Tag Archives: Astronomy

Space Sunday: planets, stars and spacecraft

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Proxima b, the planet discovered orbiting the closest star to our own, Proxima Centauri (see here for more), has been the subject of much speculation regarding its potential habitability (see here for more). Now a new study is underway which may bright us a lot closer to understanding the conditions on the planet.

Located 4.25 light years away, Proxima Centauri is a M-type red dwarf star. Such stars are highly variable and unstable compared to other types of stars, and this might weigh heavily against Proxima b having the right conditions for life to arise. The new study involves a team of astrophysicists from the University of Exeter, England, and staff from the UK’s Meteorological Office, who have been using the latter’s state-of-the-art Unified Model (UM).

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: ESO

Used to study Earth’s atmosphere, with applications ranging from weather prediction to the effects of climate change, the Unified Model allowed the team to simulate what Proxima b might be like if it had a similar atmospheric composition to Earth, and also what it might be like if had a much simpler atmosphere – one composed of nitrogen with trace amounts of carbon dioxide. Last, but not least, they made allowances for variations in the planet’s orbit.

This last point is important because given the planet’s distance from its parent – around 7.5 million km (4.6 million mi) – Proxima b is likely to either be tidally locked so that one face constantly faces its sun, or it is in a 3:2 orbital resonance, rotating three times on its axis for every two orbits around its sun. In the former situation, the main atmospheric gases on the night-facing side would likely freeze, leaving the daylight zone exposed and dry; in the latter, a single solar “day” would last a long time, resulting in the sunward side of the planet being extremely hot and day and the night side very cold and dry.

Taking all of this into account, and using data from previous studies, the UK team found that Proxima b, with either a complex or a simple atmosphere, could have regions where water might exist in liquid form. In addition, any substantive eccentricity in the planet’s orbit around its sun could further increase its potential habitability.

It will still be some time before more can be directly discerned about Proxima b, but it is hoped that the study will help in our understanding of the potential habitability of other exoplanets, and demonstrates how the study of conditions here on Earth can be used to predict what may exist in extra-solar environments.  It may also improve our understanding of how our own climate has and will evolve.

US Military “Close” To Awarding Spaceplane Contract

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is reportedly “close” to awarding a contract to build its XS-1 spaceplane launch vehicle.

An artist’s impression of the Boeing XS-1 concept vehicle

Announced in 2013, the XS-1 is intended to provide the US military with the means to rapidly deploy small satellite payloads to Earth orbit using a re-usable first stage and expendable upper stage which may be carried piggyback by the first stage vehicle. The goal of the programme is to provide an uncrewed launch vehicle capable of delivering payloads of up to 2,300 kg (5,000 lb) to orbit, which can be rapidly re-used – the target of the development programme is to have the vehicle complete 10 launches in 10 days. In addition, the vehicle must:

  • Be capable of hypersonic flight to Mach 10 (12,250 km/h) or higher
  • Lifting an expendable upper stage unit which it can then launch, and which can carry the payload to orbit
  • Operate with a launch cost less than 1/10 that of current launch systems (i.e. around US $5 million per flight).

Three groups of companies were awarded initial design concept contracts:  Boeing and Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems and XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman and Virgin Galactic. None of these may be awarded the development contract, which is intended to see the project to a point where test flights could commence in 2020.

To be successful, the vehicle will make use of advanced materials, cryogenic tanks, durable thermal protection, and modular subsystems. These, coupled with a reliable, re-usable propulsion system, would make it possible for the vehicle to achieve the hoped-of low-cost, rapid launch and re-use capability.

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Space Sunday: solar systems, flying telescopes, and spaceplanes

An artist’s impression of the Epsilon Eridani system, which might be very similar to our own. Credit: NASA/JPL

To Babylon 5 fans, Epsilon Eridani is (will be?) the home to our “last, best hope for peace”. To some loosely versed in Star Trek lore, it is credited as being the star orbited by the planet Vulcan (although somewhat more officially, Vulcan is placed in the 40 Eridani star system). To astronomers, it is a very Sun-like star some 10.5 light years away, which may be the home of two (or more) planets. And now it appears it is something of a younger version of our own solar system.

The star has long been of interest to astronomers as  the possible location of exoplanets, and in 1987, it appeared as if a Jupiter-sized planet had been discovered orbiting Epsilon Eridani at roughly seven times the distance of the Earth from the Sun, and with an orbital period of some 7 terrestrial years. Initially called Epsilon Eridani b, the planet has been strongly contested over the decades for assorted reasons – even though in 2016 it was granted a formal name: AEgir (sic).

Observations of the system also revealed that the star appears to be surrounded by a cometary ring, somewhat akin to out own Kuiper Belt, and in 2008, the Spitzer Space Telescope revealed that the Epsilon Eridani system may have two major asteroid belts. the first of which correlates to the position of the asteroid belt in our own system, and the second, much broader and denser belt lying roughly at the same distance from the star as orbit of Uranus around the Sun.

The Epsilon Eridani system compared to our own. Credit: NASA/JPL

Like Epsilon Eridani’s planets, the existence of the debris material surrounding the star as two distinct asteroid belts has been contested.Because the Spitzer data failed to indicate a clearly defined band of “warm material” of gas and dust within each of the rings, it has been hypothesised that rather than being two individual belts, they might actually mark the inner and outer boundaries of a single accretion disk.

The difference here is important. If the debris exists as to separate rings of material, it raises the prospect that there are planetary bodies orbiting Epsilon Eridani which may have both helped order the rings and remove debris from the space between them. If there is only one extended accretion disk around the star, it reduces the potential for planets having formed. Now the results of a 2-year study, published in the April edition of Astronomical Journal, sheds new light not only on the asteroid belts, but on the Epislon Eridani system as a whole.

The study, led by Kate Su, an Associate Astronomer with the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, used data gathered during a 2015 observation of Epsilon Eridani by the remarkable Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observation platform developed by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, DLR. This is a specially modified 747 jet aircraft designed to carry out extended studies of celestial targets.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observation platform developed by NASA and the German Aerospace Centre, showing the open observation bay at the 2.5 optical telescope. Credit: NASA

Operating at almost 14 kilometres (45,000 ft) altitude, SOFIA flies well above the major distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to use a 2.5 metre optical telescope with 3 times the resolution power of Spitzer, together with an ultra-sensitive infra-red imaging system called FORCAST, the Faint Object infraRed CAmera for the SOFIA Telescope, to observe targets.

Su and her team used the data gathered by SOFIA’s 2015 observations of Epsilon Eridani, coupled with the Spitzer data and the results of other ground-based observations of the star to build a series of computer models of the system. The results of the models tend to very much confirm that Epsilon Eridani does have two asteroid belts, each with its own distinct “warm band”, and that there could be at least three Jupiter-sized planets within the system helping to organise the rings.

Inside SOFIA. Credit: USRA / NASA / DLR

Not only that, but the study suggest that the Epsilon Eiridani system might be directly comparable to our own as it was not long after the inner planets formed.  If this is the case, the study of Epsilon Eridani could help astronomers gain greater insights into the history of our own Solar System.

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Space Sunday: hydrogen, imaging a black hole, and exoplanet hunting

A dramatic plume sprays water ice and vapor from the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Cassini’s first hint of this plume came during the spacecraft’s first close flyby of the icy moon on February 17, 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL / Space Science Institute

I’ve written a lot of late about Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus. Covered by an icy crust, there is a good chance this distant moon harbours a liquid water ocean beneath that ice. NASA’s Cassini mission has imaged geyser plumes erupting through the ice, and the speculation is that if Enceladus does have an ocean beneath its crust.  Now that speculation has been given a sizeable boost.

As a result of a long-term study, on April 13th, 2017 NASA announced the icy plumes of Enceladus contain hydrogen. This is a huge finding; not only does this main the plumes are water vapour, it directly points to a geo-chemical / geo-thermal interaction taking place deep within Enceladus between warm water and rocks which could provide an energy source of microbes.

Current thinking is that life requires three things to get started:  water, energy, and the right chemicals. As we know from Earth’s deep oceans, sunlight doesn’t actually enter into the equation; hydrothermal vents provide the energy to support – albeit on a fragile basis – an entire ecosystem from bacteria at the base of the food chain, through tube worms, shrimp, crabs and more. This could well be the case with Enceladus.

As the hydrogen is vented, it is possible that any microbes present in the water of Enceladus could use hydrogen and dissolved carbon dioxide in the water to produce methane in a process called biomethanation (or methanogenesis), one of the foundation processes of life on Earth.

The hydrogen was measured using Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) instrument. Designed to sample the upper atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, INMS was turned towards Enceladus to follow-up on several discoveries of plumes emanating from the moon’s southern regions dating back as far as 2005.

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate stated in reference to the report.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory added,  “Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth.”

NASA’s Orion / SLS Ambitions Face Delays

In February I wrote about NASA possibly re-scheduling the first flights of their new Space Launch  (SLS) rocket system so that the maiden flight could include a crew aboard the Orion Multiple-Purpose Crew Vehicle due to fly as a part of the mission, rather than flying it as an uncrewed mission, and then flying a crew on a second later mission.

Such a move would mean the initial flight of SLS, referred to as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), would need to be put back from 2018 to 2019 (at the earliest), to allow time for the Orion vehicle to be correctly outfitted and tested for a crewed mission. However, a new report from NASA indicates that Orion itself may not be ready in time to meet and EM-1 launch in either 2018 or 2019.

The Orion MPCV with its European Service Module (the section with the four solar panels), attached to a propulsion stage in Earth orbit. The Service Module is one part of the system facing delays, according to a NASA report. Credit: NASA

The report, published on April 14th, 2017, highlights three significant areas of concern for the programme. The first is that design changes made to Orion’s heat shield now raise technical risks which need to be eliminated. The second is that the Service Module for Orion, which is being developed by the European Space Agency, is facing delays. The third – which is particularly underlined in the report, is that critical software required by both the SLS / SLS systems and need for ground systems at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, will not be ready in time.

As a result of the report, NASA is now weighing pushing back the SLS / Orion launch schedule. Nor do the programme’s woes end there; the report also questions NASA’s ability to achieve its longer-term goals with regards to SLS, Orion and Mars, citing the fact that there is no clear roadmap for developing systems (such as a deep-space habitat module, lander / ascent vehicles, etc.) vital for Mars missions.

Without such a roadmap being put in place within the next few years, the report indicates it will be impossible to tell if planned Orion / SLS project expenditure – which is slated to rise to US $23 billion in 2018 and to US $33 billion (including Mars systems expenditure) by 2030 – will be sufficient for the space agency to meet its goals.

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Space Sunday: of atmospheres, reusable rockets and Trojans

Artist’s concept showing what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances. Credit: NASA

Back in February 2017, I covered the news about seven Earth-sized planets found in orbit around the super-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, roughly 40 light years away (see here and here for more).

While three of the planets lie within their parent star’s “habitable zone”, and so might have both an atmosphere and liquid water on their surfaces, I mentioned in both of those articles that the planets may still not be particularly habitable for life for a number of reasons, one of which is TRAPPIST-1 itself. As I noted in a previous article:

The nature of their parent star, a super cool red dwarf with all internal action entirely convective in nature, means that all seven planets are likely subject to sufficient irradiation in the X-ray and extreme ultraviolet wavelengths to significantly alter their atmospheres, potentially rendering them unsuitable for life.

A new study of TRAPPIST-1 now appears to show that it is a particularly active and violent little star.

Utilising data gathered on it by the Kepler Space Telescope, a team at the Konkoly Observatory, Hungary, lead by astronomer Krisztián Vida, have identified 42 strong solar flares occurring with TRAPPIST-1 over a period of just 80 days. Five of these events were multi-peaked, and the average time between flares was only 28 hours.

The most violent of the outbursts correlated to the most powerful flare observed on our Sun: the Carrington Event of 1859.

This was an enormously powerful solar storm, in which a coronal mass ejection struck Earth’s magnetosphere, causing auroras as far south as the Caribbean, and which resulted in chaos in telegraph systems around the world, with some operators receiving electric shocks through their handsets and telegraph pylons throwing sparks. Such was the power of the event, telegraph messages could be sent and received even with the power supplies to telegraphic equipment turned off.

The TRAPPIST-1 planets are far closer to their parent than the Earth is to the Sun, so events on an equivalent scale to the Carrington Event would hit the seven planets with a force hundreds or even thousands of times greater than Earth experienced in 1859. This, coupled with the general frequency of TRAPPIST-1 flares would most likely destroy any stability in a planet’s  atmosphere, making it extremely difficult for life to develop. And that’s assuming any of the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 have atmospheres.

Repeated strikes from solar flares can, over time, strip away a planet’s atmosphere. Again, given the proximity of the TRAPPIST planets to their parent, and the frequency of the stellar outburst exhibited by the star, it would seem likely that rather than being unstable, any atmosphere which may have once formed around any one of the seven planets has long since been stripped away, leaving the as barren, exposed lumps of rock.

SpaceX Successfully Flies Refurnish Falcon 9 First Stage & Announces Falcon Heavy Hopes

In April 2016 SpaceX made the first successful recovery of the first stage of a Falcon 9 launch system. Used to lift the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 resupply mission capsule from the launchpad up towards orbit and a rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS), the first stage of the rocket successfully touched-down vertically on the autonomous spaceport drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, 300 km (190 mi) from the Florida coastline just nine minutes after lift-off. In doing so, it achieved a long-sought-after milestone for the SpaceX reusable launch system development programme.

The world’s first reflown rocket booster, a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage, is towed back into Port Canaveral, serving the Kennedy Space Centre, just before sunrise on securely mounted on the autonomous landing barge Of Course I Still Love You, on which it landed less than 10 minutes after a successful launch on March 30th, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

On March 30th, 2017 that booster made its second successful launch and recovery, boosting the SES-10 telecommunications satellite  on its way towards orbit, before completing a successful boost-back to Earth, where it again landed on the waiting  Of Course I Still Love You.

“This is a huge revolution in spaceflight,” billionaire SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk told reporters at the post launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Centre press site, barely an hour after lift-off.The ability to re-use booster in this way could dramatically cut the cost of launch operations, removing the need for a brand-new rocket to be built and then disposed of with each launch – and lowering the cost of operations will not only make SpaceX vastly more competitive on pricing compared to rivals, it is also key to the company’s longer-term goals such as human missions to Mars.

The first flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, may see the company attempt to recover the three first stage boosters and the upper stage of the vehicle, marking it as fully reuseable

Following the re-launch and recovery of the “used” Falcon 9 booster, Musk provided further details on the upcoming launch of his new super-booster, the Falcon 9 Heavy.

This vehicle comprises 3 Falcon 9 First stages  – one acting as the “core” to the rocket and two as “strap-on” boosters. It’s long been known that SpaceX plans to recover all three boosters following each Falcon Heavy launch. However, given the complexities involved in the first flight of a launch system, it hadn’t been entirely clear if attempts would be made to recover the boosters when Falcon Heavy flies for the first time in summer 2017.

But speaking at the SES-10 post-launch press conference, Musk confirmed that SpaceX would indeed try to recover all three boosters used be the vehicle, two of which will be refurbished Falcon 9s used on previous missions.

Landing three boosters requires considerable planning: SpaceX only has two landing options at Florida right now: the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (the other, Just Read The Instructions, is currently based in California to support SpaceX operations out of Vandenberg Air Force Base), and their landing facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Thus, the launch will involve some aerial ballet, as Musk explained:

It will be exciting mission, one way or another. Hopefully in a good direction. The two side boosters will come back and do sort of a synchronized aerial ballet and land … That’ll be pretty exciting to see two come in simultaneously, and the centre core will land downrange on the drone ship.

A few days after this, he upped the ante further, announcing the flight will also attempt something never tried before – the recovery of the rocket’s upper stage as well. If successful – although even Musk believes the odds of recovering the upper stage on the first attempt to do so are slim – it will signal that his  dream of a fully reusable launch vehicle: first stage, payload fairings, and second stage, has come to fruition.

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