Tag Archives: exploration

Planet.

Hunt for planets through Kepler’s data with this newly released Google code

If you’ve ever dreamt of trying your hand at hunting exoplanets, a new bit of code could make your wish come true.

Planet.

Image via Wikimedia.

Yesterday, we told you about the power of citizen science in biology — today, researchers are back to enlist us mere Muggles in the search for new worlds. It all started back in December, when a pair of NASA researchers reported the discovery of two, previously overlooked, alien planets after dredging through NASA’s archived data from the Kepler program. What made this discovery possible was software built around Google’s machine-learning systems, whose architecture and function mimics that of the human brain.

Motherboard astronomy

Get your hard drive limber and your internet connection fired up because that same computer program (AstroNet) was released for public use just a few days ago. You can access it, along with instructions detailing how to use it, on GitHub.

 

“We’re excited to release our code for processing the Kepler data, training our neural network model and making predictions about new candidate signals,” wrote lead author of that December discovery study and Google senior software engineer Chris Shallue in a blog post on March 8th.

“We hope this release will prove a useful starting point for developing similar models for other NASA missions, like [Kepler’s second mission] and the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission,” he added.

Telescopes, Kepler included, detect alien worlds by spying on the tiny dips in brightness they cause when passing in front of their host stars — also referred to as the planets ‘transiting’ their host. Because the sky is littered with stars, software is used to automatically flag the most promising dimming events, which are then manually investigated by researchers looking for planets. Some flaggings turn out to be false positives, caused by events such as a body passing exactly in the right point of space to mimic the dimming of a transiting planet.

Given the sheer amount of stars researchers have to work with, that initial, automated sieving is vital to NASA. Our systems are only as fail-proof as we are (to be read: not very), so intriguing worlds can and do sometimes slip through undetected. Shaulle and his co-author, University of Texas astronomer Andrew Vanderburg, discovered one such planet using the machine-learning-sporting software. Their planet is the eighth in the Kepler-90 system, which lies — to the extent you can use that term in space — some 2,545 light-years away from Earth. The discovery was quite significant, as it’s only the second solar system known to harbor eight or more planets; the other one being our own.

Shaulle and Vanderburg only had to go through 670 stars to find the two new exoplanets — for context, Kepler looked at roughly 150,000 stars during its first (K1) mission, from 2009 to 2013. To that number, add thousands more it observed during the K2 phase, during which it took a more narrow approach to planet-hunting. The K2 phase started after a malfunction to the Kepler telescope’s reaction wheels, heavy wheels that maintain its orientation. Essentially, researchers can’t steer the craft properly any longer — so they’re taking advantage of the situation to just look at whatever it happens to be pointing at.

While Kepler might be limping, that juicy database of stars it’s already looked at is still available.

“It’s possible that some potentially habitable planets like Earth, which are relatively small and orbit around relatively dim stars, might be hiding just below the traditional detection threshold — there might be hidden gems still undiscovered in the Kepler data!” Shallue added in his post.

So if you’ve ever fancied discovering a planet, download AstroNet and grab a warm cup of tea while your PC does the heavy lifting.  Who knows, maybe NASA will let you name something you discover. So let’s show them the power of citizen science.

Let’s make Planet McPlanetface a thing!

 

Moon.

NASA could have an orbiting moon base by 2023

The project, dubbed the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, would by-and-large operate similarly to the ISS — only it will orbit the moon, not Earth. If everything goes according to plan, it should be ready for its first inhabitants in time for the 54th anniversary of the original moon landing.

Moon.

Image via Wikimedia.

 

Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, said that the installation will “help us further explore the moon and its resources and translate that experience toward human missions to Mars,” in his State of NASA address earlier this month. It was one of several projects funded under the Trump administration’s $19.9 billion NASA budget proposal for the fiscal year 2019. The proposed budget places a heavy emphasis on human exploration, doling out an enviable $10.5 billion for the task. However, it also cuts a number of missions related to climate change, as well as the agency’s $99.3 million education office.

Moonesque

With great budgets come great price tags, it seems, as the moon station would cost an estimated $2.7 billion through to the fiscal year 2023. However, things are not yet set in stone as Congress is still to approve the budget. For context, the White House is considering cutting funding for the ISS as of 2024.

The moon station will be assembled over time, just like the ISS was in its time. Power and propulsion units are targeted for launch in 2022, and it will be keeping the station in a stable orbit through the use solar electric propulsion. This module will also handle communications to Earth, to the surface of the moon, other spaceships, and during spacewalks — NASA says large datasets will be transferred using lasers, to speed the process up. The habitation module is scheduled for launch in 2023 and should support crews for 30 and 60-day missions, according to NASA. Onboard personnel will conduct research and also explore the lunar surface and the immediate space around the moon.

Alternatively, the station could serve as temporary lodging for crews traveling to Mars or deeper space in the future.

A number of US companies (most notably Boeing) are already participating in studies on how to best develop the habitat, power, and propulsion elements. Back in 2016 six companies were already tasked with developing full-size ground prototypes for space habitats. The stated goal is “to have as much realism in the habitation module as possible, by integrating all the racks and human factors, from galleys to sleep stations, glove boxes and command and control systems and displays,” said Mark Ortiz, Boeing’s NextSTEP (Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships) program manager. These prototypes will be handed over to NASA for evaluation by 2019.

Likely because of advances in rocket technology seen by private contractors, such as Musk’s SpaceX, NASA plans to have resupply missions to the moon platform conducted by commercial entities. These commercial crews will also participate in “a variety of deep space exploration and commercial activities in the vicinity of the moon.” However, given President Trump’s more… real-estate-oriented take on space exploration, there are concerns regarding the exact role non-governmental entities will play in the moon station’s activity.

Time will tell. For now, one thing is certain: the station “will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us explore the Moon and its resources,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington in a NASA webpost.

“We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.”

 

 

 

 

Five Reasons Why We Should be Exploring Space

If you’ve ever found yourself under a bright starry sky on a clear night, you probably noticed the splendor that is space. For millennia, man has cast his gaze towards the heavens and wondered what’s out there. For some, that quote serves as both the question and justification for continuing to cast our gaze deeper and deeper into space.

Credit: NASA.

Some people don’t even bother. For them, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘who cares?’. So why bother with exploring space? There is a myriad of reasons but it would take too long to go through all of them, so we’ve broken them down into five reasons: we learn, we push, we discover, we benefit, we evolve.

Curiosity

Mankind has demonstrated time and again an insatiable curiosity and the need to satisfy that curiosity. Explorers have always sailed the wide ocean in the search for new lands. Sir Edmond Hillary scaled Mt. Everest. Magellan circumnavigated the globe in a ship. Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong first pushed the limits of humans into space.

Humans push the limits of what we can do — it’s in our very nature. If you think about it, children push their own limits every single day. They learn new things and expand their horizon.  Space exploration is, in a way, turning back to that childhood curiosity. Every day, we learn new things about the universe around us. However, humans have no idea what our limits are in space, so we keep pushing, and we keep learning.

Credit: NASA.

With every boundary, we learn new things: how humans deal with extended time in space, the physical composition of the moon, how to fix a toilet in zero gravity, how to grow food in space, the location of black holes, recycling water and oxygen in space and (finally) how to break free of our gravitational limits and move forward.

Scientific

With the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, humans took a quantum leap into the exploration of space that rivaled Galileo when he probed the skies in the late 1500s. The images the Hubble telescope have allowed us to peer deeper into space than anyone could have ever imagined (seriously, check those images out).

Pointed at a supposedly blank portion of the sky, about the size of a pinprick, seemingly bereft of anything interesting, Hubble gave us images that changed our understanding of the universe. Tens of thousands of galaxies, many like our own, each with trillions of stars and at least as many planets. Now multiply that by the number of “pinpricks” in the night sky and you now have some idea of just how vast the cosmos truly is.

It’s not just about space, either: the International Space Station carries out numerous experiments, from biology to hard physics. Credit: NASA.

Financial

Eventually, humans will figure a way into space and utilize the infinite resources it promises. The development of space will make fortunes for those brave (and lucky) enough to take the plunge. These new-found resources will certainly be the source of significant benefits for those of us who remain firmly planted on terra firma.

It will also signify that man has evolved enough to perhaps establish a permanent extra-terrestrial habitat. A century ago, WWI was winding down. Cars, indoor plumbing, electricity, and refrigeration were luxuries (or non-existent). Now, we have airplanes, smartphones, space travel, and computers.

Continuing that progression, the idea of colonizing the moon, Mars or moons of the gas giants shouldn’t be that far-fetched. It’s the natural progression/evolution of our species.

Five reasons to explore space? We learn, we push, we discover, we benefit and we evolve. That’s why.

Now go back and check that Hubble link!!

Drone Explorer.

Dragonfly dual-quadcopter drone proposed to explore Titan to understand how life appeared

A new explorer joins the ranks of proposals for NASA’s New Frontiers initiative. Christened Dragonfly, this nuclear-powered robotic dual-quadcopter will take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity to hop about the moon and beam back data from potentially habitable sites.

Drone Explorer.

Image credits JHUAPL/Mike Carroll.

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is quite an exciting place for scientists trying to understand how life develops. It has enough water to be comfortably called an ocean world. To be fair it’s frozen solid on the surface, but the interior seems to be a relatively warm, liquid ocean. It also has a diverse chemistry rich in the building blocks biology (as we know it) needs. Put the two together, and what you get is a place with a lot of organic material undergoing the same reactions that we believe went down in Earth’s early days.

All in all, it’s a place that could offer us insight into how life appeared that lab work simply can’t provide. So what NASA wants to do, as part of its New Frontiers exploration program, is to send a pair of eyes to Titan and see what’s what. That pair of eyes, engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory believe, should come in the shape of a dual-quadcopter they named Dragonfly.

“This is the kind of experiment we can’t do in the laboratory because of the time scales involved,” said APL’s Elizabeth Turtle, principal investigator for the Dragonfly mission.

“Mixing of rich, organic molecules and liquid water on the surface of Titan could have persisted over very long timescales. Dragonfly is designed to study the results of Titan’s experiments in prebiotic chemistry.”

The drone explorer will carry an array of instruments to any points of interest across the moon’s surface. For this mission, flying sticks out as an ideal method of transportation. Given Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity, flying is much easier to do here than on Earth. This means Dragonfly will be able to carry more instruments with the same effort, and flying will let it navigate rugged terrain much faster and with less risk of damage than wheeling about the place.

At every site, the drone will sample atmospheric and surface chemistry with a suite of instruments. This data will allow scientists to estimate the habitability of the moon, see how far Titan’s chemistry has progressed towards biotic chemistry, even pick up eventual traces of water- or hydrocarbon-based life. Mass spectrometry will reveal atmospheric and soil composition, gamma-ray spectrometry will be used to probe into the chemical composition of the shallow sub-surface. A suite of meteorology and geophysics sensors will record wind, pressure, temperature, seismic activity, as well as a host of other factors. Finally, a camera will let scientists peer at the nature of the moon’s surface.

“We could take a lander, put it on Titan, take these four measurements at one place, and significantly increase our understanding of Titan and similar moons,” said Dragonfly project manager Peter Bedini of APL.

“However, we can multiply the value of the mission if we add aerial mobility, which would enable us to access a variety of geologic settings, maximizing the science return and lowering mission risk by going over or around obstacles.”

Later this year, NASA will select a few of the proposals for New Frontiers for further study. Sometime in mid-2019, one will be selected to become the fourth mission in the planetary exploration program.

NASA is designing small away-from-home-ecosystems to make space exploration sustainable

Researchers at NASA and the University of Arizona, Tucson will be working together to bring long-term sustainability to our space pioneers — one greenhouse at a time.

NASA's Greenhouse.

The prototype greenhouse housed at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
Image credits University of Arizona

Astronauts have already shown the world their green thumbs by growing plants and veggies aboard the ISS. But when going farther away from our blue cradle, crews will have to rely on on-site resources for food and oxygen. To make sure they’re well stocked with both on future journeys, NASA researchers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the University of Arizona (UA) are working out how to grow enough plants to feed and air a whole crew on a long-term journey.

“We’re working with a team of scientists, engineers and small businesses at the University of Arizona to develop a closed-loop system,” said Dr. Ray Wheeler, lead scientist in Kennedy Advanced Life Support Research, about the Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse project. “The approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen.”

The prototype is an inflatable greenhouse specifically tuned to keep the plants happy and continuously growing and will provide food, scrub the breathing air while recycling both water and waste. They’re cylindrical, measuring 18 feet in length and more than 8 feet in diameter. They were designed and built by Sadler Machine Company, one of the project partners.

These greenhouses will maintain a waste-none, closed-looped process called a bioregenerative life support system. The CO2 astronauts exhale will be fed through the greenhouse so the plants can photosynthesize and generate oxygen. Water will either be shuttled along from Earth or sourced from “the lunar or Martian landing site,” NASA notes. The liquid will be enriched in gases and nutrient salts and will be pumped across the crop’s roots then recycled — basically, hydroponics in space.

Inside_greenhouse.

The crops were selected to provide not only food, but air revitalization, water recycling and waste recycling.
Image credits University of Arizona.

Researchers at the UA are currently testing different species of plants to determine what would survive best, and what buds, seeds, or other material are required to make the greenhouses self-sufficient on a mission. Figuring out what to take and how to best use local resources afterward will be key, since deep space missions will be hard and pricey to constantly supply from home. So, NASA researchers are working on systems which can harness such resources — with an emphasis on water.

“We’re mimicking what the plants would have if they were on Earth and make use of these processes for life support,” said Dr. Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. “The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.”

The greenhouses will likely need to be buried under soil or rock to protect the plants inside from cosmic radiation, which means specialized lighting will be required to keep them alive. Currently, the team has succeeded in using either electrical LED light or hybrid methods “using both natural and artificial lighting” — which involves the use of light concentrators on the surface to track the movement of the sun and feed its light underground through fiber optic channels.

What’s left to do now is to find out how many greenhouses will be needed per crew. Giacomelli says the next step on the agenda is to test with additional units and computer models to ensure a steady supply of oxygen can be produced from the lunar greenhouses.

 

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.

Curiosity’s wheel grousers show damage after five years of off-roading on Mars

Five years of trekking on Mars have taken their toll on Curiosity, and on Tuesday NASA announced the first two fractures in the rover’s wheel treads.

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.

A selfie the rover took with its arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera showing the broken grousers.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.

Carried forth by its six aluminum wheels measuring 20 inches in diameter and 16 inches across (50 cm/40.5 cm), Curiosity has been nosing about Mars since August of 2012 for us Earth-locked humans. But five years and 10 miles (16 km) on the maybe-red planet are taking their toll on the intrepid explorer, whose half-as-thin-as-a-dime aluminum wheels are starting to show signs of wear and tear, NASA said.

The damage consists of breaks in two of the bot’s zigzagy grousers/treads, 19 of which cover each wheel. These grousers extend from the wheel by roughly one quarter of an inch (0.6 cm), giving the wheels enough purchase in the Martial soil to carry the almost 2000-pound-heavy rover around. According to NASA, the grousers broke sometime between January and March, both on the left middle wheel.

Slow but steady

Ten miles seems like a short distance for a wheel to break, but it took the rover a few years to travel that much — a few years of super slow rolling over sharp, jagged rocks. In fact, Curiosity has already been at work for twice as long as the mission it was designed for, so if anything the rover is admirably sturdy. It’s due to this long operational history that NASA has been monitoring its wheels in the first place, as years of facing martian rocks has left them quite worse for wear.

So, is this how Curiosity meets its end? Forever turning sleek wheels in the red sands, praying/beeping for traction but finding none? Well, possibly. But not today! Wheel longevity testing on Earth “initiated after dents and holes in the wheels were seen to be accumulating faster than anticipated in 2013” by the agency shows that “when three grousers on a wheel have broken, that wheel has reached about 60 percent of its useful life.”  With only two damaged grousers, the wheel is probably around 50 percent into its lifespan, or roughly around that mark.

Overall, it’s not that bad. Curiosity is well beyond 50% of its journey, so one wheel on a 50% life bar is actually pretty good. Right now, the rover is climbing up Mount Sharp to obtain records of Mars’ climate from rock samples but if the ground tests are anything to go by, the wheels should still hold their own against the martian soil.

“This is an expected part of the life cycle of the wheels and at this point does not change our current science plans or diminish our chances of studying key transitions in mineralogy higher on Mount Sharp,” said JPL Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada.

Curiosity will stop on the way to check out some hematite formations (an important iron ore), a clay formation on top of that, and a structure rich in sulfates which tops the whole thing — formations whose chemistry might hold evidence of liquid water in Mars’ past or today. The journey should take less than five miles in total (an estimated 3.7 miles / 6 km,) so the rover will have some to spare after the climb.

Still, it’s a sad reminder that one day even our favorite rovers will break down. Until then stay strong buddy, we’ll find you some new wheels.

Israeli company designs anti-radiation body armor to protect astronauts in space

An Israeli-designed vest will keep astronauts on deep space missions safe(er) from deadly radiation levels, or at least that’s what developed StemRad hopes. To see how well it works, the company will test their vest on dummy astronauts during NASA’s 2018 mission around the Moon, a spokesperson said.

Image via YouTube

We’ve got it pretty good down here on Earth, radiation-wise. The planet’s strong magnetic field deflects most incoming cosmic rays, so life could evolve without those pesky side effects such as “shredded DNA” or “liquefying organs”. Which both tend to ruin your day.

But we’re planning on leaving the crib any time now, with NASA hoping to put a man on Mars around two decades from now, and even full colonization planned for the next century. Since we’d presumably very much like to keep our organs intact during this time, Tel Aviv-based company StemRad is looking into ways to protect astronauts from radiation in deep space.

They already have experience developing radiation shielding products, most notably a belt to protect rescue workers from harmful radiation emitted in nuclear disasters. They’re taking this expertise to space applications with the AstroRad Radiation Shield, a vest which will protect vulnerable tissues (particularly stem cells in pelvic bone marrow and internal organs) in deep space or other-wordly operations, where the lack of an atmosphere and magnetic field would put humans at risk.

The garment is created of overlapping layers which look like a topographic/contour map, and will be tailor-made for each astronaut. Non-metallic shielding materials (as lead would be too heavy) will be applied to cover the organs of each astronaut. Stemrad’s chief technologist, Gideon Waterman, said the vest needs to be dense enough to protect the crew while remaining flexible so they can move about as freely as possible.

“This product will enable human deep space exploration. Our breakthrough has come in creating the architecture of the multi-layered shield to accurately cover the most important organs,” said StemRad’s CEO Oren Milstein.

So, does it work?

Well, the company says computer simulations and laboratory trials shows it works, but the true test is outer space. So the vest will be taken on an unmanned flight to the Moon in the maiden voyage of the Orion spacecraft,  a joint project of Lockheed Martin, NASA and the European Space Agency. The mission is scheduled for late 2018.

During the lunar flyby, the vest will be strapped to a dummy torso which will monitor radiation absorption. A control dummy will fly without the vest so the team can compare the readings and determine how effective the shield is.

“Based on our simulations, we’re sure it works but to be 100 percent sure, we’re sending it up on EM-1,” he said, referring to NASA’s first flight of the Orion capsule.

Orion will have its own radiation shelter to protect crews from dangerous bursts of radiation during solar flares or storms. The vest should complement this protection and allow astronauts to keep safe in less-shielded parts of the craft, Mistein says. Some mock-ups of the vests have already been produced, and the first prototype is expected by the end of the year, he added.

NASA had no immediate comment on how the test could be affected if the agency decided to put astronauts on Orion.

NASA creates computers that can survive on Venus, 30 years after the last landings

NASA’s Glenn Research Center has developed a new class of computers that can withstand the hellscape of Venus. The devices are built from a different semiconductor than regular hardware, which can carry more voltage at much higher temperatures.

SiC transistor gate electroluminesces blue while cooked at more than 400°C.
Image credits NASA / Glenn RC.

Mars has been getting a lot of attention as humanity’s first planned colony. So it’s easy to forget that it’s neither the closest nor the most Earth-like terrestrial planet in the Solar System. Both those distinctions belong to Venus — so why aren’t we looking towards it for our otherworldly adventures?

The goddess of love and beauty

Well, the thing is that Venus is awful. It’s an objectively dreadful place, a scorching hot ball of rock covered in thick clouds of boiling acid. Ironic, right?

These conditions not only make it nigh-impossible for real-estate agents to put a positive spin on the planet, it also makes it frustratingly hard to explore. Any mission to Venus has to work around one simple fact: your run of the mill computer wouldn’t like it there. Normal silicone chips can still function up to 240-250°C (482°F). After that, the chip turns from a semiconductor into a fully fledged conductor, electrons start jumping all over the place, and the system crashes.

The longest any human-made object has made it on Venus is 127 minutes, a record set in 1981 by the Soviet spacecraft Venera 13. It was designed to survive for only 32 minutes and used all kinds of tricks to make that happen — such as cooling of internal systems to -10°C (14°F) before entering the atmosphere, hermetically sealed internal chambers for instruments, and so on. Venera braved sulphuric rain, surface temperatures of 470°C (878°F), and an atmosphere 90 times that of Earth long enough to capture the first color pictures of the planet’s surface.

The face of love.
Image credits Morbx / Reddit.

After the mission, the Soviets flew three more crafts to Venus — Venera 14, Vega 1, and Vega 2 — making the last attempted landing on the planet in 1985.

Since that time, the transistor industry has developed alternative materials it can use for integrated systems. One of the most promising class of materials are silicon carbides (SiC). Their ability to support high voltages at huge temperatures has already drawn interest from the military and heavy industries, and make them ideal for a mission to Venus.

NASA’s Glenn Research Center has developed two prototype SiC chips which can be used in future Venus missions. The researchers have also worked to overcome another vulnerability of traditional integrated circuits: they’ve developed interconnects — the wires that tie transistors to other hardware components — which can withstand the extreme conditions on the planet.

Five hundred hours of fire

SiC chip designed by NASA, before and after GEER tests.
Image credits NASA / Glenn RC.

To see if the technology lives up to expectations, the team put these SiC transistors and interconnects together and housed them in ceramic-packed chips. The chips were then placed in the GEER (Glenn Extreme Environments Rig) which can simulate the temperatures and pressures on Venus for hundreds of hours at a time.

One of the chips, housing a simple 3-stage oscillator, kept stable at 1.26MHz over 521 hours (over 21 days) before the GEER had to be shut down. The second chip fizzled out after 109 hours (4,5 days), but NASA determined that it was caused by faulty setup, not the chip itself.

The results for the two chips. Image credits NASA / Glenn RC.

This performance is a far cry from that seen in the 80’s, especially considering that the chips didn’t benefit from any pressure vessels, cooling systems, or other types of protection. It’s the first system shown able to withstand the condition on Venus for weeks at a time.

“With further technology maturation, such SiC IC electronics could drastically improve Venus lander designs and mission concepts, fundamentally enabling long-duration enhanced missions to the surface of Venus,” the researchers conclude.

But it’s not only transistors we’ll need for a successful Venus rover. Drills, cameras, wheels — everything has to be adapted to work in a high pressure, high temperature, highly acidic environment. Materials science has evolved a long way since the last missions, so creating a mechanically-sound lander should be feasible. A full-fledged rover with multiple moving parts that can survive on Venus would be a lot harder to develop — NASA Glenn is working on such a machine, a land-sailing rover, which they estimate will be ready by 2033.

The full paper “Prolonged silicon carbide integrated circuit operation in Venus surface atmospheric conditions” has been published in the journal AIP Advances.

China launches FAST, the largest radio-telescope in the world

This Sunday, the largest radio telescope in the world has officially gone into business, reports Xinhua News.

“It’s like a big iron wok,” one local said.
Image credits Liu Xu / Xinhua.

FAST, the five-hundred-meter aperture spherical telescope, measures 500 meters in diameter. This makes it almost twice as big (195 meters wider) as the previous largest device of its kind, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico — and more importantly, it will be almost twice as sensitive. It didn’t come cheap: Xinhua reports that the telescope cost US$184 million to build — although that seems rather modest given its size — and required the displacement of 8,000 people from the area to create a 3-mile wide radio silence zone around the dish.

But all this array will be put to good use. Like its counterparts around the world, FAST will be used to study the Universe farther away than anything else we have at our disposal. It’s going to be much more powerful than the rest, however, enough to pick up on things that they miss. Things such as mapping the shape of the Universe, or the behavior of molecules in other galaxies. It will also be on the look-out for pulsars, the imploded cores of stars which emit huge levels of radiation, and other-worldly radio signals. In one test, it picked up on radio waves emitted from a pulsar 1,351 light-years away.

FAST will become the place to be for “observation of pulsars as well as exploration of interstellar molecules and interstellar communication signals,” Xinhua reports.

“In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar … is approaching us,” Qian Lei, a researcher with the project, told Chinese state media.

There’s understandably a lot of international excitement for FAST. Earlier this summer, the Very Large Array in New Mexico desert picked up a faint radio signal. The team who made the discovery described it as a “faint radio emission from atomic hydrogen … in a galaxy nearly 5 billion light-years from Earth.” In the paper detailing their findings, they write that “the next generation of radio telescopes” such as FAST will allow them to better describe how gasses behave in galaxies.

And, on the off-chance we do pick up on alien signals, FAST could allow us to talk back. In 1974, the Arecibo dish was used to broadcast a signal into deep space encoding images “the Arecibo telescope, our solar system, DNA, a stick figure of a human, and some of the biochemicals of earthly life” and other information, SETI reports.

The telescope also shows China’s determination to come to the forefront of scientific progress. Alongside FAST, launches its own rockets and satellites, crashes space stations, and launches new ones. All of this takes a huge effort for any economy, even one as immense as the Chinese have.

“For many years, we have had to go outside of China to make observations — and now we have the largest telescope,” Peng Bo, deputy manager of the FAST project, told the BBC.

The telescope will help China make “major advances and breakthroughs at the frontier of science,” President Xi Jinping of China said in a congratulatory message on Sunday. He called it China’s “eye in the sky.”

Legendary 1848 ship found in the Arctic in pristine shape

Searches in the Canadian Arctic have located the H.M.S. Terror, which mysteriously disappeared 168 years ago. The ship was found in pristine condition at the bottom of a bay.

An image from the deck of the wreck of HMS Terror as it lies on the seabed. Photograph: Arctic Research Foundation

The HMS Terror was a bomb vessel constructed for the British Royal Navy in 1813, fighting against the United States in the War of 1812 (yes, the war of 1812 lasted until 1815). After the war and some rather unfortunate events which led to a lee shore near Lisbon, Portugal, the ship was withdrawn from service and refitted for Arctic exploration. The ship was eventually given to Sir John Franklin but it suffered a grim fate: it disappeared without a trace, with none of the 129 crewmembers making it back home. It was the biggest disaster in Britain’s long Arctic exploration history, and one of the biggest mysteries in the Arctic.

Search parties looked for the ship for 11 years, but found nothing. No one knew anything of the HMS Terror’s whereabouts until now.

The ship was found thanks to an improbable tip from an Inuk crewmember, which fueled another improbable exploration. Sammy Kogvik, an Inuit hunter and a member of an Arctic component of the Canadian Armed Forces saw something strange during a mission seven years ago: a wooden pole sticking out from the ice. Despite not having any evidence, his colleagues believed him and a team from the charitable research foundation was assembled. Ultimately, they managed to not only find the ship, but also maneuver a remotely operated vehicle through an open hatch and into the ship, taking some remarkable photos in the process.

“We have successfully entered the mess hall, worked our way into a few cabins and found the food storage room with plates and one can on the shelves,” Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, told the Guardian by email from the research vessel Martin Bergmann.

“We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer.”

Artistic depiction of the HMS Terror, via Toronto Public Library.

Artistic depiction of the HMS Terror, via Toronto Public Library.

The ship suffered surprisingly little damage in the almost two centuries it’s been submerged under water. The wreck is in such a good shape that the panes are still in three of four tall windows in the stern cabin of the ship’s commander.

“This vessel looks like it was buttoned down tight for winter and it sank,” he said. “Everything was shut. Even the windows are still intact. If you could lift this boat out of the water, and pump the water out, it would probably float.”

Schminowski believes the crew was caught by winter and they prepared for the brutal Arctic season aboard the ship, in part because of a long, heavy rope line which runs through a hole in the ship’s deck. This suggests an anchor line may have been deployed before the Terror went down.

“Everything is still the way it should have been left,” he says.

Then at some point, “the crew seem to have taken their belongings off the Terror and re-manned the Erebus.” The Erebus was the Terror’s companion ship. It’s not clear what led to this decision, but it seems that after being abandoned, the HMS Terror was re-manned – or at least an attempt was done to re-man it. The likely story seems to be a tragic one: after abandoning the ship and attempting to escape south, the crewmembers returned and prepared for winter, but ultimately succombed to the ungodly Arctic temperatures.

An Inuit story mentions the abandoned ship, as well as a campsite, a tent, and a number of both bodies and grave nearby the bay, but nothing has been found yet. An archaeological mission is now being planned to better understand what happened to the ship and its men.

 

First Space Fueling Station used for servicing satellites by 2015

A lot of critics are raving towards the end of the space exploration age, as aerospace budgets get ever thinner, shuttle programs get retired or the fact that the lunar surface has remained unscratched by human hand for years and years. Where governments might fail, however, one can always put faith in the ever much better organized and efficient private sector, with more and more companies becoming interested in commercial space flights and exploration.

An innovative idea which I salute for its utility and business plan alike is the space fueling station concept developed by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). The Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle, as it is dubbed, will fly in geosynchronous orbit (22,369 miles above the Earth), where it can reach several key commercial and government satellites for various tasks be it refueling, maintenance or repositioning.

The SIS would truly be a very practical device, however its most vital role would be re-fueling. Most space satellites operate relying on solar power, however for self-repositioning or orbital change they need a more powerful fuel, like hydrazine. Without it, there is the risk of the satellite becoming space junk or getting burned to smithereens while entering the planet’s atmosphere.

The station upon its launch, scheduled by MDA sometime in 2015, will have enough hydrazine to power about a dozen satellites, after which it will itself need to get refueled. A good analogy would be that of the service tanker that fuels a gas station.

The communications satellite company Intelsat, which has the most geosynchronous satellites, will be the first client.

Besides the tank obviously equipped for refueling, the SIS will also carry a robotic arm and a tool set for various maintenance duties. The robotic arm will be very useful for docking satellites in the refueling part or for re-orbiting satellites. It could even serve as a tow satellite, moving other spacecraft into a high-orbit graveyard zone or bringing them low enough to reenter the atmosphere and break up.

Watch the video below provided by MDA for a graphically animated explanation of the SIS concept.

“On-orbit refueling and servicing is a game-changing innovation,” said Thierry Guillemin, Chief Technical Officer of Intelsat. “It is important for Intelsat, managing the largest commercial satellite fleet, to support technologies and tools that expand our capabilities in space. We intend to implement this technology as a tool in fleet management that will improve operational reliability, increase the return on our on-orbit assets, ensure good stewardship of the space environment and deliver this increased flexibility to our government customers as well.”

“We are very pleased to have Intelsat, the world’s leading provider of fixed satellite services, as the anchor customer for our new SIS offering and our partner in accessing the US government market,” said Dan Friedmann, President and CEO of MDA. “There is a clear need to service the world’s space infrastructure, both commercial and government. The combination of MDA’s unparalleled and proven space servicing capabilities and Intelsat’s commercial and government market presence is a good way to get this new service off the ground.”

MDA and Intelsat will start building the satellite in the next six months, and the first space refueling will take place about four years from now.

Obama sets Mars goal for America in less than 20 years

Barack Obama came out and said that it should be possible for NASA to send astronauts to Mars and bring them back safely by the mid 2030s. The US president said this while explaining the details of his plans with the US space agency at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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Mister Obama has set quite some high goals for NASA, but he also supports them by giving the needed funding. If this will suffice, it remains to be seen, but the extra 6 billion $ (over the next 5 years) is quite a sum.

“By 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space,” he told his audience. “So we’ll start – we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.”

After a brief moment, he added:

“By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

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The current American president claims that NASA needs a refocus, and after this, it could achieve more, and quite soon. He also redeclared his strong affinity for space exploration.

“The bottom line is: nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, the human exploration of space, than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way; we can’t keep doing the same old things as before.”

“What we’re looking for is not just to continue on the same path; we want to leap into the future,” he said. “We want major breakthroughs, a transformative agenda for Nasa.”

Honestly, I don’t know if there’s a need for a change in the way NASA does things, but if this plan works, then we will be seeing results not far from now. Either way, at the very least, it’s comforting to see a president have so much interest in these issues.

“For pennies on the dollar, the space programme has fuelled jobs and entire industries. For pennies on the dollar, the space programme has improved our lives, advanced our society, strengthened our economy and inspired generations of Americans. And I have no doubt that Nasa can continue to fill this role.”

Via BBC

Natural Geographic launches Nat Geo Wild

I don’t know about you but I was thrilled to find out Natural Geographic was launching another baby, dedicated to wildlife; and no, the bulk of the programms won’t consist of old material just put on a different chanel.

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"Expedition Wild: Project Kodiak" is one of the star shows, and it will focus on Alaskan grizzly bears

“We’re going to make it a very distinct channel. We are going to target promotion on particular nights, different from what we do on the core channel. We are going to have wildlife programming that is 24-7, which is a celebration of animals. On the core channel less than 5 percent of our primetime content has wildlife featured” says Adds Steve Schiffman, Nat Geo’s general manager.

“We are focused on originality and exclusivity for this channel. We are operating as a global network and combining our budgets, which is going to allow us to produce a high volume of original programming. We’ve got hundreds of hours in the development pipeline right now, and I’m really encouraged by the quantity of new things that we are going to be able to bring, all in stunning HD.”, added Geoff Daniels, senior vice president of development and production.

I haven’t looked at any programs so far, basically because I don’t have a TV where I am right now, but I most definitely will.

*ZME Science is not associated in any way with National Geographic; but we’d love that. Seriously. If there’s anybody from National Geographic, we love you guys !