Tag Archives: esa

Saturn’s moon Titan may be older than Saturn itself

Titan is in the spolight again! After astronomers spotted a passing geological feature, now a joint team from NASA and ESA found evidence that the moon may have formed before its planet.

Generally, moons take shape after planets – but now, researchers have found convincing evidence that the nitrogen in Titan’s atmosphere originated in ancient conditions, in the cold birthplace of the most ancient comets from the Oort cloud — a spherical shell of icy particles that enshrouds the Solar System.

The evidence they found was isotopical. Isotopes provide valuable insight into the origin of things – be them planets or rock samples. Basically, in planetary sciences, there are many cases where the ratio of one isotope to another can provide crucial information regarding the age of planets – the ratio of isotope A to isotope B tells you how old it is (sort of).

Kathleen Mandt from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and colleagues analyzed the ratio of nitrogen-14 (seven protons and seven neutrons) to nitrogen-15 (seven protons and eight neutrons) in Titan’s atmosphere.

“When we looked closely at how this ratio could evolve with time, we found that it was impossible for it to change significantly,” Mandt said in a press release. “Titan’s atmosphere contains so much nitrogen that no process can significantly modify this tracer even given more than four billion years of Solar System history.”

What they found was that the Solar System was simply not old enough for the isotope ratio to change like it has – which seems to indicate that Titan has its origin in the Oort Cloud. The Oort cloud is a cloud of predominantly icy debris believed to surround the Sun at up to 50,000 AU; if their results are correct, then Titan was created before the Earth and most of the Solar System as a dwarf planet and then was captured into orbit around Saturn.

“This exciting result is a key example of Cassini science informing our knowledge of the history of [the] Solar System and how Earth formed,” said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The research was published this week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.


These are NASA Hubble Space Telescope natural-color images of four target galaxy clusters that are part of an ambitious new observing program called The Frontier Fields. NASA's Great Observatories are teaming up to look deeper into the universe than ever before. The foreground clusters range in distance from 3 billion to 5 billion light-years from Earth. (c) NASA/ESA

NASA’s great observatories combine to probe deeper in the Universe

These are NASA Hubble Space Telescope natural-color images of four target galaxy clusters that are part of an ambitious new observing program called The Frontier Fields. NASA's Great Observatories are teaming up to look deeper into the universe than ever before.  The foreground clusters range in distance from 3 billion to 5 billion light-years from Earth. (c) NASA/ESA

These are NASA Hubble Space Telescope natural-color images of four target galaxy clusters that are part of an ambitious new observing program called The Frontier Fields. NASA’s Great Observatories are teaming up to look deeper into the universe than ever before. The foreground clusters range in distance from 3 billion to 5 billion light-years from Earth. (c) NASA/ESA

Each of NASA’s Great Observatories – Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra – have been designed to peer through the Universe in a characteristic manner. The telescopes have provided along the years massive amount of astronomical data and have helped scientists make important discoveries. What if you combine each of the telescopes’ strong points to assemble one massive probe capable of seeing farther in the Universe than ever before? That’s exactly what  The Frontier Fields ambitious space program will undertake in the following three years, combining the observational power of all three major NASA telescopes along with natural gravitational lenses to study six massive clusters of galaxies.

“The Frontier Fields program is exactly what NASA’s Great Observatories were designed to do; working together to unravel the mysteries of the universe,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Each observatory collects images using different wavelengths of light with the result that we get a much deeper understanding of the underlying physics of these celestial objects.”

The program will tackle galaxy clusters that are among the most massive assemblages of matter known. Because of their humongous mass, these galaxy clusters (hundreds to thousands of galaxies bound together by gravity), exert powerful gravitational fields which can be used to brighten and magnify more distant galaxies so they can be observed. This is called gravitational lensing  and because of it  light rays that would have otherwise not reached the observer are bent from their paths and towards the observer.

Pandora’s Cluster. (c) NASA

Pandora’s Cluster. (c) NASA

The first object the astronomers will be directing their view towards is  Abell 2744 or  Pandora’s Cluster. This giant cluster is actually thought to be the result of four distinct galaxy clusters that piled-up over the span of 350 million years.  Studying this cluster, astronomers hope they can discover galaxies that were formed just a few hundred millions years after the Big Bang.

“The idea is to use nature’s natural telescopes in combination with the great observatories to look much deeper than before and find the most distant and faint galaxies we can possibly see,” said Jennifer Lotz, a principal investigator with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.

Each Great Observatory will have its role to play. Hubble tells astronomers in which way to direct their view and how many galaxies or stars are born in a system. Spitzer can relay how old these cosmic bodies are. Chanda, using its  X-ray wavelengths instruments, will image the clusters and tell astronomers what their  mass and gravitational lensing power is.

“We want to understand when and how the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe, and each great observatory gives us a different piece of the puzzle,” said Peter Capak, the Spitzer principal investigator for the Frontier Fields program at NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.


Horse Head nebula

Stunning Horsehead nebula imaged in infrared

Horse Head nebula

Two fantastic space telescopes, Hubble and ESA’s Herschel, have teamed up to image one of the most popular astronomical sights in the sky, the “Horsehead” nebula, in infrared  as well as longer wavelengths to provide unprecedented insights as to what’s going on in this stunning star hatchery.

Listed in catalogues under “Barnard 33”, but better known as the Horsehead nebula thanks to its distinctive shape, this fabulous molecular gas cloud lies some 1,300 light years away in the constellation Orion. Until recently, optical observations have made the nebula famous, but new infrared imaging shows the Horsehead in unprecedented detail.

Besides being a fabulous sight, the region is also a highly active star formation region, which makes it particularly appealing.

“You need images at all scales and at all wavelengths in astronomy in order to understand the big picture and the small detail,” said Prof Matt Griffin, the principal investigator on Herschel’s SPIRE instrument.

“In this new Herschel view, the Horsehead looks like a little feature – a pimple. In reality, of course, it is a very large entity in its own right, but in this great sweep of a picture from Herschel you can see that the nebula is set within an even larger, molecular-cloud complex where there is a huge amount of material and a great range of conditions,” the Cardiff University, UK, researcher told BBC News.

The image comes ahead of the 23rd anniversary of the telescope’s launch on the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is due to launch around 2018.

Cosmic microwave background seen by Planck

Map of the earliest recorded light paints broad picture of the ancient Universe

Cosmic microwave background seen by Planck

Cosmic microwave background seen by Planck. (c) ESA

Using the incredible  Planck cosmology probe astronomers at the European Space Agency have assembled a map of the “oldest light” in the sky – the cosmic microwave background (CMB) that was thrown into space in all directions just a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang and which is still picked up here on Earth today.

What’s exciting about the map is that it confirms the current fundamental “cosmological inception” theory – the Big Bang theory. However there are some features and ideas that need to be refined and rethought as a result of the findings. For instance, according tot the new Planck all-sky map, the Universe is  13.82 billion years or 50 million years older than previous estimates. Also, there seems to be more matter (31.7%) and slightly less “dark energy” (68.3%) – the mysterious force that drives the Universe apart and causes an accelerated expansion.

The trace the map, cosmologists studied the CMB – light that was allowed to escape after the early Universe cooled down to allow the formation of hydrogen atoms some 380,000 years ago. By studying temperature fluctuations of the CMB –  seen as mottling in the map – scientists can better assess their current theoretical models with actual data on anomalies, since these fluctuations are thought to actually  reflect the differences in the density of matter when the light first escaped. These ripples are thought to have given rise to today’s vast cosmic web of galaxy clusters and dark matter.

anomaliesWhile some statistical analysis isn’t on par with data provided by the Planck map, cosmologists should rejoice as the news that their fundamental theories reflect reality. Especially those relating to the birth of the Universe, which is thought to have started as hot, dense state in an incredibly small space, and then expanded and cooled.

A cosmic baby picture

Other projects like the Cosmic Background Explorer and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe have provided earlier drafts of the “baby Universe”, however the map obtained from data gathered by the $900 million (€700 million) Planck probe launched in 2009 is the most detailed yet.

“The extraordinary quality of Planck’s portrait of the infant Universe allows us to peel back its layers to the very foundations, revealing that our blueprint of the cosmos is far from complete. Such discoveries were made possible by the unique technologies developed for that purpose by European industry,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.

“Since the release of Planck’s first all-sky image in 2010, we have been carefully extracting and analysing all of the foreground emissions that lie between us and the Universe’s first light, revealing the cosmic microwave background in the greatest detail yet,” adds George Efstathiou of the University of Cambridge, UK.

What also came as a surprise was a rather discrepant anomaly. Apparently, there’s an asymmetry in average temperature distribution across the Universe, as the southern sky hemisphere is slightly warmer than the north. Another significant anomaly is a cold spot in the map, centred on the constellation Eridanus, which is much bigger than would be predicted.

Nevertheless, cosmologists which have been dreaming about such a map for decades will now have their work cut out for them. Armed with this map, they now have the necessary resources or at least another tool at hand to prove or disprove some of the most controversial theories in cosmology today, like those discussing the rapid and far-reaching inflation of the Universe in its first moments from inception or the claim that there are six or seven spatial dimensions in addition to the three we perceive.

source: ESA

Mars life search will go on, despite of budget cuts

When the administration gives you budget cut lemons, make a different scientific lemonade – that’s pretty much what NASA is trying to do in light of these decisions.

Less money, more problems

Citing lack of funds, the Obama administration is cutting healthy chunks of the NASA budget, placing a big question mark on many important projects, including the quest to see if Mars has or had any life.

With few options left, NASA teamed up with the European Space Agency (ESA), planning a flagship expedition which would set up to Mars, analyze it and return with samples. In the multibillion-dollar, multi-spacecraft campaign, NASA was set to provide the launches, landing system and some science instruments, among other contributions, leaving the ESA to provide the rest of the instruments and the rest of the funding.

But it may be too late. Even if the Congress denies a withdrawal from the project, the situation is very volatile, and Europe might have already found another partner for the mission: Russia. So NASA found itself in a situation where it could be left behind, for the first time in many years; but they didn’t start lamenting – they started searching for other options.

Missions to Mars – plan C

Of course, the problems are the same: confirming or disproving the existence of life on Mars with limited funds and in a shorter amount of time.

“Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate goal,” Doug McCuistion, director the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters, told reporters during a conference call Friday. “I’m hoping that in this process some ideas emerge — and if they don’t I’m going to throw some in — to try and look at if there are things we can do in the near-term that will shortcut this long search,” added NASA space science chief John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who flew five times on the space shuttles.

Researchers now know that Mars wasn’t always the cold, dry desert it is today, and they also found signs of methane in the planet’s atmosphere, which could be explained by geologic factors as well. In August, NASA’s Curiosity rover will land in Newton Crater, which is one of the places where researchers think we have the most chances of finding life, and any decisions NASA will make will probably take these results into consideration as well.

“Wouldn’t it be grand if Mars Science Lab images something or looks at something in Gale Crater and it gives us a stronger indication along these lines?” Grunsfelds said, referring to Mars’ suitability for life.

Via Discovery

Artist impression of the Phobos-Grunt craft in orbit around Mars. Alas...

Russia’s Phobos probe is alive! Contact established with the failed Russian craft

Artist impression of the Phobos-Grunt craft in orbit around Mars. Alas...

Artist impression of the Phobos-Grunt craft in orbit around Mars. Alas...

Two weeks ago, panic engulfed the Russian space agency after one of its dearest project, the  $170 million Phobos-Grunt mission, which was set to land on Mars’ moon Phobos, collect samples and then return to moon, got stranded in orbit, completely blocked off from any kind of communication. Valiant efforts were made to restore the craft, but in vain. However, just recently, an Australian ground station has managed to establish contact with the probe, fueling hope for a possible salvaging.

Before the disastrous Nov. 9 launch from Russia’s favorite pad site, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Phobos probe was herald as a symbol of the nation’s interplanetery ambitions. When the probe eventually reached Earth’s orbit, however, engineers couldn’t fire its engines which should’ve propelled the craft in its months long voyage towards the red planet – they couldn’t even establish a com-link for that matter. Along with the Phobos craft, was China’s first interplanetary probe, Yinghuo 1, which piggy-bagged along with the Russian drone for a supposed drop off in Martian orbit – it too, of course, failed.

A glimmer of hope has risen recently after ESA’s tracking station in Perth, Australia, made contact with the probe late Tuesday. Before this event, Vitaly Davydov,  Russia’s deputy space chief, was quoted as saying  “chances to accomplish the mission are very slim.” Expect to add at least a notch to those chances, now.

Currently, the Russian space agency is hard at work trying to kick-start the probe again, in cooperation with ESA and NASA, and have been doing so for the past two weeks, for that matter. To problem is, even with a firm re-establishment of contact with the Phobos-Grunt, its engineers can only do so much. If the problem is indeed related to a software issue, they might have a chance, however some experts believe the the failure was rooted in the hardware, which in space is impossible to fix.

Davydov said that if engineers can’t take control of the spacecraft, it could crash to Earth sometime between late December and late February. It’s trajectory can’t be calculated earlier than a day in advance. People should not worry, though, says Davydov, who claims the probability of the probe hitting a human being is virtually nil. This person was part of the 0.000001%.

There is one good thing that might come off this disaster – a tighter international collaboration for missions in the future. Seems like this huge setback for the Russian interplanetary program could motivate the country to accept the issued invitation to join U.S.-European space missions to Mars. The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission will launched in 2016 for a scheduled arrival at Mars nine months later. The mission will test out the technology necessary for entry, descent and landing for future, possibly manned, missions to Mars.

More updates on the events following the Phobos probe will be posted as soon as they reach our ears. 

The Mars500 crew share a meal together. Curiously enough, no space food was served and cereal isn't floating either. (c) ESA/Mars500 crew

Astronauts set to return home after 520 days Mars mock-up mission

An exterior view of isolation facility at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, Russia, which hosts the Mars500 project. (c) ESA

An exterior view of isolation facility at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, Russia, which hosts the Mars500 project. (c) ESA

Almost one year and a half ago six volunteers embarked on a fictive mission to Mars, designed to simulate the harsh conditions of interplanetary travel and isolation from the rest of the world. Today, November 4th, the team composed of volunteers from Europe, Russia and China is set to end their mission, hypothetically land back on earth and exit the module they called home for the past 520 days.

The Mars500 project is the most ambitious project of its kind, judging from length and resources ($15 million), intended on simulating an entire there-and-back manned trip to the red planet. ESA and Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems partnered for the project.

For 520 days, the volunteers lived in the spacecraft mock-up, which was actually an isolation facility housed at the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow, where they performed experiments and even conducted mock “Mars walks” on the surface of the fake Red Planet. During their whole stay, researchers on the outside monitored them constantly, to see how the physically and psychologically react to confinement. Brain and body scans were also employed throughout the mission.

“The length of Mars500 is unique — there has never been such a long isolation before, so that gives you unique data,” Fuglesang told SPACE.com. “From a logistics and communications point of view, it was quite realistic. Of course, there are certain aspects that you cannot simulate. You cannot simulate weightlessness or radiation, for example.”

The last part of the quote sums up the whole issues revolving around this simulation, since these are the greatest aspects to overcome. During entire months spent in zero gravity, ones muscles atrophies, while the constant exposure to high level of radiation steadily hurts internal organs. Regarding their confinement, ESA officials claim the crew members handled themselves remarkably well, despite some up and down periods.

The Mars500 crew share a meal together. Curiously enough, no space food was served and cereal isn't floating either. (c) ESA/Mars500 crew

The Mars500 crew share a meal together. Curiously enough, no space food was served and cereal isn't floating either. (c) ESA/Mars500 crew

“They have had their ups and downs, but these were to be expected,” Patrik Sundblad, a life sciences specialist at the European Space Agency, said in an online recap of the mission. “In fact, we anticipated many more problems, but the crew has been doing surprisingly well. August was the mental low point: It was the most monotonous phase of the mission, their friends and family were on vacation and didn’t send so many messages, and there was also little variation in food.”

Sure, but they all knew once the 520 days were over, they’d be free to safely go back to their homes and families. When you’re constantly millions of miles away from Earth, it’s a lot easier for mental meltdowns to occur, even of psychotic proportions. However, this is just one of the many experiments and simulations in stored for the future, in preparation for an impending Mars missions, hopefully by the beginning of the next generation.

Currently, the most valuable Mars simulation is located a few kilometers away from Earth and is a multi-billion international project – the International Space Station. There for the last 11 years, the effects of gravity and radiation on long term exposure to humans has been renetlessly studied, with results so far expressed in a better understanding of the phenomenon, rather then implementing solutions. For next year NASA is planning tests for the ISS which help prepare for future MARS missions, like implementing a 10 minute communications time-delay, while some experts are currently discussing whether or not to attach prototype Mars modules to the station for future test runs.

Two robotic missions are set to blast off toward the Red Planet in the next month: Russia is due to launch its Phobos-Grunt probe from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Nov. 8, with a landing on the Martian moon Phobos expected in 2013. NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover arrived at its Florida launch pad today, in preparation for a Nov. 25 launch.


A spectrum from the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observator superim. (c) NASA, C.R. O'Dell, S.K. Wong (Rice University) posed on an image of the Orion nebula.

Stars spew out organic matter into space – life may have its origin in star dust

A spectrum from the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observator superim. (c) NASA, C.R. O'Dell, S.K. Wong (Rice University) posed on an image of the Orion nebula.

A spectrum from the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observator superim, on top of the Orion nebula. (c) NASA, C.R. O'Dell, S.K. Wong (Rice University) posed on an image of the Orion nebula.

A new study published by researchers at University of Hong Kong has produced controversial waves among the astronomy community, as it claims, backed by sound evidence, that organic matter can be created naturally by stars and travel through out the universe via interstellar dust.

It’s somewhat hard to believe, even picture, how organic matter can be spewed out by stars without current or previous life being involved, however incredibly enough this is very much true – moreover, organic compounds seem to be everywhere!

The Hong Kong researchers first observed various stars of different evolutionary stages and studied the well-known but mysterious infrared emissions, called Unidentified Infrared Emission (UIE). What they found was that highly complex organic compounds are ejected into space by stars under the form of cosmic dust at a surprisingly high pace, filling interstellar space. Some compounds’ chemical structures resemble the makeup of coal and petroleum, the study’s lead author Sun Kwok, of the University of Hong Kong, said.

“What impressed me most is that complex organics are easily formed by stars, they are everywhere in our own galaxy and in other galaxies,” Kwok told SPACE.com in an email interview. “Nature is much more clever than we had imagined.”

Previously, UIE features were thought to be emitted by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, or PAH, molecules – simple molecules made of hydrogen and carbon. The Hong Kong scientists’ recently published paper in the journal Nature suggests this hypothesis is incorrect.

Capitalizing on data furnished by the European Space Agency‘s Infrared Space Observatory and NASA‘s Spitzer Space Telescope, the researchers found that the UIE features are not emitted by PAH molecules, but by complex organic compounds. These emissions occur, it seems, during the protoplanetary nebula stage and grew stronger as the stars matured into the planetary nebula phase.

“We therefore know that these organics are being made in the circumstellar stellar environment,” Kwok said.

Curiously enough, scientists have found these organic compounds observed in jetissoned star dust is very chemically similar to those found on meteorites. The primordial birth place of meteors lies in space rocks, and cosmic dust could easily enrich the organic coating, or place it there in the first place.

“It is quite possible that the organics in meteorites are remnants of star dust in the solar nebula,” he explained. “The star dust [was] ejected by nearby planetary nebula[s] and survived the journey across the galaxy.”

A not too far off hypothesis could be emitted,thus. Namely, during the Earth’s early stage in history when its atmosphere was still too thin to protect the planet from the hazards of the solar system and meteor showers rained constantly, there might exist a possibility that the organic compounds brought in by meteors could have played a major role in the formation of life. Basically, if this is true, we’re all star dust – children of the stars.

Kwok and colleagues intend to continue analyzing additional infrared observations to better pin down the chemical structure of organic star dust.

“Coal and kerogen are products of life and it took a long time for them to form,” Kwok said. “How do stars make such complicated organics under seemingly unfavorable conditions and [do] it so rapidly?”


Venus Express has two solar cell panels per wing comprising alternating rows of standard triple junction solar cells as well as highly reflective mirrors to reduce the operating temperatures. (c) ESA

Ozone layer found on Venus

Venus Express has two solar cell panels per wing comprising alternating rows of standard triple junction solar cells as well as highly reflective mirrors to reduce the operating temperatures. (c) ESA

Venus Express has two solar cell panels per wing comprising alternating rows of standard triple junction solar cells as well as highly reflective mirrors to reduce the operating temperatures. (c) ESA

ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft has found an ozone layer high in the atmosphere of Venus, similar to that surrounding Earth and Mars according to astronomers. Ozone is considered fundumental to providing an environment capable of supporting life, as it absorbs much of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet ray. This recent discovery will provide highly valuable insight as to how life formed on our planet, as well as more refined parameters for scientists’ hunt for extraterestial life.

The study was recently presented at the Joint Meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences. Franck Montmessin from the Laboratoire Atmospheres, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS) in Guyancourt, France, led the team who carried out this study.

“This detection gives us an important constraint on understanding the chemistry of Venus’ atmosphere,” Franck Montmessin, who led the research, said in a press release.

The find was made with the help of SPICAV, an instrument aboard Venus Express, which analyzed the starlight around the planet and found characteristic fingerprints of gases in the atmosphere as they absorbed light. Ozone was detectable because it absorbed some of the ultraviolet from the starlight

Previous to this discovery, ozone has been observed on Earth and Mars only. The build-up of oxygen, and consequently ozone, in Earth’s atmosphere began 2.4 billion years ago. Scientists believe the ozone formed as a result of ancient microbes excreting oxygen as a waste gas, along with primitive plant life, which to this day are the main source of replenishing ozone. Greenhouse emissions gathered in the atmosphere in more than 100 years has taken its significant toll on Earth’s ozone along the years. It wouldn’t be too hard for Earth to become a second Venus in the future.

Venus’ ozone layer sits at an altitude of about 62 miles, which is about four times higher in the atmosphere than Earth’s.  ESA said astrobiologists believe that a planet’s ozone concentration must be 20 percent of Earth’s value before life should be considered as a cause of it. Common sense would dictate that on a planet where acid rains and furnace hot surface temperatures dictate, any talk of signs of life would sound trivial, but bacteria and other sorts of micro organisms can find their niche even in the harshest of environments – even on a hellish planet like Venus.

“We can use these new observations to test and refine the scenarios for the detection of life on other worlds,” says Franck Montmessin, who led the research.


Europe to lead ambitious Sun mission

Europe aims for the stars: known as the Solar Orbiter will fly towards the Sun and get closer to it than any other man made object has; also, ESA will launch two other missions with the purpose of studying dark matter and dark energy.

Closer to the Sun

The mission was adopted today, and it will cost almost one billion euro. NASA will also participate in the mission, providing two instruments for the probe and the rocket which will launch it on its way, but this very ambitious mission is Europe’s project – and everybody from the ESA seems very proud:

“And I’m really looking forward to Solar Orbiter, which will become the reference for solar physics in the years to come,” said Alvaro Gimenez, ESA’s director of science.

A launch date hasn’t been officially proposed yet, but somewhere around 2017-2019 seems quite likely, if anything doesn’t change significantly. The probe will orbit around the star, staring directly into the furnace; but staring isn’t its primary job.

“Solar Orbiter is not so much about taking high-resolution pictures of the Sun, although we’ll get those; it’s about getting close and joining up what happens on the Sun with what happens in space,” explained Tim Horbury from Imperial College London and one of Solar Orbiter’s lead scientists.

There are some phenomena around the sun which we have only a basic understanding of.

“The solar wind and coronal mass ejections – these big releases of material coming off the Sun; we don’t know precisely where they’re coming from, and precisely how they’re generated. Solar Orbiter can help us understand that.”

Dark energy and dark matter

The ESA delegates, who were meeting in Paris, also approved a mission to investigate two of the great mysteries of modern cosmology – dark matter and dark energy. Some physicists are convinced that these phenomena dictate and shape the way our Universe evolves. The Euclid telescope will map the distribution of galaxies to try to get some fresh insight on these dark puzzles.

Just like the solar orbiter, the Euclid telescope will cost around 1 billion euro, but it still needs to pass some legislative hurdles in order to be approver, so a launch will probably not occur until 2019.

“They are both exciting missions, and it was really good to hear today that the physics Nobel Prize was awarded to research on the accelerating Universe, which is of course linked to Euclid,” mister Himenez added.

Euclid has the Herculean task of mapping out the spread of galaxies and clusters of galaxies over 10 billion years of cosmic history, as well as mapping their 3D distributon. The patterns of huge voids that exist between galaxies can offer important clues about the expansion of the cosmos through time – expansion which appears to be accelerating as a consequence of some unknown property of space itself referred to by scientists as dark energy.

“Euclid will give us an insight into how structures in the Universe are growing and whether they are growing at the rate we expect from General Relativity (our theory of gravity on large scales),” said Bob Nichol, a Euclid scientist from Portsmouth University.

But there’s even more.

“But aside from all that, Euclid should also deliver a picture of the Universe that has Hubble clarity over the whole sky. Euclid will detect billions of objects and they will all be there for us to go look at. And when we look back 50 years from now, that could be the one thing about Euclid we all say was worth it – a tremendous legacy for our children,” he told BBC News.

NASA passing the torch

The European Space Agency wants to launch this project on its own, but that could change pretty quick, as the Americans are desperate to run a similar mission they call WFirst (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope); however, due to the huge budget costs NASA underwent, it is likely that it won’t even be approved until Europe’s one has launched already – thus giving Europe a huge advantage in one of the most important fields of modern astrophysics. Thus, ESA has offered to give NASA a 20% part in this affair.

“The door is always open to the Americans, and we are ready to co-operate with them if they come with a reasonable proposal,” said Dr Gimenez.

All in all, ESA seems to be moving, slowly but certainly in the right direction, and in the decades to come, it’s quite possible for it to become the leading edge in space exploration and astrophysics.


Earth’s gravity is shaped like a ‘potato’

Contrary to what you might expect, a recent published study unveiled by scientists shows a map of our planet’s gravity, which resembles not a sphere, but more a … potato. This is because the Earth’s gravity isn’t uniform, being affected everyday by such factors like winds, currents and tides, so because gravity is higher in Iceland than in India you get this weird looking shape. The map is actually called a geoid, the result of two years of orbital surveys by the European Space Agency (ESA) Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite.

Below you can see a somewhat exaggerated rending of the geoid captured by GOCE. Gravity is strongest in yellow areas; it is weakest in blue ones.

Professor Reiner Rummel, former head of the Institute for Astronomical and Physical Geodesy at Technische Universität München in Germany, says GOCE provides dynamic topography and ocean circulation patterns with unprecedented quality and resolution.

“The GOCE geoid will improve our understanding of Earth’s internal structure,” he said.

The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (Goce) in orbit. (c) ESA

GOCE also offers some very interesting data which prove indeed very useful for scietists studying earthquakes. The giant jolt that struck Japan this month and Chile last year occurred because huge masses of rock suddenly moved in the tectonic movement – Goce should reveal a three-dimensional view of what was going on inside the Earth in that moment.

“Even though these quakes resulted from big movements in the Earth, at the altitude of the satellite the signals are very small. But we should still seem them in the data,” said Dr Johannes Bouman from the German Geodetic Research Institute (DGFI).

Difficult decisions ahead for Mars exploration

The report submitted by Steve Squyres will weigh heavily on this project, and not only this one

The joint exploration by NASA and ESA, encompassing joint efforts from the American and European space agency seemed like a dream come true for astronomers from both sides. Especially after the European side designed and started building the Mars Rover, everything appeared to go in the right direction. But the issues NASA is facing at the moment will take their toll on this project too, as with so many others.

A new report from the US National Research Council claims that the esimated budget of $3.5bn for the American part is too high; one billion dollars too high, to be more exact. This leaves the joint initiative facing major problems, as the two sides will have to find a way to solve one side’s problems and work together to achieve the goal they set, with a huge budget gap.

“We’re quite confident that a really good mission can be done for $2.5bn,” said the survey’s chairman Professor Steve Squyres, “but we leave it to those two agencies to work out exactly the details of what that would look like.

So yeah, we cut one third of all your money, but we’re positive you guys will be able to figure something out – sounds like a good plan to me.

“Critically, we feel that the de-scopes have to be shared equitably between Nasa and Esa because it’s so important to preserve the partnership with Esa. We can’t force all the bad news on to Esa; it’s got to be a fair split.”

Things seem to be a bit stuck, and until the two space agencies can find out some sort of brilliant solution to this problem, what wil be done exactly in 2018 remains a matter of debate for everyone. I’m just hoping NASA will rid itself of this kind of issues, because the report I told you about above will be extremely influential.