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Lunar Orbiter Takes a Meteorite Strike Right in the Camera

May 30th, 2017

On October 13th, 2014, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) experienced something rare and unexpected. While monitoring the surface of the Moon, the LRO’s main instrument – the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) – produced an image that was rather unusual. Whereas most of the images it has produced were detailed and exact, this one was subject to all kinds of distortion.

From the way this image was disturbed, the LRO science team theorized that the camera must have experienced a sudden and violent movement. In short, they concluded that it had been struck by a tiny meteoroid, which proved to a significant find in itself. Luckily, the LRO and its camera appear to have survived the impact unharmed and will continue to survey the surface of the Moon for years to come.

The LROC is a system of three cameras that are mounted aboard the LRO spacecraft. This include two Narrow Angle Cameras (NACs) – which capture high-resolution black and white images – and a third Wide Angle Camera (WAC), which captures moderate resolution images that provide information about the properties and color of the lunar surface.

The NAC on a bench in the clean room at Malin Space Science Systems. Credit: Courtesy of Malin Space Science Systems/ASU SESE

The NACs works by building an image one line at a time, with thousands of lines being used to compile a full image. In between the capture process, the spacecraft moves the camera relative to the surface. On October 13th, 2014, at precisely 21:18:48 UTC, the camera added a line that was visibly distorted. This sent the LRO team on a mission to investigate what could have caused it.

Led by Mark Robinson – a professor and the principal investigator of the LROC at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration – the LROC researchers concluded that the left Narrow Angle Camera must have experienced a brief and violent movement. As there were no spacecraft events – like a solar panel movement or antenna tracking – that might have caused this, the only possibility appeared to be a collision.

As Robinson explained in a recent post on the LROC’s website:

“There were no spacecraft events (such as slews, solar panel movements, antenna tracking, etc.) that might have caused spacecraft jitter during this period, and even if there had been, the resulting jitter should have affected both cameras identically… Clearly there was a brief violent movement of the left NAC. The only logical explanation is that the NAC was hit by a meteoroid! How big was the meteoroid, and where did it hit?”

To test this, the team used a detailed computer model that was developed specifically for the LROC to ensure that the NAC would not fail during the launch of the spacecraft, when severe vibrations would occur. With this model, the LROC team ran simulations to see if they could reproduce the distortions that would have caused the image. Not only did they conclude it was the result of a collision, but they were also able to determine the size of the meteoroid that hit it.

LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC). Credit: ASU/LROC SESE

The results indicated that the impacting meteoroid would have measured about 0.8 mm in diameter and had a density of a regular chondrite meteorite (2.7 g/cm³). What’s more, they were able to estimate that it was traveling at a velocity of about 7 km/s (4.3 miles per second) when it collided with the NAC. This was rather surprising, given the odds of collisions and how much time the LRO spends gathering data.

Typically, the LROC only captures images during daylight hours, and for about 10% of the day. So for it to have been hit while it was also capturing images is statistically unlikely – only about 5% by Robinson’s own estimate. Luckily, the impact has not caused any technical problems for the LROC, which is also something of a minor miracle. As Robinson explained:

“For comparison, the muzzle velocity of a bullet fired from a rifle is typically 0.5 to 1.0 kilometers per second. The meteoroid was traveling much faster than a speeding bullet. In this case, LROC did not dodge a speeding bullet, but rather survived a speeding bullet! LROC was struck and survived to keep exploring the Moon, thanks to Malin Space Science Systems’ robust camera design.”

It was only after the team deduced that no damage had been caused that prompted the announcement. According to John Keller, the LRO project scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the real story here was how the imagery that was being acquired at the time was used to deduce how and when the LRO had been struck by a meteoroid.

Artist’s rendering of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in orbit. Credit: ASU/LROC

“Since the impact presented no technical problems for the health and safety of the instrument,” he said, “the team is only now announcing this event as a fascinating example of how engineering data can be used, in ways not previously anticipated, to understand what is happening to the spacecraft over 236,000 miles (380,000 kilometers) from the Earth.”

In addition, the impact of a meteoroid on the LRO demonstrates just how precious the information that missions like the LRO provides truly is. Beyond mapping the lunar surface, the orbiter was also able to let its science team know exactly and when its images were comprised, all because of the high-quality data it collects.

Since it launched in June of 2008, the LRO has collected an immense amount of data on the lunar surface. The mission has been extended several times, from its original duration of two years to the just under nine. Its ongoing performance is also a testament to the durability of the craft and its components.

Be sure to enjoy this video of the images obtained by the LRO, courtesy of the LROC team:

Further Reading: ASU/LROC

The post Lunar Orbiter Takes a Meteorite Strike Right in the Camera appeared first on Universe Today.



Juno is Ready to Tell Us What it Found at Jupiter

May 29th, 2017

Even a casual observer can see how complex Jupiter might be. Its Great Red Spot is one of the most iconic objects in our Solar System. The Great Red Spot, which is a continuous storm 2 or 3 times as large as Earth, along with Jupiter’s easily-seen storm cloud belts, are visual clues that Jupiter is a complex place.

We’ve been observing the Great Red Spot for almost 200 years, so we’ve known for a long time that something special is happening at Jupiter. Now that the Juno probe is there, we’re finding that Jupiter might be a more surprising place than we thought.

“There is so much going on here that we didn’t expect that we have had to take a step back and begin to rethink of this as a whole new Jupiter.” – Scott Bolton, Juno’s Principal Investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.

So far, the stunning images delivered to us by the JunoCam have stolen the show. But Juno is a science mission, and the fantastic images we’re feasting on might stir the imagination, but it’s the science that’s at the heart of the mission.

Just one of the many beautiful images of Jupiter we're accustomed to seeing. NASA has invited interested citizens to process JunoCam images and has made them available for anyone to use. NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © public domain

Just one of the many beautiful images of Jupiter we’re accustomed to seeing. NASA has invited interested citizens to process JunoCam images and has made them available for anyone to use. NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © public domain

The Juno probe arrived at Jupiter in July 2016, and completed its first data-pass on August 27th, 2016. That pass took it to within 4,200 km of Jupiter’s cloud tops. Results from that first pass are being published in the journal Science and in Geophysical Research Letters.

Taken together, the results confirm what we might have guessed by just looking at Jupiter from afar: it is a stormy, complex, turbulent world.

“It was a long trip to get to Jupiter, but these first results already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.” – Diane Brown, Juno Program Executive.

“We are excited to share these early discoveries, which help us better understand what makes Jupiter so fascinating,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It was a long trip to get to Jupiter, but these first results already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.”

Jupiter’s Magnetic Field

We’ve known for a long time that Jupiter has the most powerful magnetic field in the Solar System. In fact, the magnetic field is what shaped the design of the Juno probe, and the profile of the mission itself. Juno’s Magnetometer Investigation (MAG) has measured the gas giant’s magnetosphere up close, and these measurements tell us that the magnetic field is even stronger than anticipated, and its shape is more irregular as well. At 7.66 Gauss, the field is about 10 times more powerful than Earth.

The irregularities in the magnetic field are an indication that the field is generated closer to the surface than thought. Earth generates its magnetic field from it its rotating core, but because Jupiter’s is “lumpy”, or stronger in some regions than in others, the gas giant’s magnetic field might be generated above its metallic hydrogen layer.

Results from Juno's first data-pass suggest that Jupiter's powerful magnetic field is generated closer to the surface than previously thought. It may be generated above the core of metallic hydrogen. Image: By Kelvinsong - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31764016

Results from Juno’s first data-pass suggest that Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field is generated closer to the surface than previously thought. It may be generated above the core of metallic hydrogen. Image: By Kelvinsong – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31764016

“Juno is giving us a view of the magnetic field close to Jupiter that we’ve never had before,” – Jack Connerney, Juno Deputy Principal Investigator

“Juno is giving us a view of the magnetic field close to Jupiter that we’ve never had before,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator and the lead for the mission’s magnetic field investigation at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Already we see that the magnetic field looks lumpy: it is stronger in some places and weaker in others. This uneven distribution suggests that the field might be generated by dynamo action closer to the surface, above the layer of metallic hydrogen. Every flyby we execute gets us closer to determining where and how Jupiter’s dynamo works.”

Jupiter’s Atmosphere

Juno’s Microwave Radiometer (MWR) is designed to probe Jupiter’s thick atmosphere. It can detect the thermal microwave radiation in the atmosphere, both at the surface, and much deeper. Data from the MWR shows us that the storm belts are mysteries themselves.

This artist's illustration shows Juno's Microwave Radiometer observing deep into Jupiter's atmosphere. The image shows real data from the 6 MWR channels, arranged by wavelength. Credit: NASA/SwRI/JPL

This artist’s illustration shows Juno’s Microwave Radiometer observing deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere. The image shows real data from the 6 MWR channels, arranged by wavelength. Credit: NASA/SwRI/JPL

The belts near Jupiter’s equator extend deep into the atmosphere, while other belts seem to evolve and transform into other structures. The MWR can probe a few hundred kilometers into the atmosphere, where it has found variable and increasing amounts of ammonia to that depth.

Polar Regions and Auroras

Jupiter is home to intense aurora activity at both poles. One of Juno’s mission goals is to study those auroras and the powerful polar magnetic fields that create them. Initial observations from Juno suggest that they are formed differently than Earthly auroras.

Juno is in a unique position to study the magnetosphere and the auroras. Its elongated polar orbit allows it to span the entire magnetosphere all the way from the bow shock to the planet itself.

The tilt of Juno's orbit relative to Jupiter changes over the course of the mission, sending the spacecraft increasingly deeper into the planet's intense radiation belts. This also gives Juno the ability to study the structure of the magnetosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The tilt of Juno’s orbit relative to Jupiter changes over the course of the mission, sending the spacecraft increasingly deeper into the planet’s intense radiation belts. This also gives Juno the ability to study the structure of the magnetosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to the paper detailing the initial data on Jupiter’s magnetosphere an auroras, many of the observations have “terrestrial analogs.” But other aspects are very Jovian, and have no counterpart on Earth.

“…a radically different conceptual model of Jupiter’s interaction with its space environment.” – from J. E. P. Connerney et. al., 2017

As the authors say in their summary, “We observed plasmas upwelling from the ionosphere, providing a mechanism whereby Jupiter helps populate its magnetosphere. The weakness of the magnetic field-aligned electric currents associated with the main aurora and the broadly distributed nature of electron beaming in the polar caps suggest a radically different conceptual model of Jupiter’s interaction with its space environment.”

Polar Storms

JunoCam has also found some puzzling features in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The poles themselves are populated by densely clustered, swirling storms the size of Earth. Since they’ve only been observed briefly, there are a host of unanswered questions about them.

“We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole.” – Scott Bolton, Juno’s Principal Investigator at the Southwest Research Institute

“We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole,” said Bolton. “We’re questioning whether this is a dynamic system, and are we seeing just one stage, and over the next year, we’re going to watch it disappear, or is this a stable configuration and these storms are circulating around one another?”

The tightly clustered storms that crowd Jupiter's polar regions are another of the gas giant's mysteries. In this image, cyclones the size of Earth bump up against each other at the south pole. Image:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

The tightly clustered storms that crowd Jupiter’s polar regions are another of the gas giant’s mysteries. In this image, cyclones the size of Earth bump up against each other at the south pole. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

The Great Red Spot: Juno’s Next Target

Juno’s purposeful orbit takes it extremely close to the cloud tops, where it can perform powerful science. But the orbit also takes it a long way from Jupiter. Every 53 days it takes another plunge at Jupiter, where it gathers its next set of observations.

“Every 53 days, we go screaming by Jupiter, get doused by a fire hose of Jovian science, and there is always something new.” – Scott Bolton, Juno’s Principal Investigator at the Southwest Research Institute.

“Every 53 days, we go screaming by Jupiter, get doused by a fire hose of Jovian science, and there is always something new,” said Bolton. “On our next flyby on July 11, we will fly directly over one of the most iconic features in the entire solar system — one that every school kid knows — Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. If anybody is going to get to the bottom of what is going on below those mammoth swirling crimson cloud tops, it’s Juno and her cloud-piercing science instruments.”

The JunoCam's next target: Jupiter's iconic Great Red Spot. Image:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Roman Tkachenko

Juno’s next target: Jupiter’s iconic Great Red Spot. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Roman Tkachenko

During each pass, Juno collects about 6 megabytes of data, which it sends back to Earth via the Deep Space Network. After that, the data is analyzed and published.

Juno has many more fly-bys of Jupiter before it’s sent to its end in the atmosphere of Jupiter. We can expect many more surprises, and hopefully some answers, between now and then.

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There’s a Hard Rock Rain on the Moon, We Can See it From Earth

May 29th, 2017

In February of 2015, the National Observatory of Athens and the European Space Agency launched the Near-Earth object Lunar Impacts and Optical TrAnsients (NELIOTA) project. Using the 1.2 meter telescope at the Kryoneri Observatory, the purpose of this project is to the determine the frequency and distribution of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) by monitoring how often they impact the Moon.

Last week, on May 24th, 2017, the ESA announced that the project had begun to detect impacts, which were made possible thanks to the flashes of light detected on the lunar surface. Whereas other observatories that monitor the Moon’s surface are able to detect these impacts, NELIOTA is unique in that it is capable of not only spotting fainter flashes, but also measuring the temperatures of they create.

Projects like NELIOTA are important because the Earth and the Moon are constantly being bombarded by natural space debris – which ranges in size from dust and pebbles to larger objects. While larger objects are rare, they can cause considerable damage, like the 20-meter object that disintegrated above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February of 2013, causing extensive injuries and destruction of property.

The two main smoke trails left by the Russian meteorite as it passed over the city of Chelyabinsk. Credit: AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru

What’s more, whereas particulate matter rains down on Earth and the Moon quite regularly, the frequency of pebble-sized or meter-sized objects is not well known. These objects remain too small to be detected by telescopes directly, and cameras are rarely able to picture them before they break up in Earth’s atmosphere. Hence, scientists have been looking for other ways to determine just how frequent these potentially-threatening objects are.

One way is to observe the areas of the lunar surface that are not illuminated by the Sun, where the impact of a small object at high speed will cause a bright flash. These flashes are created by the object burning up on impact, and are bright enough to be seen from Earth. Assuming the objects have a density and velocity common to NEOs, the brightness of the impact can be used to determine the size and mass of the object.

As Detlef Koschny – the co-manager of the near-Earth object segment of the ESA’s Space Situational Awareness Program, and a scientist in the Science Support Office – said in an ESA press release:

These observations are very relevant for our Space Situational Awareness program. In particular, in the size range we can observe here, the number of objects is not very well known. Performing these observations over a longer period of time will help us to better understand this number.

Tiny pieces of rock striking the Moon’s surface were witnessed by the NELIOTA project, which was monitoring the dark side of the Moon. Credit: NELIOTA project

After being taken offline in 2016 for the sake of making upgrades, the NELIOTA project officially began conducting operations on March 8th, 2017. Using this refurbished telescope, which is operated by the National Observatory of Athens, NELIOTA is capable of detecting flashes that are much fainter than any current, small-aperture, lunar monitoring telescopes.

The telescope does this by observing the Moon’s night hemisphere whenever it is above the horizon and between phases. At these times – i.e. between a New Moon and the First Quarter, or between the Last Quarter and a New Moon – the surface is mostly dark and flashes are most visible. Incoming light is then split into two colors and the data is recorded by two advanced digital cameras that operate in different color ranges.

This data is then analyzed by automated software, which extrapolates temperatures based on the color data obtained by the cameras. As Alceste Bonanos – the Principal Investigator for NELIOTA – explained, all this sets the 1.2 meter telescope apart:

Its large telescope aperture enables NELIOTA to detect fainter flashes than other lunar monitoring surveys and provides precise color information not currently available from other project. Our twin camera system allows us to confirm lunar impact events with a single telescope, something that has not been done before. Once data have been collected over the 22-month long operational period, we will be able to better constrain the number of NEOs (near-Earth objects) in the decimetre to metre size range.

Images showing the lunar impact flash caught by NELIOTA. Credit: NELIOTA project

The NELIOTA project scientists are currently collaborating with the Science Support Office of ESA to analyze the flashes and measure the temperatures of each flash. From this, they hope to be able to make accurate estimates of the mass and size of each impactor, which they will further corroborate by analyzing the size of the craters these impacts leave behind.

The study of impacts on the Moon will ultimately let scientists know exactly how often larger objects are raining down on Earth. Armed with this information, we will be able to make better predictions on when and how a potentially-threatening object could be entering our atmosphere. As the Chelyabinsk meteor demonstrated, one of the greatest dangers posed by meteorites is a general lack of preparedness. Where people can be forewarned, injury, damage and even deaths can be prevented.

NELIOTA is also contributing to public outreach and education through a number of initiatives. These include public tours of the Kryoneri Observatory – in which the details of the NELIOTA project are shared – as well as presentations to students and the general public about Near-Earth Asteroids. The project team are also training two PhD students in how to operate the Kryoneri telescope and conduct lunar observing, thus creating the next-generation of NEO observers.

This summer (Friday, June 30th), the Observatory will also be hosting a public event to coincide with Asteroid Day 2017. This international event will feature presentations, speeches and educational seminars hosted by astronomical institutions and organizations from all around the world. Save the date!

Further Reading: ESA

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SpaceX Targets June 1 Launch of Space Station Cargo Delivery Mission for NASA

May 29th, 2017

SpaceX conducted a successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on May 28, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon resupply mission to the ISS is scheduled for June 1, 2017. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is targeting a June 1 blastoff for the firms next cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA following today’s (May 28) successful test firing of the Falcon 9 booster’s main engines on the Florida Space Coast under sunny skies.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the unmanned Dragon cargo freighter from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is slated for 5:55 p.m. EDT Thursday, June 1.

“Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete,” SpaceX confirmed via Twitter soon after completion of the test at noon today 12 p.m. EDT.

“Targeting June 1 launch from historic Pad 39A for Dragon’s next resupply mission to the @Space_Station.”

The static fire test also apparently set off a brush fire near the pad which required a response from firefighters to douse the blaze with water bucket drops from helicopters.

“#USFWS firefighters are responding to a new wildfire at Merritt Island NWR caused by a static rocket test fire #FLfire,” tweeted the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The wildfire stretched to 4 acres on Merritt Island and was successfully contained, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Firefighters drop numerous buckets of water to douse brush fire near pad 39A on the Kennedy Space Center and Merritt Island after SpaceX static fire test on May 28, 2017. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

With the launch conveniently coinciding with dinnertime, it will offer prime time viewing thrills for spectators and space enthusiasts coming from near and far.

The weather outlook for Thursday is currently promising with mostly sunny conditions but can change at a moments notice.

And to top that off SpaceX will attempt a land landing of the first stage back at the Cape at Landing Zone 1 some 9 minutes after liftoff.

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-11 counts as SpaceX’s eleventh contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

It is carrying almost 6,000 pounds of science research, crew supplies and hardware to the orbiting laboratory in support of Expedition 52 and 53 crew members. The unpressurized trunk of the spacecraft also will transport solar panels, tools for Earth-observation and equipment to study neutron stars.

Dragon CRS-11 will be the second SpaceX resupply mission to launch this year.

The prior SpaceX cargo ship launched on Feb 19, 2017 on the CRS-10 mission to the space station. It was also the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

Another significant milestone for this flight is that it features the first reuse of a previously launched Dragon. It previously launched on the CRS-4 resupply mission.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket goes vertical at night atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 19 Feb 2017 as seen after midnight from the pad perimeter. This is the first rocket rolled out to launch from pad 39A since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in July 2011. Liftoff of the CRS-10 mission slated for 19 Feb 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Sunday’s brief static fire test involved a successful hot fire ignition test of the two stage rocket and all nine first stage Merlin 1D engines Sunday afternoon while the rocket was firmly held down at the pad.

The hold down engine test is routinely conducted to confirm the readiness of the engines and rocket for flight.

The nine Merlin 1D engines generate 1.7 million pounds of thrust for approximately three seconds.

The test simulates all the conditions of flight except liftoff, and involves loading of the densified liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants into the first and second stages starting about 70 minutes prior to ignition.

The engine test was run without the Dragon cargo ship bolted on top.

The rocket was rolled out of the SpaceX processing hangar at the perimeter fence early this morning and then up the slight incline to the top of pad 39A. It was erected vertical to launch position using a dedicated transporter-erector.

With the successful completion of the static fire test, the booster will be rolled back to the big processing hangar and Dragon CRS-11 will be integrated on top.

NASA will offer live launch coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website at beginning 5:15 p.m. on June 1.

In case of a delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is 5:07 p.m. Saturday, June 3, with NASA TV coverage starting at 4:30 p.m.

Historic maiden blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 9:38 a.m. EDT on Feb 19, 2017, on Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-10 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post SpaceX Targets June 1 Launch of Space Station Cargo Delivery Mission for NASA appeared first on Universe Today.



How Far Away is Fusion? Unlocking the Power of the Sun

May 27th, 2017


I’d like to think we’re smarter than the Sun.

Let’s compare and contrast. Humans, on the one hand, have made enormous advances in science and technology, built cities, cars, computers, and phones. We have split the atom for war and for energy.

What has the Sun done? It’s a massive ball of plasma, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. It just, kind of, sits there. Every now and then it burps up hydrogen gas into a coronal mass ejection. It’s not a stretch to say that the Sun, and all inanimate material in the Universe, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

And yet, the Sun has mastered a form of energy that we just can’t seem to wrap our minds around: fusion. It’s really infuriating, seeing the Sun, just sitting there, effortlessly doing something our finest minds have struggled with for half a century.

Why can’t we make fusion work? How long until we can finally catch up technologically with a sphere of ionized gas?

Our Sun in all its intense, energetic glory. When life appeared on Earth, the Sun would have been much different than it is now; a more intense, energetic neighbor. Image: NASA/SDO.

Our Sun in all its intense, energetic glory. Credit: NASA/SDO.

The trick to the Sun’s ability to generate power through nuclear fusion, of course, comes from its enormous mass. The Sun contains 1.989 x 10^30 kilograms of mostly hydrogen and helium, and this mass pushes inward, creating a core heated to 15 million degrees C, with 150 times the density of water.

It’s at this core that the Sun does its work, mashing atoms of hydrogen into helium. This process of fusion is an exothermic reaction, which means that every time a new atom of helium is created, photons in the form of gamma radiation are also released.

The only thing the Sun uses this energy for is light pressure, to counteract the gravity pulling everything inward. Its photons slowly make their way up through the Sun and then they’re released into space. So wasteful.

How can we replicate this on Earth?

Now gathering together a Sun’s mass of hydrogen here on Earth is one option, but it’s really impractical. Where would we put all that hydrogen. The better solution will be to use our technology to simulate the conditions at the core of the Sun.

If we can make a fusion reactor where the temperatures and pressures are high enough for atoms of hydrogen to merge into helium, we can harness those sweet sweet photons of gamma radiation.

Tokamak

Inside a Tokamak. Image credit: Lawrence Berkeley Labs

The main technology developed to do this is called a tokamak reactor; it’s a based on a Russian acronym for: “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils”, and the first prototypes were created in the 1960s. There are many different reactors in development, but the method is essentially the same.

A vacuum chamber is filled with hydrogen fuel. Then an enormous amount of electricity is run through the chamber, heating up the hydrogen into a plasma state. They might also use lasers and other methods to get the plasma up to 150 to 300 million degrees Celsius (10 to 20 times hotter than the Sun’s core).

Superconducting magnets surround the fusion chamber, containing the plasma and keeping it away from the chamber walls, which would melt otherwise.

Once the temperatures and pressures are high enough, atoms of hydrogen are crushed together into helium just like in the Sun. This releases photons which heat up the plasma, keeping the reaction going without any addition energy input.

Excess heat reaches the chamber walls, and can be extracted to do work.

The spherical tokamak MAST at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (UK). Photo: CCFE

The challenge has always been that heating up the chamber and constraining the plasma uses up more energy than gets produced in the reactor. We can make fusion work, we just haven’t been able to extract surplus energy from the system… yet.

Compared to other forms of energy production, fusion should be clean and safe. The fuel source is water, and the byproduct is helium (which the world is actually starting to run out of). If there’s a problem with the reactor, it would cool down and the fusion reaction would stop.

The high energy photons released in the fusion reaction will be a problem, however. They’ll stream into the surrounding fusion reactor and make the whole thing radioactive. The fusion chamber will be deadly for about 50 years, but its rapid half-life will make it as radioactive as coal ash after 500 years.

External view of Princeton’s Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor which operated from 1982 to 1997. Credit: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (CC BY 3.0)

Now you know what fusion power is and how it works, what’s the current state, and how long until fusion plants give us unlimited cheap safe power, if ever?

Fusion experiments are measured by the amount of energy they produce compared to the amount of energy you put into them. For example, if a fusion plant required 100MW of electrical energy to produce 10 MW of output, it would have an energy ratio of 0.1. You want at least a ratio of 1. That means energy in equals energy out, and so far, no experiment has ever reached that ratio. But we’re close.

The EAST facility’s tokamak reactor, part of the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei. Credit: ipp.cas.cn

The Chinese are building the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or EAST. In 2016, engineers reported that they had run the facility for 102 seconds, achieving temperatures of 50 million C. If true, this is an enormous advancement, and puts China ahead in the race to create stable fusion. That said, this hasn’t been independently verified, and they only published a single scientific paper on the milestone.

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’s Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator. Credit: Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik, Tino Schulz (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany recently announced that their Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator (I love that name), heated hydrogen gas to 80 million C for only a quarter of a second. Hot but short. A stellarator works differently than a tokamak. It uses twisted rings and external magnets to confine the plasma, so it’s good to know we have more options.

The biggest, most elaborate fusion experiment going on in the world right now is in Europe, at the French research center of Cadarache. It’s called ITER, which stands for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, and it hopes to cross that magic ratio.

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor. Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes

ITER is enormous, measuring 30 meters across and high. And its fusion chamber is so large that it should be able to create a self-sustaining fusion reaction. The energy released by the fusing hydrogen keeps the fuel hot enough to keep reacting. There will still be energy required to run the electric magnets that contain the plasma, but not to keep the plasma hot.

And if all goes well, ITER will have a ratio of 10. In other words, for every 10 MW of energy pumped in, it’ll generate 100 MW of usable power.

ITER is still under construction, and as of June 2015, the total construction costs had reached $14 billion. The facility is expected to be complete by 2021, and the first fusion tests will begin in 2025.

So, if ITER works as planned, we are now about 8 years away from positive energy output from fusion. Of course, ITER will just be an experiment, not an actual powerplant, so if it even works, an actual fusion-based energy grid will be decades after that.

At this point, I’d say we’re about a decade away from someone demonstrating that a self-sustaining fusion reaction that generates more power than it consumes is feasible. And then probably another 2 decades away from them supplying electricity to the power grid. By that point, our smug Sun will need to find a new job.

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Star Should Have Gone Supernova, But it Imploded Into a Black Hole Instead

May 27th, 2017

Collapsing stars are a rare thing to witness. And when astronomers are able to catch a star in the final phase of its evolution, it is a veritable feast for the senses. Ordinarily, this process consists of a star undergoing gravitational collapse after it has exhausted all of its fuel, and shedding its outer layers in a massive explosion (aka. a supernova). However, sometimes, stars can form black holes without the preceding massive explosion.

This process, what might be described as “going out not with a bang, but with a whimper”, is what a team of astronomers witnessed when observing N6946-BH1 – a star located in the Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946). Originally, astronomers thought that this star would exploded because of its significant mass. But instead, the star simply fizzled out, leaving behind a black hole.

The Fireworks Galaxy, a spiral galaxy located 22 million light-years from Earth, is so-named because supernova are known to be a frequent occurrence there. In fact, earlier this month, an amateur astronomer spotted what is now designated as SN 2017eaw. As such, three astronomers from Ohio Sate University (who are co-authors on the study) were expecting N6946-BH1 would go supernova when in 2009, it began to brighten.

Visible-light and near-infrared photos from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope showing the giant star N6946-BH1 before and after it vanished out of sight by imploding to form a black hole. Credit: NASA/ESA/C. Kochanek (OSU)

However, by 2015, it appeared to have winked out. As such, the team went looking for the remnants of it with the help of colleagues from Ohio State University and the University of Oklahoma. Using the combined power of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, they realized that the star had completely disappeared from sight.

The details of their research appeared in a study titled “The Search for Failed Supernovae with the Large Binocular Telescope: Confirmation of a Disappearing Star“, which recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Among the many galaxies they were watching for supernovas, they had their sights set on the Fireworks Galaxy to see what had become of N6946-BH1.

After it experienced a weak optical outburst in 2009, they had anticipated that this red supergiant would go supernova – which seemed logical given that it was 25 times as massive as our Sun. After winking out in 2015, they had expected to find that the star had merely dimmed, or that it had cast off a dusty shell of material that was obscuring its light from view.

Their efforts included an LBT survey for failed supernovae, which they combined with infrared spectra obtained by the Spitzer Space Telescope and optical data from Hubble. However, all the surveys turned up negative, which led them to only one possible conclusion: that N6946-BH1 must have failed to go supernova and instead went straight to forming a blackhole.

Simulated view of a black hole. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke, Radboud University

As Scott Adams – a former Ohio State student who is now an astrophysicist at the Cahill Center for Astrophysics (and the lead author of the study) – explained in a NASA press release:

“N6946-BH1 is the only likely failed supernova that we found in the first seven years of our survey. During this period, six normal supernovae have occurred within the galaxies we’ve been monitoring, suggesting that 10 to 30 percent of massive stars die as failed supernovae. This is just the fraction that would explain the very problem that motivated us to start the survey, that is, that there are fewer observed supernovae than should be occurring if all massive stars die that way.”

A major implication of this study is the way it could shed new light on the formation of very massive black holes. For some time now, astronomers have believed that in order to form a black hole at the end of its life cycle, a star would have to be massive enough to cause a supernova. But as the team observed, it doesn’t make sense that a star would blow off its outer layers and still have enough mass left over to form a massive black hole.

As Christopher Kochanek – a professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University, the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Observational Cosmology and a co-author of the team’s study – explained:

“The typical view is that a star can form a black hole only after it goes supernova. If a star can fall short of a supernova and still make a black hole, that would help to explain why we don’t see supernovae from the most massive stars.”

This information is also important as far as the study of gravitational waves goes. In February of 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first detection of this strange phenomena, which were apparently generated by a massive black hole. If in fact massive black holes form from failed supernova, it would help astronomers to track down the sources more easily.

Be sure to check out this video of the observations made of this failed SN and black hole:

Further Reading: NASA, MNRAS

 

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New Zealand’s First Rocket Launch to Space!

May 26th, 2017

Earlier this week, the island nation of New Zealand accomplished a historic first. On Wednesday, May 24th at 16:20 p.m. NZST – 00:20 a.m. EDT; May 23rd, 21:20 p.m. PDT – the country joined the small club of nations that have space launch capability. Taking off from a launch pad located on the Mahia Peninsula (on the North Island), the test flight was also a first for the US/NZ-based company Rocket Lab.

With the successful launch of their test rocket, Rocket Lab has become the latest aerospace firm to join a burgeoning market, where private companies are able to provide regular launch services to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Whereas other companies like SpaceX are looking to restore domestic heavy-launch capability, companies like Rocket Lab are looking to fill a niche market which would make space more accessible.

The launch was originally pushed back to this past Wednesday, which was the fourth day in a ten-day launch window (running from May 21st to May 30th), due to bad weather. And while no spectators or media outlets were permitted to witness the event, the company recorded the launch and posted it to their website and official Twitter account (shown below).

Though the rocket did not quite reach orbit, it successfully flew along the trajectory that future launches will follow. This test launch was the first of three planned, and carried sensor equipment rather than a conventional payload in order to let engineers on the ground gather data on the flight. As chief executive Peter Beck said in a statement after the rocket took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1:

“It was a great flight. We had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation. We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business.”

The rocket in question was a prototype disposable vehicle known as the Electron rocket. This two-stage rocket is composed of carbon fiber, which allows for durability and reduced weight, and is manufactured in-house. It also relies on a “plug-in payload” design that allows for the separation of the main assembly and payload integration processes.

In short, in the future, customers will be able to load the payload fairing themselves at their own facilities. This is especially useful wherever environmentally-controlled or sealed cargo is involved. They will then be able to have the second stage transported to the Rocket Lab facility for integration. This design is also intended to allow for flexibility, where the launch vehicle can be tailored to meet specific mission requirements.

The dedicated payload fairing of the Electron rocket. Credit: rocketlabusa.com

The first stage of the vehicle is powered by nine Rutherford engines – an oxygen/kerosene pump-fed engine designed and built by Rocket Lab – while the second stage is powered by a single Rutherford. In addition to reducing mass, the engine is also the first oxygen/kerosene engine to make use of 3-D printed components. Each engine offers a liftoff thrust of 18 kilo Newtons, or 4000 pound-force (lbf), and a peak thrust (in vacuum) of 22 kN (41,500 lbf).

Once testing is complete, Rocket Lab intends to maintain a fleet of these rockets, which will be capable of launching payloads of between 150 and 225 kg (330 to 496 lbs) to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. With these parameters in mind, Rocket Lab is clearly aiming to cater to telecommunications companies, internet providers, research institutions and universities.

In short, small satellites are a fast-growing market, but the current space launch environment can be prohibitive to small companies and researchers. As it stands, booking a space launch is a complicated matter, subject to flight schedules, the availability of cargo space, and costs that are outside of many customers’ price range. By developing rockets that are relatively cheap and can be built quickly, those looking to launch small satellite will have increased options.

“We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point,” said Beck. “We’ve developed everything in house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.

New Zealand was selected as the location of the company’s launch facility for a number of reasons. Compared to the US and other potential launch sites, New Zealand has less air traffic, which ensures that air carriers don’t need to reroute their flights during a launch. The country is also well-situated to get satellites into a north-to-south orbit around Earth, and launches take place over open water (away from population centers).

On top of that, Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck is a native of New Zealand. In the coming weeks, the company he founded will be looking over its test flight data to prepare for its second test launch, which will take place in a few months. This launch will attempt to reach orbit and maximize the payload the rocket can carry. All told, Rocket Lab has three test flights scheduled for 2017.

Once the company reaches full production, they hope to be conducting a record-setting 50 to 120 launches a year. If possible, this will significantly reduce the costs associated with small payload launches.

“We have learnt so much through this test launch and will learn even more in the weeks to come,” said Beck. “We’re committed to making space accessible and this is a phenomenal milestone in that journey. The applications doing this will open up are endless. Known applications include improved weather reporting, Internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data as well as search and rescue services.”

Rocket Lab is joined by companies like ARCA, which is seeking to lower the costs of small-payload launches through the development of single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rockets. Their SSTO rocket concept, known as the Haas 2CA, was unveiled in March and is scheduled to begin launch testing next year.

Be sure to check out this video of the launch as well, courtesy of Rocket Lab:

Further Reading: BBC, Rocket Lab

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Trump Proposes $19.1 Billion 2018 NASA Budget, Cuts Earth Science and Education

May 26th, 2017

NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot outlines NASA’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ on May 23, 2017. Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer

The Trump Administration has proposed a $19.1 Billion NASA budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, which amounts to a $0.5 Billion reduction compared to the recently enacted FY 2017 NASA Budget. Although it maintains many programs such as human spaceflight, planetary science and the Webb telescope, the budget also specifies significant cuts and terminations to NASA’s Earth Science and manned Asteroid redirect mission as well as the complete elimination of the Education Office.

Overall NASA’s FY 2018 budget is cut approximately 3%, or $560 million, for the upcoming fiscal year starting in October 2017 as part of the Trump Administration’s US Federal Budget proposal rolled out on May 23, and quite similar to the initial outline released in March.

The cuts to NASA are smaller compared to other Federal science agencies also absolutely vital to the health of US scientific research – such as the NIH, the NSF, the EPA, DOE and NIST which suffer unconscionable double digit slashes of 10 to 20% or more.

The highlights of NASA’s FY 2018 Budget were announced by NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot during a ‘State of NASA’ speech to agency employees held at NASA HQ, Washington, D.C. and broadcast to the public live on NASA TV.

Lightfoot’s message to NASA and space enthusiasts was upbeat overall.

“What this budget tells us to do is to keep going!” NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said.

“Keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s very important for us to maintain that course and move forward as an agency with all the great things we’re doing.”

“I want to reiterate how proud I am of all of you for your hard work – which is making a real difference around the world. NASA is leading the world in space exploration, and that is only possible through all of your efforts, every day.”

“We’re pleased by our top line number of $19.1 billion, which reflects the President’s confidence in our direction and the importance of everything we’ve been achieving.”

Lightfoot recalled the recent White House phone call from President Trump to NASA astronaut & ISS Station Commander Peggy Whitson marking her record breaking flight for the longest cumulative time in space by an American astronaut.

Thus Lightfoot’s vision for NASA has three great purposes – Discover, Explore, and Develop.

“NASA has a historic and enduring purpose. It can be summarized in three major strategic thrusts: Discover, Explore, and Develop. These correspond to our missions of scientific discovery, missions of exploration, and missions of new technology development in aeronautics and space systems.”

Lightfoot further recounted the outstanding scientific accomplishments of NASA’s Mars rover and orbiters paving the path for the agencies plans to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

“We’ve had a horizon goal for some time now of reaching Mars, and this budget sustains that work and also provides the resources to keep exploring our solar system and look beyond it.”

Lightfoot also pointed to upcoming near term science missions- highlighting a pair of Mars landers – InSIGHT launching next year as well as the Mars 2020 rover. Also NASA’s next great astronomical observatory – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

“In science, this budget supports approximately 100 missions: 40 missions currently preparing for launch & 60 operating missions.”

“The James Webb Space Telescope is built!” Lightfoot gleefully announced.

“It’s done testing at Goddard and now has moved to Johnson for tests to simulate the vacuum of space.”

JWST is the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and slated for launch in Oct. 2018. The budget maintains steady support for Webb.

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Planetary Sciences division receives excellent support with a $1.9 Billion budget request. It includes solid support for the two flagship missions – Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper as well as the two new Discovery class missions selected -Lucy and Psyche.

“The budget keeps us on track for the next selection for the New Frontiers program, and includes formulation of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

SLS and Orion are making great progress. They are far beyond concepts, and as I mentioned, components are being tested in multiple ways right now as we move toward the first flight of that integrated system.”

NASA is currently targeting the first integrated launch of SLS and Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) for sometime in 2019.

Top NASA managers recently decided against adding a crew of two astronauts to the flight after conducting detailed agency wide studies at the request of the Trump Administration.

NASA would have needed an additional $600 to $900 to upgrade EM-1 with humans.

Unfortunately Trump’s FY 2018 NASA budget calls for a slight reduction in development funding for both SLS and Orion – thus making a crewed EM-1 flight fiscally unviable.

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The budget request does maintain full funding for both of NASA’s commercial crew vehicles planned to restore launching astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the ISS from US soil on US rockets – namely the crewed Dragon and CST-100 Starliner – currently under development by SpaceX and Boeing – thus ending our sole reliance on Russian Soyuz for manned launches.

“Working with commercial partners, NASA will fly astronauts from American soil on the first new crew transportation systems in a generation in the next couple of years.”

“We need commercial partners to succeed in low-Earth orbit, and we also need the SLS and Orion to take us deeper into space than ever before.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

However the Trump Administration has terminated NASA’s somewhat controversial plans for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – initiated under the Obama Administration – to robotically retrieve a near Earth asteroid and redirect it to lunar orbit for a visit by a crewed Orion to gather unique asteroidal samples.

“While we are ending formulation of a mission to an asteroid, known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, many of the central technologies in development for that mission will continue, as they constitute vital capabilities needed for future human deep space missions.”

Key among those vital capabilities to be retained and funded going forward is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP).

“Solar electric propulsion (SEP) for our deep space missions is moving ahead as a key lynchpin.”

The Trump Administration’s well known dislike for Earth science and disdain of climate change has manifested itself in the form of the termination of 5 current and upcoming science missions.

NASA’s FY 2018 Earth Science budget suffers a $171 million cut to $1.8 Billion.

“While we are not proposing to move forward with Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE), Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder (CLARREO PF), and the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), this budget still includes significant Earth Science efforts, including 18 Earth observing missions in space as well as airborne missions.”

The DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments will also be shut down.

NASA’s Office of Education will also be terminated completely under the proposed FY 2018 budget and the $115 million of funding excised.

“While this budget no longer supports the formal Office of Education, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through its missions and the many ways that our work excites and encourages discovery by learners and educators. Let me tell you, we are as committed to inspiring the next generation as ever.”

Congress will now have its say and a number of Senators, including Republicans says Trumps budget is DOA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Weekly Space Hangout – May 26, 2017: Stephen Petranek and How We’ll Live On Mars

May 26th, 2017


Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
NAT GEO’s Stephen Petranek is the author of How We’ll Live on Mars (TED Books.) Stephen became a reluctant doomsayer when his earliest TED Talk (10 Ways the World Could End) racked up 1.5 million views. But Petranek is, in fact, an optimist who believes that humanity will escape its predicaments — literally. Within a century, he predicts that humans will have established a city of 80,000 on Mars: and that not only is that plausible, but it’s also inevitable.

Having worked in publishing for four decades — most of it straddling the line with science and technology, Petranek is the former editor-in-chief of Discover magazine, editor of the Washington Post’s magazine, and a renown TED Talk speaker has also given him some unique perspective and insight on the changes that lie ahead and new tools that reflect a potential disruptive shift in how we observe the world around us. Petranek is the editor-in-chief of the Breakthrough Technology Alert, a technology newsletter that ties scientific breakthroughs to investment opportunities.

Guests:
Dr. Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Their stories this week:

Boyajian’s Star is at it again

Q&A about the new dipping event

Familiar Galaxy Shows New Object in the Radio

Gravitational Waves Alter Spacetime?

Defining a new stage of planet formation

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

Announcements:

The WSH recently welcomed back Mathew Anderson, author of “Our Cosmic Story,” to the show to discuss his recent update. He was kind enough to offer our viewers free electronic copies of his complete book as well as his standalone update. Complete information about how to get your copies will be available on the WSH webpage – just visit http://www.wsh-crew.net/cosmicstory for all the details.

If you’d like to join Fraser and Paul Matt Sutter on their Tour to Iceland in February 2018, you can find the information at astrotouring.com.

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page

The post Weekly Space Hangout – May 26, 2017: Stephen Petranek and How We’ll Live On Mars appeared first on Universe Today.



Mouse Sperm Went to Space and Produced Healthy Mice

May 26th, 2017

With proposed missions to Mars and plans to establish outposts on the Moon in the coming decades, there are several questions about what effects time spent in space or on other planets could have on the human body. Beyond the normal range of questions concerning the effects of radiation and lower-g on our muscles, bones, and organs, there is also the question of how space travel could impact our ability to reproduce.

Earlier this week – on Monday, May 22nd – a team of Japanese researchers announced findings that could shed light on this question. Using a sample of freeze-dried mouse sperm, the team was able to produce a litter of healthy baby mice. As part of a fertility study, the mouse sperm had spent nine months aboard the International Space Station (between 2013 and 2014). The real question now is, can the same be done for human babies?

The study was led by Sayaka Wakayama, a student researcher at the University of Yamanashi‘s Advanced Biotechnology Center. As she and her colleagues explain in their study – which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – assisted reproductive technology will be needed if humanity ever intends to live in space long-term.

The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA

As such, studies that address the effect that living in space could have on human reproduction are needed first. These need to address the impact microgravity (or low-gravity) could have on fertility, human abilities to conceive, and the development of children. And more importantly, they need to deal with one of the greatest hazards of spending time in space – which is the threat posed by solar and cosmic radiation.

To be fair, one need not go far to feel the effects of space radiation. The ISS regularly receives more than 100 times the amount of radiation that Earth’s surface does, which can result in genetic damage if sufficient safeguards are not in place. On other Solar bodies – like Mars and the Moon, which do not have a protective magnetosphere – the situation is similar.

And while the effects of radiation on adults has been studied extensively, the potential damage that could be caused to our offspring has not. How might solar and cosmic radiation affect our ability to reproduce, and how might this radiation affect children when they are still in the womb, and once they are born? Hoping to take the first steps in addressing these questions, Wakayama and her colleagues selected the spermatozoa of mice.

They specifically chose mice since they are a mammalian species that reproduces sexually. As Sayaka Wakayama explained Universe Today via email:

“So far, only fish or salamanders were examined for reproduction in space. However, mammalian species are very different compared to those species, such as being born from a mother (viviparity). To know whether mammalian reproduction is possible or not, we must use mammalian species for experiments. However, mammalian species such as mice or rats are very sensitive and difficult to take care of by astronauts aboard the ISS, especially for a reproduction study. Therefore, we [have not conducted these studies] until now. We are planning to do more experiments such as the effect of microgravity for embryo development.”

Human sperm stained for semen quality testing in the clinical laboratory. Credit: Bobjgalindo/Wikipedia Commons

The samples spent nine months aboard the ISS, during which time they were kept at a constant temperature of -95 °C (-139 °F). During launch and recovery, however, they were at room temperature. After retrieval, Wakayama and her team found that the samples had suffered some minor damage,.

“Sperm preserved in space had DNA damage even after only 9 months by space radiation,” said Wakayama. “However, that damage was not strong and could be repaired when fertilized by oocytes capacity. Therefore, we could obtain normal, healthy offspring. This suggests to me that we must examine the effect when sperm are preserved for longer periods.”

In addition to being reparable, the sperm samples were still able to fertilize mouse embryos (once they were brought back to Earth) and produce mouse offspring, all of which grew to maturity and showed normal fertility levels. They also noted that the fertilization and birth rates were similar to those of control groups, and that only minor genomic differences existed between those and the mouse created using the test sperm.

From all this, they demonstrated that while exposure to space radiation can damage DNA, it need not affect the production of viable offspring (at least within a nine month period). Moreover, the results indicate that human and domestic animals could be produced from space-preserved spermatozoa, which could be mighty useful when it comes to colonizing space and other planets.

A Pacific pocket mouse pup and its mother appear outside their artificial burrow at the San Diego Zoo. Credit: Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo/AP

As Wakayama put it, this research builds on fertilization practices already established on Earth, and demonstrated that these same practices could be used in space:

“Our main subject is domestic animal reproduction. In the current situation on the ground, many animals are born from preserves spermatozoa. Especially in Japan, 100% of milk cows were born from preserved sperm due to economic and breeding reasons. Sometimes, sperm that has been stored for more than 10 years was used to produce cows. If humans live in space for many years, then, our results showed that we can eat beefsteak in the space. For that purpose, we did this study. For humans, our finding will probably help infertile couples.”

This research also paves the way for additional tests that would seek to measure the effects of space radiation on ova and the female reproduction system. Not only could these tests tell us a great deal about how time in space could affect female fertility, it could also have serious implications for astronaut safety. As Ulrike Luderer, a professor of medicine at the University of California and one of the co-authors on the paper said in a statement to the AFP:

“These types of exposures can cause early ovarian failure and ovarian cancer, as well as other osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and neurocognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s. Half the astronauts in the NASA’s new astronaut classes are women. So it is really important to know what chronic health effects there could be for women exposed to long-term deep space radiation.”

Future space colonies could rely on frozen sperm and ova to produce livestock, and maybe even humans. Credit: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center

However, a lingering issue with these sorts of tests is being able to differentiate between the effects of microgravity and radiation. In the past, research has been conducted that showed how exposure to simulated microgravity can reduce DNA repair capacity and induce DNA damage in humans. Other studies have raised the issue of the interplay between the two, and how further experiments are needed to address the precise impact of each.

In the future, it may be possible to differentiate between the two by placing samples of spermatazoa and ova in a torus that is capable of simulating Earth gravity (1 g). Similarly, shielded modules could be used to isolate the effects of low or even micro-gravity. Beyond that, there will likely be lingering uncertainties until such time as babies are actually born in space, or in a lunar or Martian environment.

And of course, the long-terms impact of reduced gravity and radiation on human evolution remains to be seen. In all likelihood, that won’t become clear for generations to come, and will require multi-generational studies of children born away from Earth to see how they and their progeny differ.

Further Reading: PNAS, AFP

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