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Prelude to Totality: A Final Look at the Total Solar Eclipse

August 17th, 2017
totality

Totality! The view during the November 2012 total solar eclipse. Image credit and copyright: Sharin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

It’s hard to believe: we’re now just one short weekend away from the big ticket astronomical event for 2017, as a total solar eclipse is set to cross over the contiguous United States on Monday, August 21st.

Celestial mechanics is a sure thing in this Universe, a certainty along with death and taxes that you can bet on. But there are still a few key question marks leading up to eclipse day, things that we can now finally make intelligent assumptions about a few days out.

Although totality slices through the U.S., partial phases of the eclipse touch on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Credit: Michael Zeiler/The Great American Eclipse.

First up is solar activity. If you’re like us, you’ll be showing off the Sun in both visible and hydrogen alpha as the Moon begins making its slow hour long creep across the disk of Sol. First, the good news: sunspot active region AR 2671 made its Earthward debut on Tuesday August 15th, and will most likely stick around until eclipse day. The bad news is, it most likely won’t have lots of friends, as solar cycle #24 begins its long slow ebb towards the solar minimum in 2019-2020. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect to see any magnificent sprouting red prominences in the solar chromosphere in the seconds bracketing totality, though we could always be pleasantly surprised.

sunspot

The Earthward face of Sol as of August 17, four days before totality. Sunspot AR 2671 is robust and growing in complexity. Credit: NASA/SDO/HMI

How will the white hot corona appear during totality? This is the signature climax of any total solar eclipse: veteran umbraphiles can actually glance at a photo of totality and tell you which eclipse it was from, just on the shape of the corona. The National Solar Observatory released a model of what that Sun’s magnetosphere was doing one Carrington rotation (27 days) prior to the eclipse on July 25th, a pretty good predictor of the corona might look like during those fleeting moments of totality:

Solar Corona

The shape of the field lines of the solar corona, one rotation prior to the August 21st total solar eclipse. Credit: The National Solar Observatory.

NASA will be chasing the umbra of the Moon with two converted W-57 aircraft during the eclipse, hoping to unlock the “coronal heating paradox,” image Mercury in the infrared, and hunt for elusive Vulcanoid asteroids near the eclipsed Sun.

corona

The view of the corona during totality? This computational model was derived from NASA SDO data during the last solar rotation. Credit: Predictive Science Inc.

The corona is about twice as bright as a Full Moon, and its interface with the solar wind extends out past the Earth. The very onset of totality is like the footstep of a giant passing over the landscape, as the door of reality is suddenly ripped open, revealing the span of the glittering solar system at midday. Keep your eyes peeled for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and twinkling Regulus tangled up in the corona, just a degree from the Sun-Moon pair:

The line up of the planets, bright stars and the eclipsed Sun during totality at 2:37 PM EDT as seen from Franklin, North Carolina. Credit: Stellarium.

Also, be sure to scan the local horizon for a strange 360 degree sunset as you stand in the umbra of the Moon. An “eclipse wind” may kick up, as temperatures plummet and nature is fooled by the false dawn, causing chickens to come home to roost and nocturnal animals to awaken. I dare you to blink. Totality can affect the human heart as well, causing tears to cries of surprise.

Here’s an interesting, though remote, possibility. Could a sungrazing “eclipse comet” photo bomb the show? Karl Battams (@SungrazerComets) raises this question on a recent Planetary Society blog post. Battams works with the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), which has discovered an amazing 3,358 comets crossing the field of view of its LASCO imagers since 1995. Comets have been discovered during eclipses before, most notably in 1882 and 1948. To be sure, it’s a remote possibility this late in the game, but Battams promises to give us one last quick look via SOHO the morning of the eclipse on his Twitter feed to see if any cometary interlopers are afoot.

The possible search area for Kreutz group sungrazers during the August 21st eclipse. Credit: Karl Battams.

Now, on to the biggest question mark going into this eclipse weekend: what’s the weather going to be like during the eclipse? This is the ever-dominating factor on everyone’s mind leading up to eclipse day. Keep in mind, the partial phases are long; even a partly cloudy sky will afford occasional glimpses of the Sun during the partial phases of an eclipse. Totality, however, is fleeting – 2 minutes and 40 seconds near Hopkinsville, Kentucky and less for most – meaning even a solitary cumulus cloud drifting across the Sun at the wrong moment can spoil the view. No weather model can predict the view of the sky to that refined a level. And while best bets are still out west, lingering forest fires in Oregon are a concern, along early morning fog on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. Michael Zeiler over at The Great American Eclipse has been providing ESRI models of the cloud cover over the eclipse path for Monday… here’s the outlook as of Thursday, August 17th:

A look at cloud cover prospects over the eclipse path as of August 17. Credit: Michael Zeiler/Great American Eclipse/ESRI.

Computer models should begin to come into agreement this weekend, a good sign that we know what the weather is going to do Monday. Needless to say, a deviation from the standard climate models could send lots of folks scrambling down the path at the last minute… I’ve heard of folks with up to 5 (!) separate reservations along the path of totality, no lie…

The NOAA also has a fine site dedicated to weather and cloud coverage across the path come eclipse day, and Skippy Sky is another great resource aimed at sky viewing and cloud cover.

Clouded out? The good folks at the Virtual Telescope have got you covered, with a webcast for the total solar eclipse starting at 17:00 UT/1:00 PM EDT:

Credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.

Of course, you’ll need to use proper solar viewing methods during all partial phases of the eclipse. This means either using a telescope with a filter specifically designed to look at the Sun, a pin hole projector, or certified ISO 12312-2 eclipse glasses. If you’ve got an extra pair, why not convert them into a safe filter for those binoculars or a small telescope as well:

Also be wary of heatstroke, standing out showing folks the partially eclipsed Sun for an hour or more. It is August, and heat exhaustion can come on in a hurry. Be sure you have access to shade and stay cool and hydrated in the summer Sun.

Finally, eyes from space will be watching the eclipse from the International Space Station as well. Looking out at Monday, the ISS will pass through the penumbra of the Moon and see partial phases of the eclipse three times centered on 16:32, 18:20, and 20:00 Universal Time. The center time is particularly intriguing, as astros have a chance to see the dark umbral shadow of the Moon crossing the central U.S. This also means that eclipse viewers on planet Earth around southern Illinois might want to glance northward briefly, to spy the ISS during totality. Also, viewers along a line along southern central Canada will have a chance to catch an ISS transit across the face of the partially eclipsed Sun around the same time. Check CALSky for details.

Three passes of the International Space Station versus the path of of totality. The inset shows the view of the partially eclipsed Sun as seen from the ISS. Credit: NASA/JSC.

We’ll be at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in southwestern North Carolina, for a glorious 104 seconds of totality. We expect to be out of wifi range come eclipse day, but we’ll tweet out key eclipse milestones as @Astroguyz. We also plan on writing up the eclipse experience with state-by-state testimonials post eclipse.

Perhaps, the August 21st total solar eclipse will bring us all together for one brief moment, to witness the grandest of astronomical spectacles. We’re lucky to share a small patch of time and space where total solar eclipses are possible.  Good luck, clear skies, and see you on the other side early next week!

The post Prelude to Totality: A Final Look at the Total Solar Eclipse appeared first on Universe Today.



Can Astronauts See Stars From the Space Station?

August 17th, 2017

I’ve often been asked the question, “Can the astronauts on the Space Station see the stars?” Astronaut Jack Fischer provides an unequivocal answer of “yes!” with a recent post on Twitter of a timelapse he took from the ISS. Fischer captured the arc of the Milky Way in all its glory, saying it “paints the heavens in a thick coat of awesome-sauce!”

But, you might be saying, “how can this be? I thought the astronauts on the Moon couldn’t see any stars, so how can anyone see stars in space?”

John W. Young on the Moon during Apollo 16 mission. Charles M. Duke Jr. took this picture. The LM Orion is on the left. April 21, 1972. Credit: NASA


It is a common misconception that the Apollo astronauts didn’t see any stars. While stars don’t show up in the pictures from the Apollo missions, that’s because the camera exposures were set to allow for good images of the bright sunlit lunar surface, which included astronauts in bright white space suits and shiny spacecraft. Apollo astronauts reported they could see the brighter stars if they stood in the shadow of the Lunar Module, and also they saw stars while orbiting the far side of the Moon. Al Worden from Apollo 15 has said the sky was “awash with stars” in the view from the far side of the Moon that was not in daylight.

Just like stargazers on Earth need dark skies to see stars, so too when you’re in space.

The cool thing about being in the ISS is that astronauts experience nighttime 16 times a day (in 45 minute intervals) as they orbit the Earth every 90 minutes, and can have extremely dark skies when they are on the “dark” side of Earth. Here’s another recent picture from Fischer where stars can be seen:

For stars to show up in any image, its all about the exposure settings. For example, if you are outside (on Earth) on a dark night and can see thousands of stars, if you just take your camera or phone camera and snap a quick picture, you’ll just get a darkness. Earth-bound astrophotographers need long-exposure shots to capture the Milky Way. Same is true with ISS astronauts: if they take long-exposure shots, they can get stunning images like this one:

This long exposure image of the night sky over Earth was taken on August 9, 2015 by a member of the Expedition 44 crew on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

This image, set to capture the bright solar arrays and the rather bright Earth (even though its in twilight) reveals no stars:

In this timelapse of Earth at night, a few stars show up, but again, the main goal here was to have the camera capture the Earth:

Universe Today’s Bob King has a good, detailed explanation of how astronauts on the ISS can see stars on his Astro Bob blog Astrophysicist . Brian Koberlein explains it on his blog, here.

You can check out all the images that NASA astronauts take from the ISS on the “Astronaut Photography of Earth” site, and almost all the ISS astronauts and cosmonauts have social media accounts where they post pictures. Jack Fischer, currently on board, tweets great images and videos frequently here.

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Station Crew Grapples SpaceX Dragon Delivering Tons of Science After Thunderous Liftoff: Launch & Landing Gallery

August 17th, 2017

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 cargo craft is now attached to the International Space Station after arriving on Aug. 16, 2017. It delivered over 3 tons of science and supplies to the six person Expedition 52 crew. Credit: NASA TV

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following a two day orbital chase and ballet of carefully choreographed thruster firings, the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule launched at lunchtime on Monday Aug. 14 with tons of science and supplies arrived in the vicinity of the International Space Station (ISS) this morning, Wednesday, Aug 16.

While Dragon maneuvered in ever so slowly guided by lasers, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Paolo Nespoli carefully extended the stations robotic arm to reach out and grapple the gumdrop shaped capsule.

They deftly captured the Dragon CRS-12 resupply spacecraft slightly ahead of schedule at 6:52 a.m. EDT with the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadian-built robotic arm while working at a robotics work station in the seven windowed domed Cupola module.

The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is pictured approaching the International Space Station on Wednesday morning Aug. 16, 2017. Credit: NASA

The million pound orbiting outpost was traveling over the Pacific Ocean north of New Zealand at the time of capture.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 took place precisely on time 2 days earlier with ignition of the 9 Merlin 1D first stage engines from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida today (Aug. 14) at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The two stage Falcon 9 stands 213-foot-tall (65-meter-tall). The combined output of the 9 Merlin 1D first stage engines generates 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust, fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants.

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

See an exciting gallery of launch imagery and videos including the thrilling ground landing of the 156 foot tall first stage booster back at Cape Canaveral at Landing Zone-1 – from this author and several space colleagues.

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Monday’s picture perfect lunchtime liftoff of the unmanned SpaceX CRS-12 Dragon cargo freighter bound for the ISS and loaded with over 3 tons of science, research hardware and supplies including a hefty cosmic ray detector named ISS-CREAM, medical research experiments dealing with Parkinson’s disease, lung and heart tissue, vegetable seeds, dozens of mice and much more – came off without a hitch.

Ground controllers then carried out the remainder of the work to berth the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft at the Earth facing port on the Harmony module of the International Space Station at 9:07 a.m. EDT.

This illustration of the International Space Station shows the current configuration with four visiting vehicle spaceships parked at the space station including the SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 cargo craft that arrived Aug. 16, 2017, the Progress 67 resupply ship and two Soyuz crew ships. Credit: NASA

The crew was perhaps especially eager for this Dragons arrival because tucked inside the more than 3 tons of cargo was a stash of delicious ice cream treats.

“The small cups of chocolate, vanilla and birthday cake-flavored ice cream are arriving in freezers that will be reloaded with research samples for return to Earth when the Dragon spacecraft departs the station mid-September,” said NASA.

Indeed the crew did indeed open the hatches today, early than planned, a few hours after arrival and completion of the requisite safety and leak checks.

The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is pictured approaching the International Space Station on Wednesday morning Aug. 16, 2017. Credit: NASA TV

The whole sequence was broadcast on NASA TV that began live arrival coverage at 5:30 a.m showing numerous stunning video sequences of the rendezvous and grappling often backdropped by our precious Home Planet.

The current multinational Expedition 52 crew serving aboard the ISS comprises of Flight Engineers Paolo Nespoli from ESA, Jack Fischer, Peggy Whitson and Randy Bresnik of NASA and Sergey Ryazanskiy and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon on Dragon CRS-12 mission to the ISS from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

SpaceX holds a NASA commercial resupply services (CRS) contract that includes up to 20 missions under the original CRS-1 contract.

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel is carrying more than 6,400 pounds ( 2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex. 20 mice are also onboard. This will support dozens of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.

The Expedition 52 crew poses for a unique portrait. Pictured clockwise from top right are, Flight Engineers Paolo Nespoli, Jack Fischer, Peggy Whitson, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Randy Bresnik and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos/ESA

Video Caption: CRS-12 launch from Pad 39A on a Falcon 9 rocket. Pad camera views from the launch of the CRS-12 mission carrying 6415 pounds of supplies and equipment to the International Space Station on August 14, 2017. Credit: Jeff Seibert


The SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon CRS-12 launch was the first of a rapid fire sequence of a triad of launches along the Florida Space Coast over the next 11 days of manmade wonder – Plus a Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ natural wonder sandwiched in between !!

Launch of SpaceX Falcon on Dragon CRS-12 mission to the ISS from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite CRS-12, TRDS-M, and ORS 5 and NASA 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

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

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Learn more about the upcoming ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 , SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 17-18: “TDRS-M NASA comsat, SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Blastoff of SpaceX Dragon CRS12 on its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Blastoff of SpaceX Dragon CRS12 on its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Blastoff of SpaceX Dragon CRS12 on its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

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The Most Distant Massive Galaxy Observed to Date Provides Insight into the Early Universe

August 16th, 2017

In their pursuit of learning how our Universe came to be, scientists have probed very deep into space (and hence, very far back in time). Ultimately, their goal is to determine when the first galaxies in our Universe formed and what effect they had on cosmic evolution. Recent efforts to locate these earliest formations have probed to distances of up to 13 billion light-years from Earth – i.e. about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

From this, scientist are now able to study how early galaxies affected matter around them – in particular, the reionization of neutral atoms. Unfortunately, most early galaxies are very faint, which makes studying their interiors difficult. But thanks to a recent survey conducted by an international team of astronomers, a more luminous, massive galaxy was spotted that could provide a clear look at how early galaxies led to reionization.

The study which details their findings, titled “ISM Properties of a Massive Dusty Star-forming Galaxy Discovered at z ~ 7“, was recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy  in Bonn, Germany, the team relied on data from the South Pole Telescope (SPT)-SZ survey and ALMA to spot a galaxy that existed 13 billion years ago (just 800 million years after the Big Bang).

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

In accordance with Big Bang model of cosmology, reionization refers to the process that took place after the period known as the “Dark Ages”. This occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, where most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.

Just prior to this period, the “Recombination” occurred, where hydrogen and helium atoms began to form. Initially ionized (with no electrons bound to their nuclei) these molecules gradually captured ions as the Universe cooled, becoming neutral. During the period that followed – i.e. between 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang – the large-scale structure of the Universe began to form.

Intrinsic to this was the process of reionization, where the first stars and quasars formed and their radiation reionized the surrounding Universe. It is therefore clear why astronomers want to probe this era of the Universe. By observing the first stars and galaxies, and what effect they had on the cosmos, astronomers will get a clearer picture of how this early period led to the Universe as we know it today.

Luckily for the research team, the massive, star-forming galaxies of this period are known to contain a great deal of dust. While very faint in the optical band, these galaxies emit strong radiation at submillimeter wavelengths, which makes them detectable using today’s advanced telescopes – including the South Pole Telescope (SPT), the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), and Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this stunning infrared image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where the black hole Sagitarrius A resides. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For the sake of their study, Strandet and Weiss relied on data from the SPT to detect a series of dusty galaxies from the early Universe. As Maria Strandet and Axel Weiss of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (and the lead author and co-authors on the study, respectively) told Universe Today via email:

“We have used light of about 1 mm wavelength, which can be observed by mm telescopes like SPT, APEX or ALMA. At this wavelength the photons are produced by the thermal radiation of dust. The beauty of using this long wavelength is, that for a large redshift range (look back time), the dimming of galaxies [caused] by increasing distance is compensated by the redshift – so the observed intensity is independent of the redshift. This is because, for higher redshift galaxies, one is looking at intrinsically shorter wavelengths (by (1+z)) where the radiation is stronger for a thermal spectrum like the dust spectrum.”

This was followed by data from ALMA, which the team used to determine the distance of the galaxies by looking at the redshifted wavelength of carbon monoxide molecules in their interstellar mediums (ISM). From all the data they collected, they were able to constrain the properties of one of these galaxies – SPT0311-58 – by observing its spectral lines. In so doing, they determined that this galaxy existed just 760 million years after the Big Bang.

“Since the signal strength at 1mm is independent of the redshift (look back time), we do not have an a priori clue if an object is relatively near (in the cosmological sense) or at the epoch of reionization,” they said. “That is why we undertook a large survey to determine the redshifts via the emission of molecular lines using ALMA. SPT0311-58 turns out to be the highest redshift object discovered in this survey and in fact the most distant massive dusty star-forming galaxy so far discovered.”

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field seen in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

From their observations, they also determined that SPT0311-58 has a mass of about 330 billion Solar-masses, which is about 66 times as much as the Milky Way Galaxy (which has about 5 billion Solar-masses). They also estimated that it is forming new stars at a rate of several thousand per year, which could as be the case for neighboring galaxies that are dated to this period.

This rare and distant object is one of the best candidates yet for studying what the early Universe looked like and how it has evolved since. This in turn will allow astronomers and cosmologists to test the theoretical basis for the Big Bang Theory. As Strandet and Weiss told Universe Today about their discovery:

“These objects are important to understanding the evolution of galaxies as a whole since the large amounts of dust already present in this source, only 760 million years after the Big Bang, means that it is an extremely massive object. The mere fact that such massive galaxies already existed when the Universe was still so young puts strong constraints on our understanding of galaxy mass buildup. Furthermore the dust needs to form in a very short time, which gives additional insights on the dust production from the first stellar population.”

The ability to look deeper into space, and farther back in time, has led to many surprising discoveries of late. And these have in turn challenged some of our assumptions about what happened in the Universe, and when. And in the end, they are helping scientists to create a more detailed and complete account of cosmic evolution. Someday soon, we might even be able to probe the earliest moments in the Universe, and watch creation in action!

Further Reading: CfA, The Astrophysical Journal Letters

 

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Carnival of Space #522

August 16th, 2017

This week’s Carnival of Space is hosted by Brian Wang at his Next Big Future blog.

Click here to read Carnival of Space #522

And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to all the past Carnivals of Space. If you’ve got a space-related blog, you should really join the carnival. Just email an entry to carnivalofspace@gmail.com, and the next host will link to it. It will help get awareness out there about your writing, help you meet others in the space community – and community is what blogging is all about. And if you really want to help out, sign up to be a host. Send an email to the above address.

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Potentially Habitable, Tidally-Locked Exoplanets May be Very Common, say New Study

August 15th, 2017

Studies of low-mass, ultra-cool and ultra-dim red dwarf stars have turned up a wealth of extra-solar planets lately. These include the discoveries of a rocky planet orbiting the closest star to the Solar System (Proxima b) and a seven-planet system just 40 light years away (TRAPPIST-1). In the past few years, astronomers have also detected candidates orbiting the stars Gliese 581, Innes Star, Kepler 42, Gliese 832, Gliese 667, Gliese 3293, and others.

The majority of these planets have been terrestrial (i.e. rocky) in nature, and many were found to orbit within their star’s habitable zone (aka. “goldilocks zone”). However the question whether or not these planets are tidally-locked, where one face is constantly facing towards their star has been an ongoing one. And according to a new study from the University of Washington, tidally-locked planets may be more common than previously thought.

The study – which is available online under the title “Tidal Locking of Habitable Exoplanets” – was led by Rory Barnes, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington. Also a theorist with the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, his research is focused on the formation and evolution of planets that orbit in and around the “habitable zones” of low-mass stars.

Tidal locking results in the Moon rotating about its axis in about the same time it takes to orbit the Earth (left side). Credit: Wikipedia

For modern astronomers, tidal-locking is a well-understood phenomena. It occurs as a result of their being no net transfer of angular momentum between an astronomical body and the body it orbits. In other words, the orbiting body’s orbital period matches its rotational period, ensuring that the same side of this body is always facing towards the planet or star it orbits.

Consider Earth’s only satellite – the Moon. In addition to taking 27.32 days to orbit Earth, the Moon also takes 27.32 days to rotate once on its axis. This is why the Moon always presents the same “face” towards Earth, while the side that faces away is known as the “dark side”. Astronomers believe this became the case after a Mars-sized object (Theia) collided with Earth some 4.5 billion years ago.

Aside from throwing up debris that would eventually form the Moon, the impact is believed to have struck Earth at such an angle that it gave our planet an initial rotation period of 12 hours. In the past, researchers have used this 12-hour estimation of Earth’s rotation as a model for exoplanet behavior. However, prior to Barnes’ study, no systematic examinations had ever been conducted.

Looking to address this, Barnes chose to address the long-held assumption that only smaller, dimmer stars could host orbiting planets that were tidally locked. He also considered other possibilities, which included slower or faster initial rotation periods as well as variations in planet size and the eccentricity of their orbits. What he found was that previous studies had been rather limited and only made allowances for one outcome.

Tidally-locked, rocky planets are common around low-mass, M-type (red dwarf) stars, due to their close orbits. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

As he explained in a University of Washington press statement:

“Planetary formation models, however, suggest the initial rotation of a planet could be much larger than several hours, perhaps even several weeks. And so when you explore that range, what you find is that there’s a possibility for a lot more exoplanets to be tidally locked. For example, if Earth formed with no Moon and with an initial ‘day’ that was four days long, one model predicts Earth would be tidally locked to the sun by now.”

From this, he found that potentially-habitable planets that orbit very late M-type (red dwarf) stars are likely to attain highly-circular orbits about 1 billion years after their formation. Furthermore, he found that for the majority, their orbits would be synchronized with their rotation – aka. they would be tidally-locked with their star. These findings could have significant implications for the study of exoplanets formation and evolution, not to mention habitability.

In the past, tidally-locked planets were thought to have extremes climates, thus eliminating any possibility of life. As an example, the planet Mercury experiences a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, meaning it rotates three times on its axis for every two orbits it completes of the Sun. Because of this, a single day on Mercury lasts as long as 176 Earth days, and temperature range from 100 (-173 °C; -279 °F) to 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F) between the day side and the night side.

For a tidally-locked planets that orbit close to their stars, it was believed this situation would be even worse. However, astronomers have since come to speculate that the presence of an atmosphere around these planets could redistribute temperature across their surfaces. Unlike Mercury, which has no atmosphere and experiences no wind, these planets could maintain temperatures that would be supportive to life.

Artist’s impression of a “Earth-like” planet orbiting a nearby red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org).

In any case, this study is one of many that is putting constraints on recent exoplanet discoveries. This is especially important given that the detection and study of extra-solar planets is still in its infancy, and limited to largely indirect methods. In other words, astronomers make estimates of a planet’s size, composition and whether or not it has an atmosphere based on transits and the influence these planets have on their stars.

In the coming years, next-generations missions like the James Web Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellites (TESS) are expected to improve this situation drastically. In addition to conducting more detailed observations on existing discoveries, they are also expected to uncover a wealth of more planets. If Barnes’ study is correct, the majority of those found will be tidally-locked, but that need not mean they are uninhabitable.

Prof. Barnes paper was accepted for publication by the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy. The research was funded by a NASA grant through the Virtual Planetary Laboratory.

Further Reading: University of Washington, arXiv

 

The post Potentially Habitable, Tidally-Locked Exoplanets May be Very Common, say New Study appeared first on Universe Today.



Stunning SpaceX Space Station Cargo Blastoff and Cape Landing Kicks Off Sunshine State Liftoff Trio

August 15th, 2017

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Todays (Aug. 14) stunning SpaceX Space Station cargo delivery blastoff to the International Space Station (ISS) and flawless first stage landing from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the Sunshine State kicked off a rapid fire sequence of liftoffs planned for mid August.

All 9 SpaceX Falcon 9 Merlin 1D first stage engines ignited precisely on time from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida today (Aug. 14) at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

“It was a gorgeous day and a specular launch,” said Dan Hartman, NASA deputy manager of the International Space Station Program, at the post launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Center press site.

The 9 Merlin 1D’s of the two stage 213-foot-tall (65-meter-tall) Falcon 9 generate 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants.

“Just greatness to report about the launch,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of Flight and Build Reliability at the post launch briefing.

“The second stage deployed Dragon to a near perfect orbit. The first stage was successful and made a perfect landing. From what I’ve heard, it’s right on the bullseye and made a very soft touchdown, so it’s a great pre-flown booster ready to go for the next time.”

So its 1 down and 2 launches to go along the Florida Space Coast over the next 11 days of manmade wonder – Plus a Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ natural wonder sandwiched in between !!

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Monday’s picture perfect lunchtime liftoff of the unmanned SpaceX CRS-12 Dragon cargo freighter bound for the ISS and loaded with over 3 tons of science, research hardware and supplies including a hefty cosmic ray detector named ISS-CREAM, medical research experiments dealing with Parkinson’s disease, lung and heart tissue, vegetable seeds, dozens of mice and much more – came off without a hitch.

“We’re excited that about three quarters of the payload aboard is science,” noted Hartman. “With the internal and external payloads that we have going up, it sets a new bar for the amount of research that we’ve been able to get on this flight.”

And all 6 astronauts and cosmonauts serving aboard the station are especially looking forward to unpacking and serving up a specially cooled and hefty stash of delicious ice cream!

The ice cream, medical experiments and mice were all part of the late load items added the evening before liftoff – work that was delayed due to thunderstorms and completed just in time to avoid a launch delay.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon on Dragon CRS-12 mission to the ISS from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

A huge crowd of delighted locals, tourists and folks flocking in from around the globe, packed local beaches, causeways and parks and the Kennedy Space Center and witnessed a space launch and landing spectacular they will long remember.

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

The launch and landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster took place just minutes apart under near perfect weather conditions, as the Dragon capsule sped to the heavens on a mission to the High Frontier of Space.

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The 22 story Falcon 9 roared off pad 39A on a stream of flames and exhaust into blue skies decorated with artfully spaced wispy clouds that enhanced the viewing experience as the rocket accelerated to orbit and on its way to the 6 person multinational crew.

The triple headed sunshine state space spectacular marches forward in barely 4 days with liftoff of NASA’s amazingly insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat slated for Friday morning Aug. 18 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Lastly, a week after TDRS-M and just 11 days after the SpaceX Dragon an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 rocket is due to blastoff just before midnight Aug. 25 and carry the ORS 5 mission to orbit for the U.S. military’s Operationally Responsive Space program. The Minotaur IV utilizes three stages from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs formerly aimed at the Russians and perhaps the North Koreans.

The Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ takes place on Monday, Aug. 21. It’s the first solar eclipse in 99 years that space the continent from coast to coast and will be at least partially visible in all 48 contiguous states!

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel is carrying more than 6,400 pounds (2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex.

20 mice are also onboard from NASA for the Rodent Research 9 (RR-9) experiment and another dozen from Japanese researchers. This will support more than 80 of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.

Dragon reached its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later and successfully deployed its life giving solar arrays.

Dragon CRS-12 now begins a 2 day orbital chase of the station via a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings that bring the commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with the space station on Aug. 16.

Dragon will be grappled with the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadian-built robotic arm at approximately 7 a.m. EDT on Aug. 16 by astronauts Jack Fischer of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency). It then will be installed on the Harmony module.

The Dragon spacecraft will spend approximately 35 days attached to the space station, returning to Earth in mid-September with over 3000 pounds of science samples and results gathered over many months from earlier experiments by the station crews.

Dragon CRS-12 is SpaceX’s third contracted resupply mission to launch this year for NASA.

The prior SpaceX cargo ships launched on Feb 19 and June 3, 2017 on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 missions to the space station. CRS-10 is further noteworthy as being the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

A fourth cargo Dragon is likely to launch this year in December on the CRS-13 resupply mission under NASA’s current plans.

SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA in 2014 and after refurbishments placed the pad back in service this year for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.

Previous launches include 11 Apollo flights, the launch of the unmanned Skylab in 1973, 82 shuttle flights and five SpaceX launches.

Cargo Manifest for CRS-12:

TOTAL CARGO: 6415.4 lbs. / 2910 kg
TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 3642 lbs. / 1652 kg
• Science Investigations 2019.4 lbs. / 916 kg
• Crew Supplies 485 lbs. / 220 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 747.4 lbs. / 339 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 66.1 lbs. / 30 kg
• Computer Resources 116.8 lbs. / 53 kg

UNPRESSURIZED 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg
• Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg

The CREAM instrument from the University of Maryland will be stowed for launch inside the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. Astronauts will use the stations robotic arm to pluck it from the trunk and attach it to a US port on the exposed porch of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM).

CREAM alone comprises almost half the payload weight.

The Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation (CREAM) instrument from the University of Maryland, College Park involves placing a balloon-borne instrument aboard the International Space Station to measure the charges of cosmic rays over a period of three years. CREAM will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility. Existing CREAM hardware used for balloon flights. Credit: NASA

Here is a NASA description of CREAM:

The Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility on the space station, and measure the charges of cosmic rays. The data collected from its three-year mission will address fundamental questions about the origins and histories of cosmic rays, building a stronger understanding of the basic structure of the universe.

The LRRK2 experiment seeks to grow larger crystals of the protein to investigate Parkinson’s disease and help develop new therapies:

Here is a NASA description of LRRK2:

The Dragon’s pressurized area includes an experiment to grow large crystals of leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2), a protein believed to be the greatest genetic contributor to Parkinson’s disease. Gravity keeps Earth-grown versions of this protein too small and too compact to study. This experiment, developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International, will exploit the benefits of microgravity to grow larger, more perfectly-shaped LRRK2 crystals for analysis on Earth. Results from this study could help scientists better understand Parkinson’s and aid in the development of therapies.

Watch this Michael J. Fox video describing the LRRK2 crystallization experiment:

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite CRS-12, TRDS-M, and ORS 5 and NASA 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

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rests horizontally at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 13 Aug. 2017 while being processed for liftoff of the Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) slated for 14 Aug. 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

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Scientists Discover TRAPPIST-1 is Older Than Our Solar System

August 14th, 2017

In February of 2017, a team of European astronomers announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Aside from the fact that all seven planets were rocky, there was the added bonus of three of them orbiting within TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. As such, multiple studies have been conducted that have sought to determine whether or not any planets in the system could be habitable.

When it comes to habitability studies, one of the key factors to consider is the age of the star system. Basically, young stars have a tendency to flare up and release harmful bursts of radiation while planets that orbit older stars have been subject to radiation for longer periods of time. Thanks to a new study by a pair of astronomers, it is now known that the TRAPPIST-1 system is twice as old as the Solar System.

The study, which will be published in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “On The Age Of The TRAPPIST-1 System“, was led by Adam Burgasser, an astronomer at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). He was joined by Eric Mamajek, the deputy program scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (EEP) at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Together, they consulted data on TRAPPIST-1s kinematics (i.e. the speed at which it orbits the center of the galaxy), its age, magnetic activity, density, absorption lines, surface gravity, metallicity, and the rate at which it experiences stellar flares. From all this, they determined that TRAPPIST-1 is quite old, somewhere between 5.4 and 9.8 billion years of age. This is up to twice as old as our own Solar System, which formed some 4.5 billion years ago.

These results contradict previously-held estimates, which were that the TRAPPIST-1 system was about 500 millions yeas old. This was based on the fact that it would have taken this long for a low-mass star like TRAPPIST-1 (which has roughly 8% the mass of our Sun) to contract to its minimum size. But with an upper age limit that is just under 10 billion years, this star system could be almost as old as the Universe itself!

As Dr. Burgasser explained in a recent NASA press statement:

“Our results really help constrain the evolution of the TRAPPIST-1 system, because the system has to have persisted for billions of years. This means the planets had to evolve together, otherwise the system would have fallen apart long ago.”

The implications of this could be very significant as far as habitability studies are concerned. For one, older stars experience less in the way of flareups compared to younger ones. From their study, Burgasser and Mamajek confirmed that TRAPPIST-1 is relatively quiet compared to other ultra-cool dwarf stars. However, since the planets around TRAPPIST-1 orbit so close to their star, they have been exposed to billions of years of radiation at this point.

An artist’s depiction of planets transiting a red dwarf star in the TRAPPIST-1 System. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScl

As such, it is possible that most of the planets which orbit TRAPPIST-1 – expect for the outermost two, g and h – would probably have had their atmospheres stripped away – similar to what happened to Mars billions of years ago when it lost its protective magnetic field. This is certainly consistent with many recent studies, which concluded that TRAPPIST-1’s solar activity would not be conducive to life on any of its planets.

Whereas some of these studies addressed TRAPPIST-1s level of stellar flare, others examined the role magnetic fields would play. In the end, they concluded that TRAPPIST-1 was too variable, and that its own magnetic field would likely be connected to the fields of its planets, allowing particles from the star to flow directly  onto the planets atmospheres (thus allowing them to be more easily stripped away).

However, the results were not entirely bad news. Since the TRAPPIST-1 planets have estimated densities that are lower than that of Earth, it is possible that they have large amounts of volatile elements (i.e. water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, etc). These could have led to the formation of thick atmospheres that protected the surfaces from a lot of harmful radiation and redistributed heat across the tidally-locked planets.

Then again, a thick atmosphere could also have an effect akin to Venus, creating a runaway greenhouse effect that would have resulted in incredibly thick atmospheres and extremely hot surfaces. Under the circumstances, then, any life that emerged on these planets would have had to be extremely hardy in order to survive for billions of years.

Artist’s impression of the view from the most distant exoplanet discovered around the red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Another positive thing to consider is TRAPPIST-1’s constant brightness and temperature, which are also typical of M-class (red dwarf) stars. Stars like our Sun have an estimated lifespan of 10 billion years (which it is almost halfway through) and grow steadily brighter and hotter with time. Red dwarfs, on the other hand, are believed to exist for as much as 10 trillion years – far longer than the Universe has existed – and do not change much in intensity.

Given the amount of time it took for complex life to have emerged on Earth (over 4.5 billion years), this longevity and consistency could make red dwarf star systems the best long-term bet for habitability. Such was the conclusion of one recent study, which was conducted by Prof. Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). And as Mamajek explained:

“Stars much more massive than the Sun consume their fuel quickly, brightening over millions of years and exploding as supernovae. But TRAPPIST-1 is like a slow-burning candle that will shine for about 900 times longer than the current age of the universe.”

NASA has also expressed excitement over these findings. “These new results provide useful context for future observations of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, which could give us great insight into how planetary atmospheres form and evolve, and persist or not,” said Tiffany Kataria, an exoplanet scientist at JPL. At the moment, habitability studies of TRAPPIST-1 and other nearby star systems are confined to indirect methods.

However, in the near future, next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope are expected to reveal additional information – such as whether or not these planets have atmospheres and what their compositions are. Future observations with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope are also expected to improve our understanding of these planets and possible conditions on their surface.

Further Reading: NASA, arXiv

The post Scientists Discover TRAPPIST-1 is Older Than Our Solar System appeared first on Universe Today.



Science Laden SpaceX Dragon Set for Aug. 14 ISS Launch, Testfire Inaugurates Triad of August Florida Liftoffs: Watch Live

August 12th, 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rests horizontally at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 13 Aug. 2017 while being processed for liftoff of the Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) slated for 14 Aug. 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A triad of August liftoffs from the Florida Space Coast inaugurates Monday, Aug. 14 with a science laden commercial SpaceX Dragon bound for the International Space Station (ISS) – loaded with over 3 tons of NASA science, hardware and supplies including a cosmic ray detector, medical research experiments dealing with Parkinson’s disease and lung tissue, vegetable seeds, mice and much more, following a successful engine test firing of the Falcon 9 booster on Thursday.

“Static fire test of Falcon 9 complete,” SpaceX confirmed via Twitter soon after completion of the test at 9:10 a.m. EDT, Aug 10. (1310 GMT) “—targeting August 14 launch from Pad 39A for Dragon’s next resupply mission to the @Space_Station.”

Check out our photos & videos herein of the Aug. 10 static first test of the Falcon 9 first stage that paves the path to blastoff – as witnessed live by Ken Kremer and Jeff Seibert.

The triple headed sunshine state space spectacular kicks off with Monday’s lunchtime launch of the next unmanned SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter to the ISS from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, now targeted for Aug. 14 at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

The closely spaced trio of space launches marches forward barely 4 days later with liftoff of NASA’s amazingly insectoid-looking TDRS-M science relay comsat slated for Friday morning Aug. 18 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Lastly, a week after TDRS-M and just 11 days after the SpaceX Dragon an Orbital ATK Minotaur 4 rocket is due to blastoff just before midnight Aug. 25 and carry the ORS 5 mission to orbit for the U.S. military’s Operationally Responsive Space program. The Minotaur IV utilizes three stages from decommissioned Peacekeeper ICBMs formerly aimed at the Russians.

Of course getting 3 rockets off the ground from 3 different companies is all highly dependent on Florida’s hugely fickle hurricane season weather and the ever present reality of potential technical glitches, errant boaters and more – possibly resulting in a domino effect of cascading launch scrubs.

And sandwiched in between the Florida Space Coast blastoffs is the Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ on Monday, Aug. 21 – for the first time in 99 years!

Although KSC and central Florida are not within the path of totality, the sun will still be about 85% obscured by the Moon.

So if you’re looking for bang for the space buck, the next two weeks have a lot to offer space and astronomy enthusiasts.

1st Reused SpaceX Dragon cargo craft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 on CRS-11 mission carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 10, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl as seen from Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this video of the Aug. 10 static hotfire test:

Video Caption: Hot fire test of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for it launching the NASA CRS-12 Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel is carrying more than 6,400 pounds ( 2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex. 20 mice are also onboard. This will support dozens of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket on Aug. 10, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl as seen from Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the uncrewed Dragon CRS-12 resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

If you can’t personally be here to witness the launch in Florida, you can always watch NASA’s live coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

The SpaceX/Dragon CRS-12 launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning noon on Aug. 14 with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog.

SpaceX will also offer their own live webcast beginning approximately 15 minutes before launch at about 12:16 p.m. EDT.

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

You can also watch the launch live at SpaceX hosted Webcast at – spacex.com/webcast

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Tuesday, Aug. 15 with NASA TV coverage starting about 11:30 a.m. EDT.

The weather looks decent at this time with a 70% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on Aug. 14 are cumulus clouds and the potential for precipitation in the flight path.

The odds remain at 70% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Aug. 15.

Everything is currently on track for Monday’s noontime launch of the 230 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 on the NASA contracted SpaceX CRS-12 resupply mission to the million pound orbiting lab complex.

However since the launch window is instantaneous there is no margin for error. In case any delays arise during the countdown due to technical or weather issues a 24 hour scrub to Tuesday will result.

The lunchtime launch coincidently offers a convenient and spectacular opportunity for fun for the whole family as space enthusiasts flock in from around the globe.

Plus SpaceX will attempt a land landing of the 156 foot tall first stage back at the Cape at Landing Zone 1 some 8 minutes after liftoff – thus a double whammy of space action !!– punctuated by multiple loud sonic booms at booster landing time that will figuratively knock your socks off.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully recovered 13 boosters; 5 by land and 8 by sea, over the past 18 months. It’s a feat straight out of science fiction but aimed at drastically slashing the high cost of access to space.

The recent BulgariaSat-1 and Iridium-2 missions counted as the eighth and ninth SpaceX launches of 2017.

CRS-12 marks the eleventh SpaceX launch of 2017 and will establish a new single year record.

In contrast to the prior CRS-11 mission which flew a recycled Dragon, the CRS-12 Dragon is newly built.

The CRS-12 Dragon will be the last newly built one, says NASA. The remaining SpaceX CRS mission will utilize reused spaceships.

The Falcon 9 is also new and will attempt a land landing back at the Cape at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1).

If the Aug. 14 launch occurs as scheduled, the Dragon will reach its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later and deploy its life giving solar arrays. Dragon then begins a 2 day orbital chase of the station via a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings that bring the commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with the space station on Aug. 16.

Dragon will be grappled with the station’s Canadian built robotic arm at approximately 7 a.m. EDT on Aug. 16 by astronauts Jack Fischer of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency). It then will be installed on the Harmony module.

The Dragon spacecraft will spend approximately one month attached to the space station, returning to Earth in mid-September with results of earlier experiments.

Dragon CRS-12 is SpaceX’s third contracted resupply mission to launch this year for NASA.

The prior SpaceX cargo ships launched on Feb 19 and June 3, 2017 on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 missions to the space station. CRS-10 is further noteworthy as being the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA in 2014 and after refurbishments placed the pad back in service this year for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011.

Previous launches include 11 Apollo flights, the launch of the unmanned Skylab in 1973, 82 shuttle flights and five SpaceX launches.

Cargo Manifest for CRS-12:

TOTAL CARGO: 6415.4 lbs. / 2910 kg

TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 3642 lbs. / 1652 kg
• Science Investigations 2019.4 lbs. / 916 kg
• Crew Supplies 485 lbs. / 220 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 747.4 lbs. / 339 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 66.1 lbs. / 30 kg
• Computer Resources 116.8 lbs. / 53 kg

UNPRESSURIZED 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg
• Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg

The CREAM instrument from the University of Maryland will be stowed for launch inside the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. Astronauts will use the stations robotic arm to pluck it from the trunk and attach it to the exposed porch of the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM).

The Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation (CREAM) instrument from the University of Maryland, College Park involves placing a balloon-borne instrument aboard the International Space Station to measure the charges of cosmic rays over a period of three years. CREAM will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility. Existing CREAM hardware used for balloon flights. Credit: NASA

Here is a NASA description of CREAM:

The Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument, attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility, measures the charges of cosmic rays ranging from hydrogen to iron nuclei. The data collected from the CREAM instrument will be used to address fundamental science questions on the origins and history of cosmic rays. CREAM’s three-year mission will help the scientific community build a stronger understanding of the fundamental structure of the universe.

The LRRK2 experiment seeks to grow larger crystals of the protein to investigate Parkinson’s disease and help develop new therapies:

Here is a NASA description of LRRK2:

Crystallization of Leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2) under Microgravity Conditions (CASIS PCG 7) will use the orbiting laboratory’s microgravity environment to grow larger versions of this important protein, implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International, researchers will look to take advantage of the station’s microgravity environment which allows protein crystals to grow larger and in more perfect shapes than earth-grown crystals, allowing them to be better analyzed on Earth. Defining the exact shape and morphology of LRRK2 would help scientists to better understand the pathology of Parkinson’s and aid in the development of therapies against this target.

Watch this Michael J. Fox video describing the LRRK2 crystallization experiment:

Video Caption: ISS National Lab SpaceX CRS-12 Payload Overview: Michael J. Fox Foundation. The Michael J. Fox Foundation is sending an experiment to the ISS National Lab to investigate the LRRK2 protein, a key target in identifying the makeup of Parkinson’s disease.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite CRS-12, TRDS-M, and ORS 5 and NASA 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

………….

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 12-14: “SpaceX CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply vessel atop Falcon 9 rocket and delivering 3 tons of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Liftoff occurred 3 June 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Inside the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, FL,NASA’s massive, insect like Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, or TDRS-M, spacecraft is undergoing preflight processing during media visit on 13 July 2017. TDRS-M will transmit critical science data gathered by the ISS, Hubble and numerous NASA Earth science missions. It is being prepared for encapsulation inside its payload fairing prior to being transported to Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on 3 August 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The post Science Laden SpaceX Dragon Set for Aug. 14 ISS Launch, Testfire Inaugurates Triad of August Florida Liftoffs: Watch Live appeared first on Universe Today.



NASA Reignites Program for Nuclear Thermal Rockets

August 11th, 2017

In its pursuit of missions that will take us back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond, NASA has been exploring a number of next-generation propulsion concepts. Whereas existing concepts have their advantages – chemical rockets have high energy density and ion engines are very fuel-efficient – our hopes for the future hinge on us finding alternatives that combine efficiency and power.

To this end, researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center are once again looking to develop nuclear rockets. As part of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) project would see the creation of high-efficiency spacecraft that would be capable of using less fuel to deliver heavy payloads to distant planets, and in a relatively short amount of time.

As Sonny Mitchell, the project of the NTP project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a recent NASA press statement:

“As we push out into the solar system, nuclear propulsion may offer the only truly viable technology option to extend human reach to the surface of Mars and to worlds beyond. We’re excited to be working on technologies that could open up deep space for human exploration.”

Nuclear reactors (like the one pictured here) are being considered by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for possible future missions. Credit: NASA

To see this through, NASA has entered into a partnership with BWX Technologies (BWXT), a Virginia-based energy and technology company that is a leading supplier of nuclear components and fuel to the U.S. government. To assist NASA in developing the necessary reactors that would support possible future crewed missions to Mars, the company’s subsidiary (BWXT Nuclear Energy, Inc.) was awarded a three-year contract worth $18.8 million.

During this three years in which they will be working with NASA, BWXT will provide the technical and programmatic data needed to implement NTP technology. This will consist of them manufacturing and testing prototype fuel elements and helping NASA to resolve any nuclear licensing and regulatory requirements. BWXT will also aid NASA planners in addressing the issues of feasibility and affordably with their NTP program.

As Rex D. Geveden, BWXT’s President and Chief Executive Officer, said of the agreement:

“BWXT is extremely pleased to be working with NASA on this exciting nuclear space program in support of the Mars mission. We are uniquely qualified to design, develop and manufacture the reactor and fuel for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. This is an opportune time to pivot our capabilities into the space market where we see long-term growth opportunities in nuclear propulsion and nuclear surface power.”

In an NTP rocket, uranium or deuterium reactions are used to heat liquid hydrogen inside a reactor, turning it into ionized hydrogen gas (plasma), which is then channeled through a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. A second possible method, known as Nuclear Electric Propulsion (NEC), involves the same basic reactor converted its heat and energy into electrical energy which then powers an electrical engine.

Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

In both cases, the rocket relies on nuclear fission to generates propulsion rather than chemical propellants, which has been the mainstay of NASA and all other space agencies to date. Compared to this traditional form of propulsion, both types of nuclear engines offers a number of advantages. The first and most obvious is the virtually unlimited energy density it offers compared to rocket fuel.

This would cut the total amount of propellant needed, thus cutting launch weight and the cost of individual missions. A more powerful nuclear engine would mean reduced trip times. Already, NASA has estimated that an NTP system could make the voyage to Mars to four months instead of six, which would reduce the amount of radiation the astronauts would be exposed to in the course of their journey.

To be fair, the concept of using nuclear rockets to explore the Universe is not new. In fact, NASA has explored the possibility of nuclear propulsion extensively under the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office. In fact, between 1959 and 1972, the SNPO conducted 23 reactor tests at the Nuclear Rocket Development Station at AEC’s Nevada Test Site, in Jackass Flats, Nevada.

In 1963, the SNPO also created the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program to develop nuclear-thermal propulsion for long-range crewed mission to the Moon and interplanetary space. This led to the creation of the NRX/XE, a nuclear-thermal engine which the SNPO certified as having met the requirements for a crewed mission to Mars.

Artist’s concept of a bimodal nuclear rocket slowing down to establish orbit around Mars. Credit: NASA

The Soviet Union conducted similar studies during the 1960s, hoping to use them on the upper stages of  of their N-1 rocket. Despite these efforts, no nuclear rockets ever entered service, owing to a combination of budget cuts, loss of public interest, and a general winding down of the Space Race after the Apollo program was complete.

But given the current interest in space exploration, and ambitious mission proposed to Mars and beyond, it seems that nuclear rockets may finally see service. One popular idea that is being considered is a multistage rocket that would rely on both a nuclear engine and conventional thrusters – a concept known as a “bimodal spacecraft”. A major proponent of this idea is Dr. Michael G. Houts of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

In 2014, Dr. Houts  conducted a presentation outlining how bimodal rockets (and other nuclear concepts) represented “game-changing technologies for space exploration”. As an example, he explained how the Space Launch System (SLS) – a key technology in NASA’s proposed crewed mission to Mars – could be equipped with chemical rocket in the lower stage and a nuclear-thermal engine on the upper stage.

In this setup, the nuclear engine would remain “cold” until the rocket had achieved orbit, at which point the upper stage would be deployed and the reactor would be activated to generate thrust. Other examples cited in the report include long-range satellites that could explore the Outer Solar System and Kuiper Belt and fast, efficient transportation for manned missions throughout the Solar System.

The company’s new contract is expected to run through Sept. 30th, 2019. At that time, the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion project will determine the feasibility of using low-enriched uranium fuel. After that, the project then will spend a year testing and refining its ability to manufacture the necessary fuel elements. If all goes well, we can expect that NASA’s “Journey to Mars” might just incorporate some nuclear engines!

Further Reading: NASA, BWXT News

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