Tag: space

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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Scientists Probably Found The Next Big Discovery In Astronomy Years Ago – But They Don’t Know It Yet

This year, astronomers stumbled across a fascinating finding: Thousands of black holes likely exist near the center of our galaxy.

The X-ray images that enabled this discovery weren’t from some state-of-the-art new telescope. Nor were they even recently taken – some of the data was collected nearly 20 years ago.

No, the researchers discovered the black holes by digging through old, long-archived data.

Discoveries like this will only become more common, as the era of “big data” changes how science is done.




The evolution of astronomy

Sixty years ago, the typical astronomer worked largely alone or in a small team. They likely had access to a respectably large ground-based optical telescope at their home institution.

Their observations were largely confined to optical wavelengths – more or less what the eye can see.

That meant they missed signals from a host of astrophysical sources, which can emit non-visible radiation from very low-frequency radio all the way up to high-energy gamma rays.

For the most part, if you wanted to do astronomy, you had to be an academic or eccentric rich person with access to a good telescope.

Astronomers are gathering an exponentially greater amount of data every day – so much that it will take years to uncover all the hidden signals buried in the archives.

Old data was stored in the form of photographic plates or published catalogs. But accessing archives from other observatories could be difficult – and it was virtually impossible for amateur astronomers.

Unlocking new science

The data deluge will make astronomy become a more collaborative and open science than ever before. Thanks to internet archives, robust learning communities and new outreach initiatives, citizens can now participate in science.

For example, with the computer program [email protected], anyone can use their computer’s idle time to help search for gravitational waves from colliding black holes.

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Mars Surface May Be Too Toxic For Microbial Life

mars surface

The combination of UV radiation and perchlorates common on Mars could be deadly for bacteria.
The hope for Martian life took another blow today. As Ian Sample at The Guardian reports, a new study suggests that in the presence of ultraviolet light, perchlorates, a class of chemical compounds widespread on Mars’ surface, turn deadly for bacteria.

The presence of perchlorates isn’t new. Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft detected perchlorates when they landed on the Martian surface in 1976. Since then, other spacecraft have confirmed the presence of the compounds. The 2009 Phoenix lander found that perchlorates make up between 0.4 and 0.6 percent of the soil sample it collected.




While perchlorates, which are composed of chlorine and oxygen, are toxic to humans, microbes typically love the stuff. And researchers have been optimistic that their presence could support bacterial life on Mars. Some bacteria on Earth use naturally occurring perchlorate as an energy source.
The compound also lowers the melting point of water, which could improve the chance of liquid water existing on the Red Planet. But the latest study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that in the presence of ultraviolet light perchlorate is not so microbe-friendly.

Mars has a thin atmosphere, which often leaves its surface bathed in UV rays. And when heated, chlorine-based molecules like perchlorates cause heavy damage to living cells.

“We knew before that any life would have an incredibly hard time to survive on the surface, and this study experimentally confirms that,” Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Washington State University not involved in the study.
mars surface
It’s also possible that hypothetical Martian bacteria could be much tougher than the common Bacillus subtilis. On Earth, researchers have found all types of extremophile organisms with the ability to survive under intense heat and pressure, in the presence of acid, without water and even inside rocks.
“Life can survive very extreme environments,”  says co-author Jennifer Wadsworth .“The bacterial model we tested wasn’t an extremophile so it’s not out of the question that hardier life forms would find a way to survive.”
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Ways To Prove The Earth Is Round

There’s a group of people who’ve lost trust in scientists, professors, academics, and pretty much anyone who is paid to establish and dispense facts.

Some of these people are rejecting a fact established hundreds of years ago that sits at the core of most modern biology, geology and astronomy: We live on a big, round, spinning ball.

 




Go to the harbor

When a ship sails off toward the horizon, it doesn’t just get smaller and smaller until it’s not visible anymore. Instead, the hull seems to sink below the horizon first, then the mast.

When ships return from sea, the sequence is reversed: First the mast, then the hull, seem to rise over the horizon.

The ship-and-horizon observation is so self-evident that 1881’s “Zetetic Astronomy,” the first modern flat-Earth text, devotes a chapter to “debunking” it.

The explanation relies on assuming that the sequential disappearance is simply an illusion brought on by perspective.

This debunking does not make much sense, however, as there’s nothing about perspective that should make the bottom of an object disappear before the top.

If you’d like to prove to yourself that perspective isn’t the reason for boats disappearing hull-first and returning mast-first, bring a telescope or binoculars on your trip to the harbor.

Even with vision enhancement, the ship will still dip below the curve of the Earth.

Look at the stars

Greek philosopher Aristotle figured out this one in 350 B.C., and nothing’s changed. Different constellations are visible from different latitudes.

Probably the two most striking examples are the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross. The Big Dipper, a set of seven stars that looks like a ladle, is always visible at latitudes of 41 degrees North or higher.

Below 25 degrees South, you can’t see it at all. And in northern Australia, just north of that latitude, the Big Dipper just barely squeaks above the horizon.

Watch an eclipse

Aristotle also bolstered his belief in a round Earth with the observation that during lunar eclipses, the Earth’s shadow on the face of the sun is curved.

Since this curved shape exists during all lunar eclipses, despite the fact that Earth is rotating, Aristotle correctly intuited from this curved shadow that the Earth is curvy all around — in other words, a sphere.

Go climb a tree

This is another one of those self-evident things: You can see farther if you go higher. If the Earth was flat, you’d be able to see the same distance no matter your elevation.

Think about it: Your eye can detect a bright object, like the Andromeda galaxy, from 2.6 million light-years away.

Seeing the lights of, say, Miami from New York City (a distance of a mere 1,094 miles or 1,760 kilometers) on a clear evening should be child’s play.

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Stephen Hawking’s Final Paper Proposes Way To Detect The ‘Multiverse’

Stephen Hawking’s final research paper could help astronomers find evidence that our universe is just one among many in a larger “multiverse,” according to media reports.

The famed cosmologist, who died last week at the age of 76, is lead author of a study called “A Smooth Exit from Eternal Inflation?” which was originally submitted to an unnamed journal last July.

On March 4 — just 10 days before Hawking’s death — his co-author, Thomas Hertog, a professor of theoretical physics at KU Leuven University in Belgium, submitted a revised version of the manuscript for further review, according to British newspaper The Sunday Times.




The inflation referenced in the paper’s title is the incredible expansion of space-time theorized to have occurred in the first few moments after the Big Bang, which created the universe.

Many physicists believe that this dramatic ballooning wasn’t limited to our neck of the cosmic woods but rather happened repeatedly, spawning multiple universes — perhaps an infinite number of them.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the paper’s potential.

For example, Neil Turok, the director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, told The Sunday Times, “I remain puzzled as to why [Hawking] found this picture interesting.

However it’s ultimately received, the manuscript — which you can read for free at the online preprint site arXiv.org — is a reminder that Hawking was a deep thinker committed to tackling some of the universe’s biggest mysteries.

He will be missed a great deal, by his colleagues and the general public alike.

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How Do We Clean Up All That Space Debris?

This is a big problem that many people are still trying to figure out, because there is a lot of junk out in space, and it is incredibly dangerous.

As of September 2012, we are currently monitoring 21,000 individual pieces of stuff orbiting the planet which are larger than about 2 inches.

Anything this size which is going fast enough to stay in orbit poses a significant threat to satellites, spacecraft, and space stations.

The ISS will regularly maneuver out of the way of space junk if we see it coming soon enough.

If there isn’t enough time to move the whole ISS, then the crew members of the ISS have to take shelter in one of the Soyuz capsules which are attached to the ISS in case an emergency evacuation is needed.

The two inch limit on tracking isn’t an indication that there aren’t any pieces smaller than that, or that we don’t have to worry about the little ones; we simply can’t spot them from the ground.




We fully expect there to be around 100 million more objects out there in the < 0.5 inch category.

Even paint chips at orbital speeds can cause significant damage to a spacecraft. A few of the space shuttle missions had paint flakes impact the windshield of the craft, which is an unsettling sight to say the least.

I can tell you the worst way to clean up a dead satellite, which unfortunately happened in 2007; the Chinese military decided to test their anti-satellite technology on one of their dead weather satellites.

This test successfully exploded the dead satellite, and created over two thousand new pieces of space debris, which, at the time, increased our space junk tally by 25%.

There have been a few suggestions on how to get the stuff that’s already up there down; some options are more passive than others.

The space station Mir ran an experiment in 1996 where they attached pieces of gel onto the outside of the space station to see what kinds of microscopic space junk they could catch.

They found a lot of liquid droplets, soap, and tiny paint fragments, along with pieces of broken spacecraft, and tiny electronic fragments.

This was instructive, but not particularly effective for cleaning out the reservoir of stuff surrounding our planet.

The best method to date to keep the skies clear is to make sure that when you put a spacecraft up in space, it comes with a way to come down again.

Usually this means that the craft should have a way to intentionally slow itself down enough to re-enter the atmosphere.

But those are only options for spacecraft which haven’t yet been launched, or have thought ahead more than most, and it doesn’t help get rid of the dead satellites we can’t communicate with, or any of the broken pieces of satellite shrapnel.

For those, the only option is to send up some kind of clean-up satellite which can help slow down all the miscellaneous pieces.

Again, there have been many proposals; the most plausible involve grabbing onto dead spacecraft somehow, and then de-orbiting as a pair.

Unfortunately, we can’t just go up and push every dead satellite down to Earth; not only is this impractical in the extreme.

All of the privately owned satellites are still privately owned regardless of whether or not they still work, and burning them up in the atmosphere would be burning someone else’s property, even if it doesn’t work anymore.

For now, until some of these cleaner satellites can get up there and start pulling down some of the pieces, our main goal with space debris is simply to not produce any more than we already have.

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Will Our Planet’s Personal Space Heater Ever Burn Out?

Yes, the sun will eventually burn out. But not for a long, long time.

The sun has used up about half of its hydrogen fuel in the last 4.6 billion years, since its birth. It still has enough hydrogen to last about another 5 billion years.




The temperature of the sun’s surface is about 10,340 degrees Fahrenheit (5,726 degrees Celsius).

The sun burns using a nuclear fusion process, combining hydrogen into helium. When the sun runs out of hydrogen, it will fuse helium and other heavier elements until it runs out of fuel.

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Scientists Say Earth’s Magnetic Field Isn’t About To Flip, But It’s Definitely Doing Something Weird

Every few hundred thousand years, Earth’s magnetic field flips, and considering the huge impact that would have on everything from satellite systems to electrical grids, scientists are very keen to work out when the next one might be.

Hopefully it won’t be for a while yet, according to the latest study – by analysing recent near-reversals of the our planet’s magnetic field, researchers have concluded that we’re not in line for a reversal in the near future… at least based on what’s happened in the past.

The international team of experts compared the current state of Earth’s magnetic field with conditions during the Laschamp event (about 41,400 years ago) and the Mono Lake event (about 34,000 years ago).

On both those previous occasions the magnetic field recovered without a flip, and the scientists think the same will happen now.

There has been speculation that we are about to experience a magnetic polar reversal or excursion,” says one of the team, Richard Holme from the University of Liverpool in the UK.




However, by studying the two most recent excursion events, we show that neither bear resemblance to current changes in the geomagnetic field and therefore it is probably unlikely that such an event is about to happen.

Our research suggests instead that the current weakened field will recover without such an extreme event, and therefore is unlikely to reverse.

Both the Laschamp and Mono Lake events were smaller shifts that didn’t result in complete flips, as we can tell from magnetised volcanic rocks, particularly those embedded under the ocean floor.

The research matches our current magnetic field scenario with two other points at 49,000 years and 46,000 years in the past, prior to the previous events.

If a complete flip didn’t happen on those occasions, the hypothesis goes, then a flip isn’t about to happen now either.

There are in fact two outcomes to look out for: a geomagnetic reversal, where magnetic north and magnetic south change places, and a geomagnetic excursion, where there are short-lived changes in the field intensity rather than the field orientation.

Both reversals and excursions can weaken Earth’s magnetic field, allowing more solar radiation to hit the surface.

While this wouldn’t be damaging enough to affect us (human beings have survived through past events), it could cause serious problems with satellite, communications, and power systems.

There’s also the possibility it might interfere with the planet’s temperature and climate, but scientists just aren’t sure at the moment what the effects will be – the last full flip was 780,000 years ago, after all.

The general consensus is that these changes in Earth’s magnetic field are caused by movements of molten iron and nickel deep in the planet’s core.

In fact, smaller fluctuations in field strength and magnetic poles are happening on a regular basis, so scientists are keen to collect as much data as possible on them.

In particular, experts are keeping an eye on the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA), currently the weakest part of Earth’s magnetic field. It’s slowly weakening and slowly moving westward at the same time.

The more data we have, the more accurately we can predict when a reversal is likely to happen – and make sure we’re ready for it.

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Mars InSight: NASA’s Journey Into The Red Planet’s Deepest Mysteries

As early as 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5th, those on the West Coast of the United States will have the chance to witness an interplanetary launch for the first time.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket will carry NASA’s InSight spacecraft into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, California.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a lander bound for the Elysium Planitia region in Mars’s Northern hemisphere.

There, it will gather data on the crust, mantle and core of Mars. It will also listen for tectonic activity and meteorite impacts.

Though the launch represents the beginning of InSight’s expedition, in another way, it is the end of a long journey. NASA delayed the lander’s original launch in 2016 after discovering a problem with a key instrument.

This second chance at the mission gives planetary scientists another opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.




A Look Inside Mars

As the date of the launch approaches, planetary scientists are gearing up for a wealth of new information that will provide clues into how rocky planets form, show how Mars evolved over time, and provide one of the most complete records of regional weather on Mars that we’ve ever had.

These experiments could shed light on the history of the Earth and other rocky planets in the cosmos, as well as lay groundwork for future human exploration of the Red Planet.

Scientists are looking to gather information on the basic structure of Mars—for example, the thickness of its crust and the composition of its mantle and core.

These discoveries will give insight into the formation of rocky planets in general because, unlike Earth, the underlying crust of Mars appears to have been stable for the life of the planet, says Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator and a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

While none of the material in the Earth’s core is more than 100 million years old, Banerdt explains that there is evidence that Mars hasn’t undergone a major reworking since 4.2 to 4.3 billion years ago.

The deep interior is relatively pristine,” he says.

Three Key Experiments

To look inside Mars, InSight will conduct three major experiments.

  • The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) is a seismometer that will monitor quakes and internal activity, allowing scientists to draw conclusions about the history and structure of the Red Planet.
  • The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) will measure how much heat is coming from the interior of the planet, how heat flows underground, and paint a picture of how heat has been driving geologic and internal processes under the surface. Banerdt says this gives scientists an idea of how the interior of Mars has evolved over time.
  • Finally, the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE) will use radio signals between the lander and Earth to detect “rotational wobbles,” which reveal properties of the core and the way the core interacts with the mantle.

Assuming clear weather, InSight’s launch will be visible in person from Santa Maria, California, to San Diego, California. NASA provides information on both official viewing sites and informal viewing sites on a launch page.

For those not on the West Coast, NASA will stream the launch online at NASA.gov/live, which will be mirrored directly below the day of the launch.

Video of the launch will be available on demand later at YouTube.com/NASAJPL/live and Ustream.tv/NASAJPL.

The launch window for InSight begins at 4:05 a.m. PDT on May 5th and runs through June 8th. Those who witness the rocket’s progress through the sky in the early morning hours can decide whether to wave goodbye or hello.

In either case, it will be a moment to watch.

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