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Europe & China Discuss Moonbase Partnership

April 26th, 2017

In recent years, multiple space agencies have shared their plans to return astronauts to the Moon, not to mention establishing an outpost there. Beyond NASA’s plan to revitalize lunar exploration, the European Space Agency (ESA), Rocosmos, and the Chinese and Indian federal space agencies have also announced plans for crewed missions to the Moon that could result in permanent settlements.

As with all things in this new age of space exploration, collaboration appears to be the key to making things happen.  This certainly seems to be the case when it comes to the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the ESA’s respective plans for lunar exploration. As spokespeople from both agencies announced this week, the CNSA and the ESA hope to work together to create a “Moon Village” by the 2020s.

The announcement first came from the Secretary General of the Chinese space agency (Tian Yulong). On earlier today (Wednesday, April 26th) it was confirmed by the head of media relations for the ESA (Pal A. Hvistendahl). As Hvistendahl was quoted as saying by the Associated Press:

“The Chinese have a very ambitious moon program already in place. Space has changed since the space race of the ’60s. We recognize that to explore space for peaceful purposes, we do international cooperation.”

Multi-dome lunar base being constructed, based on the 3D printing concept. Credits: ESA/Foster + Partners

Yulong and Hvistendahl indicated that this base would aid in the development of lunar mining, space tourism, and facilitate missions deeper into space – particularly to Mars. It would also build upon recent accomplishments by both agencies, which have successfully deployed robotic orbiters and landers to the Moon in the past few decades. These include the CNSA’s Chang’e missions, as well as the ESA’s SMART-1 mission.

As part of the Chang’e program, the Chinese landers explored the lunar surface in part to investigate the prospect of mining Helium-3, which could be used to power fusion reactors here on Earth. Similarly, the SMART-1 mission created detailed maps of the northern polar region of the Moon. By charting the geography and illumination of the lunar north pole, the probe helped to identify possible base sites where water ice could be harvested.

While no other details of this proposed village have been released just yet, it is likely that the plan will build on the vision expressed by ESA director Jan Woerner back in December of 2015. While attending the “Moon 2020-2030 – A New Era of Coordinated Human and Robotic Exploration” symposium, Woerner expressed his agency’s desire to create an international lunar base as a successor to the International Space Station.

In addition, its is likely that the construction of this base will rely on additive manufacture (aka. 3-d printing) techniques specially developed for the lunar environment. In 2013, the ESA announced that they had teamed up with renowned architects Foster+Partners to test the feasibility of using lunar soil to print walls that would protect lunar domes from harmful radiation and micrometeorites.

Artist’s impression of a lunar base created with 3-d printing techniques. Credits: ESA/Foster + Partners

This agreement could signal a new era for the CNSA, which has enjoyed little in the way of cooperation with other federal space agencies in the past. Due to the agency’s strong military connections, the U.S. government passed legislation in 2011 that barred the CSNA from participating in the International Space Station. But an agreement between the ESA and China could open the way for a three-party collaboration involving NASA.

The ESA, NASA and Roscosmos also entered into talks back in 2012 about the possibility of creating a lunar base together. Assuming that all four nations can agree on a framework, any future Moon Village could involve astronauts from all the world’s largest space agencies. Such a outpost, where research could be conducted on the long-term effects of exposure to low-g and extra-terrestrial environments, would be invaluable to space exploration.

In the meantime, the CNSA hopes to launch a sample-return mission to the Moon by the end of 2017 – Chang’e 5 – and to send the Chang’e 4 mission (whose launch was delayed in 2015) to the far side of the Moon by 2018. For its part, the ESA hopes to conduct a mission analysis on samples brought back by Chang’e 5, and also wants to send a European astronaut to Tiangong-2 (which just conducted its first automated cargo delivery) at some future date.

As has been said countless times since the end of the Apollo Era – “We’re going back to the Moon. And this time, we intend to stay!”

Further Reading: Bloomberg, ESA

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Is Another Universe Sitting Too Close To Us On The Multiverse Bus?

April 26th, 2017

Since the 1960s, astronomers have been aware of the electromagnetic background radiation that pervades the Universe. Known as the Cosmic Microwave Background, this radiation is the oldest light in the Universe and what is left over from the Big Bang. By 2004, astronomers also became aware that a large region within the CMB appeared to be colder than its surroundings.

Known as the “CMB Cold Spot”, scientists have puzzled over this anomaly for years, with explanations ranging from a data artifact to it being caused by a supervoid. According to a new study conducted by a team of scientists from Durham University, the presence of a supervoid has been ruled out. This conclusion once again opens the door to more exotic explanations – like the existence of a parallel Universe!

The Cold Spot is one of several anomalies that astronomers have been studying since the first maps of CMB were  created using data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). These anomalies are regions in the CMB that fall beneath the average background temperature of 2.73 degrees above absolute zero (-270.43 °C; -460.17 °F). In the case of the Cold Spot, the area is just 0.00015° colder than its surroundings.

Map of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) sky produced by the Planck satellite. The Cold Spot is shown in the inset, with coordinates and the temperature difference in the scale at the bottom. Credit: ESA/Durham University.

And yet, this temperature difference is enough that the Cold Spot has become something of a thorn in the hip of standard models of cosmology. Previously, the smart money appeared to be on it being caused by a supervoid – and area of space measuring billions of light years across which contained few galaxies. To test this theory, the Durham team conducted a survey of the galaxies in the region.

This technique, which measures the extent to which visible light coming from an object is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum, has been the standard method for determining the distance to other galaxies for over a century. For the sake of their study, the Durham team relied on data from the Anglo-Australian Telescope to conduct a survey where they measured the redshifts of 7,000 nearby galaxies.

Based on this high-fidelity dataset, the researchers found no evidence that the Cold Spot corresponded to a relative lack of galaxies. In other words, there was no indication that the region is a supervoid. The results of their study will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) under the title “Evidence Against a Supervoid Causing the CMB Cold Spot“.

As Ruari Mackenzie – a postdoctoral student in the Dept. of Physics at Durham University, a member of the Center for Extragalactic Astronomy, and the lead author on the paper – explained in an RAS press release:

“The voids we have detected cannot explain the Cold Spot under standard cosmology. There is the possibility that some non-standard model could be proposed to link the two in the future but our data place powerful constraints on any attempt to do that.”

The 3-D galaxy distribution in the foreground of the CMB Cold Spot, where each point is a galaxy. Credit: Durham University.

Specifically, the Durham team found that the Cold Spot region could be split into smaller voids, each of which were surrounded by clusters of galaxies. This distribution was consistent with a control field the survey chose for the study, both of which exhibited the same “soap bubble” structure. The question therefore arises: if the Cold Spot is not the result of a void or a relative lack of galaxies, what is causing it?

This is where the more exotic explanations come in, which emphasize that the Cold Spot may be due to something that exists outside the standard model of cosmology. As Tom Shanks, a Professor with the Dept.of Physics at Durham and a co-author of the study, explained:

“Perhaps the most exciting of these is that the Cold Spot was caused by a collision between our universe and another bubble Universe. If further, more detailed, analysis of CMB data proves this to be the case then the Cold Spot might be taken as the first evidence for the multiverse – and billions of other Universes may exist like our own.”

Multiverse Theory, which was first proposed by philosopher and psychologist William James, states that there may be multiple or an even infinite number of Universes that exist parallel to our own. Between these Universes exists the entirety of existence and all cosmological phenomena – i.e. space, time, matter, energy, and all of the physical laws that bind them.

Whereas it is often treated as a philosophical concept, the theory arose in part from the study of cosmological forces, like black holes and problems arising from the Big Bang Theory. In addition, variations on multiverse theory have been suggested as potential resolutions to theories that go beyond the Standard Model of particle physics – such as String Theory and M-theory.

Another variation – the Many-Worlds interpretation – has also been offered as a possible resolution for the wavefunction of subatomic particles. Essentially, it states that all possible outcomes in quantum mechanics exist in alternate universes, and there really is no such thing as “wavefunction collapse’.  Could it therefore be argued that an alternate or parallel Universe is too close to our own, and thus responsible for the anomalies we see in the CMB?

As explanations go, it certainly is exciting, if perhaps a bit fantastic? And the Durham team is not prepared to rule out that the Cold Spot could be the result fluctuations that can be explained by the standard model of cosmology. Right now, the only thing that can be said definitively is that the Cold Spot cannot be explained by something as straightforward as a supervoid and the absence of galaxies.

And in the meantime, additional surveys and experiments need to be conducted. Otherwise, this mystery may become a real sticking point for cosmology!

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society, arXiv

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The Next Pluto Mission: An Orbiter and Lander?

April 26th, 2017

For decades, we could only imagine what the view of Pluto’s surface might be. Now, we have the real thing.

The images and data from the New Horizons’ mission flyby of Pluto in July 2015 showed us an unexpectedly stunning and geologically active world. Scientists have used words like ‘magical,’ ‘breathtaking’ and ‘scientific wonderland’ to describe the long-awaited close-up views of distant Pluto.

Even though scientists are still analyzing the data from New Horizons, ideas are starting to formulate about sending another spacecraft to Pluto, but with a long-term orbiter mission instead of a quick flyby.

“The next appropriate mission to Pluto is an orbiter, maybe equipped with a lander if we had enough funding to do both,” New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern told Universe Today in March.

This week, Stern has shared on social media that the New Horizons’ science team is meeting. But, separately, another group is starting to talk about a possible next mission to Pluto.

But getting a spacecraft to the outer regions of our solar system as fast as possible provides challenges, particularly in being able to slow down enough to enable going into orbit around Pluto. For the speedy and lightweight New Horizons, an orbital mission was impossible.

What propulsion system might make a Pluto orbiter and/or lander mission possible?

A few ideas are being tossed around.

Space Launch System

One concept takes advantage of NASA’s big, new Space Launch System (SLS), currently under development to enable human missions to Mars. NASA describes the SLS as “designed to be flexible and evolvable and will open new possibilities for payloads, included robotic scientific missions.” Even the first Block 1 version can launch 70 metric tons (later versions might be able to lift up to 130 metric tons.) Block 1 will be powered by twin five-segment solid rocket boosters and four liquid propellant engines, with a proposed 15% more thrust at launch than the Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the Moon.

An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

But an orbiter mission to Pluto might not be the best use of the SLS alone.

It takes a lot of fuel to accelerate a vehicle to fast enough speed to get to Pluto in a reasonable amount of time. For example, New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched, using a souped-up Atlas V rocket with extra boosters, it performed a big burn when New Horizons departed Earth orbit. The lightweight spacecraft sped away from the Earth at 36,000 miles per hour (about 58,000 km/ hour), then used a gravity assist from Jupiter to boost New Horizons’ speed to 52,000 mph (83,600 km/h), traveling nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) a day in its 3 billion mile (4.8 billion km) journey to Pluto. The flight took nine and a half years.

“To enter Pluto orbit, a vehicle [like SLS] would have to boost up to that same speed, then turn around and decelerate for half the trip to arrive at Pluto with a net velocity of zero relative to the planet,” explained Stephen Fleming, an investor in several alt-space startups including XCOR Aerospace, Planetary Resources and NanoRacks. “Unfortunately, due to the tyranny of the rocket equation, you would have to carry all the fuel/propellant to decelerate with you at launch … which means accelerating the orbiter AND all that fuel in the initial phase. That requires logarithmically more fuel for the initial burn, and it turns out to be a LOT of fuel.”

Fleming told Universe Today that using the multi-billion dollar SLS to launch a Pluto orbiter, you would wind up launching an entire payload full of propellant just to accelerate and decelerate a tiny Pluto orbiter. “That’s an extraordinarily expensive mission,” he said.

RTG-Ion Propulsion

A better option might be to use a propulsion system of combined technologies. Stern mentioned a NASA study that looked at using the SLS as the launch vehicle and to boost the spacecraft towards Pluto, but then using an RTG (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) powered ion engine to later brake for an orbital arrival.

An RTG produces heat from the natural decay of non-weapons-grade plutonium-238, and the heat is converted into electricity. An RTG ion engine would be a more powerful ion propulsion system than the current solar electric ion engine on the Dawn spacecraft, now orbiting Ceres, in the asteroid belt, plus it would enable operation in the outer solar system, far from the Sun. This nuclear powered ion engine would enable a speeding spacecraft to slow down and go into orbit.

An artist's illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft with its ion propulsion system approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“The SLS would boost you to fly out to Pluto,” Stern said, “and it would actually take two years to do the braking with ion propulsion.”

Stern said the flight time for such a mission to Pluto would be seven and a half years, two years faster than New Horizons.

Fusion Propulsion

But the most exciting option might be a proposed Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander mission currently under a Phase 1 study in NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

The proposal uses a Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) engine that has propulsion and power in one integrated device. DFD provides high thrust to allow for a flight time of about 4 years to Pluto, plus being able to send substantial mass to orbit, perhaps between 1000 to 8000 kg.

A Direct Fusion Drive-powered spacecraft in orbit around Pluto, with the lander ready to deploy from the right-hand side. The large wing-like structures are the radiators and the optical communications lasers are on trusses extending from the center. Credits: Princeton Satellite Systems, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

DFD is based on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor that has been under development for 15 years at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

If this propulsion system works as planned, it could launch a Pluto orbiter and a lander (or possibly a rover), and provide enough power to maintain an orbiter and all its instruments, as well as beam a lot of power to a lander. That would enable the surface vehicle to beam back video to the orbiter because it would have so much power, according to Stephanie Thomas from Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc., who is leading the NIAC study.

“Our concept is generally received as, ‘wow, that sounds really cool! When can I get one?’” Thomas told Universe Today. She said her and her team chose a prototype Pluto orbiter and lander mission in their proposal because it’s a great example of what can be done with a fusion rocket.

Their fusion system uses a small linear array of solenoid coils, and their fuel of choice is deuterium helium 3, which has very low neutron production.

Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander. Credits: Stephanie Thomas.

“It fits on a spacecraft, it fits on a launch vehicle,” Thomas explained in a NIAC symposium talk (her talk starts about 17:30 in the linked video). “There’s no lithium, or other dangerous materials, it produces very few damaging particles. It’s about the size of a minivan or small truck. Our system is cheaper and faster to develop than other fusion proposals.”

The Princeton team has been able to produce 300 millisecond pulses with their plasma heating experiment, orders of magnitude better than any other system.

“The biggest hurdle is the fusion itself,” she said. “We need to build a bigger experiment to finish proving the new heating method, which will require an order of magnitude more resources than the project has been receiving from the Department of Energy so far,” Thomas said via email. “However, it’s still small in the grand scheme of advanced technology projects, about $50 million.”

Thomas said that DARPA has spent much more on many technology initiatives that ended up canceled. And it’s also much less than other fusion technologies require for the same stage of research, since our machine is so small and has a simple coil configuration.” (Thomas said have a look at the budget for ITER, the international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject, currently running over $20 billion).

“To put it simply, we know our method heats electrons really well and can extrapolate to heating ions, but we need to build it and prove it,” she said.

Thomas and her team are currently working on the “balance of plant” technology – the subsystems that will be required to operate the engine in space, assuming the heating method works as currently predicted.

In terms of the Pluto mission itself, Thomas said there aren’t any particular hurdles on the orbiter itself, but it would involve scaling up a few technologies to take advantage of the very large amount of power available, such as the optical communications.

“We could dedicate tens or more kW of power to the communication laser, not 10 watts, [like current missions]” she said. “Another unique feature of our concept is being able to beam a lot of power to a lander. This would enable new classes of planetary science instruments like powerful drills. The technology to do this exists but the specific instruments need to be designed and built. Additional technology that will be needed that is under development in various industries are lightweight space radiators, next-generation superconducting wires, and long-term cryogenic storage for the deuterium fuel.”

Thomas said their NIAC research is going well.

“We were selected for the NIAC Phase II study, and are in contract negotiations now,” she said. “We are busy working on higher fidelity models of the engine’s thrust, designing components of the trajectory, and sizing the various subsystems, including the superconducting coils,” she said. “Our current estimates are that a single 1 to 10 MW engine will produce between 5 and 50 N thrust, at about 10,000 sec specific impulse.”

Laser Zapping to Pluto

Another futuristic propulsion possibility is the laser-based systems proposed by Yuri Milner for his Breakthrough Starshot proposal, where small cubesats could be zapped by lasers on Earth, basically “bug zapping” spacecraft to reach incredible speeds (possibly millions of miles/km per hour) to visit the outer solar system or beyond.

“It’s not really in the cards for us to use this kind of technology, because we’d have to wait decades just for this to be developed,” Stern said. “But if you could send lightweight, inexpensive spacecraft at speeds like one-10th the speed of light based on lasers from Earth. We could send these small spacecraft to hundreds or thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belts, and you’d be out there in a matter of two-and-a-half days. You could send a spacecraft past Pluto every day. That would be really game changing.”

The Realistic Future

But even if everyone agrees a Pluto orbiter should be done, the earliest possible date for such a mission is sometime between the early 2020s and the early 2030s. But it all depends on the recommendations put forth by the scientific community’s next decadal survey, which will suggest the most top-priority missions for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

These Decadal Surveys are 10-year “roadmaps” that set science priorities and provide guidance on where NASA should send spacecraft and what types of missions they should be. The last Decadal Survey was published in 2011, and that set planetary science priorities through 2022. The next one, for 2023-2034, will likely be published in 2022.

The New Horizons mission was the result of the suggestions from the 2003 planetary science Decadal Survey, where scientists said visiting the Pluto system and worlds beyond was a top-priority destination.

So, if you’re dreaming of a Pluto orbiter, keep talking about it.

New Horizon’s July 2015 flyby of Pluto taught us a lot about that planet. For one thing, Pluto is much more geophysically active than thought. Credit:
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

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SpaceX to Launch 1st NRO SpySat Sunday after Static Fire Success

April 26th, 2017

SpaceX conducts successful static hot fire test of Falcon 9 booster atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 25 Apr. 2017 as seen from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FL. The Falcon 9 is slated to launch the NROL-76 super secret spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) on 30 April 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

MERRITT ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, FL – Elon Musk’s SpaceX is primed for another significant space first; the firms first launch of a spy satellite for the US governments super secret spy agency; the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO – following today’s successful static hotfire test of the Falcon 9 launchers first stage booster.

Tuesday’s hotfire test to took place shortly after 3 p.m. this afternoon, April 25, at SpaceX’s seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The successful test paves the path for launch of the NROL-76 classified payload for the NRO atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this Sunday morning, April 30 from pad 39A.

“Static fire test complete,” SpaceX confirmed via social media just minutes after finishing the brief test at 3:02 p.m. EDT (1902 GMT).

“Targeting Falcon 9 launch of NROL-76 on Sunday, April 30.”

The engine test is conducted using only the first two stages of the rocket – minus the expensive payload in case anything goes wrong as like occurred during the catastrophic AMOS-6 static fire disaster last September.

The test is routinely done so that SpaceX engineers can confirm the readiness of the rocket and all its systems to safely and successfully launch the specified payload to its intended orbit.

Furthermore this launch is also notable because it features the next land landing by a SpaceX Falcon 9 first booster back at the Cape for only the fourth time in history – which also makes for an extremely thrilling experience – and unforgettable space enthusiasts event.

So by all means try to witness this launch from the Florida Space Coast in person, if at all possible.

The breakfast time launch window on Sunday, April 30 opens at 7 a.m. EDT. It extends for two hours until 9.a.m. EDT.

The long range weather outlook currently looks favorable with lots of sun and little rain. But that can change on a moment’s notice in the sunshine state.

The brief engine test lasting approximately three seconds took place at 3:02 p.m. today, Tuesday, April 25, with the sudden eruption of smoke and ash rushing out the flame trench to the north and into the air over historic pad 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during a picture perfect sunny afternoon – as I witnessed from the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, FL.

SpaceX conducts successful static hot fire test of Falcon 9 booster atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 25 Apr. 2017 as seen from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FL. The Falcon 9 is slated to launch the NROL-76 super secret spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) on 30 April 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

During today’s static fire test, the rocket’s first and second stages are fueled with densified liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants like an actual launch, and a simulated countdown is carried out to the point of a brief engine ignition with the rocket firmly clamped down and held in place.

The hold down engine test with the erected rocket involved the ignition of all nine Merlin 1D first stage engines generating some 1.7 million pounds of thrust at pad 39A while the two stage rocket was restrained on the pad.

This is only the fourth Falcon 9 static fire test ever conducted on Pad 39A.

Pad 39A has been repurposed by SpaceX from its days as a NASA shuttle launch pad.

Watch this video of the April 25 static fire test from colleague Jeff Seibert:



Video Caption: Static fire test of the Falcon 9 core in preparation for NROL-76 launch scheduled for April 30, 2017. A Falcon 9 booster undergoes a captive static fire test as a step in the launch preparation for the first dedicated NRO launch by SpaceX. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Following the engine test, the propellants are drained and the rocket is rolled off the pad and back into the huge SpaceX processing hanger at the pad perimeter.

The NROL-76 classified surveillance satellite will be bolted on top. The rocket will be rolled back to pad 39A in advance of Sunday’s planned blastoff.

SpaceX conducts successful static hot fire test of Falcon 9 booster atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 25 Apr. 2017 as seen from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, FL. The Falcon 9 is slated to launch the NROL-76 super secret spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) on 30 April 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Until now launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA) and its predecessors have held a virtual monoploy on the US military’s most critical satellite launches.

Worlds 1st ever reflown SpaceX Falcon 9 soars to orbit with SES-10 telecomsat from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6:27 p.m. EDT on March 30, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The last first stage booster during the SES-10 launch of the first recycled rocket landed on a droneship barge at sea last month.

NROL-76 will be the fifth SpaceX launch of 2017.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

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Designing The Hanging Gardens Of Mars

April 25th, 2017

NASA is all about solving challenges, and the goal of having a prolonged presence in space, or a colony on Mars or some other world, is full of challenges, including the necessity of growing food. Scientists at Kennedy Advanced Life Support Research are working on the Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse Project to try and meet that challenge.

The Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse Project (PLMGP) is all about growing vegetables for astronauts during extended stays on the Moon, on Mars, or anywhere they can’t be resupplied from Earth. Beyond growing food, the Project aims to understand how food-growing systems can also be a part of life-support systems.

“The approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen.” – Dr. Ray Wheeler

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

The prototype itself is an inflatable, deployable system that researchers call a bioregenerative life support system. As crops are grown, the system recycles, water, recycles waste, and revitalizes the air.

The system is hydroponic, so no soil is needed. Water that is either brought along on missions or gathered in situ—on the Moon or at Mars for example—is enriched with nutrient salts, and flows continuously through plant root systems. Air in the system is recycled too. Astronauts exhale carbon dioxide, which plants absorb. Through photosynthesis, the plants produce oxygen for the astronauts.

This 18 foot long tube is a prototype of a bioregenerative life support system. The system grows crops, but also regenerates water and air. It's at the University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. Image: University of Arizona

This 18 foot long tube is a prototype of a bioregenerative life support system. The system grows crops, but also regenerates water and air. It’s at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. Image: University of Arizona

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

“The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.” – Dr. Gene Giacomelli

A key part of a system like this is knowing what astronauts will have to bring with them, and what resources they can find at their destination. This includes which type of plants and seeds will be needed, as well as how much water might be available once astronauts reach their destination. Methods of extracting water on Mars or the Moon are also being researched and developed.

Even if the necessary water can be found in situ on Mars and the Moon, that hardly means those are easy places to grow food. Astronauts have to be protected from radiation, and so will crops. These greenhouse chambers would have to buried underground, which means specialized lighting systems are also required.

“We’ve been successful in using electric LED (light emitting diode) lighting to grow plants,” Dr. Wheeler said. “We also have tested hybrids using both natural and artificial lighting.” Solar light could be captured with light concentrators that track the sun and then convey the light to the chamber using fiber optic bundles.

These systems are not NASA’s first experience at growing crops in space. Experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been an important part of the research into crop production in non-terrestrial environments. The Veggie Plant Growth System was NASA’s first attempt, and astronauts successfully harvested lettuce from that system.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough harvesting lettuce from 'VEGGIE' on the International Space Station. Image: NASA

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough harvesting lettuce from ‘VEGGIE’ on the International Space Station. Image: NASA

Earth has well-established systems for sustaining life, and this project is all about taking some of that to distant destinations in space.

“I think it’s interesting to consider that we’re taking our terrestrial companions with us,” Wheeler said. “While there may be ways to engineer around it in terms of stowage and resupply, it wouldn’t be as sustainable. The greenhouses provide a more autonomous approach to long-term exploration on the moon, Mars and beyond.”

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Did A Comet Impact Push Humans Into Technological Overdrive?

April 25th, 2017

About 14,500 years ago, Earth began transitioning from its cold, glacial self to a warmer interglacial state. However, partway through this period, temperatures suddenly returned to near-glacial conditions. This abrupt change (known as the Younger Dryas period) is believed by some to be the reason why hunter-gatherers started forming sedentary communities, farming, and laying the groundwork for civilization as we know it – aka. the Neolithic Revolution.

For over a decade, there have been scientists who have argued that this period the result of a comet hitting Earth. Known as the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis (aka. the Clovis Comet Hypothesis), the theory is largely based on ice core samples from Greenland that show a sudden global temperature change. But according to a new study by a research team from the University of Edinburgh, archaeological evidence may also prove this hypothesis correct.

The Younger Dryas period takes its name from a species of flower known as Dryas octopetala. This plant is known to grow in cold conditions, and became common in Europe during the period. Because of the way it began abruptly – roughly 12,500 years ago – and then ended just as abruptly 1200 years later, many scientists have are convinced it was caused by an external event.

Göbekli Tepe, structures A-D of the site, located in southern Turkey. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Teomancimit

For the sake of their study – which was recently published in the journal Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry under the title “Decoding Göbekli Tepe With Archaeoastronomy: What Does the Fox Say?“- the team found an astronomical link to the stone pillars at Göbekli Tepe. Located in southern Turkey, this archaeological find is the oldest known temple site in the world (dated to ca. 10,950 BCE).

This site, it should be noted, is contemporary with the Greenland ice core samples, which are dated to around 10,890 BCE. Of the sites many features, none are more famous than the many standing pillars that dot the excavated grounds. This is because of the extensive pictograms and animal reliefs that decorate these pillars, which include various representations of mammal and avian species- particularly vultures.

Pillar 43, which is also known as the “vulture stone”, was of particular interest to archeologists, as it is suspected that its representations (associated with death) could have been intended to commemorate a devastating event. The other images, they ventured, were meant to depict the constellations, and that their placement relative to each other accorded to the positions of the then-known asterisms in the night sky.

This theory was based on images they took of the site, which they then examined using the planetarium program stellarium 0.15. In the end, they found that the images bore a resemblance to constellations that would have been visible in 10,950 BCE. As such, they concluded that the temple site may have been an observatory, and that the images were a catalog of celestial events – which include the Taurid meteor stream.

Wall pillars with three animal symbols in series. Part a) is pillar 2 from Enclosure A, while part b) is pillar 38, Enclosure D. Credit: Travel The Unknown

As they state in their study:

“We begin by noting the carving of a scorpion on pillar 43, a well -known zodiacal symbol for Scorpius. Based on this observation, we investigate to what extent other symbols on pillar 43 can be interpreted as zodiacal symbols or other familiar astronomical symbols… We suggest the vulture/eagle on pillar 43 can be interpreted as the ‘teapot’ asterism of our present-day notion of Sagittarius; the angle between the eagle/vulture’s head and wings, in particular, agrees well with the ‘handle’,‘lid’ and ‘spout’ of the teapot asterism. We also suggest the ‘bent-bird’ with downward wriggling snake or fish can be interpreted as the ‘13th sign of the zodiac’, i.e. of our present-day notion of Ophiuchus. Although its relative position is not very accurate, we suggest the artist(s) of pillar 43 were constrained by the shape of the pillar. These symbols are a reasonably good match with their corresponding asterisms, and they all appear to be in approximately the correct relative locations.

Similarly, they suggest that a carved circle at the center of pillar 43 could be interpreted as the Sun. They call this image the “date stamp” because it can be seen as communicating a specific date by indicating which part of the zodiac the Sun was in at the time of carving. By comparing the age of the site (based on carbon dating) to the apparent position of the Sun, they found that it was consistent with the Summer solstice of 10,950 BCE.

Of course, the team fully acknowledges that an astronomical interpretation is by no means the only possibility. In addition to the possibility of them being mythological references, they could also be representations of hunting or migration patterns. It’s also entirely possible they were not meant to convey any specific meaning, and were merely a description of the local environment, which would have been rich in flora and fauna at the time.

Pillar 43, Enclosure D, also known as the Vulture Stone of Göbekli Tepe. Credit: Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis

In addition, the way vultures are commonly featured could be an indication that the site was a burial ground. This is consistent with iconography found at the archaeological sites of Çatalhöyük (in central, southern Turkey) and Jericho (in the West Bank). During the time period in question, Neolithic peoples were known to conduct sky burials, where the bodies of the deceased were left out in the open for carrion birds to pick over.

In such practices, the head was sometimes removed from the deceased and kept (for the sake of ancestor worship). This is consistent with one of the characters on Pillar 43, which appears to be a headless human. However, as the team go on to explain, they are confident that the connection between the site’s images and the Taurid meteor stream is a plausible one.

“[O]ur basic statistical analysis indicatesour astronomical interpretation is very likely to be correct,” they write. “We are therefore content to limit ourselves to this hypothesis, and logically we are not required to pursue others.” And of course, they acknowledge that further research will be necessary before any conclusions can be made.

Despite the availability of other (and perhaps more plausible) explanations, one has to admit that the astronomical theory is appealing. Civilization as we know it being a response to a meteor impact, and ancient people cataloging it in their stone carvings. It’s got a real Deep Impact meets 2001: A Space Odyssey feel to it!

Further Reading: MAA Journal

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Meet Steve, A Most Peculiar Aurora

April 25th, 2017

Nicknamed Steve, this unusual aurora feature is a 15.5-mile-wide (25 km) ribbon of hot gas flowing westward at about 13,300 mph, more than 600 times faster than the surrounding air. The photo was taken last fall. Copyright: Instagram.com/davemarkelphoto

This remarkable image was captured last fall by Dave Markel, a photographer based in Kamloops, British Columbia. Later, aurora researcher Eric Donovan of the University of Calgary, discovered Markel’s strange ribbon of light while looking through photos of the northern lights on social media. Knowing he’d found something unusual, Donovan worked sifted through data from the European Space Agency’s Swarm magnetic field mission to try and understand the nature of the phenomenon.

Swarm is ESA’s first constellation of Earth observation satellites designed to measure the magnetic signals from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere, providing data that will allow scientists to study the complexities of our protective magnetic field. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

Launched on 22 November 2013, three identical Swarm satellites orbit the Earth measuring the magnetic fields that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as from the ionosphere and magnetosphere. Speaking at the recent Swarm science meeting in Canada, Donovan explained how this new finding couldn’t have happened 20 years ago when he started to study the aurora.

A beautiful aurora featuring green arcs near the horizon and many parallel rays lights up the northern sky last October. A small meteor appears to the right of center. Credit: Bob King

While the shimmering, eerie, light display of auroras might be beautiful and captivating, they’re also a visual reminder that Earth is connected electrically and magnetically to the Sun. The more we know about the aurora, the greater our understanding of that connection and how it affects everything from satellites to power grids to electrically-induced corrosion of oil pipelines.

“In 1997 we had just one all-sky imager in North America to observe the aurora borealis from the ground,” said Prof. Donovan.  “Back then we would be lucky if we got one photograph a night of the aurora taken from the ground that coincides with an observation from a satellite. Now we have many more all-sky imagers and satellite missions like Swarm so we get more than 100 a night.”

The Suomi NPP satellite photographed this view of the aurora on December 22, 2016, when the northern lights stretched across northern Canada. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen / Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Colorized and labeled by the author

And that’s where sharing photos and observations on social media can play an important role. Sites like the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters and Aurorasaurus serve as clearinghouses for observers to report auroral displays.  Aurorasaurus connects citizen scientists to scientists and searches Twitter feeds for instances of the word ‘aurora,’ so skywatchers and scientists alike know the real-time extent of the auroral oval.

At a recent talk, Prof. Donovan met members the popular Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers. Looking at their photos, he came across the purple streak Markel and others had photographed which they’d been referring to as a “proton arc.” But such a feature, caused by hydrogen emission in the upper atmosphere, is too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Donovan knew it was something else, but what?Someone suggested “Steve.” Hey, why not?

Aurora researchers now us a network of all-sky cameras and multiple satellites to keep track of the ever-shifting aurora. Click to see the video. Credit: University of Calgary

While the group kept watch for the Steve’s return,  Donovan and colleagues looked through data from the Swarm mission and his network of all-sky cameras. Before long he was able to match a ground sighting of streak to an overpass of one of the three Swarm satellites.

“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes,” said Donovan.

“The temperature 186 miles (300 km) above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 15.5-mile-wide (25 km) ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/second compared to a speed of about 10 meters/second either side of the ribbon. A friend of mine compared it to a fluorescent light without the glass.

Little did I know I’d met Steve back on May 18, 1990 in this remarkable, narrow arc that stretched from the northwestern horizon to the southeastern. To the eye, a “wind” of vague forms pulsed through the arc. The Big Dipper stands vertically at right. Credit: Bob King

It turns out that these high-speed “rivers” of glowing auroral gas are much more common than we’d thought, and that in no small measure because of the efforts of an army of skywatchers and aurora photographers who keep watch for that telltale green glow in the northern sky.

I spoke to Steve’s keeper, Dave Markel, via e-mail yesterday and he described what the arc looked like to his eyes:

“It’s similar to the image just not as intense. It looks like a massive contrail moving rapidly across the sky. This one lasted almost an hour and ran in an arc almost perfectly east to west. I was directly below it but often there are green pickets (parallel streaks of aurora) rising above the streak.”

This is the same May 18, 1990 streak as above but the eastern half. The bright star Arcturus is visible at upper right. Wish I’d had a fisheye! Credit: Bob King

I know whereof Dave speaks because thanks to his photo and Prof. Donovan’s research, I realize I’ve seen and photographed Steve, too! In decades of aurora watching I’ve only seen this rare streak a handful of times. On most of those occasions, there was either no other aurora visible or minor activity in the northern sky. The narrow arc, which lasted for an hour or so, pulsed and flowed with light and occasionally, Markel’s “pickets” were visible. Back in May 1990 I had a camera on hand to get a picture.

Goes to show, you never know what you might see when you poke your head out for a look. Keep a lookout when aurora’s expected and maybe you’ll get to meet Steve, too.

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Adieu Titan: So Long & Thanks For All The Hydrocarbons

April 25th, 2017

The Cassini spacecraft has done some amazing things since it arrived in the Saturn system in 2004. In addition to providing valuable information on the gas giant and its system of rings, it has also provided us with extensive data and photographs of Saturn’s many moons. Nowhere has this been more apparent than with Saturn’s largest moon, the hydrocarbon-rich satellite known as Titan.

And with just a few hours left before Cassini makes its final plunge between Saturn and its innermost ring (something that no other spacecraft has ever done), we should all take this opportunity to say goodbye to Titan. In the past few years, it has dazzled us with its methane lakes, dense atmosphere, and potential for hosting life. And it shall be sorely missed!

Cassini’s last encounter with Titan – where it passed within 979 km (608 mi) of the moon’s surface – took place on April 21st, at 11:08 p.m. PDT (April 22nd, 2:08 a.m. EDT). The probe also used this opportunity to take some radar images of the moon’s northern polar region. While this area has been photographed before, this was the first time that radar images were acquired.

Unprocessed image of Saturn’s moon Titan, captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its final close flyby on April 21st, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Over the course of the next week, Cassini’s radar team hopes to pour over theses images, which provide a detailed look at the methane seas and lakes in the northern polar region. It is hoped that this data will allow scientists to shed more light on the depths and compositions of some of the small lakes in the area, as well as provide more information on the evolving surface feature known as “magic island“.

With this last pass complete (its 127th in total), Cassini is now beginning the final phase of its mission – known as the Grand Finale. This will consist of the spacecraft making a final set of 22 orbits around the ringed planet between April 26th and September 15th. The maneuver will allow Cassini to go where no other probe has gone before and get the closest look ever at Saturn’s outer rings.

The final pass over Titan was part of this maneuver, using the moon’s gravity to bend and reshape the probe’s orbit so that it would be able to pass through Saturn’s ring system – instead of passing just beyond the main rings. As Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL, said in a NASA press release:

“With this flyby we’re committed to the Grand Finale. The spacecraft is now on a ballistic path, so that even if we were to forgo future small course adjustments using thrusters, we would still enter Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15 no matter what.”

Some key numbers for Cassini’s Grand Finale and final plunge into Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini’s final pass with Titan allowed it to acquire a boost in velocity, increasing its speed by 860.5 meters per second (3098 km/h; 1,925 mph). It then reached its farthest point in its orbit around Saturn (apoapse) on April 22nd, :46 p.m. PDT (11:46 p.m. EDT). This effectively began the Grand Finale orbits, with the first dive coming on April 26th, at 02:00 a.m. PDT (05:00 a.m. EDT).

This orbit will provide Cassini with its best look to date at Saturn’s north pole, which it will be studying with both its  Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) and Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS). These studies will lead to the creation of the sharpest movies to date in the near-infrared band, which will also allow the science team to study the motions of the hexagon pattern around Saturn’s north pole in more detail.

Between now and September, when the mission will end, the probe will provide information that is expected to improve our understanding of how giant planets form and evolve. Things will finally wrap on  September 15th, 2017, when the probe will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. But even then, the probe will be sending back information until its very last seconds of operation.

Safe journeys Cassini! And so long Titan! We hope to be exploring you again someday soon, preferably with something that can float or fly around inside your dense atmosphere, or perhaps investigate your methane seas in serious depth!

In the meantime, be sure to check out this narrated, 360-degree animated video from NASA. As you can see, it simulates what a ride on the Cassini spacecraft might look like as it makes its Grand Finale:

Further Reading: NASA, Cassini – The Grand Finale

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Another Strange Discovery From LHC That Nobody Understands

April 25th, 2017

There are some strange results being announced in the physics world lately. A fluid with a negative effective mass, and the discovery of five new particles, are all challenging our understanding of the universe.

New results from ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) are adding to the strangeness.

ALICE is a detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It’s one of seven detectors, and ALICE’s role is to “study the physics of strongly interacting matter at extreme energy densities, where a phase of matter called quark-gluon plasma forms,” according to the CERN website. Quark-gluon plasma is a state of matter that existed only a few millionths of a second after the Big Bang.

In what we might call normal matter—that is the familiar atoms that we all learn about in high school—protons and neutrons are made up of quarks. Those quarks are held together by other particles called gluons. (“Glue-ons,” get it?) In a state known as confinement, these quarks and gluons are permanently bound together. In fact, quarks have never been observed in isolation.

A cut-away view of the ALICE detector at CERN’s LHC. Image: By Pcharito – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31365856

The LHC is used to collide particles together at extremely high speeds, creating temperatures that can be 100,000 times hotter than the center of our Sun. In new results just released from CERN, lead ions were collided, and the resulting extreme conditions come close to replicating the state of the Universe those few millionths of a second after the Big Bang.

In those extreme temperatures, the state of confinement was broken, and the quarks and gluons were released, and formed quark-gluon plasma.

So far, this is pretty well understood. But in these new results, something additional happened. There was increased production of what are called “strange hadrons.” Strange hadrons themselves are well-known particles. They have names like Kaon, Lambda, Xi and Omega. They’re called strange hadrons because they each have one “strange quark.”

If all of this seems a little murky, here’s the dinger: Strange hadrons may be well-known particles, because they’ve been observed in collisions between heavy nuclei. But they haven’t been observed in collisions between protons.

“Being able to isolate the quark-gluon-plasma-like phenomena in a smaller and simpler system…opens up an entirely new dimension for the study of the properties of the fundamental state that our universe emerged from.” – Federico Antinori, Spokesperson of the ALICE collaboration.

“We are very excited about this discovery,” said Federico Antinori, Spokesperson of the ALICE collaboration. “We are again learning a lot about this primordial state of matter. Being able to isolate the quark-gluon-plasma-like phenomena in a smaller and simpler system, such as the collision between two protons, opens up an entirely new dimension for the study of the properties of the fundamental state that our universe emerged from.”

Enhanced Strangeness?

The creation of quark-gluon plasma at CERN provides physicists an opportunity to study the strong interaction. The strong interaction is also known as the strong force, one of the four fundamental forces in the Universe, and the one that binds quarks into protons and neutrons. It’s also an opportunity to study something else: the increased production of strange hadrons.

In a delicious turn of phrase, CERN calls this phenomenon “enhanced strangeness production.” (Somebody at CERN has a flair for language.)

Enhanced strangeness production from quark-gluon plasma was predicted in the 1980s, and was observed in the 1990s at CERN’s Super Proton Synchrotron. The ALICE experiment at the LHC is giving physicists their best opportunity yet to study how proton-proton collisions can have enhanced strangeness production in the same way that heavy ion collisions can.

According to the press release announcing these results, “Studying these processes more precisely will be key to better understand the microscopic mechanisms of the quark-gluon plasma and the collective behaviour of particles in small systems.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Carnival of Space #506

April 25th, 2017

This week’s Carnival of Space is hosted by Allen Versfeld at his Urban Astronomer blog.

Click here to read Carnival of Space #506.

And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to 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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