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Wednesday 17 June 2015

The latest news from Philae and 67-P

The latest news from Philae and 67-P

Above: The bizarre landscape of 67-P.It looks like good hiking country. If you can ignore the lack of air. And gravity. And the way jets of vapour explode out of the ground.A challenging hike, for Superman when he needs to chill perhaps... Courtesy of ESA.
The European Space Agency's 'Philae' comet lander  called home over the weekend, seven months after it disappeared amongst the crags of comet 67-P. The Rosetta - Philae team have been thrown into feverish preparation and planning, to make the most of the washing machine sized robot, now that they have it back. Today they called a press  conference to update the public on where they, Philae, and Rosetta have gotten to:

If you haven't got time for the whole thing, here're a few notes:
  • The lander contacted Earth for 85 seconds on Saturday and 4 minutes on Sunday - although the signal on Sunday wasn't stable.
  • Philae has been awake for some days before contact.
  • The lander has 24 watts of power, and an internal temperature of -5 degrees Celsius.
  • The Rosetta mothership will change its course to get better communications with Philae
  • Some low risk, low power, science operations will begin soon.
  • Although the lander is at an odd angle to the surface they will still be trying to get samples of the comet's soil.
  • One panel member thanked the comet itself!
  • Philae probably endured temperatures below -150 degrees Celsius.
  • The landers shaded resting spot will actually protect Philae, and allow it to survive longer.
  • The comet is coated in grains of organic matter, with no ice visible anywhere
  • The organic grains outweigh the ice that is there.
  • The grains coat, and hold together, the ice particles.
  • Much more science to be released in a few weeks.
  • They will be looking for life-forming molecules like amino acids.
  • "If this is a dream I'd rather not wake up!"
While we're on the subject of comets, a paper published this week reports on the analysis of the dust collected from comet Wild 2 by the Deep Impact mission it seems the comet formed near the end of the Solar System's growth, and includes material from across the protoplanetary disk the planets grew from. The paper is here.

Above: Comet Wild 2, which has its own ancient solar system story to tell us. Courtesy of NASA.
The inventive Lightsail-A mission, a tiny spacecraft that successfully tested an experimental propulsion called solar sailing, has re-entered Earth's atmosphere and burned up. Lightsail 1 was a privately built craft, from The Planetary Society. It's successor mission is due to launch next year, and the kickstarter for it is here.
Above: Photographer Thierry Legault captured this video of Lightsail spinning over France, a few days ago.

Does anything live on the edge of a black hole?

Are you dissatisfied withe the view from your bedroom? It could be worse - it seems that there may well be whole solar systems that wake up every morning to a view like this:
Above: A fanciful depiction of an alien city, on a world that orbits the gigantic black hole Saggitarius A*. No 'courtesy of...'', because it's mine.
Y'see it's been a mystery for while why there are so many stars crowding around the massive black hole in the centre of the galaxy -  it's very hard for that many stars to fall into the vicinity of the hole without a lot o them being torn up and pulled in. That would lead to a lot of hot, angrily energetic, gas around the hole, and we just don't see that. But a paper from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics has suggested that stars and planets could grow orbiting the central black hole of our galaxy. The clouds of gas and dust that normally give birth to stars and planets can be pulled into a disk orbiting the hole - and stars (with their planets) can then grow in an analogous way to the growth of our own solar systems planets. The evidence for this is in the form of two rings of star growth that surround the hole - there may well be whole solar systems that live in the sight of the most powerful destructive force in our galaxy.

To make life even more interesting for anyone/anything living near the monster hole it regularly fires off x-ray flares that seem to have a similar mechanism behind them to our Sun's solar flares - but big enough to be detectable from tens of thousands of lightyears.
Could there be anything on those worlds to see the looming sight of that gap in space-time over their heads (or whatever they have)?
There's water ice and organics near the Milky way's core black hole according to a new paper, so the ingredients for life's chemistry could be present on any worlds near the black hole. But the radiation environment of the galactic core - lots of hyperactive blue suns, not to mention the gigantic hole itself, would make for a harsh environment.

Pluto emerging for New Horizons:

New Horizons, the space mission that is fast approaching the frigid dwarf planet Pluto (and its complex system of moons) has gotten some of its best images yet of the little world: surface features are starting to emerge - now the challenge is to understand what they are....
Above: The faces of Pluto, courtesy of  Bjorn Jonsson.

People are also starting to turn the images into simple maps, and even virtual globes:

Above: A basic virtual globe of Pluto, Courtesy of Bjorn Jonsson and

The National Space Society has also made a truly kick-ass video, celebrating the mission:

DARPA may already be launching cubesat's on its new specialist launcher:

The American Defense Advanced Research Projects agency will soon begin testing it's SABRE launch system. SABRE is a rocket to orbit that launches ultra small cubesat spacecraft from the belly of an F-22 fighter jet. This would give the US the ability to quickly launch hard to detect ultra small satellites for reconnaissance.It is possible that DARPA has already begun launches, in secret.

The next few months are shaping up for some really exciting space exploration....

Elsewhere on the Internet:

Io's lava lakes now visible

Sunscreen layer on distant planet

Computer models suggest ancient Mars was 'cold and damp'

SpaceX looks to beam the internet from space

NASA to launch first interplanetary cubesats

Miniature nuclear power sources for cubesats

China tests hypersonic vehicle

An intro to cosmic strings

Dark matter or modified gravity? Evidence across 12 orders of magnitude

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