Undersea telescope seeks out dark matter

More than 125 of these curious soccer ball-sized glass spheres hang near the floor of the Mediterranean Sea. Even though they're deep underwater, they're keeping a constant vigil for neutrinos, particles that may be evidence of dark matter, supernovae, and neutron stars far off in intergalactic space. Eventually, the Cubic Kilometer Neutrino Telescope (KM3NeT) will consist of 6,000 spheres suspended across one cubic kilometer of seawater. Often, neutrino detectors are located deep underground because the Earth itself helps isolate the instrument from background radiation and cosmic rays so the neutrinos are more easily spotted. From Scientific American:

“Perhaps one or two neutrinos in a million will interact with quarks inside the nucleus of either hydrogen or oxygen” in the water, says the project's physics and software manager, Paschal Coyle of the Marseille Particle Physics Center. “Because the cosmic neutrinos possess very high energy, the result of such interactions is the release of a charged particle that travels very fast.”

In fact, it travels through the water faster than light can, producing an effect Coyle likens to an optical equivalent of the Concorde jet's sonic boom. Researchers can determine the original neutrinos' energy and direction using the faint light released—so-called Cherenkov radiation—picked up by the undersea sensors.

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Astronaut urine could be a key concrete ingredient on the moon

A key challenge in building colonies on the moon is that it's incredibly expensive to transport construction materials to space from Earth. That's why researchers are exploring how moon bases could be mostly constructed from raw materials already there. A team of scientists working with the European Space Agency (ESA) are exploring how urine could be a key ingredient in lunar concrete. A 3D printer could then form the "mud" into structural components. From FEYCT - Spanish Foundation For Science And Technology:

Scientists from Norway, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy, in cooperation with ESA, have conducted several experiments to verify the potential of urine urea as a plasticizer, an additive that can be incorporated into concrete to soften the initial mixture and make it more pliable before it hardens. Details are published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

"To make the geopolymer concrete that will be used on the moon, the idea is to use what is there: regolith (loose material from the moon's surface) and the water from the ice present in some areas," explains one of the authors, Ramón Pamies, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Cartagena (Murcia), where various analyses of the samples have been carried out using X-ray diffraction.

"But moreover," he adds, "with this study we have seen that a waste product, such as the urine of the personnel who occupy the moon bases, could also be used. The two main components of this body fluid are water and urea, a molecule that allows the hydrogen bonds to be broken and, therefore, reduces the viscosities of many aqueous mixtures."

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NASA's Mars helicopter almost ready for take off

The new Mars rover Perseverance, set to launch in July for a February 2021 landing, will be outfitted with its own small helicopter. NASA engineers at Kennedy Space Station recently put the chopper through its paces, marking the last time they'll spin it up before landing on the red planet. From Kennedy Space Center:

The functional test (50 RPM spin) was executed on the stand in the airlock. This marked the last time the rotor blades will be operated until the rover reaches the Martian surface.

The NASA Mars Helicopter will be the first aircraft to fly on another planet. The twin-rotor, solar-powered helicopter will remain encapsulated after landing, deploying once mission managers determine an acceptable area to conduct test flights.

And from NASA:

The Mars Helicopter is considered a high-risk, high-reward technology demonstration. If the small craft encounters difficulties, the science-gathering of the Mars 2020 mission won't be impacted. If the helicopter does take flight as designed, future Mars missions could enlist second-generation helicopters to add an aerial dimension to their explorations.

"Our job is to prove that autonomous, controlled flight can be executed in the extremely thin Martian atmosphere," said JPL's MiMi Aung, the Mars Helicopter project manager. "Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments. But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet."

Along with investigating difficult-to-reach destinations such as cliffs, caves and deep craters, they could carry small science instruments or act as scouts for human and robotic explorers.

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"Old gas blob from Uranus found in vintage Voyager 2 data"

Yes, that is actually Space.com's brilliant headline on this story about a new discovery from data collected in 1986 by NASA's intrepid spacecraft. When the probe neared Uranus (heh heh), it measured the planet's surrounding magnetic field. Recently, NASA scientists Gina DiBraccio and Daniel Gershman analyzing Voyager's old data found a "wobble" in Uranus's magnetosphere indicating a plasmoid, a bubble of plasma traveling away from the planet. From Space.com:

Scientists have studied these structures at Earth and nearby planets, but never at Uranus or its neighbor Neptune, since Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to date ever to visit those planets.

Scientists want to know about plasmoids because these structures can pull charged particles out of a planet's atmosphere and fling them into space. And if you change a planet's atmosphere, you change the planet itself.

And from the "plain language summary" of their scientific paper published in Geophysical Research Letters:

Uranus possesses an intrinsic magnetic field that encircles the planet and influences the local space environment. The solar wind plasma, made up of charged particles, flows away from the Sun and interacts with Uranus' magnetic field to form what is called a “planetary magnetosphere.” By understanding dynamics of the magnetosphere, we are able to learn how changes in the Sun can impact the planet's space environment but also how magnetic fields and plasma are circulated throughout the system. In this work, we analyze data from the Voyager 2 spacecraft during the Uranus flyby in 1986. The data revealed a helical bundle of magnetic flux containing planetary plasma, known as a “plasmoid,” in the tail of the magnetosphere.

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NASA's stunning image of our galactic center

Last July, NASA released this wonderful composite image of the galactic center of the Milky Way.

The central region of our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains an exotic collection of objects, including a supermassive black hole weighing about 4 million times the mass of the Sun (called Sagittarius A*), clouds of gas at temperatures of millions of degrees, neutron stars and white dwarf stars tearing material from companion stars and beautiful tendrils of radio emission.

The region around Sagittarius A* is shown in this new composite image with Chandra data (green and blue) combined with radio data (red) from the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, which will eventually become part of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA).

Read more about the Chandra X-ray Observatory and it's 20th anniversary, also celebrated last July.

Image credit: X-Ray:NASA/CXC/UMass/D. Wang et al.; Radio:NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT Read the rest

NASA: No, that UFO plainly seen in our space observatory footage isn't a UFO

NASA's STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) research platform consists of two orbiting spacecraft that collect stereoscopic data about the sun and the eruptions of magnetized plasma during coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Last month, UFO buffs spotted a strange object in data acquired by STEREO, specifically what appears to be a wheel-shaped UFO. The footage made the rounds online (example above) spurring NASA to explain the anomaly. Turns out, it's... Venus. Bummer. From NASA:

Some people have noticed an odd shape, sort of a cross inside a circle, entering the field-of-view of the HI2 telescope on STEREO Ahead around February 20,2020. Eventually there is a cone shape that appears next to it. You can see the feature in question in this movie moving from right-to-left, just below the trapezoidal occulter on the right side of the image. The answer lies on the exact opposite side of the image. At the same time as this strange-looking feature starts being visible, the very bright planet Venus enters the HI2-A field-of-view from the left. Notice that Venus and the feature stay in step almost exactly opposite each other across the middle of the detector. This is not a coincidence. The strange looking geometrical "object" is actually an internal reflection of the planet Venus within the telescope optics. This effect has been seen many times before. Here's a particularly striking example of internal reflections caused by the planet Earth as seen early in the STEREO mission, taken from our image artifacts pages.

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Show your kids! Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor reads inspiring children's book from space!

Astronaut and physician Serena Auñón-Chancellor spent almost 200 days aboard the International Space Station. Here she is in orbit reading the wonderful book Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty.

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After a year in space, Astronaut Scott Kelly's tips on isolation

Scott Kelly watches a bunch of fresh carrots
Astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a combined 520 days in space, including nearly a full, continuous year as part of NASA's One-Year Mission to the ISS, knows a thing or two about isolation, quarantine, and keeping sane in small places for extended periods.

He has recently published an article on his recommendations for those of us on earth who now find ourselves isolated into our homes or similar small spaces, cut off from many of the comforts and connections that we are used to as a part of everyday life. Read the rest

Japanese spacecraft fired cannonball into asteroid

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Hayabusa2 spacecraft fired a copper cannonball into Ryugu, an 850 meter-wide near-Earth asteroid. The 2 kilogram "Small Carry-on Impactor," a bit larger than a tennis ball, hit the asteroid at approximately 7,200 kilometers/hour and blew out a 14.5 meter wide crater with a depth of .6 meters. After a year of analysis, scientists have reported their analysis of the plume created by the impact and properties of the crater. From Space.com:

The number and size of craters that pockmark asteroids such as Ryugu can help scientists estimate the age and properties of asteroid surfaces. These analyses are based on models of how such craters form, and data from artificial impacts like that on Ryugu can help test those models...

Features of the artificial crater and the plume suggested that the growth of a crater was limited mostly by the asteroid's gravity and not by the strength of the space rock's surface. This, in turn, suggested that Ryugu has a relatively weak surface, one only about as strong as loose sand, which is consistent with recent findings that Ryugu is made of porous, fragile material.

These new findings suggest that Ryugu's surface is about 8.9 million years old, while other models suggested that the asteroid's surface might be up to about 158 million years old. All in all, while Ryugu is made of materials up to 4.6 billion years old, the asteroid might have coalesced from the remains of other broken-apart asteroids only about 10 million years ago, Arakawa said.

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Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden, who circled moon, dies at 88

Twenty-four human beings have traveled from Earth to the moon. Fewer than half of them remain.

Astronaut Al Worden, who flew to the moon in 1971 as a member of the Apollo 15 crew, has died. The retired astronaut was 88.

Worden circled the moon alone on that mission, while his two crewmates test-drove the first lunar rover. Read the rest

Physicist Freeman Dyson's alien megastructure legacy

In 1960 during the early days of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who died last month, wrote an article titled "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation" for the journal Science. He posited that "if extraterrestrial intelligent beings exist and have reached a high level of technical development, one by-product of their energy metabolism is likely to be the large-scale conversion of starlight into far-infrared radiation." One way to achieve that, he suggested, was by building an "artificial biosphere surrounding one star." And with that seed, the science fiction (science fact?) idea of an alien megastructure has grown, even making its way onto an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. From Elizabeth Howell's article in Space.com:

One of Dyson's daughters sent the physicist a videotape of a 1987 episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" called "Relics," Dyson said. The plot follows a distress call heard by the famous USS Enterprise starship; fans of the series may recall this as a crossover episode with "Star Trek: The Original Series" star Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (played by James Doohan).

The crew warps in space to the source of the call and discovers an immense Dyson sphere — which is indeed portrayed as a solid spherical object — surrounding a star. If we were to place this sphere in our own solar system, it would be so large that it would extend almost as far as the orbit of Venus, according to "Star Trek" fan site Memory Alpha.

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The strange planet where it rains iron

On the planet Wasp-76b, it rains iron. Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and colleagues observed the planet, 650 light years from Earth, using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in northern Chile. On the planet's "hot side" that faces it star, temperatures can be above 2,400°C. It's a good thing the residents of Wasp-76b carry tungsten umbrellas. From ESO:

“One could say that this planet gets rainy in the evening, except it rains iron,” says David Ehrenreich, a professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He led a study, published today in the journal Nature, of this exotic exoplanet. Known as WASP-76b, it is located some 640 light-years away in the constellation of Pisces.

This strange phenomenon happens because the 'iron rain' planet only ever shows one face, its day side, to its parent star, its cooler night side remaining in perpetual darkness. Like the Moon on its orbit around the Earth, WASP-76b is ‘tidally locked’: it takes as long to rotate around its axis as it does to go around the star.

On its day side, it receives thousands of times more radiation from its parent star than the Earth does from the Sun. It’s so hot that molecules separate into atoms, and metals like iron evaporate into the atmosphere. The extreme temperature difference between the day and night sides results in vigorous winds that bring the iron vapour from the ultra-hot day side to the cooler night side, where temperatures decrease to around 1500 degrees Celsius.

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Photos of planet Earth

Pictures of Earth by Planetary Spacecraft is, as you have perhaps already surmised, a collection of photos of our homeworld not taken by human beings.

The image above comes from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Earth is the little dot to the top left of Saturn, shining through the rings. Read the rest

NASA won't be able to talk to Voyager 2 for the next year

For the next year or so, the NASA Deep Space Network's 70-meter-wide (230-feet-wide) radio antenna in Canberra, Australia will have limited functionality is it undergoes critical upgrades. As a result, NASA won't be able to transmit commands 12 billion miles into space to the intrepid Voyager 2 space probe that recently recovered quite beautifully from a glitch. Both Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977, are currently hurtling through the interstellar space carrying scientific instruments and a Golden Record ready to be played by any extraterrestrials who might encounter the probes over the next few billion years. From NASA:

The repairs will benefit far more than Voyager 2, including future missions like the Mars 2020 rover and Moon to Mars exploration efforts. The network will play a critical role in ensuring communication and navigation support for both the precursor Moon and Mars missions and the crewed Artemis missions. "The maintenance is needed to support the missions that NASA is developing and launching in the future, as well as supporting the missions that are operating right now," said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager and JPL Director for the Interplanetary Network.

The three Canberra 34-meter (111-foot) antennas can be configured to listen to Voyager 2's signal; they just won't be able to transmit commands. In the meantime, said Dodd, the Voyager team will put the spacecraft into a quiescent state, which will still allow it to send back science data during the 11-month downtime.

"We put the spacecraft back into a state where it will be just fine, assuming that everything goes normally with it during the time that the antenna is down," said Dodd.

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Curiosity rover's 1.8 billion-pixel panorama of Mars

A detailed and inviting view of Mars comes today from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, stitched together from images sent by Curiosity rover on the planet's surface.

This panorama showcases "Glen Torridon," a region on the side of Mount Sharp that Curiosity is exploring. The panorama was taken between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, 2019, when the Curiosity team was out for the Thanksgiving holiday. Since the rover would be sitting still with few other tasks to do while it waited for the team to return and provide its next commands, the rover had a rare chance to image its surroundings several days in a row without moving.

Composed of more than 1,000 images and carefully assembled over the ensuing months, the larger version of this composite contains nearly 1.8 billion pixels of Martian landscape.

And here's the 360, below.

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NASA's spectacular new 1.8 billion pixel panorama photo from Mars

Between November 24 and December 1, 2020, NASA's Curiosity rover captured the above image on the surface of Mars. The image contains nearly 1.8 billion pixels composed of more than 1,000 images. From NASA:

The rover's Mast Camera, or Mastcam, used its telephoto lens to produce the panorama and relied on its medium-angle lens to produce a lower-resolution panorama that includes the rover's deck and robotic arm.

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Space cookies and the future of pizza pockets beyond Earth

Last month, the first cookies baked in space returned to Earth. This test of a new oven designed for microgravity aboard the International Space Station was not only a delightful experiment but also an important one. After all, this was the first time astronauts cooked raw ingredients in space. And yes, the ISS did smell of fresh-baked cookies. From Space.com's interview with NASA astronaut Mike Massimino who consulted on the experiment back on Earth:

Further investigation and analysis of the experiment's results will also continue to answer questions, such as why the cookies took much longer to bake in space and why they weren't "poofy...."

"This is a big step in that direction for the future of exploration where we're gonna be off the planet for longer periods of time," Massimino said. He continued, adding that within the very near future we may be starting to build settlements on off-Earth location like the moon, and we will need to use specialized tech to ensure that the humans living off-Earth have access to good, nutritious (and delicious) food.

As far as what might be next for baking or cooking in space, Massimino had a couple of suggestions.

So what does Massimino want to see next? "The next thing would definitely be a pizza of some sort," he said. "Bagel bites or hot pockets of some sort." He added that it would also be nice for astronauts to have something they could "bite into … something big like a big cheeseburger or a big sandwich."

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