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Heat shields, Starburst, and Microswimmers: NASA announces funding for sci-fi projects

Space travel is all about research and innovation. With that in mind, NASA has a specialized branch whose sole purpose is to find and fund innovative ideas that can help further our efforts to explore the cosmos. And this year’s grants have been approved and announced.

Crescent Jupiter seen by the Juno probe. Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Image processing by Kevin M. Gill.

Every year, NASA offers a series of grants in support of exciting and promising research to underpin the world of the future. It’s called NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (or NIAC) Program. The 2022 crop of projects includes 12 Phase 1 projects (with an initial funding grant of $175,000) that will be explored over the next nine months, and five projects in Phase 2 (which receive a $600,000 grant for a two-year research period).

A special interest has been given this year to initiatives that involve helping NASA return to Venus, as the agency has already announced new missions to study the planet — the first time in 30 years — which are in preparation for some time during the 2020 decade. Replacement ideas of the International Space Station are also being explored through the NIAC program, as the vessel is planned for decommissioning and a controlled crash in the future as commercial space stations take on its duties.

The Phase 1 projects are:

Cryospheric Rydberg Radar. In essence, this project is looking into the potential development of a new, quantum radar that could theoretically be used in all settings. Although this technology would serve well on spaceships, NASA explains that it has huge potential to be used in public and industrial settings “covering virtually every application of radio/radar”.

Silent, Solid-State Propulsion for Advanced Air Mobility Vehicles. This project would further our ability to use small, electric, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in urban landscapes by addressing the single largest complaint the public has with such operations: noise. The solution is to develop electroaerodynamic (EAD) propulsion systems, which produce thrust through collisional ion acceleration without any moving surfaces, and are thus nearly completely silent.

Combined Heat Shield and Solar Thermal Propulsion System for an Oberth Manuever. A powered flyby, or Oberth maneuver, is a maneuver during which a spacecraft falls into a gravitational well and then uses its engines to further accelerate as it is falling, making it go really fast. This project is looking to develop a heat exchanger/shield that is powerful enough to withstand an Oberth maneuver around the Sun, which could make it easier for us to launch missions towards Kuiper Belt Objects or interstellar space.

CREW HaT: Cosmic Radiation Extended Warding using the Halbach Torus. Space is a very hazardous place, not least of which because it is saturated with dangerous radiation. This project will look into creating a device that will act as a personal shield against this radiation, protecting crew on missions outside spacecraft.

The Spacesuit Digital Thread: 4.0. This system will allow for custom spacesuits to be created for each astronaut based on scans of their body shape. The system is meant to become a “digital human scan to digital design/analyses to robotic manufacture” system.

Breathing Mars Air: Stationary and Portable O2 Generation. This device is also earmarked for our efforts to put people on Mars. It involves a new device that can separate oxygen from the Martian atmosphere ten times more efficiently than current options.

Pi – Terminal Defense for Humanity – essentially an asteroid destroyer. Essentially, this is a giant gun meant to break apart asteroids that threaten to hit Earth. The fragments resulting from this impact should be small enough to burn harmlessly in the planet’s atmosphere.

Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE). The HOEE design proposes using an enormous starshade — an object the size of a football field that blocks the glare from stars — to improve our telescopes’ ability to peer at far-away objects.

In-situ Neutral-Optics Velocity Analyzer for Thermospheric Exploration (INOVATE). Spaceweather is a very sci-fi-sounding concept, and it’s something we know precious little about. Direct measurement data is an area where we’re especially lacking. The INOVATE project proposes the use of a spacecraft swarm used to study space weather.

Starburst: A Revolutionary Under-Constrained Adaptable Deployable Structure Architecture. Unlike most other projects on this list, this one peers towards Earth, not away. The Starburst proposal puts forth the idea of using a specialized satellite to analyze storms on Earth and improve our predictive ability for such events.

Venus Atmosphere and Cloud Particle Sample Return for Astrobiology. This is a study aiming to detect the presence of any life forms on Venus. It would involve the direct harvest of gas and cloud samples from Venus and returning them to Earth for study.

SCOPE: ScienceCraft for Outer Planet Exploration. Like sailing ships of old, SCOPE will use a series of solar sails for propulsion. This design would allow it to reach far deeper into space than any craft we have today, as it wouldn’t need to carry any fuel for the journey, and could accelerate almost indefinitely.

The five Phase 2 projects that have received funding are:

BREEZE (Bioinspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration). BREEZE aims to help us less-than-lethally explore the atmosphere of Venus by deploying bird-like drones. These robots should have much better energy efficiency than our current drones and be resistant to the planet’s corrosive clouds.

Kilometer-Scale Space Structures from a Single Launch. Extended time spent in zero-gravity in space seems to come with a whole host of health issues. This project aims to design a rotating space habitat that would mimic the gravity of Earth, thus removing the health risks of long-term spaceflight.

ReachBot: Small Robot for Large Mobile Manipulation Tasks in Martian Cave Environments. Do you want to risk your life exploring potentially unstable subsurface caves on Mars? Didn’t think so. This robot will do it for us.

SWIM-Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers. On the subject of exploration bots, SWIM aims to deliver a swarm of 3D-printed micro-robots that can swim through and explore the oceans of worlds like Enceladus, Europa, and Titan.

As futuristic as these proposals sound, they are actual projects being undertaken — with NASA funding, no less — right as we speak. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we see them bear fruit, because each and every one of them is fascinating in its own right, and showcases just how far we’ve come as a species that we’re researching into topics that two decades ago were the stuff of movies.

NASA wants to deflect an asteroid to test our planetary defences

Although there’s no imminent threat, NASA wants to make sure we’re ready to deflect an asteroid should this problem ever arise. Next year, they want to accelerate an unmanned spacecraft to a speed of 15,000 miles per hour (24,000 kph) and crash into an asteroid to see if they can deflect it.

In the 1998 blockbuster Armageddon, an unlikely team sets out to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and save everyone on the planet. The movie is riddled with scientific inaccuracies, but the central premise is not absurd. Although there’s no imminent threat, the possibility of an asteroid crashing down on Earth is enough to keep NASA concerned.

“Although there isn’t a currently known asteroid that’s on an impact course with the Earth, we do know that there is a large population of near-Earth asteroids out there,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer.

Last month, NASA announced plans to deflect an asteroid to see if it can be done, and now, they’ve provided more details on the mission. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) will carry a price tag of $330 million and will determine whether crashing a ship into an asteroid is an effective way to deflect it.

The DART spacecraft is scheduled to be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on November 23. The rocket launch will take place at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The shuttle will fly to the target asteroid Dimorphos, which measures 160 meters (525 feet) in diameter, and is one of the smallest celestial objects that has its own name. The asteroid is not considered to pose a threat to Earth, it’s just a test.

Two different views of the DART spacecraft. The DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance & Asteroid Camera for OpNav) imaging instrument is based on the LORRI high-resolution imager from New Horizons. The left view also shows the Radial Line Slot Array (RLSA) antenna with the ROSAs (Roll-Out Solar Arrays) rolled up. The view on the right shows a clearer view of the NEXT-C ion engine. Image credits: NASA.

The collision will take place 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth, sometime between September 26 and October 1 of next year. The mission won’t destroy the asteroid — it’ll just nudge it a bit and deflect it from its current trajectory, says Nancy Chabot of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the DART spacecraft.

“It’s only going to be a change of about one percent in that orbital period,” Chabot said, “so what was 11 hours and 55 minutes before might be like 11 hours and 45 minutes.”

In the case of an asteroid on a trajectory to Earth, a small nudge would also be enough — provided that we detect the asteroid quickly enough. This is the key to planetary defense, researchers say: detecting threats early on.

“The key to planetary defense is finding them well before they are an impact threat,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where an asteroid is headed towards Earth and then have to test this capability.”

“If there was an asteroid that was a threat to the Earth, you’d want to do this technique many years in advance, decades in advance,” Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist and the DART coordination lead at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, said during a prelaunch news conference held on Thursday (Nov. 4). “You would just give this asteroid a small nudge, which would add up to a big change in its future position, and then the asteroid and the Earth wouldn’t be on the collision course.”

DART team members carefully lower the DART spacecraft onto a low dolly in SpaceX’s payload processing facility on Vandenberg Space Force Base. Image Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman.

The main focus of this experiment is to understand how much momentum is needed to deflect an asteroid, just in case one would be found to be on a collision course with Earth. Dimorphos is a great target for such an experiment. It’s the most common type of asteroid — a chondritic (stony, non-metallic) meteorite that has been floating about the solar system for around 4.5 billion years.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure just how much Dimorphos will be deflected because there are still uncertainties regarding how dense and porous it is, but they will target the impact to cause the biggest possible deflection, Chabot said.

NASA’s Asteroid Watch program is keeping track of near-Earth asteroids. So far, NASA has identified over 27,000 such asteroids, with 30 new ones being added each week. While no known asteroid larger than 140 meters in size has a significant chance to hit Earth over the next century, NASA estimates that only 40% of those asteroids have been found to date. This is why the space agency is also building an infrared telescope that could detect dangerous asteroids.

The most dangerous asteroid NASA has identified so far is called Bennu. Bennu is 500 meters across (1650 feet), and it’s estimated to pass relatively close to the Earth (within half the distance of the Earth to the Moon) in 2135. The probability of a collision is very low.

A small asteroid just grazed past Antarctica. Why didn’t anyone see it coming?

Credit: Max Pixel.

NASA usually does a pretty good job at tracking relatively close asteroids whose paths might cross Earth’s orbit. However, over the weekend a small asteroid about the size of a refrigerator traveled just 3,000 km past Earth — much lower than most communications satellites. No one was hurt and no damage was reported, but the problem is that the entire thing went unnoticed until later after the fact.

The asteroid in question, known as 2021 UA1, represents the third closest asteroid flyby with no impact in recorded history. The two closest asteroid flybys were 2020 QC and 2020 VT4, both of which occurred in the latter half of 2020.

Astronomers estimate that 2021 UA1 has a diameter of only two meters and during its closest approach above Antarctica, it came more than 100 times closer to Earth than the moon. Luckily, it was still much farther away than the manned International Space Station, which orbits Earth at around 400 km above the surface.

Given its small size, if 2021 UA1 had entered a collision path with Earth it would surely have been disintegrated and vaporized by the atmosphere. The last known significant asteroid event happened on February 15, 2013, when a 17-meter-wide asteroid exploded above Chelyabinsk, sending a shock wave that shattered windows across six cities and injuring more than 1,500 people. The Chelyabinsk asteroid was about 20 times larger than 2021 UA1.

But although 2021 UA1 proved to be harmless, the fact that it zipped past us undetected is highly concerning and reveals a huge blind spot in our asteroid monitoring system.

Most of the objects tracked by NASA and other space agencies are in the “front”, meaning their direction of travel is towards Earth and the sun. However, 2021 UA1 came from close to the inner solar system, from the sun towards Earth. Due to the sun’s glare, it is very difficult to spot these asteroids, especially if they approach during the daytime, which was the case in this situation as well.

NASA is learning, though. This recent close shave, as well as other recent asteroid close encounters, are helping scientists to fine-tune their monitoring tech and software. NASA is also planning to launch the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor space telescope in 2026, which is supposed to orbit between Earth and the Sun. That’s the perfect vantage point to monitor asteroids coming from the sun towards the outer solar system.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that asteroid monitoring and deflection are still in their infancy. Mistakes like these are valuable lessons that will help scientists get better with time — as long as it’s not too late and we get sucker-punched by some giant rock.

Even if we detect an asteroid, our technology and response capabilities are woefully lacking. That is why on November 24, NASA plans to perform the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), humanity’s first-ever mission that will test a planetary defense method. The DART spacecraft, which will launch from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, is supposed to travel more than 11 million kilometers and slam into Dimorphos, a 150-meter wide asteroid. Dimorphos is just target practice since it poses no threat to Earth. The idea is to impact the asteroid with enough energy to divert its course by a fraction of a degree, but just enough to make a huge difference millions of kilometers later.

“DART will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impactor technique, which involves sending one or more large, high-speed spacecraft into the path of an asteroid in space to change its motion,” NASA said.

“We’re going to make sure that a rock from space doesn’t send us back to the Stone Age,” Thomas Statler, a NASA scientist, said during a NASA podcast.

NASA will crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to practice ‘planetary defense’

The DART mission will involve crashing a satellite into the asteroid Didymos and its moonlet. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applies Physics Lab.

With all our day-to-day struggles, it’s easy to forget just how fragile all life on Earth really is. Our planet is essentially one giant rock zipping through nothingness, with only a thin blanket of atmosphere and magnetic fields separating us from total annihilation. What’s more, our blue rock isn’t alone. We’re surrounded by other smaller rocks called asteroids, some of which have trajectories dangerously bordering our own.

Of all existential threats, an asteroid impact seems the most distant — at least compared to climate change and nuclear war. But NASA is taking it very seriously, which is why next month it will be launching a spacecraft tasked with crashing into a pair of asteroids and changing their paths. The mission, called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), is humanity’s first-ever test for a planetary defense method.

The launch is scheduled for November 24, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will take off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in northwestern California. Once in orbit, the DART spacecraft will detach from the Falcon 9 and cruise through space for about a year until it encounters a pair of small asteroids — a larger one, known as Didymos, and its orbiting ‘moonlet’, called Dimorphos — that will come as close as 11 million kilometers from Earth at the time of the rendezvous.

These two asteroids pose no threat to Earth. The idea is to slam DART into Dimorphos with just enough energy to move it off course. It’s a test that will provide valuable lessons for when we need to avert a collision with an asteroid that may pose an actual threat. The entire interaction will be recorded by a small Italian satellite launching from the DART spacecraft and will be live-streamed on NASA TV.

“We’re going to make sure that a rock from space doesn’t send us back to the Stone Age,” Thomas Statler, a NASA scientist, said during a NASA podcast.

Didymos is about 800 meters (0.5 miles) in diameter, while the smaller Dimorphos measures just 150 meters (500 feet) across. NASA scientists chose Dimorphos as their target because these smaller asteroids are the most common and most likely to pose a significant threat to Earth.

By their calculations, NASA scientists estimate that the DART spacecraft will crash into Dimorphos at a speed of 24,000 km/h (15,000 mph). That’s enough energy to nudge its orbit by a fraction of one percent. That’s a small but very significant difference that adds up when you consider an orbit millions of kilometers across.

Researchers inspecting the spacecraft that will slam into Dimorphos. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman.

Sorry to break the news, but there will be no Armageddon-style nukes (not this time at least). Regardless, this will be one heck of an entertaining live stream. Be sure to bring popcorn.

“DART will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impactor technique, which involves sending one or more large, high-speed spacecraft into the path of an asteroid in space to change its motion,” NASA said.

NASA announces lunar landing site for the VIPER rover

The VIPER rover will be critical to the long-term habitation of the Moon. (Image: NASA)

Late in 2023, a golf cart-sized rover will be landing in the southern pole of the moon in an effort to study and map water ice deposits ahead of its Artemis program. Now, NASA has revealed the landing spot of the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, for its 100-day mission – the western edge of the mountainous Nobile Crater.

“Once on the lunar surface, VIPER will provide ground truth measurements for the presence of water and other resources at the Moon’s South Pole, and the areas surrounding Nobile Crater showed the most promise in this scientific pursuit,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “The data VIPER returns will provide lunar scientists around the world with further insight into our Moon’s cosmic origin, evolution, and history, and it will also help inform future Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond by enabling us to better understand the lunar environment in these previously unexplored areas hundreds of thousands of miles away.”

With the ultimate goal of establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028, finding a steady source of water would be extremely beneficial, to say the least. Thanks to prior satellite missions, it is known that ice water resides at the lunar poles. However, in order to utilize said water, researchers need to know a little more. During its tenure on the Moon, the rover will venture into permanently shadowed craters, some of the coldest known spots in the solar system.

In its foray into the Nobile Crater region, the rover will attempt to tell us where specifically the water is most likely to be found, how easy it is to access, and how much of it comes in the form of ice crystals versus being bound to minerals. This will not only reveal how to extract the water to sustainably live on the Moon, but it will also give us insights into the history and origin of water in the inner solar system, including our own planet.

VIPER is equipped with four instruments, including the Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains (TRIDENT) hammer drill, the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) instrument, the Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS), and the Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS). The rover’s design also calls for using the first headlights on a lunar rover to aid in exploring the shadowed regions. Running on solar power, VIPER will need to quickly maneuver around the extreme swings in light and dark at the lunar South Pole.

“VIPER will be the most capable robot NASA has ever sent to the lunar surface and allow us to explore parts of the Moon we’ve never seen,” said Sarah Noble, program scientist for VIPER at NASA Headquarters. “The rover will teach us about the origin and distribution of water on the Moon and prepare us to harvest resources 240,000 miles from Earth that could be used to safely send astronauts even farther into space, including Mars.”

The lunar rover will launch on a SpaceX Falcon-Heavy rocket for delivery to the Moon by Astrobotic’s Griffin lander under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative.

Perseverance makes history on Mars, snatches its first rock sample

While we are all dozing off on Earth over the weekend, NASA’s Perseverance rover was hard at work sealing its first sample of Martian rock. The cored-rock sample, which is just slightly thicker than a pencil, was retrieved from a site at Jezero Crater, where there was once a huge ancient lake.

Perseverance’s first cored-rock sample is visible inside this titanium sample collection tube. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The core sample, now sealed inside an airtight titanium collection tube, is the first of more than 30 samples that are expected to be stockpiled by the rover before being retrieved to Earth in a daring, one-of-a-kind mission planned for the early 2030s. This sample retrieval mission, operated by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), will mark the first time materials from another planet are transported to Earth via spacecraft rather than asteroids and meteorites.

“NASA has a history of setting ambitious goals and then accomplishing them, reflecting our nation’s commitment to discovery and innovation,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This is a momentous achievement and I can’t wait to see the incredible discoveries produced by Perseverance and our team.”

“For all of NASA science, this is truly a historic moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Just as the Apollo Moon missions demonstrated the enduring scientific value of returning samples from other worlds for analysis here on our planet, we will be doing the same with the samples Perseverance collects as part of our Mars Sample Return program. Using the most sophisticated science instruments on Earth, we expect jaw-dropping discoveries across a broad set of science areas, including exploration into the question of whether life once existed on Mars.”

Perseverance’s first cored sample of Mars rock is sealed inside its titanium container tube in this image taken by rover’s Sampling and Caching System Camera (known as CacheCam). The image was taken on Sept. 6, 2021 (the 194th sol, or Martian day, of the mission). Credit: NASA/JPL.

The initial sample-taking process commenced on September 1, when the rover’s rotary-percussive drill located on the end of a 2-meter-long (7-foot) robotic arm approached a briefcase-sized rock, affectionately nicknamed “Rochette.” The core sample was then placed inside a storage tube, which was maneuvered to face the Mastcam-Z camera instrument so that mission engineers could have a look at what they stowed.

However, during the cleaning process — during which the drill vibrates the tube in five one-second bursts to clear any debris and residual material — the core may have slid down further inside the tube, hindering visibility. Bad weather made this task all the more challenging.

Over the weekend, when lighting conditions improved, NASA engineers performed further maneuvers with the rover’s robotic arm and camera. These latest images confirmed that the sampling process went according to plan, and mission control gave the command to complete the sealing of the sample inside the tube with serial number 266.

“With over 3,000 parts, the Sampling and Caching System is the most complex mechanism ever sent into space,” said Larry D. James, interim director of JPL. “Our Perseverance team is excited and proud to see the system perform so well on Mars and take the first step for returning samples to Earth.”

This image, taken in a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, shows sample tube number 266, which was used to collect the first sample of Martian rock by NASA’s Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Perseverance’s sampling mission took place in a ridgeline known as “Artuby”, which borders two distinct geological units believed to contain Jezero Crater’s deepest and oldest layers of exposed bedrock. Once the samples are returned to Earth and analyzed in the lab with the most sophisticated instruments at scientists’ disposal, NASA hopes to unravel secrets pertaining to Red Planet’s geological history.

Like a huge jig-saw puzzle, the dozens of samples that the rover is scheduled to take across the crater will help piece together a story of what this ancient lake might have looked like billions of years ago, when it supported liquid water and perhaps even life. This journey will see Perseverance travel between 2.5 and 5 kilometers (1.6 and 3.1 miles) around a portion of Jezero Crater, which will be completed once the rover circles back to its initial landing location.

If all goes well and Perseverence is still operational, the rover will commence the second major phase of its mission on Mars, traveling to Jezero Crater’s delta region — a fan-shaped area where geologists believe a river met the lake. This region ought to be particularly rich in clay minerals that may preserve fossilized signs of microbial life.

The James Webb telescope is now ready to be shipped

It’s been a long road, and NASA still has plenty of work to do, but now, the groundwork has been completed for the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope, which will complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope, is now being prepared for shipment to its launch site.

Fully assembled and fully tested, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has completed its primary testing regimen and will soon begin shipment preparations. Image credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

Few things have enriched our understanding of the universe like the Hubble Telescope — and the James Webb telescope promises to usher in similar advancements. But it wasn’t easy.

The project started in the late 1990s, but the ballooning costs delayed construction time and time again. The first major re-planning took place in 2005, and it became a common theme. But delays are apparently coming to an end. After more than two decades, $10 billion, and tremendous work from NASA, the telescope is months away from being launched into space, where it will peer deep into the heart of the universe.

NASA now says all the engineering work and checks are done on the telescope; the hardware is assembled, the software is in place, everything is in order. The next step now is to pack it and get it ready for an ocean journey to French Guiana, where it will be launching from. From there, the final preparations will be carried out: removing the red flags marked “remove before flight”, and adding fuel to the telescope to enable it to maintain the desired position.

For the team behind the project, it’s a milestone moment.

“To me, launching Webb will be a significant life event – I’ll be elated of course when this is successful, but it will also be a time of deep personal introspection. Twenty years of my life will all come down to that moment,” said Mark Voyton, Webb observatory integration and test manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We’ve come a long way and worked through so much together to prepare our observatory for flight. The telescope’s journey is only just beginning, but for those of us on the ground who built it, our time will soon come to an end, and we will have our opportunity to rest, knowing we put everything on the line to make sure our observatory works. The bonds we formed with each other along the way will last far into the future.”

Main mirror assembled at Goddard Space Flight Center, May 2016. Image credits: NASA.

There’s still a bit of tinkering needed, though. The telescope must be kept in the cold, stabilized at the frigid operating temperature it will experience in space. Over the next weeks, the mission team will ensure that the telescope is cooled down.

Then, after the launch, the sun shield will be deployed and the instruments will slowly power up — and again, the telescope will spend some time cooling down. If everything goes according to plan, the telescope will be operational at some point in 2022.

“After completing the final steps of the James Webb Space Telescope’s testing regimen, I can’t help but see the reflections of the thousands of individuals who have dedicated so much of their lives to Webb, every time I look at that beautiful gold mirror,” said Bill Ochs, Webb project manager for NASA Goddard.

Flagship missions like this one are momentous for science. We’re still learning so much from the Hubble telescope, and with all of Hubble’s recent woes and challenges, it’s still offering so much valuable information. Having access to a new large infrared space telescope will lay the foundation upon which important astronomic findings will be made.

“Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it,” a NASA press release concludes.

As for us — we couldn’t be more excited. We can’t wait to see the James Webb Telescope in space and write about its findings for years to come.

AI helps NASA look at the Sun with new eyes

The top row of images shows the degradation of AIA’s channel over the years since SDO’s launch. The bottom row of images is corrected for this degradation using a machine learning algorithm. Credit: Luiz Dos Santos/NASA GSFC.

It’s not easy being a telescope — just look at Hubble’s recent woes (and Hubble is hardly an exception). But being a solar telescope, constantly being exposed to intense light and particle bombardment, is especially rough.

Solar telescopes have to be constantly recalibrated and checked, not to ensure that damage isn’t happening — because damage is always happening. Instead, they have to be recalibrated to understand just how the instrument is changing under the effect of the Sun.

But recalibrating a telescope like NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which is in Earth orbit, isn’t easy. Its Atmospheric Imagery Assembly, or AIA, created a trove of solar images enabling us to understand our star better than ever before. In order to recalibrate AIA, researchers have to use sounding rockets: smaller rockets that carry a few instruments and only fly for about 15 minutes or so into space.

The reason why the rockets are needed is that the wavelengths that AIA is analyzing can’t be observed from Earth. They’re filtered by the atmosphere. So you need the sounding rockets carrying a small telescope to look at the same wavelengths and map out how AIA’s lenses are changing.

The Sun seen by AIA in 304 Angstrom light in 2021 before degradation correction (left) and with corrections from a sounding rocket calibration (right). Credits: NASA GSFC

Obviously, the rocket procedure isn’t ideal. It costs a bit, and rockets can’t always be launched. So a group of NASA researchers looked for a more elegant solution.

“The current best calibration techniques rely on flights of sounding rockets to maintain absolute calibration. These flights are infrequent, complex, and limited to a single vantage point, however,” the new study reads. But that’s only part of the challenge.

“It’s also important for deep space missions, which won’t have the option of sounding rocket calibration,” said Dr. Luiz Dos Santos, a solar physicist  at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author on the paper. “We’re tackling two problems at once.” 

First, they set out to train a machine-learning algorithm to recognize solar structures and compare them with existing AIA data — they used images from the sounding rockets for that. The idea was that, by looking at enough images of a solar flare, the algorithm could identify a solar flare regardless of AIA lens degradation; and then, it could also figure out how much calibration was needed.

After enough examples, they gave the algorithm images to see if it would correctly identify just how much calibration was needed. The approach worked on multiple wavelengths.

“This was the big thing,” Dos Santos said. “Instead of just identifying it on the same wavelength, we’re identifying structures across the wavelengths.” 

This image shows seven of the ultraviolet wavelengths observed by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly on board NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The top row is observations taken from May 2010 and the bottom row shows observations from 2019, without any corrections, showing how the instrument degraded over time.
Credits: Luiz Dos Santos/NASA GSFC.

When they compared the virtual calibration (algorithm calibration predictions) with the data from the sounding rockets, the results were very similar, indicating that the algorithm had done a good job at estimating what type of calibration was needed.

The approach can also be used for more space missions, even for deep space missions where calibration methods with rockets won’t be possible.

The study was published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

NASA’s InSight probe peers into the heart of Mars, sees Earth-like layers

While Martian rovers like Curiosity or Perseverance take the spotlight, it’s the InSight lander that can help us look deep into the Red Planet. In a set of new papers, researchers analyzing 174 marsquakes presented the most in-depth data of the Red Planet, including data on its crust, mantle, and molten core.

Illustration of Mars’ internal structure. Image credits: IPGP / David Ducros.

The pulse of Mars

The three papers each focused on one of the main layers of Mars: the crust, the mantle, and the core. If those three sound familiar — well, it’s because they’re also the layers of the Earth. Researchers have known that Mars must have a similar structure of a while, but as to the detailed structure of these three layers, that’s little more than an educated guess based on gravitational measurements.

NASA’s InSight mission wanted to change that. Using its Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (or SEIS) seismometer tool, the space agency can monitor marsquakes — or, if you will, earthquakes on Mars. The seismometer can measure the pulse of Mars by studying waves created by marsquakes, thumps of meteorite impacts, and even surface vibrations generated by activity in Mars’ atmosphere and by weather phenomena such as dust storms.

Believe it or not, most of what we know about the Earth’s deep structure comes from earthquakes. It’s not that researchers haven’t tried digging or studying the subsurface in other ways, but even the deepest hole we’ve dug doesn’t even come close to the mantle — let alone the core. So instead, researchers turned to the field of seismology to fill in the gaps.

The inner layers of Mars are similar in nature with those on Earth, but their structure and size are very different. Image credits: Chris Bickel/Sciencel

Earthquakes (and marsquakes) produce seismic waves that spread through the planet. Like acoustic waves that reflect off of walls or other surfaces, seismic waves also reflect (or refract) when they encounter different surfaces. InSight’s SEIS tool can capture data from these waves, and based on this data, enable researchers to assess the Martian subsurface.

“What we’re looking for is an echo,” said Amir Khan of ETH Zurich, lead author of the paper on the mantle. “We’re detecting a direct sound – the quake – and then listening for an echo off a reflector deep underground.”

Another piece of important information comes from the speed of seismic waves — especially

Understanding the Red Planet

Of course, while we have thousands of seismometers on Earth, we only have one on Mars, so the level of detail we can obtain is far lower — but it’s still better than anything we’ve had so far.

Clouds drift over the dome-covered seismometer, known as SEIS, belonging to NASA’s InSight lander, on Mars. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

The first step is establishing just how big these large layers are, and then look for any details that can be pieced together.

“Layering within the crust is something we see all the time on Earth,” said Brigitte Knapmeyer-Endrun of the University of Cologne, lead author on the paper about the crust. “A seismogram’s wiggles can reveal properties like a change in porosity or a more fractured layer.”

The first finding was that the crust was thinner than expected, and that it appears to have two or three sub-layers. It goes as deep as 12 miles (20 km) if it has two sub-layers, or 23 miles (37 km) if there are three.

Extrapolated across the planet, this suggests the Martian crust averages between 24 and 72 kilometers thick, and “both of those are actually on the thin end of our pre-mission expectations,” Panning says. Some models had previously put the crust at 100 kilometers thick, but according to these results, that’s not exactly the case. Earth’s crust is 5 to 70 km thick.

Meanwhile, the mantle goes down 969 miles (1,560 km), and the core has a radius of 1,137 miles (1,830 km). The Martian mantle doesn’t have the depth and pressure needed to create a lower mantle — a type of layer that is present on Earth. This layer helped insulate the Earth’s core when the planet formed, so without it, Mars may have cooled much faster than the Earth (also depending on what the core is made of).

Researchers also explain that the core must be molten — if it were solid, some of the observed waves wouldn’t have been possible.

Where no man has gone before

In this artist’s concept of NASA’s InSight lander on Mars, layers of the planet’s subsurface can be seen below and dust devils can be seen in the background. Credits: IPGP/Nicolas Sarter.

The study offers an unprecedented opportunity to understand not just the structure of Mars, but the structure of all rocky planets.

“This study is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said Simon Stähler of the Swiss research university ETH Zurich, lead author of the core paper. “It took scientists hundreds of years to measure Earth’s core; after the Apollo missions, it took them 40 years to measure the Moon’s core. InSight took just two years to measure Mars’ core.”

Unlike Earth, Mars doesn’t have any big earthquakes, because it doesn’t have any tectonic plates. The vast majority of earthquakes on Earth happen due to the movement of these tectonic plates, whereas on Mars, quakes are caused by rock faults, fractures, landslides, or by the rocks contracting as the planet continues to cool — which means these earthquakes are not as strong. Out of the 174 recorded quakes, not one was over 4.0 in magnitude.

“We’d still love to see the big one,” said JPL’s Mark Panning, co-lead author of the paper on the crust. “We have to do lots of careful processing to pull the things we want from this data. Having a bigger event would make all of this easier.”

InSight’s way around this challenge is through precision: it can measure vibrations on the scale of a hydrogen atom, and without the oceans and human activity to create noise, it can measure much more peacefully.

The two largest quakes detected by NASA’s InSight appear to have originated in a region of Mars called Cerberus Fossae, an area that was linked with landslides. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona.

This is the first time we have information about another planet’s core and mantle. Researchers have previously only mounted seismometers on Earth and the Moon.

As InSight records data from more marsquakes, NASA researchers will continue to analyze them and piece together more and more information about the Red Planet’s inside. After all, you don’t get the chance to find a planet’s core very often.

Study dismisses possibility of life in the clouds of Venus

What once seemed like an unlikely but enticing possibility has been all but ruled out. An international group of researchers found that the amount of water in the atmosphere of Venus is so low that even the most drought-tolerant microbes of the Earth wouldn’t be able to survive in those conditions. Essentially, life as we know it just couldn’t exist in these clouds.

The finding dismissed a study published late last year that had theorized microbes could be living in there. 

Image credit: NASA

The findings will come as a disappointment to some who have been following the news. Optimistic after the discovery of phosphine, a compound made of atoms of phosphorus and hydrogen that on Earth can be associated with living organisms, in Venus’ atmosphere, researchers had suggested phosphine may be produced by microorganisms living in those clouds. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

In the new study, researchers looked at measurements from probes that flew through the atmosphere of the planet and collected data about temperature, humidity, and pressure in the clouds. From these values, they calculated the so-called water activity – which is the water vapor pressure inside the individual molecules in the clouds. 

“We found not only is the effective concentration of water molecules slightly below what’s needed for the most resilient microorganism on Earth, it’s more than 100 times too low. It’s almost at the bottom of the scale, and an unbridgeable distance from what life requires to be active,” John Hallsworth, co-author, told BBC News. 

On Earth, microorganisms can survive and proliferate in droplets of water in the atmosphere when temperatures allow. However, the findings of this new study leave virtually a zero chance of anything living in the clouds of Venus. Without being hydrated, living systems including microorganisms can’t be active and proliferate, Hallsworth said. 

Previous studies on microorganisms living in extreme conditions on Earth found that life can exist at temperatures as cold as minus 40ºC (minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit). For water activity, measured from 0 to 1, the lowest survivable value is 0.585. The water activity level found in the molecules in the Venusian clouds was a very low 0.004.

NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay, one of the co-authors of the paper, said in a news conference that the findings of the study were conclusive. “It’s not a model, it’s not an assumption,” she said. For McKay, the fleet of space missions currently being prepared for Venus won’t change anything about the hope for life on Earth’s closest neighbor. 

NASA and the European Space Agency have recently approved three new missions to go visit Venus, starting at the end of this decade. A private launch company, Rocket Lab, intends to send an atmospheric entry craft as soon as 2023. NASA’s missions will do the same measurements again, likely reaching similar conclusions, McKay said.

Maybe on Jupiter?

In the study, the researchers also analyzed data from other planets too and found that the clouds of Jupiter provide sufficient water activity to theoretically support life. Water activity value sits at 0.585, which is above the threshold, while temperatures are also just about survivable, at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, according to data from the Galileo probe.  

McKay said there’s “at least” a layer in the clouds of Jupiter where the water requirements aren’t met. Still, high levels of ultraviolet radiation or lack of nutrients, could prevent potential life from thriving, she added. Completely new measurements will be necessary in the future to find out whether life could thrive there or not. 

The study was published in the journal Nature. 

NASA’s Juno to make closest flyby to Jupiter’s largest moon

NASA’s Juno spacecraft will fly at only 1,038 kilometers (645 miles) from the surface of Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, tomorrow, June 7. It will be the closest-known flyby since the Galileo spacecraft made its penultimate close approach more than a decade ago and it’s expected to yield valuable insights into Jupiter’s moon. 

Left to right: The mosaic and geologic maps of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede were assembled incorporating the best available imagery from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft and NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

Juno’s science instruments will start gathering data about three hours before the spacecraft’s closest approach. The measurements will provide valuable information into the Moon’s composition, ionosphere, magnetosphere, and ice shell. They will also benefit future missions to the Jovian system, which includes Jupiter, its rings and moons. 

“Juno carries a suite of sensitive instruments capable of seeing Ganymede in ways never before possible,” Scott Bolton, Juno’s main investigator, said in a statement. “By flying so close, we will bring the exploration of Ganymede into the 21st century, both complementing future missions with our unique sensors and helping prepare for the next generation of missions to the Jovian system.”

Juno’s flyby is powered by solar energy and will send the information and images about this moon to Earth. Due to the speed of the flyby, the moon will go from being a point of light to a viewable disk, then back to a point of light in about 25 minutes. Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury and it’s the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetosphere.

With an ultraviolet spectrograph, a microwave radiometer, and an infrared mapper, Juno will peer into Ganymede’s water-ice crust, gathering data on its composition and temperature. Bolton said the MWR will provide information of how the composition of how the composition and structure of the moon’s ice shell varies with depth. 

NASA will also use the signals from Juno’s wavelengths to perform a radio occultation experiment to probe the moon’s tenuous ionosphere – the outer layer of an atmosphere where gases are excited by solar radiation to form ions. This will help to understand the connection between the moon’s ionosphere, its magnetic field, and Jupiter’s magnetosphere. 

At the same time, Juno’s navigation camera, originally tasked to help the orbiter on course, will be in charge of collecting information on the high-energy radiation environment in the region near Ganymede. Heidi Becker, Juno’s radiation monitoring lead, explained that a special set of images will be collected as part of that experiment. 

Exploring Jupiter

Juno’s main goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. As the main example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.

The mission is the second spacecraft designed under NASA’s New Frontiers Program. The first was the Pluto New Horizons mission, which flew by the dwarf planet in July 2015 after a nine-and-a-half-year flight. Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s magnetic field, measure the amount of water in the atmosphere and observe the planet’s auroras. 

Just like the sun, Jupiter is mostly hydrogen and helium, so it must have formed early, capturing most of the material left after our star came to be. But it’s so far unclear how this happened. Jupiter’s giant mass allowed it to hold onto its original composition, providing with a way of tracing our solar system’s history.

Two new NASA missions earmarked for ‘lost habitable’ planet Venus

NASA’s new administrator, Bill Nelson, has announced that the agency is going back to Venus. Their goal — to understand how Venus turned from a mild Earth-like planet to a boiling, scorching, acid hellscape.

An enhanced image of Venus, via NASA. Image credits J.Gabás Esteban / Flickr.

Two new robotic missions will be visiting Venus, according to Bill Nelson’s first major address to employees, on Wednesday. Machines will carry them out for us, as Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system. The goal of both will be to better understand the history of the planet, and how Venus came to be what it is today.

Knowing our neighbors

“These two sister missions both aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” Nelson said.

The two missions will be named DaVinci+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) and Veritas (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy). The first will see a ‘small craft’ plunging through Venus’ atmosphere, taking measurements of its physical and chemical properties, while also analyzing the make-up of its clouds. The second will attempt to map out Venus’ surface in a bid to understand its geologic history.

These will be the first missions to Venus that NASA has attempted in over three decades. The last — mission Magellan — reached the planet in 1990.

Both upcoming missions will help us get a better understanding of Venus, from its atmosphere down to the core, NASA scientist Tom Wagner explained.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus,” he said. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

We don’t yet have an exact launch date for these missions, but they’ll both likely take off sometime between 2028 and 2030. Each will receive around $500 million in funding for development (under NASA’s Discovery program). Sadly, although we are going back to Venus, two other proposed missions — to Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s icy moon Triton — didn’t make the cut.

Chinese rover releases first photos from Mars after a smooth landing

Zhurong from the front the moment it descended from the landing ramp. Credit: CNSA.

China successfully landed its six-wheeled Zhurong rover on Mars, early on May 14. Similar to the touchdown of its American counterpart, Perseverance, which reached the red planet in February, the Chinese vehicle used a combination of a protective capsule, a parachute, and a rocket platform to make the descent. Now, Zhurong has released its first pictures from the Utopia Planitia landing site, a vast region in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

Up until Zhurong, only NASA had mastered landing on Mars. All other countries that tried before either crashed or lost contact soon after their vehicle reached the surface.

Zhurong, which means God of Fire, was carried to Mars on the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which arrived above the planet in February. Since then, the probe had been patiently orbiting the planet, surveying Utopia Planitia in search of the safest place to target a landing.

The images released by the China National Space Administration include a black-and-white photo taken by the obstacle avoidance camera from the front of the rover, showing a ramp from the lander extending to the surface. The message is clear: this is supposed to be the historical moment right before the rover’s wheels touch the surface of Mars.

Zhurong from the back. Credit: CNSA.

The second image is in color and shows the back of Zhurong, including the rover’s antenna and fully deployed solar panels.

Additionally, China released a brief video showing the lander separating from the orbiter that carried the rover to Mars. This dive through Mars’ atmosphere, known as the “seven minutes of terror”, is considered the most challenging part of any voyage to Mars’ surface.

The moment the lander separated from the orbiter. Credit: CNSA.

Zhurong’s successful landing on Mars is the latest in a series of major milestones for China’s space program. In December 2020, China successfully landed a spacecraft on the moon’s surface in a mission to retrieve lunar surface samples, only the third country to do so after the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago. In 2016, China launched its second space laboratory, Tiangong 2, and is planning the launch of a third space station soon.

Unlike its American predecessors, Zhurong has a very flexible schedule. Its mission is set to run for only 90 days during which it will use its instruments to investigate local rocks and the general natural environment, including the weather. The colossal Utopia Planitia basin, measuring over 3,000 kilometers across, was formed by an impact early in the planet’s history. Scientists believe it once held an ancient ocean.

The next rover bound for Mars is Rosalind Franklin, previously known as the ExoMars rover, part of the international ExoMars program led by the European Space Agency and the Russian Roscosmos State Corporation. The mission was scheduled to launch in July 2020 but was postponed to 2022.

Another first: NASA’s Perseverance rover extracts oxygen on Mars

The toaster-sized experimental MOXIE instrument aboard the rover extracted oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide. It’s only a proof of concept, but it’s an important one, as it suggests that one day Martian astronauts could make their own oxygen for breathing and rocket fuel.

Technicians in the clean room carefully lowering the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A tree on Mars

The atmosphere of Mars is very different from that of Earth. It’s much thinner (about 96% thinner) and also has a different chemical make-up: it’s poor in oxygen and rich in carbon dioxide. Future astronauts won’t have much use for carbon dioxide, but pure oxygen is a different matter.

“When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that they need a rocket to lift off the planet. Liquid oxygen propellant is something we could make there and not have to bring with us. One idea would be to bring an empty oxygen tank and fill it up on Mars,” says Michael Hecht, Principal Investigator of the Perseverance project.

Researchers have been working on ways to do this for a while, and with the Perseverance rover, they got a chance to actually try it out — not in a lab on Earth, but right on Mars.

The MOXIE instrument aims to help humans explore Mars by making OXygen. It works “In situ” (in place) on the Red Planet, and is an Experiment.” As always, NASA loves to toy with acronyms, but the instrument did its job excellently so far.

MOXIE’s first run produced 5.4 grams of oxygen in an hour. The power supply used for the experiment limits potential production to 12 g/hr — about the same amount that a large tree would produce. It’s not spectacular, but it’s the first time this has ever been done, and it could also be scaled up .

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator STMD. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”

The conversion process requires high levels of heat: 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). To withstand these temperatures and carry out the process safely, MOXIE is built from heat-tolerant materials, including 3D-printed nickel alloys and a light aerogel that acts as a buffer, holding the heated air inside. MOXIE is coated with a thin gold layer that reflects infrared heat and ensures that it won’t damage other parts of Perseverance.

Illustration of the MOXIE instrument, depicting the elements within the instrument. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. 

Live off the land

This bodes well for future Mars missions, as transporting oxygen all the way there would be quite a hassle. Oxygen tends to take a lot of space, and it’s very unlikely that astronauts to Mars will be able to carry their own oxygen. Extracting oxygen from the Martian soil or atmosphere will therefore be crucial for future missions.

To get a team of four astronauts off of Mars, a future mission would require about 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel and 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of oxygen. Astronauts that would carry experiments and potentially spend a lot of time on the Red Planet would also require oxygen (though far less than this). With instruments like MOXIE, they could live off the land — quite literally.

“MOXIE isn’t just the first instrument to produce oxygen on another world,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations within STMD. It’s the first technology of its kind that will help future missions “live off the land,” using elements of another world’s environment, also known as in-situ resource utilization.

“It’s taking regolith, the substance you find on the ground, and putting it through a processing plant, making it into a large structure, or taking carbon dioxide – the bulk of the atmosphere – and converting it into oxygen,” she said. “This process allows us to convert these abundant materials into useable things: propellant, breathable air, or, combined with hydrogen, water.”

Now that the technology demonstration was successful, NASA will attempt to extract oxygen at least nine more times over the next two years (Earthly years, that is). The goal is to test the equipment in different conditions to see if it keeps working properly.

Meanwhile, Perseverance will continue its mission to search for signs of microbial life on Mars, analyzing its geology and past climate, as well as paving the way for human exploration.

Perseverance with science instruments. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

Uranus is leaking radiation, researchers say

Astronomers have detected a new, potentially deadly emanation coming from Uranus: X-rays. While most of these are likely produced by the sun and then reflected by the blue planet, the team is excited about the possibility of a local source of X-rays adding to these emissions.

A composite image with Chandra X-ray data from 2002 in pink over on an optical image from the Keck-I Telescope from 2004.

The seventh planet from the sun has the distinction of being our only neighbor that rotates on its side. But that’s not the only secret this blue, frigid dot in space seems to hide, according to new research. The planet also seems to be radioactive — after a fashion. This discovery currently leaves us with more questions than answers, but it could help us better understand Uranus in the long run.

Deep space rays

Since it’s so far away, we’ve had precious few opportunities to interact with the planet. In fact, the only human spacecraft to ever come near Uranus was Voyager 2, and that happened in 1986. So most of our data regarding the frozen giant comes from telescopes, such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

A new study based on snapshots of Uranus taken by Chandra in 2002 and 2017. These revealed the existence of X-rays in the data from 2002, and a possible burst of the same type of radiation in the second data set. The 2017 dataset was recorded when the planet was approximately at the same orientation relative to Earth as it was in 2002.

The team explains that the source of these X-rays, or at least the chief part of them, is likely the Sun. This wouldn’t be unprecedented: both Jupiter and Saturn are known to behave the same way, scattering light from the Sun (including X-rays) back into the void. Earth’s atmosphere, actually, behaves in a similar way.

But, while the team was expecting to observe X-rays coming off of Uranus due to these precedents, what really surprised them is the possibility that another source of radiation could be present. While still unconfirmed, such a source would have important implications for our understanding of the planet.

One possible source would be the rings of Uranus; we know from our observations of Saturn that planetary ring systems can emit X-rays, produced by collisions between them and charged particles around the planets. Uranus’ auroras are another contender, as we have registered emissions coming from them on other wavelengths. These auroras are also produced by interactions with charged particles, much like the northern lights on Earth. Auroras are also known to emit X-rays both on Earth and other planets.

The piece that’s missing in the aurora picture, however, is that researchers don’t understand what causes them on Uranus.

Its unique magnetic field and rapid rotation could create unusually complex auroras, the team explains, which further muddies our ability to interpret the current findings; there are too many unknown variables in this equation. Hopefully, however, the current findings will help point us towards the answers we need.

The paper “A Low Signal Detection of X‐Rays From Uranus” has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.

NASA just released the first direct evidence that humans are causing climate change

A simplified animation of Earth’s planetary energy balance: A planet’s energy budget is balanced between incoming (yellow) and outgoing radiation (red). Credit: NASA.

By now it should be no surprise to learn that the planet is warming very rapidly. The vast majority of this warming is not natural, over 99% of scientists say, but rather the result of heat-trapping greenhouse gases released by human activity such as burning fossil fuels.

Yet with all the thousands of studies about climate change and its connection with human activity, it was only recently that researchers at NASA have provided direct observations of the driving force of climate change.

Since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century when humans’ appetite for coal and other fossil fuels was first stirred, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has skyrocketed from 280 parts per million (ppm) to over 415 ppm today.

We know beyond a doubt that greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane, or water vapor trap heat in the atmosphere, thereby raising surface temperatures. We also know that CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing at a pace 100 times faster than it should naturally.

At the same time, human activity is also responsible for air pollution, such as particulate matter that we all know is detrimental to our health, as well as that of wildlife. But some of this air pollution is in the form of aerosols, which are minute particles suspended in the atmosphere where they reflect incoming sunlight back into space. In other words, this kind of pollution has a global cooling effect.

Aerosols are thus a force of cooling, whereas greenhouse gases produce heating. The difference between the energy absorbed by the atmosphere, of which greenhouse gases are a major contributing factor, and the energy radiated back to space by factors such as aerosols is known as “radiative forcing”.

When radiative forcing is zero, this means that the planet’s energy system is in balance, so the atmosphere shouldn’t warm nor should it cool. When radiative forcing is positive, this means that Earth’s system is off balance and warming.

What NASA has done in its recent study is to quantify the individual radiative forcings using satellite observations in order to determine exactly how much each component warms or cools the planet.

For decades, scientists have devised models of climate change predicting how the temperature will change as a function of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unsurprisingly, the new NASA study found that radiative forces match these models after it combined data from NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES), which studies the flow of radiation at the top of Earth’s atmosphere, with other data sources such as ocean heat measurements.

“This is the first calculation of the total radiative forcing of Earth using global observations, accounting for the effects of aerosols and greenhouse gases,” said Ryan Kramer, first author on the paper and a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “It’s direct evidence that human activities are causing changes to Earth’s energy budget.”

Another nail in the coffin

Scientists unanimously agree that human activity is the only thing that can explain the steep rise in the average global temperature on Earth, which has increased by a little more than 1° Celsius (2° Fahrenheit) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.

Although the evidence for anthropogenic global warming is overwhelming, this was actually the first study to present direct rather than indirect evidence in favor of this explanation for the warming we’re currently experiencing. Up until now, direct evidence that changes in greenhouse gases affect the atmosphere’s ability to transfer heat was only available in localized settings.

According to the study, human activities have caused radiative forcing on Earth to increase by about 0.5 Watts/square meter between 2003 to 2018.

“Creating a direct record of radiative forcing calculated from observations will allow us to evaluate how well climate models can simulate these forcings,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) in New York City. “This will allow us to make more confident projections about how the climate will change in the future.”

The findings appeared in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

NASA just added three more sonification projects to their page and I couldn’t be more delighted

Ever wondered what a black hole sounds like? Well, if we’re being honest, it probably sounds like becoming a spaghetti and death, which are not very nice things. Understanding our pain, however, NASA comes with its most recent instalments of its sonification series, helping us hear space, but in a pleasant way.

Image credits NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center / Flickr.

You might be wondering what sonification is; in essence, it’s a process through which NASA turns astronomical data in the form of images into sounds. The data comes from NASA’s telescopes, such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Such images are then processed into sounds using an algorithm that, crucially, doesn’t change the original content of this data in any way. You could think of it like listening to an audiobook instead of reading it yourself.

The results are quite enjoyable, and surprisingly striking.

You can hear space in this

The first is a sonification of an image of the Chandra Deep Field South region of space. The image itself is notable as it is “the deepest image ever taken in X-rays” according to NASA, and represents “over seven million seconds of Chandra observing time”.

The colored dots that might seem like stars here are, in fact, individual galaxies and black holes — mostly supermassive ones. The colors of these individual dots dictate the tone produced as the bar moves throughout the picture from the bottom towards the top. White light on the picture is recreated as white noise, and the musical frequencies you’ll hear are given by different X-ray frequencies captured in the photo. In the image you see, these had to be heavily compressed but are shown in red, green, and blue for low, medium, and high-energy X-rays, respectively. However, keep in mind that the sound you’ll hear recreates the whole, uncompressed spectrum. Finally, the seter position of the sound tells you whether the source of light being sonified lies to the left or right of the image.

Next, the Cat’s Eye Nebula. This was formed by a star that’s slowly running out of atomic fuel (helium), which makes it belch out huge quantities of gas and dust. These form spectacular clouds that linger around the star.

The image used here contained both X-ray data around the center, recorded by Chandra, and visible light data from the Hubble Space Telescope, mostly focused on the structures expelled by the star.

Instead of a bar scanning the picture from bottom to top, here NASA uses a clockwise scan — it looks a lot like those radar lines you’d see in 90s action movies. When this line encounters light, pitch is produced: the farther away from the center it is, the higher the pitch. Brighter lights are also louder. X-ray data is reproduced in harsher notes while visible lights sound smoother.

It’s a very immersive tune.


The last installment in NASA’s sonification gallery is Messier 51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, a spiral galaxy quite similar to our own.

The sonification moves radially from the top of the image in a clockwise motion. This time, the radius of the galaxy produces different notes on a minor scale. Each type of light (infrared, optical, ultraviolet, and X-ray) is represented here. The sound is… very eerie. Pleasant, but eerie. A constant, low hum is produced by the bright core of the galaxy, while other sources of light along its diameter produce short, striking sounds that almost sound coherent. I like this one the most out of all three, it’s just brimming with personality.

These three sonification projects were led by Dr. Kimberly Arcand, a visualization scientist at the Chandra X-ray Center (CXC), with astrophysicist Dr. Matt Russo and musician Andrew Santaguida (both of the SYSTEM Sound project).

If you liked these as much as I did, you’ll be delighted to hear that NASA has a whole gallery of sonification projects you can browse through, and listen to all of them here.

NASA’s new telescope satellite passes critical hardware tests with flying colors

NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope is one step closer to a launch in October after passing two critical test steps.

The James Webb Space Telescope. Image credits ASA’s James Webb Space Telescope / Flickr.

Known as comprehensive systems tests, these procedures are meant to ensure that vital systems aboard a craft are fully functional ahead of a launch. The two steps that the telescope successfully passed are tests pertaining to its internal electronic suite, as well as the confirmation that its four scientific instruments can send and receive data properly through the network it will be using in space. The tests took place at Northrop Grumman in collaboration with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Closer to space

“It’s been amazing to witness the level of expertise, commitment, and collaboration across the team during this important milestone,” said Jennifer Love-Pruitt, Northrop Grumman’s electrical vehicle engineering lead on the Webb observatory. “It’s definitely a proud moment because we demonstrated Webb’s electrical readiness.”

“The successful completion of this test also means we are ready to move forward toward launch and on-orbit operations.”

The tests took 17 consecutive days, during which the team powered on all of the telescope’s electrical components, and ran them through their operation procedures to ensure that they’re all running smoothly and can share data among themselves. All the electrical boxes on the craft have two sides to allow for redundancy, and they were all tested successfully.

After this step came the ground segment test, which simulates a mission plan for the craft’s four instruments to follow. This included commands to sequentially turn on, move, and operate each of its instruments, and meant to establish whether these devices would work as intended. The commands were relayed from Webb’s Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, to test whether the network that’s meant to shuttle data to and from the satellite once in orbit works. As such, the commands were relayed through the Deep Space Network, an international array of radio antennas that NASA uses to communicate with spacecraft in orbit. Special equipment was used to simulate the satellite being in space, not on the surface.

At least from an internal systems standpoint, then, the James Webb telescope is good to go.

“Working in a pandemic environment, of course, is a challenge, and our team has been doing an excellent job working through its nuances. That’s a real positive to highlight, and it’s not just for this test but all of the tests we’ve safely completed leading up to this one,” said Bonnie Seaton, deputy ground segment and operations manager at Goddard.

“This recent success is attributable to many months of preparation, the maturity of our systems, procedures, and products, and the proficiency of our team.”

The ground team is now preparing for the next set of technical tests, which will include folding of its sunshield and deployment of the mirror. If these go well, the James Webb Space Telescope will be shipped to its launch site.

Watch NASA’s Perseverence rover land on Mars

Today, February 18, NASA will land a new rover on the red planet at 4 PM ET. The Mars rover, Perseverance, is tasked with exploring the Jezero crater in search of alien life. But first, the rover will have to go through a pretty complex maneuver that will see it plunge through Mars’ thin atmosphere and deploy parachutes for a safe landing. To make things extra challenging, NASA also included the launch of a helicopter!

You can see all of this live in the stream embedded in this post. Alternatively, you can watch Perseverance’s landing on Mars on NASA’s website.

A new rover, a new beginning for science on Mars

“Perseverance is going to land in Jezero Crater and there is evidence of minerals such as clays formed through hydrothermal activity. It’s a good place to start to explore the role of meteorite impacts in the origin of life, as long as they look out for the habitats, nutrients, and building blocks for life that we outlined in our study,” said Dr. Gordon Osinski, who is the Director of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.

Like its predecessor Curiosity, which is still operational and making great science, Perseverance is a semi-autonomous mobile science platform, aka a rover. It’s about the size of a small car and it’s been designed to be sturdy enough to last for years in Mars’ extreme environment.

Curiosity (left) and Perseverance (right). Credit: NASA/JPL.

Both Curiosity and Perseverance are powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. However, Perseverance is substantially chunkier, being over 100 kg heavier. This extra weight is owed to an extra turret on the end of its robotic arm, which NASA plans on using to drill for samples. The wheels have also been made beefier for extra wear protection.

There are a bunch of other new instruments, too. These include five more cameras than Curiosity for a total of 23, multiple microscopes and spectrometers, a ground-penetrating radar that can detect water ten meters below the surface, and a wide range of sensors that measure everything from temperature and humidity to wind speed and direction.

How will Perseverance land on Mars?

Like Curiosity’s 2012 landing, Perseverance will deploy a huge parachute followed by a powered descent, and a final touchdown using the Skycrane system. What’s very different this time is that the powered descent stage will employ visual localization such that the boosters will fire to actively navigate to the safest landing spot possible. Here’s how this spectacular landing should look like.

What’s the deal with that helicopter?

After Perseverance makes its touch down on Mars, the rover will move towards a flat area from which it will deploy the Mars Helicopter, also known as Ingenuity. Over a period of 30 days, the helicopter is supposed to make five flights with the sole purpose to prove that controlled autonomous flight is actually possible in the Martian atmosphere, which is about a thousand times thinner than on Earth.

NASA’s space helicopter is one month away from landing on Mars

Did you ever dare to dream of the day you’d see a helicopter in space? Well, rest easy, your watch has come to an end — NASA’s Ingenuity, the “Mars Helicopter”, is one month away from touching down on the red planet.

Members of the NASA Mars Helicopter team inspect the vehicle on Feb. 1, 2019.

Ingenuity is currently onboard NASA’s Perseverance rover, the US’ latest Mars-bound rover. It’s the first American mission to Mars since 2018’s InSight, but it was only one of three missions sent out to Mars in 2020 alongside the UAE’s Hope orbiter and China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, lander, and rover.

While all of them are very exciting, Ingenuity will be the first helicopter to actually be sent to space, ever. NASA is expecting it to touch down on Mars on February 18.

Flying on new horizons

“NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is the first aircraft humanity has sent to another planet to attempt powered, controlled flight,” NASA explains in a press kit. “If its experimental flight test program succeeds, the data returned could benefit future explorations of the Red Planet – including those by astronauts – by adding the aerial dimension, which is not available today.”

The helicopter is pretty small, similar to a medium-large commercial drone, and comes equipped with two carbon-fiber rotors. These will spin at around 2,400 rpm in different directions so as to stabilize the craft in flight. That speed of rotation is many times faster than those used by passenger helicopters on Earth, due to their smaller size and Mars‘ thinner atmosphere both. Since the air is thinner there, rotors have to put in a lot of extra work to generate the same lift they would produce on our planet.

If all goes well, Ingenuity could completely change how we explore Mars, and other planets with atmospheres. Up to now we’ve been using rovers, which have quite a few benefits (ground vehicles have great energy efficiency since they don’t need to stay aloft, and weight is much less of an issue, for example). However, they’re also much slower than any other vehicles in general, as they have to contend with terrain features. If Ingenuity manages to do its job, and do it well — and, especially, if it can withstand Mars’ harsh environment — space helicopters will definitely become much more common in the future.

But until then, Perseverance still needs to reach its target, and Ingenuity still needs to prove it can fly on Mars. Fingers crossed.