NASA Will Launch A Probe To Study The Solar System’s Protective Bubble In 2024

NASA will launch a new mission in 2024 to help scientists better understand the bubble that surrounds the solar system, agency officials said.

This huge bubble, which known as the heliosphere, is created by the sun; it consists of charged solar particles and solar magnetic fields.

The heliosphere helps protect Earth and other solar system bodies from space radiation, blocking some highly energetic cosmic rays that originated in interstellar space.

But the heliosphere boundary is far from impenetrable. The new NASA mission, called the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), will collect and study fast-moving particles that manage to make it through.

This boundary is where our sun does a great deal to protect us. IMAP is critical to broadening our understanding of how this ‘cosmic filter’ works,” Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement Friday (June 1).

The implications of this research could reach well beyond the consideration of Earthly impacts as we look to send humans into deep space.

IMAP was chosen from a stable of candidate proposals submitted late last year, NASA officials said.

The probe will launch to the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 1, a gravitationally stable spot in space about 930,000 miles sunward from our planet.

IMAP will use 10 onboard science instruments to characterize the particles streaking through that neighborhood.

Such work should shed light on the interaction between the interstellar medium and the solar wind — the stream of charged particles flowing constantly from the sun.

And help researchers better understand how cosmic rays are accelerated inside the heliosphere, among other things, NASA officials said.

The cost of the mission is capped at $492 million, not including the launch vehicle. IMAP’s principal investigator is David McComas of Princeton University, and the mission will be managed by The Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

IMAP is the fifth mission in NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Probes program. The other four are the Thermosphere, Ionosphere, Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics mission (TIMED), which launched in December 2001.

Hinode, a collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency that lifted off in September 2006.

The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), a joint mission with the European Space Agency that launched in October 2006; and the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, which launched in March 2015.

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‘Planet Nine’ Can’t Hide Much Longer, Scientists Say

Planet Nine’s days of lurking unseen in the dark depths of the outer solar system may be numbered.

The hypothetical giant planet, which is thought to be about 10 times more massive than Earth, will be discovered within 16 months or so, astronomer Mike Brown predicted.

I’m pretty sure, I think, that by the end of next winter — not this winter, next winter — I think that there’ll be enough people looking for it that … somebody’s actually going to track this down,” Brown said during a news conference at a joint meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) and the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) in Pasadena, California.

Brown said that eight to 10 groups are currently looking for the planet.

At the “next one of these [DPS-EPSC meetings], we’ll be talking about finding Planet Nine instead of just looking for it,” added Brown, who’s based at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena.

That would be a pretty quick path from hypothetical planet to confirmed world. The existence of Planet Nine was seriously proposed for the first time just in 2014, by astronomers Scott Sheppard and Chadwick Trujillo, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, respectively.

Sheppard and Trujillo noted that the dwarf planet Sedna, the newfound object 2012 VP113 and several other bodies far beyond Pluto share certain odd orbital characteristics, a coincidence that would make sense if their paths through space had been shaped by an unseen, giant “perturber” in the region.

The researchers suggested that this putative planet is perhaps two to 15 times more massive than Earth and lies hundreds of astronomical units (AU) from the sun.

This interpretation was bolstered in January of this year by Brown and fellow Caltech astronomer Konstantin Batygin, who found evidence of a perturber’s influence in the orbits of a handful of additional distant objects.

This “Planet Nine,” as Batygin and Brown dubbed the putative world, likely contains about 10 Earth masses and orbits on a highly elliptical path whose aphelion is about 1,000 AU, the researchers said.

The evidence for Planet Nine’s existence has continued to grow over the past nine months, as several different research teams have determined that the orbits of other small, distant objects appear to have been sculpted as well.

This is well within reach of the giant telescopes,” he said.

The Subaru telescope, I think, on Mauna Kea, [in Hawaii] — the Japanese national telescope — is the prime instrument for doing the search. But there are a lot of other people who have clever ideas on how to find it, too, that are trying with their own telescopes.”

So which research team will ultimately find Planet Nine? Brown said he isn’t sure, and he stressed that getting credit for the historic discovery should be a secondary concern for astronomers.

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Here’s Where Outer Space Actually Begins

Excluding a handful of astronauts, all of humanity lives on a little spinning marble hurtling through the almost uninterrupted void of cosmic emptiness, protected by the warm, comforting envelope of our atmosphere.

But where does that atmosphere end and the edge of space begin?

Scientists aren’t exactly sure. There’s even a debate over whether we should determine where Earth ceases and space begins — the UN and the US State Department believe we shouldn’t make anything official.

We do have some general boundaries though.

Above Earth’s surface, our atmosphere is divided into five layers, the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and exosphere.

Chances are, unless you’ve spent time as a fighter pilot, you’ve never gone beyond the troposphere. And all humans except for the 24 astronauts who have visited the moon have ever ventured beyond the thermosphere.

When you reach 50 miles of altitude, near the border between the mesosphere and the thermosphere, that’s where aerodynamic control surfaces stop working (you’ll need rockets to steer).

And for record-keeping and giving out astronaut wings, the Kármán Line, located around 62 miles (100 km) above the surface of the Earth, serves as a rough space border: this is where a craft begins to escape the grip of our planet’s gravity.

As you fly higher into the atmosphere, the air gets thinner, and this means a plane needs more speed for its wings to generate the lift needed to keep it aloft.

The Kármán Line is the point where the speed needed to maintain altitude is equal to escape velocity: the speed at which a craft ceases to follow the curvature of the Earth, and the craft begins to enter space.

NASA and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the organization for international aeronautical and astronautical record-keeping, recognize this line as the point where space begins — if you’ve gone above the Karman Line, your aeronautics become astronautics and you’re considered an astronaut.

But the atmosphere doesn’t stop there — it continues on, gradually thinning out for thousands of miles.

The final layer of the atmosphere, the enormous exosphere, continues until around 6,700 miles (10,000 km) above the surface of our planet (and some say even further). At that point, the moon is still hundreds of thousands of miles away.

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Watch The Rocket Launch This Camera Died To Capture

A different, less fiery angle of the rocket launch.

On May 22, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls set up his Canon camera to capture footage of the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9.

He got the shot, sort of, but not before that very launch ignited a small brush fire that did the poor camera in for good.

Although this martyr of rocket photography has closed its shutter for the very last time, we’re all fortunate enough to be able to see the footage it died to bring us.

As Ingalls mentioned in a NASA feature on the melted camera, this particular setup was actually outside the safety perimeter for the Falcon launch. At a quarter mile away, it was actually the furthest of all six Ingalls had set up.

The flames creeping closer to the camera.

That distance did nothing to save it when a brush fire started in the vicinity, melting the camera’s body but leaving its memory card intact so we could see its last gaze.

The camera is set to be put on display in NASA’s Washington DC headquarters. A fitting resting place for a true hero.

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Behind The Hype Of ‘Lab-Grown’ Meat

Some folks have big plans for your future. They want you—a burger-eatin’, chicken-finger-dippin’ American—to buy their burgers and nuggets grown from stem cells.

One day, meat eaters and vegans might even share their hypothetical burger. That burger will be delicious, environmentally friendly, and be indistinguishable from a regular burger.

And they assure you the meat will be real meat, just not ground from slaughtered animals.

That future is on the minds of a cadre of Silicon Valley startup founders and at least one nonprofit in the world of cultured meat.

Some are sure it will heal the environmental woes caused by American agriculture while protecting the welfare of farm animals.

But these future foods’ promises are hypothetical, with many claims based on a futurist optimism in line with Silicon Valley’s startup culture.

Cultured meat is still in its research and development phase and must overcome massive hurdles before hitting market.

A consumer-ready product does not yet exist and its progress is heavily shrouded by intellectual property claims and sensationalist press. Today, cultured meat is a lot of hype and no consumer product.

The truth is that only a few successful prototypes have yet been shown to the public, including a NASA-funded goldfish-based protein in the early 2000s, and a steak grown from frog cells in 2003 for an art exhibit.

More have come recently: Mark Post unveiled a $330,000 cultured burger in 2013, startup Memphis Meats has produced cultured meatballs and poultry last and this year, and Hampton Creek plans to have a product reveal dinner by the end of the year.

Because many in the cultured meat industry see this meat as cruelty-free, animal rights groups have become more vocal about cultured meat in its recent past.

For now, we know that the meat is made by growing animal-derived cells in the lab and harvesting the meat after a month or so.

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NASA Is Launching A Box Of Lasers To Make The Coldest Spot In The Universe

With an experiment launching to the International Space Station Monday (May 21), scientists will be able to create a temperature that’s 10 billion times colder than the vacuum of space to focus in on atoms’ weird quantum behavior.

The Cold Atom Laboratory  (CAL) is a physics research facility the size of an ice chest, designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, that will chill clouds of atoms with lasers and magnets aboard the space station to this ultracold temperature — close to absolute zero, or the lowest temperature possible.

Sunday’s cargo launch to the space station (May 20), will carry a number of experiments, including CAL.

Researchers will be able to conduct remote experiments in CAL, without any help from astronauts, for up to 6.5 hours every day, according to NASA’s project page for CAL.

These ultracooled clouds of atoms are chilled to just about (but not quite) absolute zero. (Absolute zero is equivalent to minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius.)

Known as Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs), the clouds contain atoms that are so cold, they move extremely slowly.

Under Earth’s gravity, the atoms in freely evolving BECs can’t be slowed down enough for physicists to observe them for any longer than a fraction of a second, so scientists hardly get a chance to study their quantum characteristics, NASA officials said on the project page.

However, aboard the space station in a microgravity environment, things are much different. Without Earth’s gravity getting in the way, these atoms can be slowed down more than they can anywhere else, using lasers and magnetic forces in an “ice-chest-like” compartment.

The lasers slow down the atoms, cooling them to “like one-tenth of a billion of a degree above absolute zero,” Robert Shotwell, CAL project manager and an engineer at JPL, said at a news conference on May 10.

In using CAL to study the atoms’ quantum activity, physicists will be able to better understand how atoms behave at these extreme temperatures, a main thread in physics for over a century, according to a NASA overview.

After cooling the atoms, CAL will automatically load them into weak magnetic traps, where researchers can study them.

With the atoms held in place, the teams will be able to observe them in a variety of quantum states and interactions, NASA officials said in the overview.

At this extreme temperature, researchers can observe the quantum characteristics and behaviors of BECs for up to 10 seconds, according to the project page.

This might not sound like a lot of time, but it’s significant when compared to the observation time possible on Earth.

The CAL mission began development in 2012 and will operate through 2020.

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Watch Lightning Seen From Space

Astronauts were treated to a striking sight when they spotted a lightning storm from space.

These stunning images caught an electrical storm in full flow almost 250 miles above the earth while the space men were orbiting at 17,895 mph in the International Space Station.

The pictures show the swirling clouds and multiple lightning strikes as the eye of the storm moves across land, thought to be Iran.

The flashes were spotted by the European Space Agency’s Nightpod camera, which astronauts set up to take crystal-clear images which have only now been released after being taken in 2012.

Despite the distance from the planet and the speed involved, the high-tech camera is specially adapted to keep the pictures in focus to avoid blurring.

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Watch Astronauts Taking Spacewalk to Fix Space Station Ammonia Leak

Two NASA astronauts will venture outside the International Space Station on an emergency spacewalk last May 11 in an attempt to fix an ammonia leak in the space station’s vital cooling system.

The six residents of the orbiting laboratory noticed frozen flakes of ammonia leaking from a station coolant loop on the leftmost side of the space station on Thursday (May 9).

Liquid ammonia is a vital coolant for chilling the electronics that produce the outpost’s power.

The plan for this EVA [spacewalk] really is to see if we can identify the leak,” Mike Suffredini, NASA’s International Space Station program manager said during a briefing last May 10.

The plan is to change out the pump on this particular EVA. The most likely sources of the leak is this particular pump.

The space station crew is in no danger, NASA officials said, but the pump responsible for the movement of ammonia through that part of the system was shut off in order to conserve coolant.

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NASA Is Actually Sending A Helicopter To Mars

NASA will include a small, autonomous helicopter in the agency’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, officials announced today (May 11).

The craft will undergo a 30-day test campaign once it reaches the Red Planet to demonstrate the viability of travel above the Martian surface with a heavier-than-air craft.

NASA has a proud history of firsts,” NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement.

“The idea of a helicopter flying the skies of another planet is thrilling. The Mars Helicopter holds much promise for our future science, discovery and exploration missions to Mars.”

The Mars Helicopter’s development began in 2013 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. It’s just under 4 lbs. (1.8 kilograms), and its body is about the size of a softball, NASA officials said in the statement.

It will carry solar cells to charge up in the light of the sun and a heating mechanism to endure cold nights on the Red Planet.

The helicopter’s twin blades will whirl at about 10 times the rate of a helicopter’s blades on Earth — at 3,000 rpm — to stay aloft in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Mars 2020 is slated to launch in July of that year on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and the mission should arrive at Mars in February 2021.

The six-wheeled rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments as well as sites that may have once hosted microbial life, examining the Red Planet with 23 cameras, a microphone and a drill to collect samples.

The helicopter will ride to Mars attached to the rover’s belly pan, officials said.

Once the rover reaches the planet’s surface, it will place the helicopter on the ground and move to a safe distance to relay commands; controllers on Earth will direct it to take its first autonomous flight.

The helicopter will attempt up to five flights, going farther and operating for longer each time — up to a few hundred meters and 90 seconds, officials said. It will also climb to 10 feet (3 m) and hover for about 30 seconds.

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward project, according to NASA: If the helicopter fails, it won’t affect the rest of the Mars 2020 rover’s mission, but if it succeeds, the agency will have a powerful new tool to survey the planet and access currently unreachable locations.

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New Dive Into Old Data Finds Plumes Erupt From Jupiter’s Moon Europa

Spinnable maps of Jupiter and the Galilean moons.

Europa is an ice-encrusted moon of Jupiter with a global ocean flowing underneath its surface. NASA is planning a mission soon that will look for signs of possible life there.

Now, a new finding from old data makes that mission even more tantalizing.

In recent years, the Hubble Space Telescope has spotted what looks like plumes, likely of water vapor, reaching more than 100 miles above the surface.

The plumes, if they exist, could contain molecules that hint at whether Europa possesses the building blocks of life.

In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, scientists are reporting a belated discovery that Galileo, an earlier NASA spacecraft that studied Jupiter, appears to have flown through one of the Europa plumes more than 20 years ago.

And that occurred close to one of four regions where Hubble has observed plumes.

That’s too many coincidences just to dismiss as ‘There’s nothing there’ or ‘We don’t understand the data,’” said Robert T. Pappalardo, the project scientist for NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission, which may launch as soon as 2022.

“It sure seems like there’s some phenomenon, and plumes seem consistent.”

Galileo, which launched in 1989, arrived at Jupiter in 1995 and spent almost eight years examining the planet and its moons until its mission ended with a swan dive into Jupiter in 2003.

During a flyby of Europa on Dec. 16, 1997, instruments on Galileo measured a swing in the magnetic field and a jump in the density of electrons. At the time, scientists noted the unusual readings, but they did not have an explanation.

An image taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2010 showing Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which also shoots plumes of ice crystals into space.Credit

Then, in 2005, another spacecraft passing by another moon around another planet made a startling observation.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft — which completed its mission last September — found geysers of ice crystals erupting out of Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn. Enceladus, it turns out, also has an ocean of liquid water under its ice.

That spurred renewed curiosity about Europa and whether it too might burp bits of its ocean into space. The Hubble first recorded signs of possible plumes in 2012, then again in 2014 and 2016.

But at other times, Hubble has looked and seen nothing. That suggests the plumes are sporadic.

An image of Europa’s surface. Scientists hope the Europa Clipper mission, which may launch in 2022, can be tweaked to allow one of its 40 planned flybys to pass through a plume.

Last year, Melissa A. McGrath, a senior scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. who was not involved in the new study, took a look at some radio experiments conducted by Galileo which examined how signals bent as Europa passed between Earth and the spacecraft.

The experiments showed Europa possesses an atmosphere.

Astronomers will certainly be taking more looks at Europa with the Hubble, trying to better understand how often the plumes erupt.

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