Directory >Space Brief

More Space Categories:
Moon Phase

Space Brief
New and Recent Space Headlines

Universe Today

Space and astronomy news

04/30/2016 10:32 AM
Fuel Control Valve Faulted for Atlas Launch Anomaly, Flights Resume Soon

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/

A critical fuel control valve has been faulted for the Atlas V launch anomaly that forced a premature shutdown of the rockets first stage engines during its most recent launch of a Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) last month - that nevertheless was successful in delivering the payload to its intended orbit.

Having identified the root cause of the engine shortfall, workers for Atlas rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA), have now stacked the booster slated for the next planned liftoff in the processing facility at their Cape Canaveral launch pad, the company announced in a statement Friday.

The Atlas rockets Centaur upper stage fired longer than normal after the first stage anomaly, saving the day by making up for the significant lack of thrust and “delivering Cygnus to a precise orbit, well within the required accuracy,” ULA said.

ULA says it hopes to resume launches of the 20 story tall rocket as soon as this summer, starting with the MUOS-5 communications satellite payload for the U.S. Navy.

Following a painstaking investigation to fully evaluate all the data, the ULA engineering team “determined an anomaly with the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly caused a reduction in fuel flow during the boost phase of the flight,” the company confirmed in a statement.

The Atlas V first stages are powered by the Russian-made RD AMROSS RD-180 engines. The dual nozzle powerplants have been completely reliable in 62 Atlas launches to date.

The RD-180s are fueled by a mixture of RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen stored in the first stage.

The Centaur RL10C-1 second stage powerplant had to make up for a thrust and velocity deficiency resulting from a 6 second shorter than planned firing of the first stage RD-180 engines.

“The Centaur [upper stage] burned for longer than planned,” Lyn Chassagne, ULA spokesperson, told Universe Today.

Indeed Centaur fired for a minute longer than planned to inject Cygnus into its proper orbit.

“The first stage cut-off occurred approximately 6 seconds early, however the Centaur was able to burn an additional approximately 60 seconds longer and achieve mission success, delivering Cygnus to its required orbit,” said ULA.

MUOS-5 was originally supposed to blastoff on May 5. But the liftoff was put on hold soon after the Atlas V launch anomaly experienced during the March 22, 2016 launch of the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 supply ship to the ISS for NASA.

Since then, ULA mounted a thorough investigation to determine the root cause and identify fixes to correct the problem with RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly, while postponing all Atlas V launches.

ULA has inspected, analyzed and tested their entire stockpile of RD-180 engines.

Last Friday, the Atlas V first stage for the MUOS-5 launch was erected inside ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The five solid motors have been attached and the Centaur is next.

In this configuration, known as Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS) operation, technicians can further inspect and confirm that the RD-180 engines are ready to support a launch.

The two stage Atlas V for MUOS-5 will launch in its most powerful 551 configuration with five solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage, a single engine Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 Centaur upper stage and a 5-meter-diameter payload fairing.

The RD-180s were supposed to fire for 255.5 seconds, or just over 4 minutes. But instead they shut down prematurely resulting in decreased velocity that had to be supplemented by the Centaur RL10C-1 to get to the intended orbit needed to reach the orbiting outpost.

The liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine was planned to fire for 818 seconds or about 13.6 minutes. The single engine produces 22,900 lbf of thrust.

The Atlas V first and second stages are preprogrammed to swiftly react to a wide range of anomalous situations to account for the unexpected. The rocket and launch teams conduct countless simulations to react to off nominal situations.

“The Atlas V’s robust system design, software and vehicle margins enabled the successful outcome for this mission,” Chassagne said.

“As with all launches, we will continue to focus on mission success and work to meet our customer’s needs.”

ULA currently sports a year’s long manifest of future Atlas V launches in the pipeline. It includes a wide range of payloads for NASA, US and foreign governments, and military and commercial customers - all of who are depending on ULA maintaining its string of 106 straight launches with a 100% record of success since the company formed in 2006.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 space freighter was loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware for the orbital laboratory in support of over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

Cygnus successfully arrived and berthed at the ISS on March 26 as planned.

An exact date for the MUOS-5 launch has yet to be confirmed on the Eastern Range with the US Air Force.

ULA is in the process of coordinating launch dates with customers for their remaining Atlas V launches in 2016.

The 15,000 pound MUOS payload is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move.

ULA says they expect minimal impact and foresee completing all launches planned for 2016, including the top priority OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission for NASA which has a specific launch window requirement.

Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Fuel Control Valve Faulted for Atlas Launch Anomaly, Flights Resume Soon appeared first on Universe Today.

04/29/2016 03:22 PM
Fermi Links Neutrino Blast To Known Extragalactic Blazar

This image shows the galaxy PKS B1424-418, and the blazar that lives there. The dotted circle is the area in which Fermi detected the neutrino Big Bird. Image: NASA/DOE/LAT Collaboration.

A unique observatory buried deep in the clear ice of the South Pole region, an orbiting observatory that monitors gamma rays, a powerful outburst from a black hole 10 billion light years away, and a super-energetic neutrino named Big Bird. These are the cast of characters that populate a paper published in Nature Physics, on Monday April 18th.

The observatory that resides deep in the cold dark of the Antarctic ice has one job: to detect neutrinos. Neutrinos are strange, standoffish particles, sometimes called 'ghost particles' because they're so difficult to detect. They're like the noble gases of the particle world. Though neutrinos vastly outnumber all other atoms in our Universe, they rarely interact with other particles, and they have no electrical charge. This allows them to pass through normal matter almost unimpeded. To even detect them, you need a dark, undisturbed place, isolated from cosmic rays and background radiation.

This explains why they built an observatory in solid ice. This observatory, called the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, is the ideal place to detect neutrinos. On the rare occasion when a neutrino does interact with the ice surrounding the observatory, a charged particle is created. This particle can be either an electron, muon, or tau. If these charged particles are of sufficiently high energy, then the strings of detectors that make up IceCube can detect it. Once this data is analyzed, the source of the neutrinos can be known.

The next actor in this scenario is NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. Fermi was launched in 2008, with a specific job in mind. Its job is to look at some of the exceptional phenomena in our Universe that generate extraordinarily large amounts of energy, like super-massive black holes, exploding stars, jets of hot gas moving at relativistic speeds, and merging neutron stars. These things generate enormous amounts of gamma-ray energy, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that Fermi looks at exclusively.

Next comes PKS B1424-418, a distant galaxy with a black hole at its center. About 10 billion years ago, this black hole produced a powerful outburst of energy, called a blazar because it's pointed at Earth. The light from this outburst started arriving at Earth in 2012. For a year, the blazar in PKS B1424-418 shone 15-30 times brighter in the gamma spectrum than it did before the burst.

Detecting neutrinos is a rare occurrence. So far, IceCube has detected about a hundred of them. For some reason, the most energetic of these neutrinos are named after characters on the popular children's show called Sesame Street. In December 2012, IceCube detected an exceptionally energetic neutrino, and named it Big Bird. Big Bird had an energy level greater than 2 quadrillion electron volts. That's an enormous amount of energy shoved into a particle that is thought to have less than one millionth the mass of an electron.

Big Bird was clearly a big deal, and scientists wanted to know its source. IceCube was able to narrow the source down, but not pinpoint it. Its source was determined to be a 32 degree wide patch of the southern sky. Though helpful, that patch is still the size of 64 full Moons. Still, it was intriguing, because in that patch of sky was PKS B1424-418, the source of the blazar energy detected by Fermi. However, there are also other blazars in that section of the sky.

The scientists looking for Big Bird's source needed more data. They got it from TANAMI, an observing program that used the combined power of several networked terrestrial telescopes to create a virtual telescope 9,650 km(6,000 miles) across. TANAMI is a long-term program monitoring 100 active galaxies that are located in the southern sky. Since TANAMI is watching other active galaxies, and the energetic jets coming from them, it was able to exclude them as the source for Big Bird.

The team behind this new paper, including lead author Matthias Kadler of the University of Wuerzberg in Germany, think they've found the source for Big Bird. They say, with only a 5 percent chance of being wrong, that PKS B1424-418 is indeed Big Bird's source. As they say in their paper, "The outburst of PKS B1424–418 provides an energy output high enough to explain the observed petaelectronvolt event (Big Bird), suggestive of a direct physical association."

So what does this mean? It means that we can pinpoint the source of a neutrino. And that's good for science. Neutrinos are notoriously difficult to detect, and they're not that well understood. The new detection method, involving the Fermi Telescope in conjunction with the TANAMI array, will not only be able to locate the source of super-energetic neutrinos, but now the detection of a neutrino by IceCube will generate a real-time alert when the source of the neutrino can be narrowed down to an area about the size of the full Moon.

This promises to open a whole new window on neutrinos, the plentiful yet elusive 'ghost particles' that populate the Universe.

The post Fermi Links Neutrino Blast To Known Extragalactic Blazar appeared first on Universe Today.

04/29/2016 02:55 PM
The Constellation Aries

The Aries constellation and nearby Deep Sky Objects. Credit:

Welcome back to constellation Friday! Today, in honor of our dear friend and contributor, Tammy Plotner, we examine the Aries constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would serve as the authoritative source of astronomy for over a thousand years to come. Since the development of modern telescopes and astronomy, this list has come to be expanded to include the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today.

Of these constellations, Aries - named in honor of the Ram from classical Greek mythology - is featured rather prominently. This faint constellation has deep roots, and is believed to date all the way back to the astrological systems of the ancient Babylonians. Positioned on the ecliptic plane, it is bordered by constellations of Perseus, Triangulum, Pisces, Cetus and Taurus, and is also the traditional home of the vernal equinox.

Name and Meaning:

In classical mythology, Aries is the Ram - perhaps the golden one who saved Helle and Phrixos from a king Cretheus for false accusations. Aries the Ram is the also the first astrological sign in the Zodiac - associated with the god Ares and masculinity. Under the tropical zodiac, the Sun is in Aries roughly from March 21st to April 19th, by definition beginning at vernal equinox. The vernal equinox has moved in the constellation Pisces, but sometimes it is still called the first point of Aries.

Notable Features:

Aries has three prominent stars forming an asterism - Alpha, Beta and Gamma Arietis, all of which have been traditionally used for navigation. Alpha Arietis, called Hamal, is an orange giant with an apparent magnitude of 2.0, making it the brightest star in the constellation. Located 66 light-years from Earth, this star's traditional name comes from the Arabic word for "lamb", or "head of the ram" (ras al-hamal).

Beta Arietis (Sheratan) is a blue-white star star with an apparent magnitude of 2.64 that is located 59 light-years from Earth. Its traditional name comes from the Arabic word "sharatayn", which means "the two signs", referring to both Beta and Gamma Areitis in their position as heralds of the vernal equinox. This star is also a spectroscopic binary, meaning that its companion is only known through analysis of the spectra.

Gamma Arietis (Mesarthim) is binary star with two white-hued components that are located 164 light-years from Earth. Its traditional name is the subject of scholarly debate, with some claiming it may be derived from a corruption of "al-sharatan" (Arabic for "pair"), a word for "fat ram", from the Sanskrit "first star of Aries",  or the Hebrew for "ministerial servants".

Aries is also home to several faint Deep Sky Objects. These include NGC 772, an unbarred spiral galaxy located 130 million light-years from Earth which is visible to the southeast of Beta Arietis. It has a small companion galaxy, NGC 770, that is about 113,000 light-years away from the larger galaxy. Another spiral galaxy in Aries is NGC 673,  a weakly barred spiral galaxy that is 235 million light-years distant from Earth.

For those who have a larger telescope, there are several faint galaxies that can be spotted. NGC 697 is a good example, a 13th magnitude spiral galaxy located within Aries that is part of a galaxy group. NGC 972 is also part of a galaxy group and is equally faint, at magnitude 12. NGC 1156 is a dwarf irregular galaxy that is considered to a Magellanic-type, with a larger than average core and a a H II nucleus containing zones of counter-rotating gas (which is thought to be the result of tidal interactions with another gas-rich galaxy some time in the past).

Aries is also home to several meteor showers. The May Arietids are a daylight meteor shower which begins between May 4th and June 6th with maximum activity happening on May 16th. The Epsilon Arietids are also a daylight occurrence, which are active between April 25th to May 27th with peak activity on May 9th. The very best daytime Arietids occur from May 22nd to July 2nd with a maximum on June 8th, when the meteoroid stream produces one meteor every minute.

Historically speaking, the Delta Arietid meteor shower was first noted in 1959 by analyzing photographic meteor orbits, and activity occurs between December 8th and December 13th. The Autumn Arietid meteor shower begins on or about September 7th and runs through October 27th. Maximum activity occurs about October 8th, and the fall rate is about 3 to 5 (average) meteors per hour.

History of Observation:

Though representations of Aries as The Ram comes to us from classical antiquity, it is believed that this constellation has existed since the days of ancient Babylon. In the description of the Babylonian zodiac contained in the MUL.APIN (the compendium on Babylonian astrology) Aries was the final station along the ecliptic, and was known as MULLÚ.?UN., which translates to "The Agrarian Worker" or "The Hired Man."

The shift in identification from the constellation as the Agrarian Worker to the Ram likely occurred in later Babylonian tradition because of its growing association with Dumuzi the Shepherd. By the time the MUL.APIN was created (1000 BCE) , modern Aries was identified with both Dumuzi's ram and a hired laborer.

In ancient Egyptian astronomy, Aries was associated with the god Amon-Ra, who was depicted as a man with a ram's head and represented fertility and creativity. Because it was the location of the vernal equinox, it was called the "Indicator of the Reborn Sun". Aries acquired the title of "Lord of the Head" in Egypt, referring to its symbolic and mythological importance.

In traditional Chinese astronomy, stars from Aries were used in several constellations. Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Arietis formed a constellation called Lou, variously translated as "bond", "lasso", and "sickle", which was associated with the ritual sacrifice of cattle. This constellation has also been associated with harvest-time as it could represent a woman carrying a basket of food on her head. Other stars were part of the constellations Wei - the namesake of the 17th lunar mansion, representing granaries - and Tianyin, thought to represent the Emperor's hunting partner.

Similarly, in Hindu astronomy, Beta and Gamma Arietis were known as the Aswins, and were associated with the first lunar mansion. Because the Hindu new year began with the vernal equinox, the Rig Veda contains over 50 new-year's related hymns to the twins, making them some of the most prominent characters in the work. Aries itself was known as "Aja" and "Mesha".

In Hebrew astronomy Aries was named "Teli", which signified either Simeon or Gad, and generally symbolizes the "Lamb of the World". The neighboring Syrians and Turks named the constellation "Amru" and "Kuzi", respectively. In indigenous Peruvian astronomy, a constellation with most of the same stars was called the "Market Moon" and the "Kneeling Terrace", as a reminder of when to hold the annual harvest festival, Ayri Huay.

In his Almagest, Ptolemy listed Aries as one of the 48 constellations. This tradition was maintained by Medieval Muslim astronomers such as al-Sufi, who modeled the constellation as a ram based on the precedent of Ptolemy. During the Scientific Revolution, John Flamsteed also followed Ptolemy's description in his Atlas Coelestisa star atlas that was published posthumously in 1729. In 1922, the International Astronomical Union adopted it as one of the 88 constellation and defined its recommended three-letter abbreviation as "Ari".

Finding Aries:

Only its Alpha and Beta stars - Hamal and Sheratan - are easy to recognize. They represent the head of the Ram. Teegarden's star, a recent discovery in the constellation of Aries, is one of Sun's closest neighbors (around 12 light years away). It appears to be a red dwarf, a class of low temperature and low luminosity stars. This would explain why it was not discovered earlier, since it has an apparent magnitude of only 15.4.

For the unaided eye and observing with binoculars, check out Alpha Arietis - aka. Hamal. It has one of the most accurately-measured angular diameters - 0.00680" (the width of a penny seen from 60 km away) - and is some 55 times brighter and five times more massive than our Sun.

Now have a look at Beta Arietis - aka. Sheratan. Beta shines at magnitude 2.7 and is located 60 light years from Earth. Back at the turn of the 20th century it was discovered to be a spectroscopic binary, with a period of 106 days. According to Jim Kaler's fine research,"Sheratan stands out as a result of the extremely high eccentricity of the orbit (0.88), the companion trapped in a record-holding elongated path."

Moreover, the star is an observational treasure. The two stars are so close together that they cannot be separated directly through the telescope, and all we ever actually see is one star. Detection via the spectrum also requires that the stars to be close and moving quickly. However, sophisticated observation of Sheratan with an interferometer, a device that makes use of the interfering properties of light to resolve ultra-fine detail, allow (as for the brighter component of Mizar) the pair to be resolved.

The masses of the stars (through gravitational theory) can then be measured with high accuracy. Averaging 0.64 Astronomical Units apart (89 percent Venus' distance from the Sun), a star with the mass of the Sun (1.02 solar) orbits a double-solar-mass (2.00) star every 107 days. Since luminosity is very sensitive to mass, 95 percent of the light of the system is produced by the heavier star.

The huge eccentricity adds the spice. As they wheel around each other, the smaller one (undoubtedly a class G star like the Sun) approaches as close as 0.08 AU (only 20 percent Mercury's distance from the Sun), and then half an orbit later loops around at 1.2 AU, 16 times farther away and 20 percent farther than Earth from the Sun.

No close planets could survive the gravitational onslaught. Such stars, in which the doubling is "visible" by two techniques (only about 40 are known, and Sheratan is one of the brighter ones), allows accurate assessment of the theoretical relation between stellar mass and luminosity, and provides powerful evidence that the theory is correct. The higher mass star will die first. In a couple billion years, the lower mass G star will be the king of the pair, while the current luminary will be a shrunken dim white dwarf.

For those using small telescopes, a good place to stargaze is around Gamma Arietis - aka. Mesarthim. This wide, double star with blue/white members of 4.6 magnitude is an easy one to spot. For this reason, Mesarthim was one of the very first double stars to be discovered by Robert Hooke while looking for a comet in 1664. Another easily spotted star is the binary star is Lambda, it is also a very wide double with a 5th magnitude primary and 5th magnitude secondary. For something a little harder, try 5th magnitude Pi.

The 8.8 magnitude companion is on 3 arc seconds away and will really test the resolving power of your optics and the stability of your skies. Use your highest power. If you don't have luck, try 30 Arietis. The magnitude 7 primary star is a lovely golden yellow and the secondary is about magnitude 8 and is a distinct blue separated by about 40 arc seconds.

For a nice outreach project, try observing 53 Arietis - the "Runaway star". Along with AE Aurigae and Mu Columbae 53 Arietis appears to be cruising right along from the region of the Great Orion Nebula!

Thank you for reading; and as always, enjoy your stargazing!

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Aries and Constellation Families.

The post The Constellation Aries appeared first on Universe Today.

04/29/2016 01:37 PM
Astronomy Cast Ep. 412: The Color of the Universe

What color is the Universe? Turns out this isn’t a simple question, and one that scientists have really been unable to answer, until now! Visit the Astronomy Cast Page to subscribe to the audio podcast! We record Astronomy Cast as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Monday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm […]

The post Astronomy Cast Ep. 412: The Color of the Universe appeared first on Universe Today.

04/29/2016 12:24 PM
The New Vostochny Cosmodrome Brings Launches Back To Russian Soil

The successful launch of a Soyuz 2.1a rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome on April 27th was the first launch from Russia's new spaceport. Image: Roscosmos

Russia's new Vostochny Cosmodrome launched its first rocket on Wednesday, April 27th, carrying three new satellites into orbit. After an initial 24-hour launch delay due to a computer-initiated abort, a Soyuz-2.1a lifted off from its pad at 10:01 am EDT. Every successful space launch is important in its own way, but this one even more so because of the importance of this new cosmodrome to Russia.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 threw that country into chaos. The formal dissolution of the USSR on December 26th, 1991, created a lot of financial and political turmoil. The Soviet space program was a victim of that chaos, and with the USSR's main cosmodrome now located on foreign territory, at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, things were uncertain.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has been renting the Baikonur cosmodrome for $115 million annually. But this dependence on a foreign launch site has been a thorn in the side of Russia for decades. Russia is a fiercely independent and proud nation, so it surprised no one when construction of a new spaceport was announced. In 2010, Vladimir Putin emphasized the importance of the new facility, saying "The creation of a new space center ... is one of modern Russia's biggest and most ambitious projects."

The new facility, called the Vostochny Cosmodrome, will eventually be home to multiple launch pads, though only one is functional for now. It's located at 51 degrees north, whereas the Baikonur site is located at 46 degrees North. Though further north, it will still be able to launch almost the same payloads as Baikonur.

Russia has other spaceports on its own territory. The Svobodny Cosmodrome is also located in Russia's far east, and at the same 51 degrees north as Vostochny. But Svobodny was originally an ICBM launch site, and couldn't handle the launching of crewed missions. All crewed missions had to be launched from Baikonur. Russia has another cosmodrome, the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, where satellites can be launched into geostationary orbit.

The site for the new Vostochny Cosmodrome (Vostochny means 'eastern' in Russian) was chosen for a few reasons. The site is serviced by both highway and rail, and is remote enough that launch paths won't interfere with any built up areas. It's also located several hundred kilometres from the Pacific Ocean, to avoid complications that proximity to an ocean can cause, yet close enough that spent stages can be jettisoned and will fall harmlessly into the ocean.

Vostochny is about the same size as the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral. Vostochny covers 551.5 square kilometers, while the Kennedy facility covers 583 square kilometers. The new cosmodrome will eventually house over 400 separate facilities, including engineering and transport infrastructure.

The Vostochny Cosmodrome project has suffered some setbacks. Parts of the assembly complex for the Soyuz 2 rocket were built too small, which delayed the planned initial launch set for December 2015. There've been accusations of corruption, and even a worker's strike in the Spring of 2015 over unpaid wages.

These and other problems led Valdimir Putin to release a statement saying he was taking personal control of the project. Since then, Putin has kept a close eye on the Vostochny project. In response to the recent 24 hour launch delay of the cosmodrome's inaugural launch, Putin criticized Roscosmos for the delay, and for all of the glitches and failures in the Russian space program recently.

But, ever the politician, Putin also tempered his remarks, saying "Despite all its failings, Russia remains the world leader in the number of space launches." "But the fact that we're encountering a large number of failures is bad. There must be a timely and professional reaction," he added.

As for Vostochny itself, it will allow Russia to conduct much more of its space launches on its own soil. By 2020, Vostochny will conduct 45% of Russia's space launches. Baikonur will still be used, but much more sparingly. It currently is responsible for 65% of Russian launches, but that will drop to 11%. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome will account for the other 44%.

As for the inaugural launch, it went flawlessly after its initial 24 hour technical delay. The three satellites it carried into orbit will fulfill several different functions. Together, they will study the Earth's upper atmosphere, observe gamma-ray bursts, and test new electronics modules for use in space. They will also carry high-resolution cameras for remote sensing and scientific work, test communication systems with ground stations, and will develop control algorithms for use with nano-satellites.

The post The New Vostochny Cosmodrome Brings Launches Back To Russian Soil appeared first on Universe Today.

04/29/2016 12:02 PM
Weekly Space Hangout – Apr. 29, 2016: Dr. Michael Richmond

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: Dr. Michael Richmond is a Physics and Astronomy professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY, and is the director of the RIT Observatory. Dr. Richmond’s research interest is Supernovae and Variable Stars. Guests: Paul M. Sutter ( / @PaulMattSutter) Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg) Their stories this week: […]

The post Weekly Space Hangout – Apr. 29, 2016: Dr. Michael Richmond appeared first on Universe Today.

04/29/2016 06:00 AM
How Do We Terraform Mercury?

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

Welcome back to another installment in the "Definitive Guide to Terraforming" series! We complete our tour of the Solar System with the planet Mercury. Someday, humans could make a home on this hostile planet, leading to the first Hermians!

The planet Mercury is an intensely hot place. As the nearest planet to our Sun, surface temperatures can get up to a scorching 700 K (427° C). Ah, but there's a flip-side to that coin. Due to it having no atmosphere to speak of, Mercury only experiences intensely hot conditions on the side that is directly facing the Sun. On the nighttime side, temperatures drop to well below freezing, as low as 100 K (-173° C).

Due to its low orbital period and slow rate of rotation, the nighttime side remains in the dark for an extended period of time. What's more, in the northern polar region, which is permanently shaded, conditions are cold enough that water is able to exist there in ice form. Because of this, and a few reasons besides, there are many who believe that humanity could colonize and even terraform parts of Mercury someday.

The Planet Mercury:

With a mean radius of 2440 km and a mass of 3.3022×1023 kg, Mercury is the smallest planet in our Solar System – equivalent in size to 0.38 Earths. And while it is smaller than the largest natural satellites in our system – such as Ganymede and Titan – it is more massive. In fact, Mercury’s density (at 5.427 g/cm3) is the second highest in the Solar System, only slightly less than Earth’s (5.515 g/cm3).

Mercury also has the most eccentric orbit of any planet in the Solar System. With an eccentricity of 0.205, its distance from the Sun ranges from 46 to 70 million km (29-43 million mi), and takes 87.969 Earth days to complete an orbit. But with an average orbital speed of 47.362 km/s, Mercury also takes 58.646 days to complete a single rotation. This means that it takes 176 Earth days for the sun to rise and set on Mercury, which is twice as long as a single Hermian year.

As one of the four terrestrial planets of the Solar System, Mercury is composed of approximately 70% metallic and 30% silicate material. Based on its density and size, a number of inferences can be made about its internal structure. For example, geologists estimate that Mercury’s core occupies about 42% of its volume, compared to Earth’s 17%.

The interior is believed to be composed of a molten iron which is surrounded by a 500 – 700 km mantle of silicate material. At the outermost layer is Mercury’s crust, which is believed to be 100 – 300 km thick. The surface is also marked by numerous narrow ridges that extend up to hundreds of kilometers in length. It is believed that these were formed as Mercury’s core and mantle cooled and contracted at a time when the crust had already solidified.

Mercury’s core has a higher iron content than that of any other major planet in the Solar System, and several theories have been proposed to explain this. The most widely accepted theory is that Mercury was once a larger planet which was struck by a planetesimal that stripped away much of the original crust and mantle, leaving behind the core as a major component.

Another theory is that Mercury formed from the solar nebula before the Sun’s energy output had stabilized, and was twice its present mass. However, most of this mass was vaporized as the protosun contracted and exposed it to extreme temperatures. A third hypothesis is that the solar nebula caused drag on the particles from which Mercury was accreting, which meant that lighter particles were lost and not gathered to form Mercury.

At a glance, Mercury looks similar to the Earth’s moon. It has a dry landscape pockmarked by asteroid impact craters and ancient lava flows. Combined with extensive plains, these indicate that the planet has been geologically inactive for billions of years. However, unlike the Moon and Mars, which have significant stretches of similar geology, Mercury’s surface appears much more jumbled.

The vast majority of Mercury’s surface is hostile to life, where temperatures gravitate between extremely hot and cold – i.e. 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F) 100 K (-173 °C; -280 °F). This is due to its proximity to the Sun, the almost total lack of an atmosphere, and its very slow rotation. However, at the poles, temperatures are consistently low -93 °C (-135 °F) due to it being permanently shadowed.

In 2012, NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) probe detected signs of water ice and organic molecules in Mercury's northern polar region. For over twenty years, scientists had suspected that in this area, Mercury's craters could contain ice that was most likely deposited by comets in the past. Radar signals appeared to confirm as much, but it took the MESSENGER mission to confirm it.

Scientists believe that Mercury's southern pole may also have ice. All told, it is estimated that Mercury could hold between 100 billion to 1 trillion tons of water ice at both poles, and the ice could be up to 20 meters deep in places. In the north pole, this water is particularly concentrated in craters like the Tryggvadottir, Tolkien, Kandinsky, and Prokofiev craters - which measure between 31 to 112 km in diameter.

In addition, the MESSENGER mission also noted the presence of "hollows" on Mercury's surface which appeared to reach underground. Similar to hollows observed on the Moon and Mars, these features could be indicative of lava tubes that were formed during Mercury's volcanically-active past. In both of these cases, stable lava tubes are seen as a possible location for colonies that would be shielded from radiation, space, and other hazards.

Possible Methods:

While terraforming an entire planet like Mercury is not exactly practical, its subsurface geology, cratered surface, and orbital characteristics make colonizing and terraforming some parts of it attractive. For example, in the northern polar region, where permanently-shadowed craters house water ice and organic molecules, domed structures could be set up that would allow any atmosphere created within to be contained.

This is a variation on the "Shell Worlds" concept, which in turn is part of the larger concepts known as paraterraforming - where a world is enclosed (in whole or in part) in an artificial shell in order to transform its environment. Using this process, the northern craters could be enclosed within a dome, orbital mirrors could focus sunlight within the domes, and the water ice could be evaporated.

Through the process of photolysis, the water vapor could be converted into oxygen gas and hydrogen, the latter of which could either be harvested as fuel, or vented into space. Ammonia could also be introduced, most likely mined from the outer Solar System, and converted into nitrogen gas through the introduction of specific strains of bacteria - Nitrosomonas, Pseudomonas and Clostridium species – that would convert the ammonia into nitrites (NO²-) and then nitrogen gas.

Lava tubes on Mercury could similarly be colonized, with settlements built within stable ones. These areas would be naturally shielded to cosmic and solar radiation, extremes in temperature, and could be pressurized to create breathable atmospheres. In addition, at this depth, Mercury experiences far less in the way of temperature variations and would be warm enough to be habitable.

Potential Benefits:

Mercury's relative proximity to Earth makes it a good location for terraforming and colonization. On average, Mercury is 77 million km (48 million miles) from Earth. To put that distance in perspective, it took the Mariner 10 probe (which took a much more direct route than MESSENGER) took a little under five months to reach Mercury from Earth.

Colonies established on Mercury would also be in a good position to provide extensive minerals and solar power to other planets. As the second-densest planet in the Solar System, Mercury has an abundance of iron, nickel and silicate minerals that would be of use locally and elsewhere. Also, its proximity to the Sun means that solar operations, possibly in the form of space-based solar arrays, could harness abundant energy.

This energy could then be beamed to other worlds for local use. Solar wind also adds hydrogen and helium to the planet's exosphere, while radioactive decay within its crust is an additional source of helium. These could also be mined to create hydrogen fuel and helium-3, both of which could be used to power fusion reactors both on and off-planet.

As a result, colonies on Mercury, thanks to the abundance of water ice, minerals and other elements, would likely be largely self-sufficient as well. Unlike other potential sites that would require the importation of vast amounts of resources, Mercury's first wave of colonists (aka. Hermians) could begin to see to much of their own needs shortly after setting down.

Potential Challenges:

As always, the prospect of terraforming Mercury presents several challenges, an addressing one requires that others be addressed simultaneously. Fortunately, compared to many other planets (or moons) in the Solar System, they are fewer in number. In short, the challenges come down to issues of distance, technology, resources and infrastructure, and natural hazards.

To address the first, travel to and from Mercury would still take a significant amount of time using existing technology. While closer than many other potential sites, several trips would need to be made by crewed spacecraft, construction ships and support craft, which would take time and cost quite a lot using existing technology. In addition, hauling resources from the outer Solar System would take on the order on decades using the conventional engines and spacecraft.

Which brings us to item two: technology. In order for ships to travel to and from the outer Solar System to procure ammonia and other volatiles in large quantities (and in a reasonable amount of time), they would need to be equipped with advanced propulsion systems to make the journey. This could take the form of Nuclear-Thermal Propulsion (NTP), Fusion-drive systems, or some other advanced concept. But thus far, no such drive systems exist, with some being decades or more away from feasibility.

As for the next item, resources and infrastructure, colonizing and paraterraforming Mercury would require plenty of both. To start, it would take an immense amount of minerals and other materials to construct domes large enough to encase any of Mercury's polar craters. Building orbital mirrors would be similarly be taxing. And while these minerals could be harvested locally, the process would be very expensive.

Similarly, the technology behind space-based solar power is not even close to where it would need to be harvest energy from the Sun and beam it directly to Earth (or other locations across the Solar System). Here too, the technology needs to come a long way; and even after we have that worked out, creating such a network between Mercury and other planets would be very expensive.

At the same time, it would require a level of infrastructure that also does not yet exist. Aside from a large fleet of spacecraft to ferry colonists, settling Mercury would also require a significant amount of construction vessels and automated robots. We would also need a series of stations between Earth and Mercury to provide for refueling and resupply.

And last, any construction and settlement efforts would have to deal with the dangers of exposure to extreme heat and Solar radiation. While a colony in the northern polar region and within Mercury's lava tubes would be shielded, labor crews and construction ships would have to risk working in extremely hazardous conditions in order to build them.


In the end, and compared to other terraforming ventures, the colonization and paraterrforming of Mercury does seems rather doable. While it would require a huge commitment in terms of resources, the creation of technology and infrastructure that does not yet exist, and some serious hazard pay for the work crews who would assemble the Hermian settlements, the advantages could be enough to justify such an undertaking.

A colonized Mercury would mean abundant minerals and energy for the rest of the Solar System. Having these resources at our fingertips would be intrinsic to creating a post-scarcity economy, and could speed the development of colonies and terraforming efforts elsewhere.

We have written many interesting articles about Mercury and terraforming here at Universe Today. Here's The Planet Mercury, The Definitive Guide to Terraforming, How Do We Terraforming Mars?, How Do We Terraform Venus?, How Do We Terraform the Moon?, How Do We Terraform Jupiter's Moons?, and How Do We Terraform Saturn's Moons?

We’ve also got articles that explore the more radical side of terraforming, like Could We Terraform Jupiter?, Could We Terraform The Sun?, and Could We Terraform A Black Hole?

Astronomy Cast also has a good episode on the subject, Episode 49: Mercury

And if you like the videos, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

The post How Do We Terraform Mercury? appeared first on Universe Today.

04/28/2016 07:10 PM
Curiosity Cores Hole in Mars at ‘Lubango’ Fracture Zone

Curiosity rover reached out with robotic arm and drilled into ‘Lubango’ outcrop target on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, 2016, in this photo mosaic stitched from navcam  camera raw images and colorized.  Lubango is located in the Stimson unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.  MAHLI camera inset image shows drill hole up close on Sol 1321.  Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/ Di Lorenzo

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover successfully bored a brand new hole in Mars at a tantalizing sandstone outcrop in the ‘Lubango’ fracture zone this past weekend on Sol 1320, Apr. 23, and is now carefully analyzing the shaken and sieved drill tailings for clues to Mars watery past atop the Naukluft Plateau.

“We have a new drill hole on Mars!” reported Ken Herkenhoff, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and an MSL science team member, in a mission update.

“All of the activities planned for last weekend have completed successfully.”

“Lubango” counts as the 10th drilling campaign since the one ton rover safely touched down on the Red Planet some 44 months ago inside the targeted Gale Crater landing site, following the nailbiting and never before used ‘sky crane’ maneuver.

After transferring the cored sample to the CHIMRA instrument for sieving it, a portion of the less than 0.15 mm filtered material was successfully delivered this week to the CheMin miniaturized chemistry lab situated in the rovers belly.

CheMin is now analyzing the sample and will return mineralogical data back to scientists on earth for interpretation.

The science team selected Lubango as the robots 10th drill target after determining that it was altered sandstone bedrock and had an unusually high silica content based on analyses carried out using the mast mounted ChemCam laser instrument.

Indeed the rover had already driven away for further scouting and the team then decided to return to Lubango after examining the ChemCam results. They determined the ChemCam and other data observation were encouraging enough - regarding how best to sample both altered and unaltered Stimson bedrock - to change course and drive backwards.

Lubango sits along a fracture in an area that the team dubs the Stimson formation, which is located on the lower slopes of humongous Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater.

Since early March, the rover has been traversing along a rugged region dubbed the Naukluft Plateau.

“The team decided to drill near this fracture to better understand both the altered and unaltered Stimson bedrock,” noted Herkenhoff.

See our photo mosaic above showing the geologically exciting terrain surrounding Curiosity with its outstretched 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm after completing the Lubango drill campaign on Sol 1320. The mosaic was created by the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

Its again abundantly clear from the images that beneath the rusty veneer of the Red Planet lies a greyish interior preserving the secrets of Mars ancient climate history.

The team then commanded Curiosity to dump the unsieved portion of the sample onto the ground and examine the leftover drill tailing residues with the Mastcam, Navcam, MAHLI multispectral characterization cameras and the APXS spectrometer. ChemCam is also being used to fire laser shots in the wall of the drill hole to make additional chemical measurements.

To complement the data from Lubango, scientists are now looking around the area for a suitable target of unaltered Stimson bedrock as the 11th drill target.

“The color information provided by Mastcam is really helpful in distinguishing altered versus unaltered bedrock,” explained MSL science team member Lauren Edgar, Research Geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, in a mission update.

The ChemCam laser has already shot at the spot dubbed "Oshikati," a potential target for the next drilling campaign.

“On Sunday we will drive to our next drilling location, which is on a nearby patch of normal-looking Stimson sandstone,” wrote Ryan Anderson, planetary scientist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center and a member of the ChemCam team on MSL in today’s (Apr. 28) mission update.

As time permits, the Navcam imager is also being used to search for dust devils.

As I reported here, Opportunity recently detected a beautiful looking dust devil on the floor of Endeavour crater on April 1. Dust devil detections by the NASA rovers are relatively rare.

Curiosity has been driving to the edge of the Naukluft Plateau to reach the interesting fracture zone seen in orbital data gathered from NASA’s Mars orbiter spacecraft.

The rover is almost finished crossing the Naukluft Plateau which is “the most rugged and difficult-to-navigate terrain encountered during the mission's 44 months on Mars,” says NASA.

Prior to climbing onto the Naukluft Plateau the rover spent several weeks investigating sand dunes including the two story tall Namib dune.

As of today, Sol 1325, April 28, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing, and taken over 320,100 amazing images.

Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post Curiosity Cores Hole in Mars at ‘Lubango’ Fracture Zone appeared first on Universe Today.

04/28/2016 01:45 PM
Who Discovered Gravity?

William Blake's Newton (1795), depicted as a divine geometer. Credit: William Blake Archive/Wikipedia

Four fundamental forces govern all interactions within the Universe. They are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity. Of these, gravity is perhaps the most mysterious. While it has been understood for some time how this law of physics operates on the macro-scale - governing our Solar System, galaxies, and superclusters - how it interacts with the three other fundamental forces remains a mystery.

Naturally, human beings have had a basic understanding of this force since time immemorial. And when it comes to our modern understanding of gravity, credit is owed to one man who deciphered its properties and how it governs all things great and small - Sir Isaac Newton. Thanks to this 17th century English physicist and mathematician, our understanding of the Universe and the laws that govern it would forever be changed.

While we are all familiar with the iconic image of a man sitting beneath an apple tree and having one fall on his head, Newton's theories on gravity also represented a culmination of years worth of research, which in turn was based on centuries of accumulated knowledge. He would present these theories in his magnum opus, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), which was first published in 1687.

In this volume, Newton laid out what would come to be known as his Three Laws of Motion, which were derived from Johannes Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion and his own mathematical description of gravity.  These laws would lay the foundation of classical mechanics, and would remain unchallenged for centuries - until the 20th century and the emergence of Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Physics by 17th Century:

The 17th century was a very auspicious time for the sciences, with major breakthroughs occurring in the fields of mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry. Some of the greatest developments in the period include the development of the heliocentric model of the Solar System by Nicolaus Copernicus, the pioneering work with telescopes and observational astronomy by Galileo Galilei, and the development of modern optics.

It was also during this period that Johannes Kepler developed his Laws of Planetary Motion. Formulated between 1609 and 1619, these laws described the motion of the then-known planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) around the Sun. They stated that:

  • Planets move around the Sun in ellipses, with the Sun at one focus
  • The line connecting the Sun to a planet sweeps equal areas in equal times.
  • The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube (3rd power) of the mean distance from the Sun in (or in other words--of the"semi-major axis" of the ellipse, half the sum of smallest and greatest distance from the Sun).

These laws resolved the remaining mathematical issues raised by Copernicus' heliocentric model, thus removing all doubt that it was the correct model of the Universe. Working from these, Sir Isaac Newton began considering gravitation and its effect on the orbits of planets.

Newton's Three Laws:

In 1678, Newton suffered a complete nervous breakdown due to overwork and a feud with fellow astronomer Robert Hooke. For the next few years, he withdrew from correspondence with other scientists, except where they initiated it, and renewed his interest in mechanics and astronomy. In the winter of 1680-81, the appearance of a comet, about which he corresponded with John Flamsteed (England’s Astronomer Royal) also renewed his interest in astronomy.

After reviewing Kepler's Laws of Motion, Newton developed a mathematical proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector. Newton communicated these results to Edmond Halley (discoverer of “Haley’s Comet”) and to the Royal Society in his De motu corporum in gyrum.

This tract, published in 1684, contained the seed of what Newton would expand to form his magnum opus, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. This treatise, which was published in July of 1687, contained Newton’s three laws of motion, which stated that:

  • When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
  • The vector sum of the external forces (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector (a) of the object. In mathematical form, this is expressed as: F=ma
  • When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

Together, these laws described the relationship between any object, the forces acting upon it and the resulting motion, laying the foundation for classical mechanics. The laws also allowed Newton to calculate the mass of each planet, the flattening of the Earth at the poles, and the bulge at the equator, and how the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon create the Earth’s tides.

In the same work, Newton presented a calculus-like method of geometrical analysis using ‘first and last ratios’, worked out the speed of sound in air (based on Boyle’s Law), accounted for the procession of the equinoxes (which he showed were a result of the Moon’s gravitational attraction to the Earth), initiated the gravitational study of the irregularities in the motion of the moon, provided a theory for the determination of the orbits of comets, and much more.

Newton and the “Apple Incident”:

The story of Newton coming up with his theory of universal gravitation as a result of an apple falling on his head has become a staple of popular culture. And while it has often been argued that the story is apocryphal and Newton did not devise his theory at any one moment, Newton himself told the story many times and claimed that the incident had inspired him.

In addition, the writing’s of William Stukeley – an English clergyman, antiquarian and fellow member of the Royal Society – have confirmed the story. But rather than the comical representation of the apple striking Newton on the head, Stukeley described in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life (1752) a conversation in which Newton described pondering the nature of gravity while watching an apple fall.

“…we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees; only he, & my self. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple…”

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint (who eventually married his niece), also described hearing the story in his own account of Newton’s life. According to Conduitt, the incident took place in 1666 when Newton was traveling to meet his mother in Lincolnshire. While meandering in the garden, he contemplated how gravity’s influence extended far beyond Earth, responsible for the falling of apple as well as the Moon’s orbit.

Similarly, Voltaire wrote n his Essay on Epic Poetry (1727) that Newton had first thought of the system of gravitation while walking in his garden and watching an apple fall from a tree. This is consistent with Newton’s notes from the 1660s, which show that he was grappling with the idea of how terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon.

However, it would take him two more decades to fully develop his theories to the point that he was able to offer mathematical proofs, as demonstrated in the Principia. Once that was complete, he deduced that the same force that makes an object fall to the ground was responsible for other orbital motions. Hence, he named it “universal gravitation”.

Various trees are claimed to be “the” apple tree which Newton describes. The King’s School, Grantham, claims their school purchased the original tree, uprooted it, and transported it to the headmaster’s garden some years later. However, the National Trust, which holds the Woolsthorpe Manor (where Newton grew up) in trust, claims that the tree still resides in their garden. A descendant of the original tree can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there.

Newton's work would have a profound effect on the sciences, with its principles remaining canon for the following 200 years. It also informed the concept of universal gravitation, which became the mainstay of modern astronomy, and would not be revised until the 20th century – with the discovery of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

We have written many interesting articles about gravity here at Universe Today. Here is Who was Sir Isaac Newton?, Who Was Galileo Galilei?, What Is the Force of Gravity?, and What is the Gravitational Constant?

Astronomy Cast has some two good episodes on the subject. Here's Episode 37: Gravitational Lensing, and Episode 102: Gravity,

The post Who Discovered Gravity? appeared first on Universe Today.

04/28/2016 11:48 AM
James Webb Space Telescope Takes The Gloves Off

Behold, the mighty primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, in all its gleaming glory! Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) isn't even operational yet, and already its gleaming golden mirror has reached iconic status. It's segmented mirror is reminiscent of an insect eye, and once that eye is unfolded at its eventual stationary location at L2, the JWST will give humanity its best view of the Universe yet. Now, NASA has unveiled the JWST's mirrors in a clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, giving us a great look at what the telescope will look like when it's operational.

Even if you didn't know anything about the JWST, its capabilities, or its torturous path to finally being built, you would still look at it and be impressed. It's obviously a highly technological, highly engineered, one of a kind object. In fact, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a piece of modern art. (I've seen less appealing modern art, have you?)

The fact that the JWST will outperform its predecessor, the Hubble, is a well-known fact. After all, the Hubble is pretty long in the tooth now. But how exactly it will outperform the Hubble, and what the JWST's mission objectives are, is less well-known. It's worth it to take a look at the objectives of the JWST, again, and re-visit the enthusiasm that has surrounded this mission since its inception.

NASA groups JWST's science objectives into four areas:

  • infrared vision that acts like a time-machine, giving us a look at the first stars and galaxies to form in the Universe, over 13 billion years ago.
  • a comparative study of the stately spiral and elliptical galaxies of our age with the faintest, earliest galaxies to form in the Universe.
  • a probing gaze through clouds of dust, to watch stars and planets being born.
  • a look at extrasolar planets, and their atmospheres, keeping an eye out for biomarkers.

That is an impressive list, even in an age where people take technological and scientific progress for granted. But alongside these noble objectives, there will no doubt be some surprises. Guessing what those surprises might be is a bit of a fool's errand, but this is the internet, so let's dare to be foolish.

We have an idea that abiogenesis on Earth happened fairly quickly, but we have nothing to compare it to. Will we learn enough about exoplanets and their atmospheres to shed some light on conditions needed for life to happen? It's a stretch, but who knows?

We have an understanding of the expansion of the Universe, and it's backed up by pretty solid evidence. Will we learn something surprising about this? Or something that sheds some light on Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and their role in the early Universe?

Or will there be surprising findings in the area of planetary and stellar formation? The capability to look deeply into dust clouds should certainly reveal things previously unseen, but only guessed at.

Of course, not everything needs to be surprising to be exciting. Evidence that supports and fine tunes current theories is also intriguing. And the James Webb should deliver a boatload of evidence.

There's no question that the JWST will outdo the Hubble in the science department. But for a generation or two of people, the Hubble will always have a special place. It drew many of us in, with its breathtaking pictures of nebulae and other objects, its famous Deep Field study, and, of course, its science. It was probably the first telescope to gain celebrity status.

The James Webb will probably never gain the social status that the Hubble gained. It's kind of like the Beatles, there can only be one 'first of its kind.' But the JWST will be much more powerful, and will reveal to us a lot that has been hidden.

The JWST will be a grand technological accomplishment, if all goes well and it makes it to L2 and is fully functional. Its ability to look deeply into dust clouds, and to look back in time, to the early days of the Universe, make it a potent scientific tool.

And if engineering can figure out a way to reverse the polarity in the warp core without it going crit, we should be able to fire a beam of tachyon anti-matter neutrinos and de-cloak a Romulan Warbird at a distance of 3 AUs. Not bad for something Congress threatened to cancel!

The post James Webb Space Telescope Takes The Gloves Off appeared first on Universe Today.

Back to OuterSpace