Space Sunday: Moon talk

An artist’s impression of an unpiloted commercial lander leaving a scaled-back LOP-G for a descent to the surface of the Moon ahead of a 2024 human return to the lunar surface.Credit: NASA

On May 13th, 2019, NASA announced that the Trump Administration had requested a US $1.6 billion bump to the space agency’s 2020 budget, to assist it in its efforts to return humans to the Moon by 2024. If approved, the increase will be used by NASA as a “down payment” – or more correctly seed money – that will in particular be put towards studies and projects related to the development of a human-rated lunar lander.

Given just how much needs to be done, US $1.6 billion really isn’t that much; in 2019, NASA was allocated US $4.5 billion of a US $19.2 billion to put towards its lunar efforts, most of which was used in the development of the initial Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ongoing work in developing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Capsule, with small amounts being allocated to studies such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) station, and development of a new generation of lunar-capable space suits.

But these capabilities are just a part of the infrastructure NASA needs to build if it really is to achieve a human return to the Moon by 2024. This includes the LOP-G itself, the need to carry out more extensive robotic exploration of the lunar south pole, the selected location for the landing, the development, testing and deployment of these robot missions, the development of the technologies NASA have touted as being required for a long-term human presence on the Moon (not all of which will be required in the initial phases of the return, admittedly). And, of course, there is the need to develop and test the lunar lander itself.

The Lockheed Martin Orion MPCV Ground Test Article (GTA), a version of the vehicle constructed specifically for testing under simulated conditions to demonstrate the environmental integrity and operational capability of the craft. Credit: NASA / Lockheed Martin

The announcement was used by NASA to springboard a series of new PR videos to help promote their lunar aspirations, including one narrated by William “James T. Kirk” Shatner – are upbeat whilst being light on details. Even so they are useful watching for those wanting to have the agency’s aims painted in the broadest of brush strokes.

Part of this PR drive included the confirmation of the lunar programme’s official title: Artemis. The daughter of Zeus and Leto, Artemis was the Greek goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals, and chastity, the patron and protector of young girls, and was worshipped as one of the primary goddesses of childbirth and midwifery.

However, in this instance, the most important aspect of Artemis’ legend is that she was regarded as the goddess of the Moon – and the twin sister to Apollo. As such, the name is clearly intended as a way to indirectly echo the can do attitude that marked the Apollo era.

NASA’s plans to send humans to the Moon by 2028 had three parts that could be launched, in part, by commercial rockets, and which used a fully operational LOP-G. If the White House target date of 2024 is to be met, these plans must be vastly accelerated – and NASA budget will require a committed year-on-year increase from the US government. Credit: NASA

With one billion of the additional budget request being specifically for use in lunar lander development, on May 17th, NASA confirmed that it has selected 11 companies to begin studies and initial prototype development of portions of human landers intended for use in the 2024 (and beyond) missions.

Some US $45.5 million has been set aside by NASA in support of all 11 companies, each of which is expected to make its own contribution  – up to 20% of the total cost of their study / prototype programme to the development work. The awards are part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) programme, a series of broad agency announcements that support public-private partnerships to develop technologies needed for NASA’s exploration plans.

The 11 companies selected comprise Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Boeing, Dynetics, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Maxar Technologies, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, OrbitBeyond, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX.

Given Lockheed Martin have been working on their own proposals for a lunar lander for some time (see Space Sunday: Moon, Mars, and abort systems), and Blue Origin recently unveiled their own lander, Blue Moon (see Space Sunday: a Blue Moon, water worlds and moving house), their inclusion in the list is unsurprising. Neither is the inclusion of the likes of SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Northrop Grumman. What is perhaps surprising is the inclusion of start-ups like OrbitBeyond (founded in 2018), which was initially granted a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract by NASA, allowing it to bid on delivering science and technology payloads to the Moon, rather than being involved in the development of human-rated lander vehicles.

Blue Origin, who recently revealed a full-scale model of their Blue Moon lunar lander, are one of 11 companies selected by NASA to carry out initial work into a human-rated Moon lander. Credit: Blue Origin

The awards require companies to pay at least 20 percent of the overall cost of each study or prototype project, with the work to be completed in six months. To allow the companies to start work immediately, the participating companies are allowed to start work while the contract terms are still being negotiated.

However, it’s not all good news. The 2020 federal budget has yet to be passed by Congress, and on May 16th, the House Appropriations Committee released an updated 2020 federal budget proposal of their own. This includes an additional US $1.3 billion in spending for NASA – but almost none of it is earmarked for NASA’s exploration programmes, which encompass a return to the Moon. Instead, under the House proposal, that programme is effectively cut by US $618 million.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Moon talk”

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Space Sunday: a Blue Moon, water worlds and moving house

Jeff Bezos, the Blue Origin founder, unveils a full-scale model of the company’s Blue Moon lunar lander. Credit: Jeff Foust

On May 9th 2019, and after a lot of speculation following an April tweet (see Space Sunday: asteroid impacts and private space flights), Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos unveiled the next step in the company’s space aspirations: their Blue Moon lunar lander.

The vehicle has been in development for some three years, with precious few details being given until now, other than it was initially indicated it would be capable of delivering up to 4.5 tonnes of equipment and material to the Moon’s surface in support of human missions. However, the vehicle has apparently been through a number of design cycles, and the unveiling presented a massively capable machine which  – while it wasn’t openly stated at the May 9th event (but is indicated on the Blue Origin website) – could be used in support of NASA’s drive to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Somewhat resembling the descent stage of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), Blue Moon has the capability to complete variable missions up to and including landing crews on the Moon’s surface and lifting them off again. In its “basic” form, the lander will be able to land 3.6 tonnes of cargo on the Moon, while a “stretch tank” version will be able to increase that deliverable payload to 6.5 tonnes.

The Blue Moon Lander with a set of four remote landers on its deck, and showing the “bonus payload” bay above the smaller of the distinctive spherical fuel tanks, which will contain liquid oxygen (LOX). Credit: Blue Origin

This payload will be carried on the flat upper deck of the lander, which will also include a robot crane (or cranes) capable of lifting it down to the Moon’s surface. In addition, the lander has an internal payload bay designed to deliver small satellites into lunar orbit as a “bonus mission”.

The most interesting element of the vehicle is perhaps its propulsion / power system. Blue Moon will be powered by the company’s new BE-7 motor, which uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants rather than storable hypergolic fuels. This allows the motor to generate up to 10,000 lbs of thrust, whilst also being “deeply throttlable”. The initial version of the motor will undergo its first “hot fire” test in the summer of 2019.

While the offer better performance capabilities than hypergolic fuels, liquid propellants need to be held at low temperatures, otherwise they can start to “boil off” to a gaseous state if they start to get “warm” (this is why liquid fuelled rockets appear to “steam” on the launch pad: they are venting fuel that has turned to gas that needs to be released to avoid over-pressurising and rupturing tanks).

While Blue Origin believe the exceptional low temperatures of the 2-week lunar night will help keep the lander’s fuel stocks cold and liquid, Blue Moon will still need refrigeration / insulation to prevent undue boil-off of the propellant stocks, which will add some weight to the vehicle. However, Blue Origin sees some boil-off of the liquid hydrogen ad advantageous: they plan to use boiled-off gaseous liquid hydrogen to help keep the liquid oxygen cold in its tanks and also as feedstock for the power cells that will be used to provide electrical power to the vehicle.

Bezos demonstrates Blue Moon’s ability to deliver a rover vehicle (mock-up) to the lunar surface during the May 9th event. Credit: Blue Origin

The latter are important again because of that 2-week lunar night. when there will be no sunlight to provide energy to any solar cells the vehicle might otherwise be equipped with to provide electrical power.

While initially intended to deliver science missions and payloads to the surface of the Moon in readiness for human landings. However, a future development with the vehicle could see it fitted with an upper stage crew / ascent module. Whether or not this might be used as part of NASA’s ambitions to met the goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024 remains to be seen. However, Bezos has indicated Blur Origin is willing to help NASA to achieve this goal, and pointedly notes that that the company has a three-year headset in developing their lander when compared to others.

An artist’s impression of the Blue Moon crewed lander with the crew / ascent module on top. Credit: Blue Moon

However, even outside of NASA’s plans, Blue Origin has its own hopes to send humans to the Moon. As I noted in my last Space Sunday report, the company’s April tweet about this announcement made an indirect reference to Shackleton Crater close to the Moon’s south pole. This is one of a number of craters believed to have water ice deposits within it, making it an ideal location for establishing a lunar base – and Blue Origin and Bezos have previously indicated it is their target for establishing a lunar base.

Lunar water ice is also another reason for the company opting to use liquid propellants with Blue Moon. Should their aspirations with Shackleton come to pass, then water ice – hydrogen and oxygen  – becomes a feedstock for refuelling Blue Moon landers once they are on the Moon, making them more efficiently reusable.

Blue Moon will be 7 metres (23 ft) across its payload platform, which will stand some 4m (14 ft) above the lunar surface on the basic lander. Fully loaded and fuelled, Blue Moon will weigh 15 tonnes at launch, but having burned the majority of its fuel during its flight and landing, will weigh only 3 tonnes after landing. By comparison, the Apollo LEM weighed 16.4 tonnes fully fuelled and stood 7.07 m tall, including the crewed ascent stage. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s proposed lunar lander could be as much as 62 tonnes fully fuelled and stand 14 m (46 ft) tall.

Bezos declined to answer specifics on the vehicle such as when test flights are likely to commence, what will be the launch vehicle (although Blue Origin’s New Glenn would appear to be the most obvious choice), or how much overall development of the lander and its variants will cost. Doubtless, some of these details will become public in time.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a Blue Moon, water worlds and moving house”

Space Sunday: asteroid impacts and private space flights

An artist’s impression of a small (approx 60m) asteroid air burst disintegration over a city. Credit: Igor Zh./Shutterstock

I’ve written about the risk posed by the potential impact of a Near Earth Object on this planet several times within these Space Sunday articles. While they are rare, as we’ve seen with the Tunguska event of 1908, and the more recent  2013 Chelyabinsk air-blast and 2018 LA (ZLAF9B2) in June 2018, objects of a size sufficient enough to survive their initial entry into the Earth’s atmosphere before being ripped apart in a violent explosion can and do exist.

Nor is Earth alone in the threat – as witnessed by those observing the lunar eclipse of January 21st, 2019, the Moon can be hit as well. At 04:41 GMT, during the period of totality during that eclipse, numerous astronomers in North and South America and in Western Europe saw a sudden bright flash lasted less than 1/3 of a second. It was later attributed to an object around 30 to 60 centimetres (1 to 2 ft) across striking the Moon at around 61,000 km/h, producing a new crater somewhere between 10 and 15 metres (32 to 49 ft) across.

While the majority of the 10+ million objects thus far found crossing Earth’s orbit as they go around the Sun pose no real threat to us (in fact, the number of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids, or PHAs, has been put at just 2,000), and the risk of a substantial impact occurring in anyone’s individual lifetime is relatively remote, the fact is that – as Douglas Adams famously noted – space is big really big. Even the solar system is a vast place when compared to the size of Earth, big enough to hide any number of objects that might one day pose a very real threat to all life on Earth or, given humanity’s global distribution the potential to place one of our major cities at risk.

So how might we deal with such an eventuality? Currently, there are really only three practical options available to us – although others have been suggested, and more might be developed in the future. Which of them might be used depends on how much lead time we have in which to take action. To summarise:

  • The gravity tug: if the impact is decades away, a spacecraft with a motor such as an electric ion drive could rendezvous with the asteroid and enter a halo orbit around it. The motor could then be fired along the axis of flight, allowing the gravitational influence of the vehicle to “pull” the asteroid onto a new course. However, this option can really only be used if the inclination of the threatening asteroid is relatively close to that of Earth’s; if the two are very disparate, the time needed to get the spacecraft to the asteroid using gravity assist manoeuvres around the Earth or Venus or even Jupiter, might simply be too long.
The gravity tug explained. Credit: G. Manley / I. Pey
  • The Kinetic intercept: this uses brute force to deflect the asteroid by slamming relatively solid masses into to, their momentum serving to shunt it into a slightly altered orbit around the Sun that is sufficient for it to miss the Earth.
  • Nuclear deflection: similar to the kinetic intercept, but uses the shock waves of nuclear weapons detonated close to the asteroid to again shunt it into an altered orbit so it misses the Earth.

The major problem with the last two is the risk that if the asteroid is too fragile, rather than shunting it aside, they could shatter it, leaving Earth facing not s single object, but a scatter gun of debris, potentially with multiple elements large enough to devastate large areas of the planet’s surface should they enter the atmosphere and explosively disintegrate. This is also the reason why trying to directly blow an asteroid part using a nuclear strike isn’t regarded too favourably. There are other issues with each of these options that could also limit their effectiveness, or raise the need to repeat them, but they provide a general idea of how we might react.

NASA’s planned 2022 DART mission will deliberately smash a vehicle into a small asteroid to test the kinetic impact theory of asteroid deflection. Credit: NASA GSFC

Hence why the International Academy of Astronautics holds a Planetary Defence Conference every two years to discuss the latest findings with NEO and PHAs, and the ways and means to prevent such an impact – or at least the loss of life minimised. Since 2013, the 5-day conference has included a special “war game” type simulation to examine how a threat might be dealt with, and at the 2019 conference, held between April 29th and May 3rd, the simulation with publicly disseminated via social media as it progressed, to encourage grater public understanding about the need to better locate and track NEOs and PHAs (which are currently being discovered at the rate of around 700 a year).

In this simulation, which compressed an 8-year time frame into 5 days, the 200 astronomers, engineers, scientists and politicians at the conference were informed a large (fictional) asteroid around 300 metres across would slam into Colorado in 2027, unless then managed to divert it. Initially, things went well: a joint mission involving the USA, Russia, Europe, China and Japan used kinetic impacts to safely divert the bulk of the asteroid away from Earth. However, a 60m fragment broke away on a course that would see it hit the Earth’s atmosphere at 69,000 km/h (43,000 mph) and explode 15 km (9.3 mi) above Central Park, New York City. The force f the air blast would be sufficient to complete raze Manhattan and parts of New York City for a radius of 15 km (9.4 mi),  with the  effects of the blast felt up to 68 km (42.5 mi) from the epicentre. Plans were drawn up to try to deflect this fragment using a nuclear blast, but these became mired in political wrangling (not for the first time in these simulations)  until it was too late to achieve the desire deflection.

While such exercises might sound like scientists playing games, they do serve a purpose in that they help to underline the massive threat we face if we discover an asteroid is on a collision course with Earth – and the need for us to have better means to detect objects that might pose a threat early enough that we can take action, and also to better understand the processes – technical, scientific and political – that need to followed / overcome in order to prevent a collision.

They also highlight other issues as well. In this case, just how do you handle evacuating a city of 8 million souls? How much time is required (in the simulation, it came down to just 2 months)? What are the logistics required to ensure a (relatively) smooth evacuation? How and when should you tell the public? How do you avoid mass panic? This type of discussion is actually of major import, given current thinking is that if an object due to strike the Earth is 60 metres or less across, the focus should be on evacuating the area directly affected, rather than on trying to deflect it.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: asteroid impacts and private space flights”

Space Sunday: Moon, Mars, and abort systems

Lockheed Martin: trying to assist NASA in putting humans back on the Moon in 2024. Credit: Lockheed Martin

On Tuesday, March 26th, Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to accelerate plans to send humans back to the Moon, moving the planned first landing from 2028 to 2024. That presents an incredibly short time frame for the US space agency, given all that needs to be done.

Rather than going to the Moon directly – as with Apollo in the 1960 through 1972  – NASA’s plans for a return to the Moon require the establishment of an orbital facility around the Moon – the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway – plus the development of the vehicle to get to and from it (the Orion MPCV), and a vehicle to get from it to the surface of the Moon and back. This, coupled with trying to develop a completely new and complex launch vehicle – the Space Launch System – capable of putting all this hardware where it needs to be, means NASA has a huge mountain to climb to achieve their goal and maintain things like operating the International Space Station – and will need a lot of funding to achieve it, something which doesn’t as yet seem to be forthcoming.

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is a complex idea, potentially equalling the ISS in requirements – and development / construction time frame, making it improbable that it would be ready in full for 2024 lunar landing. Credit: NASA

As it is, the SLS, as recently noted in these pages, has yet to fly, and has seen a number of programmatic changes in order to try to meet a time frame that was already tight before Pence give his March directive. Following the announcement of the shift to a 2024 landing, NASA actually wavered over using it, mulling the idea of using a commercial launch system instead (the Delta IV Heavy is capable of launching the Orion, for example) before deciding they would push to use SLS. However, in doing to, the agency then suggested they could cut the “green run” test of the SLS first stage, potentially shaving 6 months from the development / flight schedule for the first launch.

Viewed as a crucial pre-flight test, the “green run” would see the completed first stage shipped from the Michoud Assembly Facility, Louisiana, to the Stennis Space Centre, Mississippi, where its four RS-25 engines would be fired for eight minutes, simulating the actual flight of the vehicle prior to upper stage separation. It has been regarded as a crucial test, intended expose the untried first stage to the full force of a simulated launch to gather vital data on the stage performance and to see how the entire assembly stands up the rigours of launch and what might need to be re-worked, etc. The suggestion was that NASA skip it in favour of individual tests of the four RS-25 motors – potentially shaving 6 months off the SLS development schedule.

But on April 25th, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) met to discuss this idea and strongly advised NASA not to avoid the “green run”.

There is no other test approach that will gather the critical full-scale integrated propulsion system operational data required to ensure safe operations. Shorter-duration engine firings at the launch pad will not achieve an understanding of the operational margins, and could result in severe consequences. I cannot emphasize more strongly that we advise NASA to retain this test … as NASA evaluates different paths to potentially accelerate the EM-1 flight, it cannot lose sight that the ultimate objective of that flight is to mitigate risk and provide a clear understanding of the risk posture prior to the first crew flight.

– Patricia Sanders, ASAP Chair

The ASAP as recommended NASA doesn’t skip the “green run” integrated test of the SLS core stage – which adds pressure to meeting a 2024 lunar landing time frame. Credit NASA

NASA has yet to formally respond to the recommendation, but it would seem unlikely they’d go against the ASAP. This potentially means that SLS will be unlikely to make its first uncrewed flight – Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in 2020, and the ripples may spread further, affecting the time line for the first crewed test of SLS and Orion, and on onwards towards affecting the 2024 goal.

Another issue is that of how NASA will actually get to and from the Moon’s surface. Originally, the agency planned a “two-step” approach to lunar lander development: issue a procurement notice for the development of a lunar lander ascent vehicle, designed to lift a crew off of the Moon tat the end of their say, and a second notice for the transfer and descent stages of the vehicle – presumably allowing different companies to work on the various elements.

To assist NASA in the 2024 goal, Lockheed Martin has re-vamped its Moon lander into a two-stage vehicle, the upper ascent / command module of which will utilise elements from the Orion MPCV craft. Credit: Lockheed Martin

However, on April 26th, NASA altered the procurement notice to seek proposals for a fully integrated lander vehicle. The idea is to speed-up the lander’s design and development and potentially reduce issues of integration of elements built by different contractors.

Certainly, one company that could benefit from this switch is Lockheed Martin, prime contractors for the Orion vehicle, and potential major supplier of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), the lunar space station seen as a pre-requisite to any crewed landings on the Moon. They first  announced their concept for a fully integrated lunar lander in October 2018, and on April 10th, 2019, the company outlined changes to both their lunar lunar and LOP-G designs in response to the push for s 2024 landing.

The revised Lockheed Martin lunar lander with the ascent / command module mated to the descent / landing stage. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Under their October 2018 plans for a lunar lander, Lockheed Martin proposed building a single, fully reusable vehicle, a 62 tonne (when fully fuelled) behemoth capable of taking 3 or 4 astronauts and a tonne of equipment to / from the lunar surface (by comparison, the Apollo lunar module weighed 16.4 tonnes fully fuelled).

This giant vehicle would support stays of up to 14 or 15 days on the lunar surface, prior to the entire vehicle returning to the LOP-G where the crew would use the Orion to fly back to Earth, while the lander refuelled itself from supplies shipped to the LOP-G and stored there.

However, such a vehicle presupposes the availability of a fully operational LOP-G, and there is simply no way such a facility could be designed, built, launched, assembled in lunar orbit and tested ready for operational use by 2024. This being the case, Lockheed Martin is now proposing a semi-reusable 2-stage lunar lander modelled along the same lines as the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module – although again, much larger.

In the revised design, the new lander would comprise a large descent and landing stage, only carrying sufficient fuel to get the complete vehicle onto the surface of the Moon and carrying various equipment lockers and bins. This would be topped by a combined command / ascent module that will would employ a modified version of the European-built Orion Service Module, complete with main motor and power generation systems, as its lower half. This would serve to propel the module and crew back up to the LOP-G at the end of a surface mission. The command section at the top of the module would include elements from the Orion vehicle for flight control, a dedicate lunar surface command deck and the necessary living space for a crew of around 3 for 14-15 days on the Moon.

Making the lander semi-re-usable means the Lockheed Martin do not need a fully operational LOP-G to support the fully re-usable version of their lander. Instead, a “bare necessities” LOP-G could be placed in orbit around the Moon  – little more than a propulsion / power module and a docking adaptor – in order for lunar missions to commence. These could then proceed whilst the LOP-G is itself built-out to accommodate more advanced missions.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Moon, Mars, and abort systems”

Space Sunday: exoplanets and Mars missions

An artist’s impression of Proxima-b with Proxima Centauri low on the horizon. The double star above and to the right of it is Alpha Centauri A and B. Credit: ESO

In 2016, astronomers reported their discovery of a planet orbiting our nearest stellar neighbour, Proxima Centauri (see: Space Sunday: exoplanets, dark matter, rovers and recoveries). Since then, the debate has swung back and forth on the potential of it being suitable for life.

While the planet – called Proxima-b – lies within it’s parent star’s habitable zone, there are, as I’ve previously reported, some significant barriers to it being a potential cradle for life. In particular, red dwarf stars are volatile little beasts (Proxima Centauri is just 1.5 times bigger than Jupiter), with their internal activity convective in nature. This tends to give rise to massive stellar flares that can bathe planets orbiting them in high levels of biologically harmful radiation. In addition, many planets discovered orbiting red dwarfs are so close to their parent as to be tidally locked – always keeping the same face towards their sun. This means they are liable to extremely hostile conditions: high temperatures on one side, freezing cold on the other, with the region around the terminator liable to violent weather – assuming they have an atmosphere; over longer periods of time, the onslaught of X-ray radiation and charged particle fluxes from their parent star can literally strip away any atmosphere, unless a planet can replenish it fast enough.

This latter point is the conclusion reached by a team of scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland in reference to Proxima Centauri b in 2017 (see: Space Sunday: Curiosity’s 5th, Proxima b and WASP-121b), although they were working largely from computer modelling.

The Earth-sized Proxima-B and its parent star

However, all that said, if Proxima-b does still have an atmosphere, then a new study conducted by researchers from the Carl Sagan Institute (CSI) suggests life might have got started on Proxima-b, and might even still exist there.

In essence, the team from CSI examined the levels of surface UV flux that planets orbiting M-type (red dwarf) stars like Proxima-b would experience and compared that to conditions on primordial Earth. At that time, some 4 billion years ago, Earth’s surface was hostile to life as we know it today, thanks to a volcanically toxic atmosphere and the levels of UV radiation reaching the surface from the Sun; however it is believed the it was the period when life first arose on Earth.

In particular, the team modelled a range of possible surface UV environments and atmospheric compositions of four nearby “potentially habitable” exoplanets: Proxima-b, TRAPPIST-1e, Ross-128b and LHS-1140b. These models showed that as atmospheres become thinner and ozone levels decrease, more high-energy UV radiation is able to reach the ground – which was to be expected. But when they compared the models to those developed for Earth as it was 4 billion years ago, things got interesting: the exoplanet models suggest that the UV levels they experience are all lower than the Earth experienced in its youth, when the first (pre-oxygen) life is believed to have existed – suggesting that despite their harsh conditions, life might have gained a toehold on them.

With Proxima-b this is particularly interesting, as it is liable to be somewhat older than the Earth, possibly by as much as 200 million years. This means there is a possibility that if simple life arose there early enough after the planet’s formation, it might well have had enough time to adapt to the development environment as atmospheric conditions changed, and thus survived through to current times.

The news from Proxima Centauri doesn’t end there. A team of researchers from the University of Crete and the Observatory of Turin has found possible evidence of a second planet orbiting the star.

Proxima Centauri b was identified using two instruments operated by the European Southern Observatory in Chile, which recorded “wobbles” in Proxima Centauri’s spin as a result of planetary gravitational influences. One of those instruments, called HARPS, has been the focal point for the team claiming there’s evidence for a second planet orbiting the star. By studying data gathered over the last 17 years, they believe they have found sufficient evidence to suggest a second planet could be affecting the star’s spin.

The team estimate that this second planet could have a mass approximately six times that of Earth, putting it in the category of a super-Earth / mini Neptune class of planet in terms of potential size, and that it likely orbits its parent at a distance of approximately 1.5 AU (1.5 times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun) once every 5 terrestrial years. . At such a distance, it’s likely that the surface temperatures of the planet is likely to be around -230oC.

Confirmation that the new planet does actually exists is now required – hence the research time offering their report for further peer review.

Curiosity Samples Clay on Mars

Curiosity has been on the road for nearly seven years. Finally drilling at the clay-bearing unit is a major milestone in our journey up Mount Sharp.

– Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson

With these words, issued in a press release on April 11th, the Mars Science Laboratory team announced a major goal for Curiosity rover had been achieved.

While it may seem are to believe, despite seven years on the surface of Mars, and with multiple drilling samples obtained, gaining a direct sample of clay rock has proven elusive. While the rover has previously sampled clay deposits and the minerals they contain, these have been contained in samples of mudstone the rover has sampled, rather than from an actual layer of clay.

“Aberlady” and the sample drill hole, April 6th, 2019. Credit: NASA/Caltech/MSSS

The primary goal for the mission is to determine whether Mars ever have the right conditions for microbes to live. It’s a question that can be answered by sampling the planet’s soil, air, and rock and carefully analysing it. This goal was actually met in the first several months of the rover’s time on Mars while it was still exploring the crater floor, but the more evidence Curiosity can gather, the clearer our understanding of past conditions in Gale Crater and on Mars become.

In this, clays play an important role. They form in water, a key requirement for life, and can act as repositories for chemical and minerals that might be indicative of conditions suitable for past life. This particular sample of clay came from a rock formation on the side of “Mount Sharp” dubbed Aberlady, which Curiosity drilled on April 6th, 2019.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: exoplanets and Mars missions”

Space Sunday: black holes, Falcons and moonshots

The first ever direct image of a black hole: M87* at the heart of the galaxy M87, 55 million light years from Earth, released on April 10th, 2019. Credit: the EHT Collaboration

The black hole in the above image resides at the centre of Messier 87 (M87), around 16.4 million parsecs (53 million light-years) from Earth, and part of the Virgo galactic cluster of about 12,000 galaxies. It marks the first time we have directly imaged a black hole – and it is a remarkable achievement for a number of reasons.

Thanks to Hollywood, we’re all very probably familiar with the idea of black holes: a point is space where matter is so compressed that it creates a gravity field from which not even light can escape. However, black holes come in a variety of forms, of which the most unusual might well be those that exist at the centre of many galaxies – including our own. Referred to as “supermassive black holes” on account of their extreme mass, they on a scale many times larger than your typical stellar black hole (which, despite being referred to as “massive” – a reference to their gravitational attraction.

Left: M87 in the Virgo cluster of galaxies, as imaged by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. Note the 5,000 light year-long jet of gas (arrowed) rising from the galaxy. Right: a closer view of M87 and the gas jet captures by the Hubble Space Telescope. Extending well beyond the galaxy, and move at relativistic speeds, the jet is believed to be generated by the black hole at the heart of the galaxy. Credits: ESO (l); J. A. Biretta et al., (STScI /AURA), NASA

We don’t actually understand how galactic black holes like the one at the heart of M87 – and called M87*) formed, but being able to examine them directly could answer some fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and physics, as well as helping us to understand the role they play in the evolution of galaxies. The problem is, actually directly imaging any black hole is actually very hard simply because they are – well, black, and thus not the easiest of things to see against the blackness of space.

Fortunately, there is a way around this problem: black holes are not alone. Their massive gravity means they attract dust and gas, which forms an accretion disk around the black hole, spinning around them at enormous speeds and producing radiation in a range of wavelengths including radio, optical and infra-red. Given given the right capabilities, we can image a black hole against the radiation from this accretion disk.

The composition of a black hole. Credit: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser/N. Bartmann

But even with an accretion disk to shed light around a galactic black hole has its own set of issues. To image the one at the centre of our own galaxy, for example, is the equivalent of trying to stand in New York’s Times Square and being able to count the dimples on a golf ball 4,000 km (2,450 mi) away; and this despite the fact that the black hole at the centre of our galaxy is thought to be at least 60 million kilometres across.

Nor is trying to image them optically particularly helpful. They need to be imaged across a range of wavelengths – the problem here being that to do so, you need a radio telescope effectively the size of the Earth.

To achieve this, and following an idea first put forward 26 years ago by German radio-astronomer Heino Falcke, the idea of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) was developed. This involves linking numerous radio telescopes together so they can jointly examine a single target and gather data on it.

To image M87*, eight of the world’s most powerful radio telescopes and telescope arrays were linked together. Over a period of about a week in 2017, they were used to gather 4 petabytes of data about the light from M87* in the millimetre wavelength. The drives containing this data were then physically shipped from the observatories to the Haystack Observatory and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, where they were plugged into a  grid computer made from about 800 CPUs linked through a 40 Gbit/s network, with the data processed by four independent teams using a series of tested algorithms to ascertain the reliability of the results. The final processing run was completed using the two most established algorithms to produce the image seen here.

This is in fact only the first galactic black hole image to b released. As well as studying M87*, the global EHT array has also gathered data on the black hole at the centre of our galaxy (and called Sagittarius A*), and at least two other supermassive black holes. However, imaging our own galactic black hole proved much harder, and delays in getting the physical hardware containing the data captured by the South Pole Telescope shipped from Antarctica to the Haystack Observatory has  meant that processing the data is still in progress.

According to theoretical physics – such as Einstein’s theory of relativity – scientists already knew what the image should look like: the aforementioned glowing accretion disk and the shadow of the black hole at its centre (so beloved of sci-fi films that feature black holes). However, simply seeing an image that matches what we believe we should be theoretically seeing helps further confirm Einstein’s theories about the nature of the universe around us.

Theoretical physics, such as Einstein’s general theory of relativity, had given scientists a means of simulating what an image of a black hole might look like, as with the above picture of M87*, released by the EHT team in April 2017 as they were about to commence their data gathering. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke, Radboud University

From the actual image on M87*, scientists have already been able to confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity under extreme conditions – notably the prediction of a dark shadow-like region, caused by gravitational bending and capture of light. They have also confirmed the shadow is consistent with expectations for that of a spinning Kerr black hole, which Einstein again predicted. Further, by combining the asymmetric nature of the accretion disk with the angle of the relativistic plasma jet created by M87* (not actually visible in the black hole image), astronomers believe M87* is spinning in a clockwise direction.

Further, the image has refined estimates of M87*’s size – 40 billion km across the event horizon (that’s 270 AU or 0.0042 light years; roughly 2.5 times smaller than the shadow circle shown in the image) – and its mass, estimated at 6.5 billion solar masses (± 0.7 billion).

We have taken the first picture of a black hole. This is an extraordinary scientific feat accomplished by a team of more than 200 researchers.

– Sheperd S. Doeleman, EHT project director

The image itself is shown in false colour to indicate the intensity of the emissions from the accretion disk. Yellow represents the most intense emissions, dropping to red as the lower intensity emissions, and black for little or no emissions. Were we able to see M87* with the naked eye, the colours would lightly be white, perhaps slightly tainted with blue or red. And while it has yet to be 100% confirmed, the colour bias towards yellow on the southern arc of the ring, together with its asymmetry, is thought to be the result of the gases in that region moving more in our general direction.

While this image has already revealed much, there are numerous questions we have yet to fathom. We may now know the nature of M87*, but we still don’t know how it was formed, or why so many galaxies have black holes at their centres. Nor do we as yet understand why some (like M87*) produce the great plumes of relativistic gas while others, such as the black hole at the centre of our galaxy do not.  So expect more to come as a result of studies arising from the work of EHT.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: black holes, Falcons and moonshots”