Space Update: silica mysteries, Brits in space and tracking Santa

new-horizonNew Horizons is still less than half way through transmitting the data gathered during its fly-past of the Pluto-Charon system in July 2015, but the wealth of information received thus far has already revealed much about Pluto and its “twin”.

Geological evidence has been found for widespread past and present glacial activity, including the formation of networks of eroded valleys, some of which are “hanging valleys,” much like those in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. A major part of this activity is occurring in and around “Sputnik Planum”, the left half of Pluto’s “heart”, a 1,000 km (620 mile) wide basin, which is seen as key to understanding much of the current geological activity on Pluto.

Images and data gathered for this region has given rise to new numerical models of thermal convection with “Sputnik Planum”, which is formed by a deep layer of solid nitrogen and other volatile ices. These not only explain the numerous polygonal ice features seen on Sputnik Planum’s surface, but suggest the layer is likely to be a few kilometres in depth.

Evaporation of this nitrogen, together with condensation on higher surrounding terrain is believed causing a glacial flow from the higher lands back down into the basin, where the ice already there is pushed, reshaping the landscape over time.

A ture colour image of Pluto's surface, captures just before the point of closest approach, and created by combining black-and-while images from from the LORRI camera with data gathered by the Ralph instrument suite. The picture show the highlands to one side of "Sputnik Planum with the pockmarked ices of the basin. A combination of evaporation and condensation between the two is giving rise to sustained glaciation on Pluto, showing it to be an active world
A true colour image of Pluto’s surface, captures just before the point of closest approach, and created by combining black-and-while images from from the LORRI camera with data gathered by the Ralph instrument suite. The picture show the highlands to one side of “Sputnik Planum” with the pockmarked ices of the basin. A combination of evaporation and condensation between the two is giving rise to sustained glaciation on Pluto, showing it to be an active world (image: NASA, JHU/APL SwRI)

More data and images have also been received regarding Pluto’s atmosphere, allowing scientists start to probe precisely what processes are at work in generating and renewing the atmosphere, the upper limits of which are subject to erosion by the solar wind, which strike Pluto at some 1.4 million kilometres per hour (900,000 mph).

As well as understanding the processes which are at work renewing the atmosphere, and thus preventing it from being completely blasted away by the solar wind, science teams are hoping to better further why the haze of Pluto’s atmosphere forms a complicated set of layers – some of which are the result of the formation and descent of tholins through the atmosphere – and why it varies spatially around the planet.

The Mars Silica Mystery

In July I covered some of the work going into investigating the mystery of silica on Mars. This is a mineral of particular interest to scientists because high levels of it within rocks could indicate conditions on Mars which may have been conducive to life, or which might preserve any ancient organic material which might be present. In addition.

As I reported back in July, scientists have been particularly interested in the fact that as Curiosity has ascended “Mount Sharp”, so have the amounts of silica present in rocks increased: in some rocks it accounts for nine-tenths of their composition. Trying to work out why this should be, and identifying the nature of some of the silica deposits has given rise to a new set of mysteries.

The first mystery is trying to understand how the silica was deposited – something which could be crucial in understanding how conducive the environment on “Mount Sharp” might have been for life. Water tends to contribute to silica being deposited in rocks in one of two ways. If it is acidic in nature, it tends to leach away other minerals, leaving the silica behind. If it is more neutral or alkaline in nature, then it tends to deposit silica as it filters through rooks.

This May 22, 2015, view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) in NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the "Marias Pass" area where a lower and older geological unit of mudstone -- the pale zone in the center of the image -- lies in contact with an overlying geological unit of sandstone. This view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) in NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the "Marias Pass" area where a lower and older geological unit of mudstone -- the pale zone in the center of the image -- lies in contact with an overlying geological unit of sandstone. Just before Curiosity reached Marias Pass, the rover's laser-firing Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument examined a rock found to be rich in silica, a mineral-forming chemical. This scene combines several images taken on May 22, 2015, during the 992nd Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing, to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.
This mosaic of images captures by Curiosity’s Mastcam on May 22nd 2015 (Sol 992), shows the “Marias Pass” region where mudstone (the pale rock in the centre of the image) of the kind the rover had been studying, overlaid by a geological unit of sandstone. rocks in this area should very high concentrations of silica in them, much higher than previously encountered, which the rocks above the area show strong evidence of silica deposition as a result of water action. This image has been white balanced to show the rock under Earth equivalent natural lighting conditions (image: NASA / JPL)

If the water which once flowed down / through “Mount Sharp” was acidic in nature, it would likely mean that the wet environments found on the flanks of the mound were hostile to life having ever arisen there or may have removed any evidence for life having once been present. If evidence that the water was acidic in nature, then it would also possibly point to conditions on “Mount Sharp” may have been somewhat different to those found on the crater floor, where evidence of environments formed with more alkaline water and with all the right building blocks for life to have started, have already been discovered.

The second mystery with the silica is the kind of silica which has been discovered in at least one rock.  Tridymite is a polymorph of silica which on Earth is associated with high temperatures in igneous or metamorphic rocks and volcanic activity. Until Curiosity discovered significantly high concentrations of silica in the “Marias Pass area of “Mount Sharp” some seven months ago – something which led to a four month investigation of the area – tridymite had never been found on Mars.

The region just above "Marias Pass" contained an area referred to as the "Stimson Unit" which showed fracturing rich in silica when compared to the surrounding rocks, suggesting deposition of silica / leaching of other minerals as a result of water action
The region just above “Marias Pass” contained an area referred to as the “Stimson Unit” which showed fracturing rich in silica when compared to the surrounding rocks, suggesting deposition of silica / leaching of other minerals as a result of water action (images: NASA / JPL)

“Marias Pass” and the region directly above it, called the “Stimson Unit” show some of the strongest examples of silica deposition on “Mount Sharp”, and  it was in one of the first rocks, dubbed “Buckskin”, exhibiting evidence of silica deposits in which the tridymite was found.

The question now is: how did it get there? All the evidence for the formation of “Mount Sharp” points to it being sedimentary in nature, rather than volcanic. While Mars was very volcanic early on in its history, the presence of the tridymite on “Mount Sharp” might point to volcanic /  magmatic evolution on Mars continuing for longer than might have been thought, with the mineral being deposited on the slopes of the mound as a result of wind action. Or alternatively, it might point to something else occurring on Mars.

Continue reading “Space Update: silica mysteries, Brits in space and tracking Santa”

Space Sunday: clouds, sand, meteors and launches

Artist's impression of Akatsuki in orbit around Venus
Artist’s impression of Akatsuki in orbit around Venus

In my last Space Sunday update, I was writing at the very time a final effort was being made to see a little Japanese space probe finally achieve an operational orbit around Venus, precisely five years to the date after the first attempt failed as a result of the craft’s primary motor malfunctioning.

At the time of writing that update, it appeared as if little Akatsuki (“Dawn”), designed to probe the Venusian climate and atmosphere had finally arrived in orbit about the planet, but as I noted, final confirmation would take a while.  In the end, it wasn’t until Wednesday, December 9th that the Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency (JAXA) did confirm Akatsuki, less than a metre on a side (excluding its solar panels) was secure in its orbit around Venus and would likely be able to complete its mission.

Following the failure of its main engine on December 7th 2010 during a critical braking manoeuvre, the probe had finished up in a heliocentric orbit, circling the sun and heading away from Venus. However, orbital mechanics being as they are, both the probe and Venus would occupy the same part of space once again in December 2015, presenting final opportunity to push the probe into orbit using its RCS manoeuvring thrusters. This is precisely what happened on the night of December 6th / 7th, 2015. While not designed for this purpose, a set of the probe’s RCS thrusters undertook a 20-minute burn just before midnight UTC on December 6th, and preliminary telemetry received on Earth some 30+ minutes later showed Akatsuki had achieved sufficient braking to enter a very elliptical orbit around Venus.

A simple orbital diagram released as a part of the low-key JAXA press release confirming Akatsuki had arrived in orbit around Venus
A simple orbital diagram released as a part of the low-key JAXA press release confirming Akatsuki had arrived in orbit around Venus (image: JAXA)

Data received since then show that the craft is in an eccentric orbit with an apoasis altitude (the point at which it is furthest from the surface of Venus) of around 440,000km, and a periapsis altitude (the point at which it is closest to the surface of Venus) of around 400km. This is a considerably broader orbit than the mission had originally intended back in 2010, giving the vehicle an orbital period of around 13.5 days, the orbit slightly inclined relative to Venus’ equator.

An ultra-violet image of Venus, returned by Akatsuki shortly after achieving its initial orbit around the planet, and having passed through periapis, already heading away from the planet
An ultra-violet image of Venus, returned by Akatsuki shortly after achieving its initial orbit around the planet, having passed periapsis during the braking manoeuvre, to head away from the planet (image: JAXA)

In order to maximise the science return from the vehicle – which is now operating well in excess of its designed operational life – JAXA plan to use the next few months to gradually ease Akatsuki in an orbit which reduces both the apoasis distance from Venus, and bring down the orbital period to about 9 days.

These manoeuvres will likely be completed by April 2016, allowing the full science mission to finally commence.  This is aimed at learning more about the atmosphere and weather on Venus as well as confirm the presence of active volcanoes and thunder, and also to try to understand exactly why  Earth and Venus developed so differently from each other, despite being seen as sister planets in some regards.

Even so, right from its arrival in its initial orbit, Akatsuki has been flexing its muscles, testing its imaging systems and returning a number of preliminary pictures of Venus to Earth, such as the ultra-violet image shown above right, captured just after the craft finally achieved orbit.

Curiosity reaches Sea of Sand

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity has reached the edge of the major “sea” of sand dunes located on the flank of “Mount Sharp”. Dubbed the ““Bagnold Dunes” after British military engineer Ralph Bagnold, who pioneered the study of sand dune formation and motion, doing much to further the understanding of mineral movements and transport by wind action. Such studies are seen as an essential part of understanding how big a role the Marian wind played in depositing concentrations of minerals often associated with water across the planet, and by extension, the behaviour and disposition of liquid water across Mars.

Sand is not a new phenomenon for rovers on Mars to encounter – Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit have all had dealings with it in the past; in fact Spirit’s mission as a rover came to an end in 2009, after it effectively got stuck in a “sand trap”. However, the “Bagnold Dunes” are very different to the sandy environs previously encountered by rovers; it is a huge “genuine” dune field where the sand hills can reach the height of 2-storey buildings and cover areas equivalent to an American football field.

The rippled surface of the first Martian sand dune ever studied up close. Captured by Curiosity's Mastcam on November 27th, 2015 (Sol 1,176 on Mars), the view is looking up the curved slope of "High Dune", revealing a rippled surface of sand sculpted by the wind. The Bagnold dunes" are "active", in that they are migrating down the slope of "Mount Sharp" at the rate of around one metre (39 inches) a year. The dunes are active, migrating up to about one yard or meter a year.
The rippled surface of the first Martian sand dune ever studied up close. Captured by Curiosity’s Mastcam on November 27th, 2015 (Sol 1,176 on Mars), looking up the curved slope of “High Dune” as it rises above Curiosity. The “Bagnold Dunes” are “active”, in that they are migrating down the slope of “Mount Sharp” at the rate of around one metre (39 inches) a year  (image: NASA / JPL)

So far, Curiosity has only probed the edge of the dune field around a sand hill originally dubbed “Dune 1”, and now called “High Dune”, using both its camera to image the region and its wheels to test the surface material prior to moving deeper into the sands. Wheel slippage is a genuine concern for the rover when moving on loose surfaces, as it can both overtax the motors and put the rover at risk of toppling over. Given this, and while there are no plans to attempt any ascent up the side of a dune, the mission team are taking things cautiously.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: clouds, sand, meteors and launches”

Sunday Sunday: Mars, Pluto and WTF hits the atmosphere

CuriosityMars has been in the news a lot this last week, thanks to both the Curiosity rover and the MAVEN orbiter.

Curiosity’s science capabilities received a boost when a upgrade to the ChemCam test system on Earth increased the number of Earth-rock geochemical samples examined by the system tripled to some 350, vastly increasing the science team’s ability to improve their interpretation of data gathered by Curiosity’s ChemCam system – the laser and telescope / camera which vaporises small amounts of rocks on Mars and them images the plasma that’s given of for chemical and mineralogical analysis.

In particular, the upgrade has allowed the science team to re-examine data the rover gathered about a site with the most chemically diverse mineral veins so far examined on Mars. Called “Garden City”, the site sits above the “Pahrump Hills” area at the foot of “Mount Sharp”, which the rover examined in detail in late 2014 / early 2015. Of particular interest to scientists were a series of raised mineral veins criss-crossing the surface of the rocks in the area.

"Garden City", an outcrop about 1 metre (39 inches) high, examined by Curiosity in March 2015, and which exhibited mineral veins criss-crossing the surface of the rocks, and which exhibited different chemical signatures. New analysis capabilities on Earth have helped determine how the veins formed and what they may say about early conditions in Gale Crater.
“Garden City”, an outcrop about 1 metre (39 inches) high, examined by Curiosity in March 2015, and which exhibited mineral veins criss-crossing the surface of the rocks, and which exhibited different chemical signatures. New analysis capabilities on Earth have helped determine how the veins formed and what they may say about early conditions in Gale Crater

These new Earthside capabilities have allowed the science team to better analyse the minerals within the veins and make finer distinctions between them, revealing their mineral and chemical compositions vary one to another, and also appear to vary with age.

These findings suggest that, rather than being the result of a single extended wet period in Gale Crater during which water percolated down through fissures in the rock to leave the minerals behind, the veins are the result of several individual wet periods in Mars’ ancient past. These wet periods appear to have occurred somewhat later than the more extensive wet periods which gave rise to a successive series of lakes within Gale Crater, the sediments from which form the lowest slopes of “Mount Sharp”. As such, the veins give further hints to atmospheric changes going on at a time at which Mars’ climate was undergoing extraordinary changes and fluctuations in its ancient past.

Prominent mineral veins at the "Garden City" site examined by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover vary in thickness and brightness, as seen in this image from Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam). The image covers and area roughly 2 feet (60 centimeters) across. Types of vein material evident in the area include: 1) thin, dark-toned fracture filling material; 2) thick, dark-toned vein material in large fractures; 3) light-toned vein material, which was deposited last.
Prominent mineral veins at the “Garden City” site examined by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover vary in thickness and brightness, as seen in this image from Curiosity’s Mast Camera (MastCam).  The image covers and area roughly 60 cm (24 inches) across, and shows a mix of thin, dark-toned fracture filling material, likely deposited first, thick, dark-toned vein material in large fractures, and light-toned vein material, which was deposited last.

What Happened to Mars’ Atmosphere? The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

Atmospheric changes are also at the heart of the latest data to be analysed from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN). This data, part of the mission’s long terms studies of the planet’s atmosphere and environment greatly clarifies the key role played by the solar wind in the gradual loss of Mars’ once dense atmosphere and the transition of the planet’s climate from a warm and wet environment to the cold, arid planet we see today.

The solar wind is a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the Sun’s atmosphere at a speed of about 1.6 million kilometres (1 million miles) per hour. The interaction of this solar wind generates an electric field around Mars, much like a turbine on Earth generates electricity. This electric field interacts with the upper reaches of Mars’ atmosphere, accelerating the ions there and shooting them into space.

An artist's impression of the solar wind shredding ions from Mars' atmosphere
An artist’s impression of the solar wind shredding ions from Mars’ atmosphere

MAVEN measurements indicate that gases are being stripped away in this manner from the Martian atmosphere at a rate of about 8.6 million tonnes per day. “Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator. “We’ve seen that the atmospheric erosion increases significantly during solar storms, so we think the loss rate was much higher billions of years ago when the sun was young and more active.”

The impact of solar storms on the rate of loss from Mars’ atmosphere was directly observed by MAVEN at the start of 2015, when the planet was bracketed by a series of large-scale outpouring from the sun – the same solar activity which gave rise to the massive increase in auroral activity at that time (see my October 26th Space Sunday report).

“Solar-wind erosion is an important mechanism for atmospheric loss, and was important enough to account for significant change in the Martian climate,” Joe Grebowsky, MAVEN project scientist said of the data gathered by the mission. “MAVEN also is studying other loss processes – such as loss due to impact of ions or escape of hydrogen atoms – and these will only increase the importance of atmospheric escape.”

Continue reading “Sunday Sunday: Mars, Pluto and WTF hits the atmosphere”

Space Monday: beautiful Pluto, icy Enceladus, and jetting into space

new-horizonIn September I reported on images captured by the New Horizons space probe of the night side of Pluto, backlit by the distant Sun. In a follow-up to those images, the New Horizons team has released stunning high-resolution images captured by the probe shortly after passing the point of closest approach to Pluto on July 14th, 2015.

The images were captured from a distance of just 18,000 km (11,000 miles) from Pluto using the Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), part of New Horizon’s Ralph suite of instruments, which were pieced together to form a magnificent view of Pluto with a resolution of some 700 metres per pixel.

The mosaic of images shows the rich complexity of both Pluto’s surface features and its atmosphere, the enhanced images clearly bringing the bands of haze in the latter into sharp relief.

An enhanced image of Pluto's night side, composed of images captured by the MVIC instrument on New Horizons on July 14th, 2015. As Pluto is "tipped over" on its axis by 120 degrees, the planet's north pole is to the right and south pole to the left
An enhanced image of Pluto’s night side, composed of images captured by the MVIC instrument on New Horizons on July 14th, 2015. As Pluto is “tipped over” on its axis by 120 degrees, the planet’s north pole is to the right and south pole to the left (image: NASA/JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The clearest detail of Pluto’s surface can be seen to the right, which because the planet’s axis is tilted by 120-degrees, is the north polar region. The sheer ruggedness of the terrain can be seen here, some of the pitted hills almost looking like clouds above a distant landscape. However, the left side, and the south pole isn’t entirely without interest: caught by the glow of sunlight refracted by Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere, the rugged nature of the little world’s chaotic surface can also be seen.

Subject to enhancement, a portion of the images capturing the northern regions of Pluto  reveal even more detail, particularly within the complex layering of Pluto’s atmosphere, where the enhancements reveal it to be made up of around a dozen layers, far more than had been thought during New Horizon’s final approach to Pluto in late June. These layers are made up of tholins, soot-like organic compounds created as a result of ultraviolet radiation from the sun interacting with the upper layers of Pluto’s atmosphere. These particles, undergoing some chemical changes as they drift back down through the various layers, eventually precipitate down onto Pluto’s surface, staining it red.

An enhanced image of Pluto north polar region revealing an incredibly complex surface of hills and valleys, ice features and high mountains, while above can be seen an enhanced view of the complex atmospheric banding
An enhanced image of Pluto north polar region revealing an incredibly complex surface of hills and valleys, ice features and high mountains, while above can be seen an enhanced view of the complex atmospheric banding (image: NASA/JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Cassini’s Enceladus Encounter

Cassini, NASA’s deep space probe exploring Saturn and his retinue of moons as a part of the Cassini-Huygens mission, is approaching the end of its 20-year mission. Launched in 1997, and following a 7-years transit to Saturn, Cassini has been studying the system in great detail, and delivered a tiny European lander vehicle, Huygens, to the surface of Titan, the largest moon in the solar system, and one with its own rich atmosphere, and standing bodies of liquid on its surface.

With fuel reserves set to expire in late 2017, Cassini will be ordered to fly into Saturn’s own dense atmosphere before it does so, where it will burn-up. In the meantime, however, the vehicle continues to return a marvellous wealth of data about the Saturn system, including several studies of another of the giant planet’s remarkable moons, Enceladus.

Enceladus revealed: captured on October 28th, this image reveals the icy beauty of encedaus as Cassini closes for its penultimate, and closest, approach to this tiny Moon with its hidden ocean
Enceladus revealed: captured on October 28th, this image reveals the icy beauty of the moon as Cassini closes for its penultimate, and closest, approach (image: NASA/JPL / Space Science Institute)

Like Jupiter’s moon Europa, Enceladus is a domain of ice, under which likely sits an ocean of liquid water. Shortly after arriving in orbit around Saturn, Cassini made the first of numerous flybys of the little Moon, which is just 500 km (310 mi) across, and detected the presence of a very thin atmosphere primarily made up of water vapour. In particular, the craft observed geysers erupting from the south pole, spewing water vapour, ice particles and other material into space, some of which likely contributes to Saturn’s “E” ring.

At the end of October 2015, Cassini made its penultimate flyby of Enceladus, passing over the Moon at an altitude of just 48 km (30 mi) and at a speed of some 30,000 kph (19,000 mph), diving through another of the geyser plumes in the process to measure the composition of gas and ice particles launched from the underground ocean.

A stunning images taken by Cassini following the October flyby reveals a crescent Enceladus floating above Saturn's magnificent rings
A stunning images taken by Cassini following the October flyby reveals a crescent Enceladus floating above Saturn’s magnificent rings (image: NASA/JPL / Space Science Institute)

In particular, the Cassini science team will be analysing the data returned by Cassini following the flyby to see if the sensors found any evidence of molecular hydrogen in the plumes. Doing so would help verify suspected hydrothermal activity is taking place on the floor of Enceladus’ ice-shrouded ocean which could give rise to hot environments rich in mineral and chemical deposits suitable for the development of microbial life, just as deep-ocean thermal vents here on Earth provide life-sustaining environments.

Cassini will make one more return to Enceladus on December 19th, but will pass further from the little Moon as its orbit gradually swings it around Saturn for a further and final set of encounters with giant Titan, before finally moving inwards to pass between Saturn and its rings for the first time to study Saturn’s atmosphere in detail as the mission draws to a close in 2017.

Dawn Descends Over Ceres

On October 23rd, the NASA / ESA joint mission to explore two of the solar system’s three “protoplanets” located in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, commenced manoeuvres to lower itself to is final orbit around Ceres.

The Dawn spacecraft, which arrived at Ceres in March 2015, after a 2.5 year transit flight from Vesta, its first destination, fired its ion engine to start reducing its orbit from 1,450 kilometres (915 miles) to just 380 km (235 mi), a manoeuvre which should see the vehicle spiral gently downwards to arrive in its new orbit in mid-December. At that time, Dawn will commence a final mapping and data-gathering mission, providing images with a resolution of 35 metres (120 ft) per pixel.

Occator crater and its brights spots images from directly overhead and a distance of 1,470 km (915 miles) by the Dawn space vehicle
Occator crater and its bright spots images from directly overhead and a distance of 1,450 km (915 miles) by the Dawn space vehicle (image: NASA / JPL / DLR)

It is hoped that this final science orbit will offer definitive data on precisely what is giving rise to a series of odd bright spots within the crater Occator on Ceres, and which appear to be related to what seems to be a small and very localised trace atmosphere within the crater. Current thinking is the bright markings are salt or ice water deposits which are being out-gassed from Ceres’ interior.

Britain’s Spaceplane Gets £80 million Investment

SABRE is the name of a radical “air-breathing” hybrid engine which has been in development by  a small British company called Reaction Engines Limited (REL) since the late 1990s. The aim is to reduce the amount of on-board oxidiser required in the rocket combustion process by allowing the engine to draw on the air around it during the initial ascent through the denser part of the Earth’s atmosphere, much like a regular jet engine uses the air around it. Only when the air becomes too thin to support combustion does the rocket engine switch over to its on-board supplies of liquid oxygen to burn with its liquid hydrogen fuel.

Ultimately, REL hope to use the SABRE engine in a single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicle called Skylon, a fully reusable space launch vehicle, capable of operating from and to a conventional runway just like an aeroplane, and carrying up to tonnes into low Earth orbit.  However, the SABRE engine potentially has a wide range of applications, including a purely “air-breathing” variant (called Scimitar) which could be used to power aircraft within Earth’s atmosphere at speeds close to five times that of sound.

REL propose using the SABRE engine in their Skylon spaceplane capable of lifting up to 15 tonnes (cargo or 24 passengers) into orbit. however, the engine has many potential uses, hence the interest from BASE Systems and the UK government (image: REL)
REL propose using the SABRE engine in their Skylon spaceplane capable of lifting up to 15 tonnes (cargo or 24 passengers) into orbit. however, the engine has many potential uses, hence the interest from BASE Systems and the UK government (image: REL)

On Monday, November 2nd, REL announced that BAE Systems Ltd is to invest some £20.6 million (US $31.8 million) in REL in return for a 20% stake in the company, while the UK government has awarded a further £60 million (US $92.8 million). Together with recent funding from the EU, REL has now raised some £95 million (US $146.6 million)  to further develop SABRE.

Skulls in the Sky

Halloween 2015 brought with it a creepy-looking visitor which looked down on Earth as many across the world took to marking All Hallows Eve on Saturday, October 31st.

The visitor in question was asteroid 2015 TB145, a lump of rock around 600 metres (1,968 feet) across. Tumbling through space, it passed by the Earth at a distance of roughly 480,000 km (300,000 miles) – slightly further from us than the orbit of the Moon,  at a speed of some 126,000 kph (78,293 mph).

Such Earth-passing asteroids are not rare, although this one was only identified on October 10th, 2015. It well be the last close passage to Earth by a very large asteroid until 2027, and its size offered scientists a unique opportunity to image it using radar.

Asteroid 2015 TB145 in an eerily skull-lik image captured by the Are
Asteroid 2015 TB145 in an eerily skull-like image captured by the Arecibo Observatory on Friday, October 30th, 2015.

On Friday, October 30th, the The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico used radar mapping to capture an image of the asteroid in which it looks like a gigantic skull.  It was all an optical illusion of course, the combined result of the radio reflections from the asteroid giving rise to the grey shaded image and the effect of pareidolia, in which the human brain perceives shapes and patterns that aren’t really there; as the asteroid tumbled through space, the similarities to a human skull were quickly lost as the radar reflections changed.

Nevertheless, it was fittingly spooky for Halloween!

Discover Gale Crater

I’ve written extensively about NASA’s Curiosity rover and its explorations within Gale Crater on Mars since its arrival there in August 2012. Now NASA and the Los Angeles Times have combined to provide a virtual reality exploration of Gale Crater, which examines some of the principal features to be found there, traces the rover’s route from crater floor and up the flank of “Mount Sharp” and which allows visitors to fly over the crater or take a guided tour using simple keyboard controls.

Space Sunday: from the Sun to Charon, and the death of a planet

Astrophotographer Mia Stålnacke caught this aurora display over Kiruna, Sweden, in March 2015
Astrophotographer Mia Stålnacke caught this aurora display over Kiruna, Sweden, in March 2015

The Sun is the only star we can directly observe in detail. As such, it has been the subject of study for a long time, significantly so since the birth of the space age. As such, you’d think we know pretty much all there is to know about it; but the fact is that the Sun still has many mysteries – and surprises – of its own awaiting understanding and discovery.

One of these mysteries has been strange particle emissions rich in helium-3. These don’t form part of the more familiar coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which can have an elevated impact on Earth magnetosphere giving rising to more energetic aurorae, or with collimated X-ray flares. The cause of these helium-3 rich outbursts has until now been hard to trace because in order to be detected by the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) craft which is designed to study such energetic particles, they have to originate very close to the Sun’s limb, making any associated events hard to observe.

A look at the Sun’s right limb on January 26, 2010. Within the marked red square, a large-scale blast wave travels through the Sun’s atmosphere. These images were obtained with the help of NASA’s STERO A probe and show the Sun’s atmosphere in extreme ultraviolet light.
A look at the Sun’s right limb on January 26, 2010. Within the marked red square, a large-scale blast wave travels through the Sun’s atmosphere. These images were obtained with the help of NASA’s STEREO A probe and show the Sun’s atmosphere in extreme ultraviolet light.

However, on October 13th, two teams of scientists working independently of one another, but using the same data and images gathered from NASA’s STEREO solar observation vehicle and the Earth-orbiting ACE platform, announced they had pin-pointed the cause of the outbursts. They are the result of huge explosions occurring in the Sun’s atmosphere, which in turn create gigantic atmospheric shock waves in the Sun’s atmosphere which can extend over half a billion kilometres (300,000 miles) and advance at speeds of 300 km (190 mi) per second. It is believed the sheer speed of the shock waves from these explosions is sufficient to accelerate  the helium-3 (itself produced as a part of the overall fusion process in the Sun’s core), into a stream of particles thrown off into space.

While it has been confirmed the initial explosions are not related to CMEs or sunspots or other known solar phenomena, the precise reason for the explosions themselves has yet to be determined.

Charon Revealed

Images and data returned by the New Horizons space vehicle at the start of October have provided more details about Pluto’s companion, Charon, revealing it to be an even more fascinating world than had been anticipated.

Charon as revealed in the highest resolution images yet returned of that tiny world by New Hotizons (image: NASA/JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI)
Charon as revealed in the highest resolution images yet returned of that tiny world by New Horizons (image: NASA/JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The images, captured in black and white by the probe’s LORRI camera, have been combined with images and data gathered by the RALPH suite of instruments to present a beautiful full-colour image of almost all of one face of Charon, as seen by New Horizons as it swept through its closest approach to both Charon and Pluto on July 14th, 2015.

Some 1,214 kilometres (753 miles) in diameter, Charon is about half the size of Pluto, and was only discovered in 1978.  Quite how it formed has been the subject of much debate. Prior to New Horizons’ visit, the most popular theory was that Charon coalesced from the debris of a collision between Pluto and another Kuiper belt object. However, New Horizons has so far failed to return any images of Pluto that hint at such a collision, and the make-up of the two worlds is less similar than might be expected were one the offshoot of the other. So the theory gaining ground now is that both bodies were already formed when they fell into orbit around one another.

A comparison of the Moons of Pluto as images by New Horizons, and their relative size
A comparison of the Moons of Pluto as images by New Horizons, and their relative size

The latest images of Charon reveal a striking world, every bit as varied as Pluto, and marked by a massive series of fractures across its midriff, suggesting a massive upheaval in Charon’s past which split open its crust. The southern hemisphere also has a more youthful appearance than the region north of the fracture, suggesting that widespread resurfacing took place following the event, and that cryovolcanism (ice volcanoes) may today be contributing to maintaining the relatively smooth appearance of Charon’s southern regions. So like Pluto, Charon may still be an active world.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: from the Sun to Charon, and the death of a planet”

Space Sunday: of water, Apollo and space spies

CuriosityThe Curiosity rover team have released a further study showing that ancient Mars was capable of storing water in lakes over an extended period of time, and that this water was a principal component in the creation of “Mount Sharp”, the mound at the centre of Gale Crater, currently being investigated by the NASA rover.

This forms the latest in a series of reports on the subject of water on Mars and in Gale Crater to be published by the Curiosity science team, and comes almost a year after I wrote about studies released by the team which detailed how “Mount Sharp” – more formally known as Aeolis Mons – was most likely formed by sediments laid down  by successive wet period in Mars’ ancient past.

“Observations from the rover suggest that a series of long-lived streams and lakes existed at some point between about 3.8 to 3.3 billion years ago, delivering sediment that slowly built up the lower layers of Mount Sharp,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist, discussing the new report.

In December 2014, NASA issued a report on how
In December 2014, NASA issued a report on how “Mount Sharp” was likely formed. On the left, the repeated depositing of alluvial and wind-blown matter (light brown) around a series of central lakes which formed in Gale Crater, where material was deposited by water and more heavily compressed due the weight of successive lakes (dark brown). On the right, once the water had fully receded / vanished from the crater, wind action took hold, eroding the original alluvial / windblown deposits around the “dry” perimeter of the crater more rapidly than the densely compacted mudstone layers of the successive lake beds, thus forming “Mount Sharp”

However, until Curiosity actually started studying “Mount Sharp” in detail,  the accuracy of the earlier studies couldn’t be completely verified. The latest results from the rover indicate that these wetter scenarios were correct for the lower portions of Mount Sharp, and that the filling of at least the bottom layers of the mountain occurred over a period of less than 500 million years, mostly as a result of material deposited by ancient rivers and lakes.

The new report also comes on top of confirmation that the recurring slope lineae (RSL) features seen on Mars from orbit are most likely the result of outflows of water which are occurring today. together they are reshaping some of the thinking around water on Mars – and what might have happened to it.

“What we thought we knew about water on Mars is constantly being put to the test,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Programme. “It’s clear that the Mars of billions of years ago more closely resembled Earth than it does today. Our challenge is to figure out how this more clement Mars was even possible, and what happened to that wetter Mars.”

Strata at the base of
Curiosity has found plenty of evidence for water on the floor of Gale Crater, which likely took the form of one or more lakes during the wetter parts of Mars’ history, before becoming rivers and streams later. Strata at the foot of “mount Sharp” (shown above) strongly suggested water played a significant part in forming the mound, and the evidence for this being the case has continued to be revealed as the rover climbs the lower slopes

Currently, images of the flanks of the mound returned by the rover and from orbit suggest water-transported sedimentary deposition may have extended at least 150 to 200 metres (500 to 650 feet) above the crater floor, and possibly as high as 800 metres (approx 1/2 a mile). This both indicates that there was at least one standing body of water in the crater and further confirms that “Mount Sharp” was a direct result of sediments deposited by this water. Or at least, the lower slopes were; there is currently little evidence for the sedimentary strata extending about the 800 metre mark, however. This has led to speculation that wind-blown deposits are responsible for the upper reaches of the mound.

Taken together, the recent findings concerning Mars and its water suggest that the planet’s history is far more complex than had been thought. “We have tended to think of Mars as being simple,” John Grotzinger, the former project scientist for the Curiosity mission said of the latest findings.

“We once thought of the Earth as being simple too,” he continued. “But the more you look into it, questions come up because you’re beginning to fathom the real complexity of what we see on Mars. This is a good time to go back to re-evaluate all our assumptions. Something is missing somewhere.”

Pluto’s Water

The blue haze of Pluto's atmosphere
The blue haze of Pluto’s atmosphere: released on October 8th, this true colour image taken after the New Horizons spacecraft had completed its closest approach to the dwarf planet shows Pluto’s night side ringed by the blue haze of its thin atmosphere, as illuminated by the distant Sun, far away on the other side of the little world

The latest images and data to be received on Earth from NASA’s New Horizons space vehicle reveal Pluto’s atmosphere to be a rich blue in colour, and confirm that water ice exists on theplanet.

“Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It’s gorgeous,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator as the striking image shown above was released as part of the latest batch of pictures and data to be received from the space craft and undergo processing and initial analysis.

The blue colour indicates that the haze within Pluto’s atmosphere is made up of a lot very fine of particulate matter, which scatters blue light from the Sun more easily than other colours, due to blue having a shorter wavelength (which is also the reason the sky we see here on Earth also appears blue, because that wavelength is easily scattered by the tiny particles making up our atmosphere).

In Pluto’s case, it’s thought that the particles in the atmosphere are largely tholins, created by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun breaking down the methane and nitrogen in Pluto’s upper atmosphere, allowing their molecules to gradually recombine into the more complex tholins, which draft down through the atmosphere, undergoing further changes, before eventually reaching the surface of the planet, giving it a distinctive reddish colour.

Instruments forming the Ralph suite aboard New Horizons have identified regions of exposed water ice on Pluto which occur in regions which have corresponding deposits of tholins. Quite what the relationship is between the two is unclear. The water ice deposits are shown in blue on the inset image simply for convience, and not because that's how they appear on Pluto
Instruments forming the Ralph suite aboard New Horizons have identified regions of exposed water ice on Pluto which occur in regions which have corresponding deposits of tholins. Quite what the relationship is between the two is unclear. The water ice deposits are shown in blue on the inset image simply for convenience, and not because that’s how they appear on Pluto

The discovery of water ice on Pluto has taken scientists by surprise. Not so much because it is there, but because it appears to be somehow related to areas of heavy tholin deposits. Confirmation of the presence of water ice came from data returned by the Ralph instrument suite aboard New Horizons, but just how widespread it might be isn’t clear, as it seems that it might be masked elsewhere by other surface material.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: of water, Apollo and space spies”