknamed for the lead author on the paper that first noted it's strangeness) flickers in an unusual way: Most stars that change in brightness are naturally variable, or are orbited by planets that block out some of the light as they rotate between the star and Earth. Both cases produce a recognisable kind of flicker, with a definite pattern to it. Tabby's star seems to flicker in a random way (I've mentioned it before in this post and this post), and to make it even odder as search through historical data shows it has been steadily dimming overall for over a century. Of course, one explanation put forwards for this strange behaviour is aliens - aliens get invoked fairly quickly when naural explanations don't pan out, because aliens could be up to almost anything.  

It's not Starkiller Base from Star Wars, ok? Unless the universe is even weirder than I think, in which case it is.

But this star's odd behaviour does sort of match what we'd expect to see if an alien race were building swarms of solar panel power stations around its star. Other, much more testable and likely explanations include huge swarms of comets orbiting the star, and a new kind of starspot (like our Sun's sunspots, but much bigger), but none has really fit the data.

Above: The ISS and many other spacecraft already use solar panel powerplants, although the scale of the energy collecting around Tabby's star would need to be massivey bigger to make it dim so much. Image courtesy of NASA
Right now the Sun is between Tabby's star and us, but in a few months it will become viewable again, and astronomers are making plans to settle the mystery for good.
“If we could catch it in the act of dimming again, that would really help,” Penn State University’s Jason Wright said. Although two independent surveys haven’t turned up any evidence of extraterrestrial technology, UC Berkeley’s SETI program is now working with the billionaire-backed alien hunting initiative Breakthrough Listen, and plans to conduct a very sensitive broadband sweep of the star’s neighbourhood.
Follow-up is proceeding on other fronts as well: Big optical telescopes are watching the star, waiting for another dimming event to take place. Once dimming begins, telescopes outfitted with spectrographs will begin monitoring the various wavelengths of emitted by Tabby's star, Wright told earlier this year.
"That'll tell us what that material is that the starlight is being filtered through," he said. "It'll tell us if maybe we're looking at ordinary astrophysical dust; it'll tell us if we're looking at gas."  The Kepler space telescope will also be make more observations of the star, in 2017.

Keep an eye on Jason Wrights's blog for more updates.

Elsewhere in the Universe:

Mars rover works through winter

China invites public to access its Moon exploration data

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A Russian study finds space debris could set off wars on Earth

Space does have military uses - communications, intelligence gathering, plain old weather prediction - and military across the world have invested in their own spacecraft (take the US Air Force's secretive X37-B mini-shuttle, for example). It's also true that space weapons have been developed: We've had Reagan's Star Wars project, Soviet Russia's cannon toting Almaz space station and China's A-SAT missiles. But they've never been fired in anger*.

Above: An X37-B being fuelled. Or cleaned. Your guess is as good as mine.

Now it seems that may not matter: A study from the Russian Academy of Sciences suggests that it might not need any weapons in space - or even any aggression - for a conflict to begin there: An ill timed bit of space debris and the fear of an attack in space could start a conflict, say the paper's authors, (Vitaly Adushkin, Stanislav Veniaminov, Stanislav Kozlov and Mikhail Silniko). 

Recent figures from NASA indicate that there are more than 500,000 pieces of space junk currently being tracked in orbit, travelling at speeds up to 28,160 km/h (17,500 mph). If a satellite (or, far worse, a manned vessel) were to be destroyed by space debris then the explosion couldn't easily be told apart from a military attack. "The owner of the impacted and destroyed satellite can hardly quickly determine the real cause of the accident," the paper's authors said.

Such events have already happened, and a similar accident happening to a military satellite might be mistaken for the early moves in an attack. As a result of an increasing general worry about space pollution, several space agencies are investigating ways of cleaning up space junk.....

 Above: Scientific American gives a quick run-down on a Japanese space debris net

......but this is the first time it's been seriously suggested that a debris hit might cause a more far reaching disaster. 
I'd love to dismiss the idea as pure hokum, and it would undoubtedly need two nations that were already in a tense situation, but even if it's a relatively unlikely scenario it's one more reason to take space pollution seriously....

*As far as we now. Just sayin... 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Some interesting news on commercial space flight....

The spaceflight industry changed in a big way when the commercial spaceflight 'new kids' appeared, in the early years of the new millennium

Above: The Dreamchaser mini-shuttle, courtesy of Sierra Nevada Corporation.
But the big hope, the big reason, why everyone was so excited about the newcomers? They looked set to keep pushing the envelope, bringing down the cost of space travel and developing new capabilities... and they haven't disappointed. This month has seen some interesting stuff already, which is a nice start to the year, after 2015 gave the commercial start-ups a rocky ride:

Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin company launched it's New Shepherd space craft into space again:

As has become the secretive company's pattern they made no announcements prior to launch, but posted a well put together video following their reusable rockets successful landing:


Jeff Bezo's issued the following statement: 

"The very same New Shepard booster that flew above the Karman line and then landed vertically at its launch site last November has now flown and landed again, demonstrating reuse. This time, New Shepard reached an apogee of 333,582 feet (101.7 kilometers) before both capsule and booster gently returned to Earth for recovery and reuse.
Data from the November mission matched our preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for today’s re-flight relatively straightforward. The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including a noteworthy one. Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning. It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline. Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.
Though wings and parachutes have their adherents and their advantages, I’m a huge fan of rocket-powered vertical landing. Why? Because — to achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space — we will need to build very large rocket boosters. And the vertical landing architecture scales extraordinarily well. When you do a vertical landing, you’re solving the classic inverted pendulum problem, and the inverted pendulum problem gets a bit easier as the pendulum gets a bit bigger. Try balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger. Now try it with a broomstick. The broomstick is simpler because its greater moment of inertia makes it easier to balance. We solved the inverted pendulum problem on New Shepard with an engine that dynamically gimbals to balance the vehicle as it descends. And since New Shepard is the smallest booster we will ever build, this carefully choreographed dance atop our plume will just get easier from here. We’re already more than three years into development of our first orbital vehicle. Though it will be the small vehicle in our orbital family, it’s still many times larger than New Shepard. I hope to share details about this first orbital vehicle this year.
Also this year, we’ll start full-engine testing of the BE-4 and launch and land our New Shepard rocket – again and again. If you want to stay up to date with all the interesting work that our team is doing, sign up for email updates at
Gradatim Ferociter!
Jeff Bezos"

SpaceX has managed to flyback and land their re-usable Falcon 9 first stage booster....


....only to have complete victory snatched from their grasp when a landing leg failed to lock and the booster toppled over, moments after a textbook landing. 
Even so, it's a technical success for the company's fly-back-and-re-use technology. And if you're not taking some risks in spaceflight you won't fly far. Proving they're not going to be knocked back for long, the company has successfully tested the landing motors on its Dragon space capsule:


 Dreamchaser makes a comeback:

Sierra Nevada corporation seemed to loose out quite badly last year, when their re-usable 'dreamchaser' space shuttle was passed over by NASA to carry crew to the ISS. But  2016 seems to be going their way already: They've been selected by NASA to ferry cargo to and from the ISS, and ESA look set to invest in the development of the Dreamchaser. The ESA director general has also stated that they might launch Dreamchaser into space using their Ariane 5 booster, to carry out microgravity experiments. For a bit more on how the small space shuttle concept works, check out the video below:

Elsewhere in in the Universe

Space resources track 'Monster Blizzard' battering the US and give early warnings

Where are all the Aliens? Dead, says new analysis.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Sterile Antarctic valleys knock hopes for Martian life...

....but not conclusively, so don't start with the wailing and gnashing of teeth just yet space fans: In a spot called University valley a team from the McGill University has been hunting for microbes. The reason why they chose University valley is because of it's extremely Mars-like conditions. The valley has been incredibly dry and stayed below freezing for roughly 150,000 years. As analogues for Mars go, it's as good as you'll get on Earth.

Above: University Valley, Antarctica. Courtesy of Jackie Goordial

And they found... nothing. No active microbes anywhere. A few traces that might have been dormant or slowly dying organisms.

“If conditions are too cold and dry to support active microbial life on an analogous climate on Earth, then the colder dryer conditions in the near surface permafrost on Mars are unlikely to contain life.” Says Lyle Whyte,  supervisor on the project. “Additionally, if we cannot detect activity on Earth, in an environment which is teeming with microorganisms, it will be extremely unlikely and difficult to detect such activity on Mars.”

So is that case closed, give up looking for traces of life on Mars? Well....I've kind of given away my thoughts on that at the beginning.

The teams' results are not unexpected, because the University valley site is devoid of liquid water - a combination of being very dry and very cold, so the ice never melts, keeps it that way. The ice that is there is due to water vapour, not any kind of liquid, and the whole summer season the team were there it never got above freezing. And we're fairly sure that life, of the kind we know how to recognise at least, has an absolute requirement for liquid water.
In fact the University valley spot was picked because it resembles the Martian Arctic, a very forbidding place indeed, where the temperatures seldom get even as warm as University valley, and no water has flowed for billions of years. The McGill team went looking for a spot on Earth, that resembles a place on Mars that is harsh even for Mars! And, in the bigger picture, their results may actually be very good for Mars exploration.

Above, the plains of the Martian Arctic, courtesy of JPL/ NASA

Mars is a big place, and we've already seen from Curiosity rover and MRO spacecraft that some more temperate areas may still see small amounts of liquid water today

Above: Recurring Slope Linea (RSL) seen from orbit by the MRO spacecraft. These are thought to be formed by present day liquid water - maybe 95% conclusively. Curiosity rover has measured conditions on Mars that would allow small amounts of water to form where perchlorate salts are present in the soil. Courtesy of NASA.

Still, even then, the odds are not great for finding present day Martian life, as the water is infrequent and incredibly salty. But feeling down about that is missing the point: The big aim on Mars has always been to find some traces of ancient life, preserved from a time when Mars was more habitable (and Mars may have had habitable episodes quite late into its history). So the McGill teams findings are actually good for this, even if they do apply to the whole planet - they tell us the chances of getting a false positive from a hitchhiking Earth microbe are low, because Earth microbes won't survive long in those conditions.

Elsewhere in the Universe:

DARPA aims to take brain implants to the next level

Pluto's glacier sea only 10 million years old

Milky Way's second biggest black hole

Thursday, 21 January 2016

OK, I HAVE to pipe up on this.... A true 9th planet?

Someone give Pluto a hug, a true ninth planet has been found... sorta. The evidence for the new planet, estimated to be 5000 times heavier than Pluto with a year tens of thousands of earth years long,  rests on the odd orbits of a handful of tiny icy objects waaaaaaay out on the edge of the solar system.

Infographic from

Call me a spoilsport, but people wouldn't believe I'd found Bigfoot because I'd found one unexplained track... that's a bit unfair, the guys behind the original paper have done their work well. But you get my point: This isn't a 'find' regardless of what the headlines say. Even so, I'll be following this with interest, it'd be amazing if this really did turn into a 'Planet 9' discovery.

Below is NASA's director of planetary science on the subject, and as he puts it:
"What we really have here is an early prediction of a new planet, based on computer modelling"