Space Sunday: “super Earth”, “supermoon”, and Orion’s future

An artist's impression of a "super Earth" type planet in orbit around a red dwarf star. Credit: NASA / Dana Berry.

An artist’s impression of a “super Earth” type planet in orbit around a red dwarf star. Credit: NASA / Dana Berry.

In a couple of recent Space Sunday reports, I covered the discovery of an Earth-size planet orbiting  our nearest stellar neighbour, the red dwarf Proxima Centuari (see here and here). Red dwarfs  are a class of star which has proven rich ground for planet hunters  –  and this has once again proved the case.

The European Southern Observatory ESO), one of the leading hunters of exoplanets, has  reported the discovery of a “super Earth”, a sold planetary body with roughly five times the mass of Earth. It is orbiting GJ 536, an M-class red dwarf star some 32.7 light years from the Sun. The planet is orbiting its parent once every 8.7 days, at a distance of 0.06661 AU.

The planet was discovered using a pair of instruments operated by ESO: the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), mounted on ESO’s 3.6 metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and its sister instrument, HARPS-N, at the La Palma Observatory in Spain. The findings from these instruments were combined with photometric data from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS), which has observatories in Chile and Maui, to confirm the existence of the planet.

Red dwarf stars are entirely convective in nature, making them extremely volatile in nature, and subject to massive stellar flares. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Red dwarf stars are entirely convective in nature, making them extremely volatile in nature, and subject to massive stellar flares. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

However, its was no rapid-fire discovery. In all, data from over eight years of observations of the star went into confirming the presence of the planet. Such is the extended period of observations, that the science team were able to gather a huge amount of spectroscopic data on the star. This has revealed it has a rotational period of about 44 days, and magnetic cycle that lasts less than three years. By comparison, the Sun has a rotational period of 25 days and a magnetic cycle of 11 years.

This indicates that GJ536 is, in keeping with most red dwarf stars, exceptional volatile. Such stars are so small, all activity within them is entirely convective in nature, which gives rise to massive stellar flares. So while the new planet may well have “earth” in its description, it is unlikely to be “Earth like”, particularly given its relatively close proximity to its parent star.

Not much more is known about the planet at this point, but this is liable to change over time, and in the meantime, the survey team will continue to gather data on GJ 536 to see if it is home to other planets, such as gas giants further away from it.

November’s Supermoon

A dramatic supermoon is seen behind the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, in May 2012. Credit: AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano

A dramatic supermoon is seen behind the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, in May 2012. Credit: AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano

The last three months of 2016 are marked by three so-called “supermoons”, and the biggest will be in the night skies on Monday 14th November 2016.

The Moon is in an elliptical orbit around the Earth, at apogee, the point furthest from the Earth, it is between 404,000–406,700 km (252,500-254,187 mi) from Earth. At perigee, the point closest to the Earth, the Moon is between 356,400–370,400 km (222,500-231,500 mi) away. A “supermoon” occurs when the Moon is both full and at perigee, when it can appear up to 14% large in diameter than “normal” full moons.

Apogee and preigee in the Moon's orbit around Earth. Credit: NASA

Apogee and perigee in the Moon’s orbit around Earth. Credit: NASA

“Supermoons” aren’t actually rare events; they take to occur once every 14 months on average.  However, the supermoon on November 14th, scores double. Not only will be “just” 356,509 kilometres (221,524 miles) from Earth, pushing it to that 14% increase in apparent size, but also because the Earth/Moon system is approaching the time of year when it is closest to the Sun (which will occur on January 4th, 2017). Therefore, the Moon will be receiving more sunlight than average, further boosting its apparent brightness.

Together, these two events mean that the Moon will be at its “largest” and brightest in the sky since 1948. The next comparable event will not occur again until 2034 – although there will be a further “supermoon” on December 14th, when the Moon again reaches its full phase, but it will be slightly further away from the Earth in its orbit at that time, so not quite as “super”.

How the Moon can appear to differ i size at apogee (the point furthest from Earth in its orbit) and perigee (the point in its orbit closest to Earth). Credit: Catalin Paduraru

How the Moon can appear to differ in size at apogee (the point furthest from Earth in its orbit) and perigee (the point in its orbit closest to Earth). Credit: Catalin Paduraru

The best time to catch the supermoon wherever you are in the world, is shortly after sunset, when the Moon should be low on the horizon. This is when the “bigger size” is more noticeable, thanks to an optical illusion created by the Earth’s atmosphere and because the Moon can be seen as a backdrop to trees or buildings for context, making it seem much bigger. Once it is high in the sky, it is harder to tell that it is “larger” than usual.

If you want to try to photograph the supermoon, choose a location where you’ll get some nice terrestrial feature in the foreground: a well-known landmark. A tower or spire can provide a nice comparison, particularly if you stay back a bit and use a zoom or telephoto lens which will magnify both objects.

And, by the way, “supermoon” isn’t actually the correct term for this kind of event. It’s actually “perigee syzygy”.  “Syzygy” (pronounced “scissor-G”) being the scientific term used to define the point at which the Sun, Earth and Moon line up in their orbits. Keep that in mind if you like playing Scrabble!

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle – Uncertain Future?

The Orion test article following its flight in December 2014

The Orion test article following its flight in December 2014. Credit: NASA

With a new presidential administration taking over the reigns in the United States – which will include a reshuffle at NASA (although this would have happened anyway, given current Administrator, Charles Bolden indicated early in 2016 that he would be stepping down at the end of 2016), speculation is growing that the space agency might be sounding out companies about taking over the production of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle from the mid-2020s onwards.

Orion’s primary contractor is Lockheed Martin, and in September 2016, NASA issued a Request For Information (RFI)  intended to extend their contract to acquire future Orion vehicles from Lockheed Martin after the first crewed flight of the vehicle, called Exploration Mission-2, currently slated for a 2021 launch. Writing for Ars Technica, Eric Berger suggests that NASA is using the RFI to sound out the likes of Boeing and SpaceX to take over the project some time in the mid-2020s.

The RFI is actually a normally part of the development process for NASA, intended to steer the Orion project out of its development phase and into a “production” phase with associated reduced costs. However, according to Berger, citing unnamed sources inside NASA, there is “growing frustration” at Lockheed Martin’s progress with the Orion space vehicle, and the RFI is both intended to quietly open the door to other companies who might be interested in taking over the programme and to indicate to the incoming presidential administration that it is willing to be flexible in its approach to achieving its human spaceflight goals, particularly in light of recent warnings from Republicans on the Hill that they are not happy with the agency’s expenditure.

In support of his article, Berger points to the Orion development programme as being over a decade long, yet only producing a single uncrewed flight at a time when the vehicle “should” have completed its first crewed flight (2014). However, in doing so, he glosses over the fact that while it is true that Orion started in 2004, it has been through some significant upheavals in that time, none of which are attributable to Lockheed Martin.

The Orion CEV and Service Module, as originally conceived. Credit: NASA

The Orion CEV and Service Module, as originally conceived. Credit: NASA

Initially conceived as a part of the Constellation programme, where it was called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, Orion would have encompassed three different capsule vehicles: a “space taxi” intended to get crews to / from the ISS; an uncrewed cargo vehicle for delivering supplies to the ISS, and an enhanced crew vehicle capable of missions to the Moon and beyond. However, by 2009 the entire Constellation programme was woefully under-budgeted and a long way from reaching its goals. The Augustine Commission therefore recommended its cancellation. Instead, the responsibility for developing ISS “taxi” and resupply vehicles was passed over to private contractors, and Orion was redesigned with the primary goal of being a command and control vehicle for carrying humans beyond Earth’s orbit.

Between 2010 and 2014, the programme progressed well, the Orion vehicle undergoing an extensive redesign, including the European Space Agency taking over responsibility for the vehicle’s Service Module, and the first uncrewed flight of the Orion capsule was successfully completed at the end of 2014. While it is true that progress has slowed, it is by no means clear that this has led to any deep-seated disaffection within NASA for Lockheed Martin’s handling of the project.

While NASA retains the rights to all of the Orion design and tooling, a switch to another contractor once the project has shifted from what is effectively development up to the first planned crewed mission in 2021, to a “production” mode thereafter, would still be a huge undertaking. It would also be unprecedented for NASA with a project of this scale and this far advanced.

The Revision Orion MPCV with its European Service Module, attached to a propulsion stage in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

The Revised Orion MPCV with its European Service Module, attached to a propulsion stage in Earth orbit. Credit: NASA

More likely – as Berger himself notes – the “opening of the door” in the RFI is more directed toward encouraging Lockheed Martin showing they can reduce their costs. This is something they did in their response, noting that there expected an initial 50% reduction in costs once the programme moves from development to “production”, with more to follow.

But that said, and as one NASA official has noted: while the 2017 budget is pretty much guaranteed to get NASA through the transition period with incoming administration, there is no guarantee the agency won’t see a drive to re-direct how it goes about some of its broader goals. Therefore, testing the waters to see if there is interest among other parties to acquire Orion, and having options available should the White House / Capitol Hill try to substantially change things could be beneficial for NASA.

Have any thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s