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SpaceX puts up 60 internet satellites


The SpaceX company has begun the roll-out of its orbiting broadband system.

A Falcon-9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida late on Thursday, packed with 60 satellites capable of giving users on the ground high-speed connections to the internet.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk's firm aims eventually to loft nearly 12,000 spacecraft for its "Starlink" network.

SpaceX is one of several commercial outfits with permission to fly an internet mega-constellation.

Others include the UK-based start-up OneWeb, which began its roll-out in February with six operational spacecraft.

Online retailer Amazon also has ambitions in this market. It's working on a 3,200-satellite proposal known as Project Kuiper.

All the concepts envisage flying spacecraft in a low-Earth orbit less than 2,000km above the planet. This will minimise the delay, or latency, in the internet connections.

The Falcon lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 22:30 local time (02:30 GMT, Friday).

Deployment of the Starlink satellites was successfully completed just over an hour into the flight, SpaceX announced.

What do we know about the internet project?


SpaceX has kept secret much of the development activity on its multi-billion-dollar broadband plan.

The company launched a couple of technology demonstrators, Tintin-A and Tintin-B, in February 2018, but the spacecraft that went up on Thursday look very different.

Pictured by Mr Musk in a tweet earlier this month, these latest platforms appeared to have a "flat-pack" design.

And in a briefing with reporters on 15 May, the CEO gave additional information.

Each satellite weighs 227kg, has multiple high-throughput antennas and a single solar array.

The platforms are also equipped with electric propulsion - a system that expels electrically charged atoms of Krypton to provide thrust.

The engine is needed to lift a Starlink from its drop-off altitude of 440km to its operational height of 550km.

The propulsion system will also act to maintain the satellite's correct position in the sky and to bring it down at the end of its service life.

Mr Musk said the newly launched Starlinks were an iterative design and later platforms would have a higher specification, featuring, for example, inter-satellite links.

It was "one of the hardest engineering projects I've ever seen done," he said and cautioned that much could go wrong in the early phases of the roll-out.


Is there room up there for all these satellites?

There is increasing unease about the number of satellites that could be launched in the next few years - for many purposes, not just broadband delivery - and how this might potentially clog up the space environment.

To give context to what is about to happen - there are just 2,000 operational satellites in orbit today, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists' database. SpaceX's ambitions alone, if fully realised, would dwarf this population.

The great fear is that congested orbital highways will result in collisions and the production of debris that then initiates further destructive encounters.

SpaceX said it intended to be a responsible actor and had given its satellites the ability themselves to track orbital debris and to autonomously avoid it.

What is more, it added, all the Starlinks were 95% constructed from components that would burn up rapidly on re-entry to the atmosphere when decommissioned - exceeding all current safety standards.

It will be some time before SpaceX can actually offer connections to the internet.

For that, it must launch many more than the 60 spacecraft on Thursday's Falcon.

Six further rocket flights will have to take place before minor broadband coverage is achieved. A dozen launches are required for moderate coverage, says Mr Musk.

He hopes ultimately that revenue from the telecommunications network can fund some of his other ideas: "We think this is a key stepping stone on the way towards establishing a self-sustaining city on Mars and a base on the Moon."


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The Loneliest Stars in the Galaxy

Marina Koren


We are made of star stuff, as Carl Sagan told us. The first stars ignited billions of years ago, out of the cold, primordial gas in the dark universe. The stars blazed until they exploded in bursts powerful enough to forge heavy chemical elements. The process repeated itself, over and over, all across space. The new elements found their way into other stars, and the planets, and, eventually, life.

It’s a remarkable cosmic tale, with a recent twist. Some of the stardust has managed to become sentient, work out its own history, and use that knowledge to better understand the stars.

Astronomers know stars so well, in fact, that they can tell when one doesn’t belong—when it’s migrated to our galaxy from a completely different one.

Today astronomers study the chemical compositions of stars near and far, from our own sun to the most distant points of light. They do it with the help of spectroscopy, a technique that is much cooler than its clinical name suggests. Astronomers take starlight, absorbed and collected by telescopes, and break it down into its constituent lines, same as a prism of glass stretches light into the colours of the rainbow. These lines correspond to different elements, from the light kind, such as hydrogen and helium, to the heavy stuff, such as gold and platinum.

Related slideshow: 30 photos to prove how beautiful our galaxy Milky Way is (Provided by Photo Service)



Home to our own solar system, the Milky Way galaxy has captivated the imagination since the dawn of cosmology. Named after the dim ‘milky’ glow generated by the indistinguishable mass of stars that it’s made from when the Milky Way is observed from Earth, it appears like a band, due to its disc shape, but is actually a barred spiral galaxy.

Facts and figures around the Milky Way’s size and constituents vary, with the galaxy’s diameter believed to be between 120,000 and 150,000 light-years. Within the Milky Way there could be as many as a trillion stars and 100 billion planets. With such incredible numbers, it’s easy to understand why until 1920 it was believed that the Milky Way contained all the stars in the universe, but we now know it to be just one of around 200 billion galaxies that we can observe.

(Pictured) The Milky Way over Porth Loe, Cornwall, England.

Some stars have a signature that’s entirely distinct from their neighbours’, and there are a few of them in our very own galaxy, including one identified recently by a group of scientists based in Japan and another by an international team. The chemical compositions of these stars, their ratios of one element to another—those markers make them unlike any other star in the Milky Way, which is home to some tens of billions.

The stars in the Milky Way have similar chemical makeups because they emerged from the same clouds of gas, infused over time with a range of elements from the stellar explosions we call supernovae. “Stars are formed from gas, and whatever spilled into the gas prior to the formation ends up being in the star,” says Anna Frebel, an astronomer at MIT who has detected and studied one of these rogue stars. “It’s like genes that are being passed on.”

The chemical signatures of the interlopers suggest that they originated in environments without too many stellar explosions. For astronomers, this is a clear indication that the stars flickered on somewhere else.

How does this happen? The Milky Way, like many galaxies, is surrounded by other, smaller galaxies. “Just like the Earth has satellites, artificial and natural—man-made satellites and the moon—our galaxy also has satellites,” says Marion Dierickx, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “These occasionally fall in.”

Related slideshow: Mind-blowing photos of the universe (Provided by Espresso)


The Milky Way has little trouble absorbing these galaxies and their contents when gravitational forces draw them near. “Our galaxy was built up over time as smaller galaxies collided and merged with each other,” says Douglas Boubert, a junior research fellow at Magdalen College at Oxford. “The oldest stars we see flying around the Milky Way today were all born in precursor galaxies.”

When galaxies merge, stars are jostled and settle into new orbits. So do planets and moons. The process is so slow, unfolding over millions of years, that any inhabitants of these planets if they could fathom such things, wouldn’t know about the cosmic merger until millions of years after it happened. “We always think things are static in the cosmos, but they really are not,” Frebel says.

Astronomers have used spectroscopy to detect rogue stars in the satellite galaxies around our own. In 2011, they discovered that the composition of more than 5 per cent of the stars inside the Large Magellanic Cloud didn’t match that of its other stellar residents. Those rogues resembled stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a nearby galaxy, instead. At some point, the larger cloud had stolen them away.

Astronomers say many more stars of this nature are in the Milky Way, but they are tricky to find. They orbit at the very edges of the galaxy; by the time their light reaches telescopes on Earth, it’s incredibly faint. “You can’t mount, at this point with our technology, a systematic campaign to identify these,” Dierickx says. “You find one candidate, you do thorough follow-up observations, and you come up with a detailed characterization—doing this kind of study for many stars would take a very long time.”

Dierickx recommends looking at these stars as a reminder of the Milky Way’s place in the cosmos. Vast expanses of space separate our galaxy from everything else, but the distances are not as insurmountable as they seem.

“That might be interesting, to the average layperson, to not think of our galaxy as living in splendid isolation in dark, empty space, but thinking of this richer picture with dozens of galaxies, satellites flying around in all directions and falling in every once in a while,” she says. “They really have contributed to building our Milky Way as we know it.”


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May 24, 2019

Hubble Spies Curious Galaxy Moving a Little Closer


This Hubble image stars Messier 90, a beautiful spiral galaxy located roughly 60 million light-years from the Milky Way in the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin). The galaxy is part of the Virgo Cluster, a gathering of galaxies that is over 1,200 strong.

This image combines infrared, ultraviolet and visible light gathered by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This camera was operational between 1994 and 2010, producing images with an unusual staircase-like shape as seen here. This is because the camera was made up of four light detectors with overlapping fields of view, one of which gave a higher magnification than the other three. When the four images are combined together in one picture, the high-magnification image needs to be reduced in size in order for the image to align properly. This produces an image with a layout that looks like steps.

Messier 90 is remarkable; it is one of the few galaxies seen to be travelling toward the Milky Way, not away from it. The galaxy’s light reveals this incoming motion in a phenomenon known as blueshift. In simple terms, the galaxy is compressing the wavelength of its light as it moves towards us, like a slinky being squashed when you push on one end. This increases the frequency of the light and shifts it towards the blue end of the spectrum. As our universe is expanding, almost all of the galaxies we see in the universe are moving away from us, and we, therefore, see their light more towards the red end of the spectrum, known as redshift. Messier 90, however, appears to be a rare exception.

Astronomers think that this blueshift is likely caused by the cluster’s colossal mass accelerating its members to high velocities on bizarre and peculiar orbits, sending them whirling around on odd paths that take them both towards and away from us over time. While the cluster itself is moving away from us, some of its constituent galaxies, such as Messier 90, are moving faster than the cluster as a whole, making it so that, from Earth, we see the galaxy heading towards us. However, some are also moving in the opposite direction within the cluster, and thus seem to be streaking away from us at very high velocity.

Messier 90 is featured in Hubble’s Messier catalogue, which includes some of the most fascinating objects that can be observed from Earth’s Northern Hemisphere. See the NASA-processed image and other Messier objects at https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/hubble-s-messier-catalog.

Text credit: ESA (European Space Agency)
Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, W. Sargent et al.

Last Updated: May 24, 2019

Editor: Rob Garner

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Hubble’s Messier Catalog


Charles Messier (1730–1817) was a French astronomer best known for his "Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters." An avid comet-hunter, Messier compiled a catalogue of deep-sky objects in order to help prevent other comet enthusiasts from wasting their time studying objects that were not comets.
Credits: R. Stoyan et al., Atlas of the Messier Objects: Highlights of the Deep Sky (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
The brilliant stars seen in this ground-based image are members of the open star cluster M45, also known as the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. The shapes overlaid on the image represent the fields of view of Hubble’s cameras and other science instruments and provide a scale to Hubble’s very narrow view on the heavens.
Credits: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech


The Hubble Space Telescope is equipped to take images in various wavelengths of light in order to provide more insight into its targets. The famous Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula (also known as M16: the 16th object in Charles Messier’s catalogue) were imaged using both visible (left) and infrared (right) filters. Using infrared light, Hubble is able to probe past the dense gas and dust of the nebula to reveal stars that are hidden in visible wavelengths.
Credits: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team

Although there are as many as one hundred billion comets in the outer regions of the solar system, prior to 1995, only around 900 had ever been discovered. This is because most comets are too dim to be detected without the proper astronomical equipment. Occasionally, however, a comet will sweep past the Sun that is bright enough to be seen during the daytime with the naked eye.

One such instance occurred in 1744. Comet Klinkenberg-Chéseaux, discovered by three amateur astronomers in late 1743, grew steadily brighter as it approached the Sun. By the end of February 1744, the comet had reached its peak brightness at an apparent magnitude of –7, making it the brightest object in the sky except for the Sun and Moon. The comet’s brilliance captured the interest of professional and amateur astronomers alike, including a young Charles Messier.

Born in 1730 in Badonviller, France, Messier had to give up formal education at age 11 when his father died. Soon after, he witnessed the spectacular Comet Klinkenberg-Chéseaux, which ignited his passion for astronomy. At the age of 21, Messier was hired as a draftsman for the French navy. He learned to use astronomical tools and became a skilled observer. For his efforts, Messier was eventually promoted to the chief astronomer of the Marine Observatory in Paris, where he pursued his interest in comets. He discovered over a dozen comets, earning him the nickname “Comet Ferret” from King Louis XV.

In 1758, Messier was in the process of observing one such comet when he was distracted by a cloudy object in the constellation Taurus. Upon further observation, he realized that the object could not be a comet because it was not moving across the sky. In an effort to prevent other astronomers from mistaking the object for a comet, Messier took note of it and began to catalogue other comet-like “objects to avoid.”

This comet-like object that Messier observed was NGC 1952. Commonly known today as M1 (Messier 1) or the Crab Nebula, it is the first object in Messier’s Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters. By the time of his death in 1817, Messier had compiled a list of 103 objects in the night sky using his own observations with various telescopes and the discoveries of other astronomers. The catalogue was revised in the 20th century and now contains 110 objects.

The Messier catalogue includes some of the most fascinating astronomical objects that can be observed from Earth’s Northern Hemisphere. Among them are deep-sky objects that can be viewed in stunning detail using larger telescopes but are also bright enough to be seen through a small telescope. This characteristic makes Messier objects extremely popular targets for amateur astronomers possessing all levels of experience and equipment. They are so popular, in fact, that they have inspired a special award from the Astronomical League (an organization for amateur astronomers) given to observers who are able to spot each of these objects. Those who succeed receive a certificate and are given the distinction of being in the Messier Club.

While the Hubble Space Telescope has not produced images of every object in the Messier catalogue, it has observed 96 of them as of June 2018. Some of Hubble's photographs offer views of a given object in its entirety, but many focus on specific areas of interest. While Hubble is able to magnify objects very effectively, it has a relatively small field of view. This means that, in some cases, Hubble would need to take many exposures to capture an entire object. Although this is not always an efficient use of its time, as is the case for the widely spaced “open” star clusters in the Messier catalogue, many exposures are taken when the scientific value justifies the time spent. One of these objects is the Andromeda galaxy (designated M31 in Messier’s catalogue). In order to create a mosaic image that depicts almost half of Andromeda, Hubble has taken nearly 7,400 exposures of the galaxy.

Unlike a digital camera that takes a single photograph in red, green and blue light to create a single full-colour image, Hubble takes monochrome images at specific wavelengths of light. These specific wavelengths can reveal characteristics of an object that are of scientific interest, such as the presence of a particular chemical element. Multiple observations at different wavelengths can be combined to form a single image that reveals all of these characteristics at once but doesn’t necessarily contain the full spectrum of visible light. In those cases, colours are assigned to each wavelength to highlight the different characteristics, offering a deeper understanding of the object’s properties. 

Additionally, Hubble is equipped to take infrared and ultraviolet images, which can reveal information that cannot be obtained using only visible light. Because infrared and ultraviolet light are not visible to human eyes, these images need to be processed in such a way that makes them meaningful to observers. This is done by assigning colours that humans can perceive to the wavelengths that they cannot. 

Whether their tool of choice is a sophisticated ground-based telescope, a decent pair of binoculars, or simply their naked eyes, observers hunting for Messier objects can use the data gathered from Hubble’s spectacular images to deepen their understanding of these 110 highlights of the night sky as they carry on the tradition of amateur astronomy.

The following pages contain some of the best images from Hubble’s Messier catalogue taken thus far.



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UK satellite 'sets sail' for return to Earth


A British satellite in space has just "set sail" to return to Earth.

TechDemoSat-1 was launched in 2014 to trial a number of new in-orbit technologies but has now reached the end of its operational life.

To bring it out of the sky faster than would ordinarily be the case, it has deployed a "drag sail".

This large membrane will catch residual air molecules at its altitude of 635km and pull TDS-1 quickly into Earth's atmosphere where it will burn up.

There is a lot of interest currently in "clean space" technologies.

The orbital highways above the planet are set to become congested with thousands of spacecraft in the coming years, and serious efforts need to be made to tidy away redundant hardware and other space junk if collisions are to be avoided.

TechDemoSat was built by SSTL of Guildford, and its 6.7-sqm Kapton drag sail, called Icarus-1, was developed by Cranfield University.

"It is fantastic to see an image of TechDemoSat's deployed drag sail captured by the onboard inspection camera," said SSTL's managing director, Sarah Parker.

"This in-orbit image of a deployed drag sail on one of our satellites is a first for us and is a fitting culmination of mission operations for this highly innovative small satellite."

Already, the Icarus design is starting to appear on other satellites as well.

TechDemoSat was part-funded by Innovate UK and was jointly operated by SSTL and by the Satellite Applications Catapult in Harwell.

It had eight payloads, including one that was developed by students to measure high-energy particles in space.


One of TechDemoSat's really big successes, however, was its Sea State experiment.

This used a GPS receiver, rather like a radar, to monitor how signals from the Global Positioning System were reflected off the ocean surface.

This gave scientists a powerful tool to assess the roughness of the sea surface, and from that to gauge the strength of the winds.

The lessons learned with this reflectometry experiment on TDS-1 were incorporated into the instruments that were later flown on the US space agency's CYGNSS (Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System) mission.

CYGNSS was put up specifically to peer through hurricanes to help forecast the strength of the winds when the storms make landfall.

The Innovate UK agency, along with the Harwell Catapult, have continued the concept of in-orbit demonstration (IOD) satellites.

They have just supported the launch of a small spacecraft that will test a compact microwave radiometer.

US-based Orbital Micro Systems expects to use a network of these instruments to make rapid weather forecasting updates.


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Watch the first solar eclipse ever captured on film!

Doyle Rice

The first film of a total solar eclipse has been "re-discovered," astronomers announced Thursday.

The eclipse, which occurred on May 28, 1900, in North Carolina, was filmed by British magician turned pioneering filmmaker Nevil Maskelyne. 

Mike Cruise, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said in a statement Thursday that "it's wonderful to see events from our scientific past brought back to life. Astronomers are always keen to embrace new technology, and our forerunners a century ago were no exception." 

The original film fragment, which belongs to the astronomical society, was "painstakingly scanned and restored" by conservation experts at the British Film Institute.

"These scenes of a total solar eclipse – one of the most spectacular sights in astronomy – are a captivating glimpse of Victorian science in action," Cruise said.

The total solar eclipse of May 28, 1900, was visible from Louisiana to Virginia. 


According to the astronomical society, it was not an easy feat to film. Maskelyne had to make a special telescopic adapter for his camera to capture the event. This is the only film by Maskelyne that's known to have survived.

"This is a wonderful archival discovery: perhaps the oldest surviving astronomical film, it is a really striking record of both early cinema and late Victorian eclipse observing," said Joshua Nall, the chair of the Royal Astronomical Society's astronomical heritage committee.

Folks antsy to see another total eclipse don't have long to wait, though you'll have to hop on a plane to South America to catch it: A total eclipse of the sun is coming to Chile and Argentina on July 2. 

Specifically, the sun will disappear along a narrow track that stretches from Chile’s coast to just south of Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital and largest city


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This luminous orb is the galaxy NGC 4621, better known as Messier 59. As this latter moniker indicates, the galaxy is listed in the famous catalogue of deep-sky objects compiled by French comet-hunter Charles Messier in the 18th century. However, German astronomer Johann Gottfried Koehler is credited with discovering the galaxy just days before Messier added it to his collection in 1779.   

Modern observations show that Messier 59 is an elliptical galaxy, one of the three main kinds of galaxies along with spirals and irregulars. Ellipticals tend to be the most evolved of the trio, full of old, red stars and exhibiting little or no new star formation. Messier 59, however, bucks this trend somewhat; the galaxy does show signs of star formation, with some newborn stars residing within a disk near the core.

Located in the 2,000-strong Virgo cluster of galaxies within the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin), Messier 59 lies approximately 50 million light-years away from us. This image was taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Messier 59 is featured in Hubble’s Messier catalogue, which includes some of the most fascinating objects that can be observed from Earth’s Northern Hemisphere. See the NASA-processed image and other Messier objects at: https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/hubble-s-messier-catalog.

Text credit: ESA (European Space Agency)
Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, P. Cote

Last Updated: May 31, 2019
Editor: Rob Garner


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A Galaxy Grouping in 2D and 3D: Stephan's Quintet


In 1877, Edouard Stephan discovered a tight visual grouping of five galaxies located in the constellation Pegasus. The galaxies of Stephan's Quintet are both overlapping and interacting and have become the most famous among the compact groups of galaxies. Astronomers have long known that four of the galaxies (all of which are yellowish-white in this video) form a physical group in space, while the fifth (bluish) is a foreground galaxy. In addition, a sixth galaxy (yellowish-white and on the far left) is likely to be part of the physical grouping. Hence, this 2D quintet that is a 3D quartet may actually be a 2D sextet that is a 3D quintet. This visualization makes apparent the spatial distribution of these galaxies. The video starts with a view that matches our 2D perspective. As the sequence travels in 3D, the foreground blue spiral, NGC 7320, quickly passes by the camera. The possible sixth galaxy member on the left, NGC 7320C, is seen at roughly the same distance as the remaining four galaxies. The camera turns to pass between two strongly interacting galaxies, NGC 7319 (left) and NGC 7318B (right), with each galaxy's spiral structure distorted by the gravitational interaction. In contrast, NGC 7318B overlaps in 2D with the more distant elliptical NGC 7318A but does not have a strong interaction. The other elliptical, NGC 7317, is also seen as more distant than the strongly interacting pair. In 3D, the four or five galaxies in this group are gathered together by their mutual gravity and may collide and merge together in the future. Credits: G. Bacon, J. DePasquale, F. Summers, Z. Levay (STScI)


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Nasa to open International Space Station to tourists


Nasa is to allow tourists to visit the International Space Station from 2020, priced at $35,000 (£27,500) per night.

The US space agency said it would open the orbiting station to tourism and other business ventures.

There will be up to two short private astronaut missions per year, said Robyn Gatens, the deputy director of the ISS.

Nasa said that private astronauts would be permitted to travel to the ISS for up to 30 days, travelling on US spacecraft.

"Nasa is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities as we've never done before," chief financial officer Jeff DeWit said in New York.

Nasa said that private commercial entities would be responsible for determining crew composition and ensuring that the private astronauts meet the medical and training requirements for spaceflight.

The two companies hired by Nasa are Elon Musk's SpaceX, which will use its Dragon capsule, and Boeing, which is building a spacecraft called the Starliner.

These companies are likely to charge any private astronaut a similar "taxi fare" to what they intend to charge Nasa for its astronauts - close to $60m per flight.

Nasa had previously banned any commercial use of the space station and prohibited astronauts from taking part in for-profit research.

Nasa does not own the station, however - it was built, beginning in 1998, with Russia, which has taken a more relaxed approach in recent decades to commerce.

In 2001, US businessman Dennis Tito became the first tourist to visit when he paid Russia around $20 million for a round trip.

Nasa's announcement on Friday is part of a move towards full privatisation of the ISS. US President Donald Trump published a budget last year which called for the station to be defunded by the government by 2025.

The space agency recently announced that it planned to return to the moon by 2024, taking the first woman there and the first person in decades.


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Astronomy Picture of the Day

2019 June 10 


Jupiter Abyss 
Image Credit: NASA, Juno, SwRI, MSSS; Processing & License: Gerald Eichstädt & Sean Doran

Explanation: What's that black spot on Jupiter? No one is sure. During the latest pass of NASA's Juno around Jupiter, the robotic spacecraft imaged a usually dark cloud feature informally dubbed the Abyss. Surrounding cloud patterns show the Abyss to be at the centre of a vortex. Since dark features on Jupiter's atmosphere tend to run deeper than light features, the Abyss may really be the deep hole that it appears -- but without more evidence that remains conjecture. The Abyss is surrounded by a complex of meandering clouds and other swirling storm systems, some of which are topped by light colored, high-altitude clouds. The featured image was captured last month while Juno passed only about 15,000 kilometers above Jupiter's cloud tops. The next close pass of Juno near Jupiter will be in July.




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Chandrayaan-2: India unveils spacecraft for second Moon mission


India's space agency has unveiled its spacecraft that it plans to launch next month and hopes to land on the Moon in early September.

If successful, India will be the fourth country to achieve a soft landing on the Moon, following the US, the former Soviet Union and China.

Chandrayaan-2 will be the country's second lunar mission.

India's first mission, Chandrayaan-1 which launched in 2008, was an orbiter and did not land on the Moon's surface.


This mission will focus on the lunar's surface and gather data on water, minerals and rock formations.

The new spacecraft will have a lander, an orbiter and rover.

These are photos of the craft in the Indian Space and Research Organisation's (ISRO) lab, where scientists have been busy getting the spacecraft ready:


If all goes according to plan, the lander and rover will touch down near the lunar south pole in September. If successful, it would be the first-ever spacecraft to land in that region.

The rover is expected to operate for 14 days on the Moon, ISRO chairperson K Sivan told the Times of India newspaper. "The rover will analyse the content of the lunar surface and send data and images back to the earth," he said.


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This is what it looks like when galaxies are about to die

Sarah Kaplan


An illustration of a galaxy in the "cold quasar" phase. (University of Kansas)

The beginning of the end of our galaxy is just a few billion years away. That’s when the glittering disk of the Milky Way is projected to smash into its nearest neighbor, a spiral galaxy called Andromeda. The force of the collision will fuse the black holes at the centers of the galaxies, producing a luminous whirlpool of fast-moving, ultrahot gas known as a quasar.

Far from the galactic center, on a remote and unimportant planet called Earth, the quasar will initially appear as a brilliant blue halo in the sky, so bright it outshines the stars. But quasars are prone to cataclysmic flashes, which sweep gas and dust — the stuff that suns and worlds and life are made of — straight out into the circumgalactic medium. Eventually, the galaxy will empty itself of the material for making new stars.

This is how all galaxies die — at least, according to the theories. But until now, no one has captured a galaxy in its transition phase, after the formation of a quasar but before it has lost all its stellar building blocks.

In research presented Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in St. Louis, astrophysicist Allison Kirkpatrick announced the detection of 22 objects she calls “cold quasars.” These distant bodies glow bright enough to be beginning their death throes, Kirkpatrick said, but still contain cool clouds of dust, suggesting they haven’t yet lost the ability to birth new stars.

They are right on the brink — hovering between the epoch of creation and the eon of waiting for death.

“One of the biggest questions we have in astronomy is, how do galaxies die?” said Kirkpatrick, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas. “We know what they look like once they’re dead . . . but the rest of it is just pieces that we’ve guessed at.”

Now, she continued, “we’ve found a population that we can study in detail and map out exactly how these galaxies move from their star formation phase of their life to their retirement phase."

The discovery came during a survey of the brightest objects in the sky. Most such surveys examine X-rays produced by gas swooshing toward a black hole at close to the speed of light — exactly the kind of high-energy radiation you’d associate with a monstrously massive quasar.

But Kirkpatrick also looked at these objects using infrared light, which emanates from much cooler phenomena, farther from galaxies’ violent cores.

“Infrared detections . . . suggest very, very cold dust. That’s not something you typically expect to see,” Kirkpatrick said.

Her next step will be to attempt to measure the speed at which gas and dust are being blown out of the galaxy, which will let Kirkpatrick calculate how long galaxies spend in the “cold quasar” phase.

And she’ll continue to seek more of these objects, which offer a glimpse into a little-understood phase of galactic histories.

“Astronomy is a unique science in that it’s passive,” she said. “We can’t watch any process in real time, so we are limited by snapshots of different galaxies we try to link together.”

“The more we can fill in that picture with snapshots the better we can tell this story,” she said. “And I think I found a new snapshot.” 


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June 12, 2019

Table Salt Compound Spotted on Europa


Tara Regio is the yellowish area to left of center, in this NASA Galileo image of Europa’s surface. This region of geologic chaos is the area researchers identified an abundance of sodium chloride.
Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A familiar ingredient has been hiding in plain sight on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. Using a visible-light spectral analysis, planetary scientists at Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have discovered that the yellow color visible on portions of the surface of Europa is actually sodium chloride, a compound known on Earth as table salt, which is also the principal component of sea salt.

The discovery suggests that the salty subsurface ocean of Europa may chemically resemble Earth's oceans more than previously thought, challenging decades of supposition about the composition of those waters. The finding was published by Science Advances on June 12.

Flybys from NASA's Voyager and Galileo spacecraft have led scientists to conclude that Europa is covered by a layer of salty liquid water encased in an icy shell. Galileo carried an infrared spectrometer, an instrument scientists use to examine the composition of a surface they're studying. Galileo's spectrometer found water ice and a substance that appeared to be magnesium sulfate salts (like Epsom salts). Since the icy shell is geologically young and features abundant evidence of past geologic activity, it was suspected that whatever salts exist on the surface may derive from the ocean below.

"People have traditionally assumed that all of the interesting spectroscopy is in the infrared on planetary surfaces, because that's where most of the molecules that scientists are looking for have their fundamental features," said Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech and coauthor of the Science Advances paper.


In a laboratory simulating conditions on Jupiter's moon Europa at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, plain white table salt (sodium chloride) turned yellow (visible in a small well at the center of this photograph). The color is significant because scientists can now deduce that the yellow color previously observed on portions of the surface of Europa is actually sodium chloride. The JPL lab experiments matched temperature, pressure and electron radiation conditions at Europa's surface.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"No one has taken visible-wavelength spectra of Europa before that had this sort of spatial and spectral resolution. The Galileo spacecraft didn't have a visible spectrometer. It just had a near-infrared spectrometer, and in the near-infrared, chlorides are featureless," said Caltech graduate student Samantha Trumbo, lead author of the paper.

That all changed when new, higher spectral resolution data from the W. M. Keck Observatory on the dormant volcano Maunakea in Hawaii suggested that the scientists weren't actually seeing magnesium sulfates on Europa. Most of the sulfate salts considered previously possess distinct absorptions, which serve as fingerprints for compounds, that should have been visible in the higher-quality Keck data. However, the spectra of regions expected to reflect the internal composition lacked any of the characteristic sulfate absorptions.

"We thought that we might be seeing sodium chlorides, but they are essentially featureless in an infrared spectrum," Brown said.

Meanwhile, JPL scientist Kevin Hand had used sample ocean salts, bombarded by radiation in a laboratory under Europa-like conditions, and found that several new and distinct features arose in sodium chloride after irradiation. He discovered that they changed colors to the point that they could be identified with an analysis of the visible spectrum. Sodium chloride, for example, turned a shade of yellow similar to that visible in a geologically young area of Europa known as "Tara Regio."

"Sodium chloride is a bit like invisible ink on Europa's surface. Before irradiation you can't tell it's there, but after irradiation the color jumps right out at you," said Hand.

By taking a close look with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the research team was able to identify a distinct absorption in the visible spectrum at 450 nanometers, which matched the irradiated salt precisely, confirming that the yellow color of Tara Regio reflected the presence of irradiated sodium chloride on the surface.

"We've had the capacity to do this analysis with the Hubble Space Telescope for the past 20 years," Brown said. "It's just that nobody thought to look."

While the finding does not guarantee that this sodium chloride is derived from the subsurface ocean (this could, in fact, simply be evidence of different types of materials stratified in the moon's icy shell), the study's authors propose that it warrants a reevaluation of the geochemistry of Europa.

"Magnesium sulfate would simply have leached into the ocean from rocks on the ocean floor, but sodium chloride may indicate the ocean floor is hydrothermally active," Trumbo said. "That would mean Europa is a more geologically interesting planetary body than previously believed."

The study is titled "Sodium chloride on the surface of Europa." This research was supported by the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship Program, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and JPL, which is managed by Caltech for NASA.


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June 14, 2019

Hubble Sets Sights on an Explosive Galaxy


When massive stars die at the end of their short lives, they light up the cosmos with bright, explosive bursts of light and material known as supernovae. A supernova event is incredibly energetic and intensely luminous — so much so that it forms what looks like an especially bright new star that slowly fades away over time.

These exploding stars glow so incredibly brightly when they first form that they can be spotted from afar using telescopes such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The subject of this image, a spiral galaxy named NGC 4051 — about 45 million light-years from Earth — has hosted multiple supernovae in past years. The first was spotted in 1983 (SN 1983I), the second in 2003 (SN 2003ie), and the most recent in 2010 (SN 2010br). These explosive events were seen scattered throughout the center and spiral arms of NGC 4051.

SN 1983I and SN 2010br were both categorized as Type Ic supernovae. This type of supernova is produced by the core collapse of a massive star that has lost its outer layer of hydrogen and helium, either via winds or by mass transfer to a companion star. Because of this, Type Ic — and also Type Ib — supernovae are sometimes referred to as stripped core-collapse supernovae.

NGC 4501 sits in the southern part of a cluster of galaxies known as the Ursa Major I Cluster. This cluster is especially rich in spirals such as NGC 4051 and is a subset of the larger Virgo Supercluster, which also houses the Milky Way.

Text credit: ESA (European Space Agency)
Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Crenshaw and O. Fox


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June 17, 2019
Storm Rages in Cosmic Teacup


Fancy a cup of cosmic tea? This one isn't as calming as the ones on Earth. In a galaxy hosting a structure nicknamed the "Teacup," a galactic storm is raging.

The source of the cosmic squall is a  supermassive black hole buried at the center of the galaxy, officially known as SDSS 1430+1339. As matter in the central regions of the galaxy is pulled toward the black hole, it is energized by the strong gravity and magnetic fields near the black hole. The infalling material produces more radiation than all the stars in the host galaxy. This kind of actively growing black hole is known as a quasar.

Located about 1.1 billion light years from Earth, the Teacup's host galaxy was originally discovered in visible light images by citizen scientists in 2007 as part of the Galaxy Zoo project, using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. 

Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Cambridge/G. Lansbury et al; Optical: NASA/STScI/W. Keel et al.

Last Updated: June 17, 2019

Editor: Yvette Smith


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European Space Agency probe to intercept a comet


The European Space Agency is to launch another mission to a comet.

After the hugely successful Rosetta encounter with the icy dirt-ball known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, officials have now selected a new venture that will launch in 2028.

It's called Comet Interceptor and will aim to catch and study an object that has come in towards the Sun from the outer reaches of the Solar System.

Scientifically, it will be led from the UK's Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

Dr Geraint Jones, who is affiliated to the University College London research centre, is the principal investigator.

The concept is a three-in-one probe: a mothership and two smaller daughter craft. They will separate near the comet to conduct different but complementary studies.

The cost for Esa is expected to be about €150m. As is customary, individual member states will provide the instrumentation and cover that tab.


Interceptor was selected on Wednesday by the agency's Science Programme Committee as part of the new F-Class series - "F" standing for fast. The call for ideas only went out a year ago.

There will now be a period of feasibility assessment with industry before the committee reconvenes to formally "adopt" the concept. At that point, the mission becomes the real deal.

The intention is to launch the probe on the same rocket as Esa's Ariel space telescope when it goes up at the end of the next decade. This observatory won't use the full performance of its launch vehicle, and so spare mass and volume is available to do something additional.

And it's Ariel's destination that makes Interceptor a compelling prospect.

The telescope is to be positioned at a "gravitational sweetspot" about 1.5 million km from Earth. This is an ideal position from which to study distant stars and their planets - but it also represents a fast-response "parking bay" for any new mission seeking a target of opportunity.


The type of comets being sought by Interceptor tends to give little notice of their arrival in the inner Solar System - perhaps only a few months.

That's insufficient time to plan, build and launch a spacecraft. You need to be out there already, waiting for the call.

This is what Interceptor will do. It will be sitting at the sweetspot, relying on sky surveys to find it a suitable target. When that object is identified, the probe will then set off to meet it.

The encounter will be very different from that of Rosetta at 67P. Interceptor will not orbit the comet; it will just fly past - hopefully not too quickly.

Nor will Interceptor try to repeat the landing of Rosetta's little robot, Philae.

Instead, it will be the job of those daughter crafts to see if they can get in a bit closer to the comet than the mothership to acquire some more detailed information.

"The main spacecraft has the propulsion, the high-gain antenna to talk to Earth, and some instrumentation on it. That passes relatively far from the comet, about 1,000km or so upstream of the nucleus of the object. And then we deploy two cubesat-like probes that go a lot closer and do the high-risk, high-reward observations," deputy PI Dr Colin Snodgrass, from the University of Edinburgh, told BBC News.


The comets actively encountered so far by space probes have been the repeat visitors - the ones that shuffle back and forth to make a journey around the Sun every few years.

And because they have gone close to our star on multiple occasions, they've been chemically altered by heat, particle bombardment and even numerous impacts with other bodies.

In contrast, the comets that come in from the so-called Oort Cloud - a band of icy material that resides several hundred billion km from the Sun - will be pristine. And to see one at close quarters should give scientists completely new insights into the conditions that existed at the inception of the Solar System, and potentially from even further back in time.

The risk for Interceptor is that it could be parked up for quite some time. The Oort Cloud comet will have to have just the right trajectory for the Esa mission. A good sample of candidates will inevitably be out of range of the probe's propulsion system.

On the positive side, new Earth-based observatories, such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), will soon come online. These are expected to have the sensitivity to find many more objects moving across the sky.

"Yes, there's a risk we could end up sitting there with nothing really suitable," conceded Prof Mark McCaughrean, Esa's senior advisor for science and exploration. "But in the end, you'd direct it at something and there are some back-up targets already identified."

These would be more of those "short period" comets. One is called 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, which was a possibility considered for Europe's Giotto probe in the 1980s. Giotto eventually flew past Comet Halley.

The 2028 launch is going to be quite an occasion for UK scientists. They will be leading their European partners on both the missions - Ariel and Comet Interceptor - mated atop the rocket.

Chris Lee, the head of science programmes at UK Space Agency, said: "I'm delighted that our academic community impressed Esa with a vision of what a small, fast science mission can offer.

"In 1986 the UK-led mission to Halley's Comet became the first to observe a cometary nucleus and, more recently, UK scientists took part in another iconic European comet mission, Rosetta. Now our scientists will build on that impressive legacy by attempting to visit a pristine comet for the very first time and learn more about the origins of our Solar System."



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Mountain of ice on asteroid ‘is like nothing humanity has ever seen before’

Rob Waugh


The mountain is called Ahuna Mons (NASA)

Astronomers could hardly believe their eyes when they saw a 12,000ft mountain of ice rising from the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres in images sent back by NASA’s Dawn probe.

The mountain ‘is like nothing that humanity has ever seen before’, NASA said this week.

The mountain of ice (Ahuna Mons) is even, smooth, and steep-sided, and now scientists from the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) believe they know how it formed.

Basically, the mountain is a huge mud volcano, made of hot mud which burst through the surface at a weak point covered in reflective salt - then froze in the bitter cold of space.

When it was first discovered, Ceres was believed to be a ‘missing planet’ – but it’s now considered a dwarf planet alongside Pluto.

The Dawn spacecraft, driven by a Star Trek-style ion drive, orbited Ceres for the first time in 2015, capturing data which is now being analysed by scientists.

The researchers analysed measurements of the dwarf planet.


© Provided by Oath Inc. Ceres Dwarf planet isolated on black background. 3D render.

Wladimir Neumann of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof and the University of Muenster said, ‘In this region, the interior of Ceres is not solid and rigid, but moving and at least partially fluid

‘This 'bubble' that formed in the mantle of Ceres beneath Ahuna Mons is a mixture of saline water and rock components.’

The researchers write, ‘A bubble made of a mixture of salt water, mud and rock rose from within the dwarf planet.

‘The bubble pushed the ice-rich crust upwards, and at a structural weak point the muddy substance, comprising salts and hydrogenated silicates, was pushed to the surface, solidified in the cold of space, in the absence of any atmosphere, and piled up to form a mountain.

‘Ahuna Mons is an enormous mud volcano.’


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June 20, 2019

Coming in for a Landing with New NASA Technology


Wishing you had a driverless car or plane? NASA Langley is developing navigational radar sensor technology to use during future space missions. The sensors can also help make autonomous vehicles more efficient on Earth.
Credits: NASA

NASA will need ultra-precise entry, descent and landing technology to land the first woman and next man safely on the Moon in 2024.  

NASA is developing an advanced suite of sensors, avionics and algorithms to avoid hazards and perform extremely safe and precise landings on planetary surfaces. One of those critical landing technologies is navigation Doppler lidar (NDL), which is used to determine precise vehicle velocity and position.

The new NDL unit, being developed at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, is comprised of a small electronics box connected by fiberoptic cables to three lenses that transmit laser beams to an anticipated distance greater than 4 miles on the Moon and 2.5 miles on Earth. Those beams reflect off the ground to help the sensor determine its speed, direction and altitude. NDL provides ultra-precise measurements that identify exactly how high a human or robotic lander is and how fast it is traveling.

“The lander uses the NDL measurements during its descent toward the Moon surface to precisely and gently land at the designated location,” said Farzin Amzajerdian, the NDL principal investigator.

Engineers at NASA recently tested the performance of NDL’s velocity measurement capability during a high-speed rocket sled test at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in Kern, County, California. The objective of the testing was to validate NDL’s ability to accurately track the speed of a target moving at 450 miles per hour. The target is put on a sled and launched down a track while NDL measures its distance and velocity.  

The tests were a part of the  Safe & Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE) project, developing the perfect combination of technologies needed to more precisely land on planetary surfaces. SPLICE technologies will be infused into Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) missions within the next few years, with NDL providing instruments for both the Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines lander missions planned for 2021.

During the series of tests, NDL telescopes were fixed to a stationary mount that picked up range and speed of a sled powered by rocket motors that traveled down a rail track at 450 miles per hour. The NDL unit documented accurate speed and range measurements of the sled during each of the eight tests and validated the targeted NDL design performance.

“This recent test validates the NDL’s ability to provide extremely accurate velocity measurements during descent and landing, which is a part of critical testing required to validate all of the SPLICE technologies for future NASA missions,” said John Carson, principal investigator for SPLICE.

The major components of SPLICE, along with NDL, are a camera for terrain relative navigation, a hazard detection lidar, and a descent and landing computer that incorporates a surrogate for the in-development NASA high-performance spaceflight computing (HPSC) processor.

The SPLICE suite of sensors and algorithms use real-time images and 3D-generated maps to precisely navigate during descent and landing toward safe touchdown locations in close proximity to targeted planetary surface locations. The NASA HPSC chip enables SPLICE computing to rapidly process high volumes of data with complex algorithms that determine precise navigation information, intelligent guidance maneuvers, and the safest landing sites for future missions.

The HPSC processor architecture provides roughly 100 times the computational capacity of current space flight processors for the same amount of power. The chip also offers greater flexibility, extensibility and interoperability than current processors.

A test of the terrain-relative navigation capability to capture and compare real-time images with known maps of surface features is planned for late 2019 through NASA’s Flight Opportunities.

SPLICE’s advanced sensing, computing and algorithm technologies will enable safe and precise landing for future NASA missions.

Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon within five years, NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans are based on a two-phase approach: the first is focused on speed – landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 – while the second will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028. We will use what we learn on the Moon to prepare to send astronauts to Mars. The technology missions on this launch will advance a variety of future exploration missions.

Hillary Smith
NASA's Langley Research Center


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Japan wants to launch the first ever rover to visit a Martian moon

By Chelsea Whyte

Mars’s twin moons may soon get a visitor. We’ve never landed anything on Phobos and Deimos, but we have taken pictures of their surfaces from orbiters around Mars. Now, a mission headed by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, is set to launch a rover to one of these small moons in 2024 – the final destination is yet to be decided.

The Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission is a spacecraft intended to orbit both moons. The plan is to enter Mars orbit in 2025 and return samples of the moons to Earth in 2029. JAXA is also partnering with the German and French space agencies to building a rover to explore one of them. It will be the first rover to ever land on a minor body in the solar system.

“My guess is that they would go to Phobos unless there was some kind of spacecraft engineering reason not to, because it’s a bigger target and has more gravity,” says Tim Glotch at Stony Brook University in New York. Landing there could help us solve the mystery of where these moons come from.

There are two leading theories: either Phobos was created when an impactor hit Mars, or it could be a captured asteroid. “If you do spectroscopy on it, it’s similar to an asteroid’s carbonaceous chondrite material,” says Glotch. It also has a weird potato-like shape that is reminiscent of some asteroids we’ve seen.

But the details of Phobos’s orbit are such that it would be almost impossible for it to have been captured if it was coming in from the asteroid belt, he says. Some data suggests the moon has a similar make-up to Mars, but it’s not conclusive.

“A rover could sample the rocks and tell us what the surface is made out of. If it has minerals that are similar to the Martian crust, that could support that idea, or if it has minerals closer to carbonaceous chondrites, it could be more like a captured asteroid,” says Glotch.

Unlike the asteroids Bennu and Ryugu, the two most recent space rocks Japan has sent spacecraft to explore, Phobos isn’t particularly rocky from what we can tell. “It’s mostly covered by a fine-grain dusty material which makes landing a bit easier. It should be relatively easy to traverse, and there’s plenty of safe places to land on it,” says Glotch.

Knowing how the make-up of these moons will tell us more about how our solar system formed, but could also come in handy for future crewed missions to Mars.

“In some of the potential plans to eventually send humans to Mars, Phobos is a waystation. If it ends up being volatile-rich, meaning we could extract water for fuel, that could potentially support human expeditions to Mars,” says Glotch.

Source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2207216-japan-wants-to-launch-the-first-ever-rover-to-visit-a-martian-moon/?utm_medium=SOC&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1561037372



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June 21, 2019

Hubble Captures Elusive, Irregular Galaxy


This image shows an irregular galaxy named IC 10, a member of the Local Group — a collection of over 50 galaxies in our cosmic neighborhood that includes the Milky Way.

IC 10 is a remarkable object. It is the closest-known starburst galaxy, meaning that it is undergoing a furious bout of star formation fueled by ample supplies of cool hydrogen gas. This gas condenses into vast molecular clouds, which then form into dense knots where pressures and temperatures reach a point sufficient to ignite nuclear fusion, thus giving rise to new generations of stars.  

As an irregular galaxy, IC 10 lacks the majestic shape of spiral galaxies such as the Milky Way, or the rounded, ethereal appearance of elliptical galaxies. It is a faint object, despite its relative proximity to us of 2.2 million light-years. In fact, IC 10 only became known to humankind in 1887, when American astronomer Lewis Swift spotted it during an observing campaign. The small galaxy remains difficult to study even today because it is located along a line-of-sight which is chock-full of cosmic dust and stars.

Text credit: ESA (European Space Agency)
Image credit: NASA, ESA and F. Bauer

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Falcon Heavy launches tonight!

The most interesting payload on it (at least for me) is definitely The Planetary Society's LightSail 2. Been looking forward towards this for quite a while as it will be the first controlled spacecraft in Earth's orbit to fly solely on sunlight and hopefully the start of the innovative propulsion technology which has been supported by Carl Sagan back in the 70s already.

Here's some info on how it works:

LightSail 2 is a secondary payload attached to the Falcon Rocket in a small washing machine-sized spacecraft called a Prox-1. Once detached from the Falcon rocket and at a safe distance, Prox-1 will eject LightSail 2 for orbital insertion. On launch, it measures no more than the size of a loaf of bread! Once deployed in space, 4 mini solar panels will open from its sides to power the on-board computers, communications systems, detectors and sail actuators.

The sails themselves are made of Mylar, and at just 4.5 microns thick (one tenth the width of a human hair) are light and reflective enough for sunlight alone to push them into a higher orbit.

Before deployment the entire spacecraft measures just 30 x 10 x 10 cm, while when fully open the sails span an area of 5.6 x 5.6 m or about 32 square metres; and an entire spacecraft weights just 5kg!





A great post with a lot of details can be found here: https://planetarie.wordpress.com/2019/06/24/the-planetary-societys-lightsail-2/


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Nasa puts up deep-space atomic clock


Nasa has put a miniaturised atomic clock in orbit that it believes can revolutionise deep-space navigation.

About the size of a toaster, the device is said to have 50 times the stability of existing space clocks, such as those flown in GPS satellites.

If the technology proves itself over the next year, Nasa will install the clock in future planetary probes.

The timepiece was one of 24 separate deployments from a Falcon Heavy rocket that launched from Florida on Tuesday.

The other passengers on the flight were largely also demonstrators. They included a small spacecraft to test a new type of "green" rocket fuel, and another platform that aims to propel itself via the pressure of sunlight caught in a large membrane; what's often called a "lightsail".

But it is the mercury-ion atomic clock, developed at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which has had the most attention.

Today, deep-space probes are tracked across the Solar System via radio signals.

These signals are sent from Earth and are immediately returned by the spacecraft. The very precise time taken for the speed-of-light messages to echo back enables navigators to work out the mission's exact position and to command the necessary course corrections.

But if probes carried their own atomic clocks, this two-way system could be reduced to one-way, and the missions' onboard computers would then make all the necessary navigational calculations.


The atomic clocks currently used on Earth for deep-space navigation are refrigerator-sized. JPL's engineers have shrunk this down to something that can easily be accommodated on a spacecraft.

Deputy principal investigator Jill Seubert said "self-driving spacecraft" were one of the top technologies needed to put humans on Mars.

"Autonomous onboard navigation means that a spacecraft can perform its own navigation in real-time without waiting for directions to be sent from navigators back here on Earth. And with this capability, a human-crewed spacecraft can be delivered safely to a landing site with less uncertainty in their path," she told reporters.

Don Cornwell, from Nasa's Space Communications and Navigation Program, added: "Of course, for a spacecraft travelling well beyond Earth orbit, the smallest clock inaccuracies can lead to large navigational errors. But [the new clock] has a high degree of clock stability, meaning it can maintain its accuracy over many years.

"The deep space atomic clock's design should gain or lose less than 2 nanoseconds per day, or an error of one second in nine million years."

The development of the spacecraft chassis, or bus, that is carrying the clock was begun by the British manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Limited at its US division, which was then later sold to the American General Atomics company.

Surrey itself had an interest in six other spacecraft launched on Monday's Falcon Heavy.

The UK firm assembled this sextet of platforms to be part of a constellation known as FORMOSAT-7. It is a joint US-Taiwanese initiative to monitor the weather by interrogating the way radio signals from GPS satellites are affected as they pass through the atmosphere.

Tuesday was the third time a Falcon Heavy had flown. The rocket is essentially three Falcon-9 rockets strapped together.

As is customary now for the rocket operator SpaceX, the three boosters were commanded to come back to Earth under control once they had finished the job of sending the multi-satellite mission on its way.

Two of the boosters successfully landed back at Cape Canaveral. The third just missed its touchdown target on a drone ship out in the Atlantic.



Edited by CaaC (John)
Spelling corrections
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June 25, 2019

Hubble Finds Tiny “Electric Soccer Balls” in Space, Helps Solve Interstellar Mystery

Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed the presence of electrically-charged molecules in space shaped like soccer balls, shedding light on the mysterious contents of the interstellar medium (ISM) – the gas and dust that fills interstellar space.


This is an artist's concept depicting the presence of buckyballs in space. Buckyballs, which consist of 60 carbon atoms arranged like soccer balls, have been detected in space before by scientists using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The new result is the first time an electrically charged (ionized) version has been found in the interstellar medium.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since stars and planets form from collapsing clouds of gas and dust in space, “The diffuse ISM can be considered as the starting point for the chemical processes that ultimately give rise to planets and life,” said Martin Cordiner of the Catholic University of America, Washington. “So fully identifying its contents provides information on the ingredients available to create stars and planets.” Cordiner, who is stationed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the lead author of a paper on this research published April 22nd in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The molecules identified by Cordiner and his team are a form of carbon called “Buckminsterfullerene,” also known as “Buckyballs,” which consists of 60 carbon atoms (C60) arranged in a hollow sphere. C60 has been found in some rare cases on Earth in rocks and minerals, and can also turn up in high-temperature combustion soot.

C60 has been seen in space before. However, this is the first time an electrically charged (ionized) version has been confirmed to be present in the diffuse ISM. The C60 gets ionized when ultraviolet light from stars tears off an electron from the molecule, giving the C60 a positive charge (C60+). “The diffuse ISM was historically considered too harsh and tenuous an environment for appreciable abundances of large molecules to occur,” said Cordiner. “Prior to the detection of C60, the largest known molecules in space were only 12 atoms in size. Our confirmation of C60+ shows just how complex astrochemistry can get, even in the lowest density, most strongly ultraviolet-irradiated environments in the Galaxy.”

Life as we know it is based on carbon-bearing molecules and this discovery shows complex carbon molecules can form and survive in the harsh environment of interstellar space. “In some ways, life can be thought of as the ultimate in chemical complexity,” said Cordiner. “The presence of C60 unequivocally demonstrates a high level of chemical complexity intrinsic to space environments, and points toward a strong likelihood for other extremely complex, carbon-bearing molecules arising spontaneously in space.”

Most of the ISM is hydrogen and helium, but it’s spiked with many compounds that haven’t been identified. Since interstellar space is so remote, scientists study how it affects the light from distant stars to identify its contents. As starlight passes through space, elements and compounds in the ISM absorb and block certain colors (wavelengths) of the light. When scientists analyze starlight by separating it into its component colors (spectrum), the colors that have been absorbed appear dim or are absent. Each element or compound has a unique absorption pattern that acts as a fingerprint allowing it to be identified. However, some absorption patterns from the ISM cover a broader range of colors, which appear different from any known atom or molecule on Earth. These absorption patterns are called Diffuse Interstellar Bands (DIBs). Their identity has remained a mystery ever since they were discovered by Mary Lea Heger, who published observations of the first two DIBs in 1922.

A DIB can be assigned by finding a precise match with the absorption fingerprint of a substance in the laboratory. However, there are millions of different molecular structures to try, so it would take many lifetimes to test them all.

“Today, more than 400 DIBs are known, but (apart from the few newly attributed to C60+), none has been conclusively identified,” said Cordiner. “Together, the appearance of the DIBs indicate the presence of a large amount of carbon-rich molecules in space, some of which may eventually participate in the chemistry that gives rise to life. However, the composition and characteristics of this material will remain unknown until the remaining DIBs are assigned.”

Decades of laboratory studies have failed to find a precise match with any DIBs until the work on C60+. In the new work, the team was able to match the absorption pattern seen from C60+ in the laboratory to that from Hubble observations of the ISM, confirming the recently claimed assignment by a team from University of Basel, Switzerland, whose laboratory studies provided the required C60+ comparison data. The big problem for detecting C60+ using conventional, ground-based telescopes, is that atmospheric water vapour blocks the view of the C60+ absorption pattern. However, orbiting above most of the atmosphere in space, the Hubble telescope has a clear, unobstructed view. Nevertheless, they still had to push Hubble far beyond its usual sensitivity limits to stand a chance of detecting the faint fingerprints of C60+.

The observed stars were all blue supergiants, located in the plane of our Galaxy, the Milky Way. The Milky Way's interstellar material is primarily located in a relatively flat disk, so lines of sight to stars in the Galactic plane traverse the greatest quantities of interstellar matter, and therefore show the strongest absorption features due to interstellar molecules.

The detection of C60+ in the diffuse ISM supports the team’s expectations that very large, carbon-bearing molecules are likely candidates to explain many of the remaining, unidentified DIBs. This suggests that future laboratory efforts measure the absorption patterns of compounds related to C60+, to help identify some of the remaining DIBs.

The team is seeking to detect C60+ in more environments to see just how widespread buckyballs are in the Universe. According to Cordiner, based on their observations so far, it seems that C60+ is very widespread in the Galaxy.

This work was funded by NASA under a grant from the Space Telescope Science Institute. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C. NASA is exploring our Solar System and beyond, uncovering worlds, stars, and cosmic mysteries near and far with our powerful fleet of space and ground-based missions.

Bill Steigerwald

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland


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Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus ‘has all the ingredients for alien life,’ scientists say

Rob Waugh


NASA's Cassini spacecraft is shown diving through the plume of Saturn's moon Enceladus, in 2015, in this photo illustration. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.

Geyser-like plumes of ice which erupt from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus have offered a new hint that life could lurk in the moon’s subsurface ocean.

NASA’s Cassini probe sampled a plume of material erupting from Enceladus’s surface - but a new analysis of the material suggests an environment where life could flourish inside the moon.

Researchers led by Lucas Fifer of the University of Washington found that the plumes are chemically different from the ocean beneath - changed by their 800mph eruption into space.

Video: This Is What Clouds Look Like On Saturn’s Moon (Veuer)


It means that the surface of the moon could be much more hospitable to life than previously believed.

Fifer said, ‘Those high levels of carbon dioxide also imply a lower and more Earthlike pH level in the ocean of Enceladus than previous studies have shown. This bodes well for possible life.

‘Although there are exceptions, most life on Earth functions best living in or consuming water with near-neutral pH, so similar conditions on Enceladus could be encouraging.”


© Provided by Oath Inc. Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 27, 2016. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.

‘And they make it much easier to compare this strange ocean world to an environment that is more familiar.’

Fifer and his team believe that the moon’s high concentration of ammonium could also offer fuel for life.

Fifer said, ‘Though the high concentrations of gases might indicate a lack of living organisms to consume it all that does not necessarily mean Enceladus is devoid of life. It might mean microbes just aren’t abundant enough to consume all the available chemical energy.’


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