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Friday, 22 May 2015

Lightsail 1 lives, and a student space mission investigates the effects of space travel on salt loving microbes...

Lightsail 1 is alive, in orbit, and preparing for sail unfurling:

Just in case you missed it in the news and my previous post, yesterday an Atlas V rocket delivered a small fleet of miniature cubesat satellites and the US airforce's X37B miniature space shuttle to space.

Above: The launch of the Atlas V carrying the X37B mini shuttle.

THE X37B is testing a new kind of space drive (called a Hall effect thruster),  and so is one of the miniature cubesats: Called 'Lightsail' its planned tp test out a kind of drive called.... (insert drum roll here) a lightsail. This Lightsail is a shakedown cruise to test  some components of the technology before a full trial run in 2016. It's suffered a minor gyro glitch,  but is talking to Earth and on course to unfurl its sail in mid July. Some of the other missions on the launch were:




Unix Space Server Langley


.. and 3 OptiCubes

Students test the survival of bacteria at the edge of space:

Not every space mission is a multibillion dollar effort involving massive rockets and ultra fine instrumentation - there are interesting missions flown all the time that are run by private investigators, or even students. One of these that has caught my eye particularly is a recent edge-of-space mission, using a modified weather balloon, launched by Earth-to-Sky-Calculus, a student led crowd funded organisation.

Above: The halophile bacteria, held in containers of various materials to see how well they're protected from radiation. courtesy of E2S
E2S* are launching salt loving bacteria, known as halophiles, right to edge of our atmosphere to see how they cope. This isn't just petty revenge on the bacterial kingdom by madmen who think they caught colds from their salt shakers: Understanding how well these microbes can survive space conditions will give us clues to how likely life is on Mars, or whether theories like lithopanspermia (basically: Microscopic life hitching rides between planets on meteorites)  might hold any water.

Above: The science payload, as seen by the balloon. High, isn't it?  If you get vertigo you're probably not going to love the next video....Courtesy of E2S
Although the bugs seem pretty resistant to space, one thing is puzzling everyone: During the trip they change colour. So now the E2S team are trying to figure out why with more flights.

These maverik space explorers don't just do serious sciency missions: They also show their respect to their country by put effigies of their president through the harshness of space... and  the subsequent 30km death plunge back to Earth.
Above: Barack Obama falls 30,000 meters from the edge of space. I'm banking on the US republicans to blow my viewing figures sky high thanks to this video. Courtesy of E2S

Elsewhere in the universe:

Above: A map of the thickness of the 'skin' of water molecules on the lunar surface. Blue is more, red less. Thickness seems an inappropriate term, as we literally talking about molecules thick here, but it's still interesting - that's a lot of surface area producing water somehow. Image courtesy of the Chandrayaan 1 mission.
The Moon's poles are known to contain some ice, and (this is still incredible to me, who was bought up with the idea of a bone dry Moon) and a subtle but real water cycle, where water is generated on the surface in an ultra thin skin by some mechanism planetary geologists are still arguing about (see here, here and here. All that's old hat**. What this paper suggests is that the lunar craters might be capable of focusing neutrons reflected off their surfaces. The link between the two things, ice and neutrons, is that the scanning technology used to hunt for ice uses the fact that ice absorbs neutrons - so the levels of ice in some of the permanently shadowed lunar craters might be four times higher than previously thought.

Our space telescopes have opened up a lot of the sky in frequencies that our eyes cannot see, but one range has been largely overlooked: the ultra low frequency radio waves. Earth's ionosphere interferes with these frequencies, so a team from the Netherlands institute of astronomy is suggesting building a network of space borne radio telescopes to finally get a good look at these wavelengths. On a related note, there's new news from Radioastron, a radio telescope already in orbit, here.

Above:  A fleet of these, but in space. Probably smaller as well, or at least foldable.. I don't know how they're going to do it ok, I'm still moving house and I just read the abstract and the conclusions.
On a note about a different kind of space observatory, the paper linked above describes a possible space telescope that would be able to pick out the chemical signatures of extra solar planets...

Lastly we have an idea that weighs in on the entries I ran not long ago about Dyson structures - massive energy farms that could be built to absorb the energy of a whole star, or even a whole galaxy. It seems that we may be looking at the wrong kind of star: Neutron stars might make far better candidates, suggests the paper linked above...

Elsewhere on the internet:

* Yes I think that sounds like a boy band to.
** This is really weird expression IMHO.

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