Archive for Outer Space

Strange signal from space may solve one of science’s greatest mysteries

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An artist’s depiction of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (FGST) in orbit. (NASA)

A clue to one of the biggest questions in cosmology — why regular matter, rather than antimatter, survived to fill the universe — may have been found in data from a NASA space telescope.

A new study suggests that gamma-rays (high-energy light) detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope show signs of the existence of a magnetic field that originated mere nanoseconds after the Big Bang. In addition, the researchers on the new study speculate that the magnetic field carries evidence of the fact that there is far more matter than antimatter in our universe.

The detection of the signal in the Fermi data is currently too weak to be claimed as a “discovery,” and no other solid evidence of an early-universe magnetic field exists. But if the signal bears out and the researchers’ speculations withstand scrutiny, the work could help scientists understand why the observable universe is made primarily of matter and not antimatter. [The Gamma Ray Universe: Photos by the Fermi Telescope]

Matter vs. antimatter

It’s easy to take matter for granted. The stuff that makes up our planet and everything on it — as well as our sun and all the other visible objects in the universe — never seems to be at risk of disappearing in an instant. But around the time our universe was born, there may have been just such an instant — a moment when matter won out and something called antimatter did not.

Cosmologists think the universe started with equal parts matter and antimatter; when matter and antimatter collide with great force, they annihilate each other. So, what happened to most of the antimatter (it still exists in the universe, but in very small quantities)? Why did matter dominate? It’s one of the biggest questions plaguing modern science.

Tanmay Vachaspati, a professor of physics at Arizona State University and his colleagues think they have found a clue to this mystery. They say that a signal in the Fermi gamma-ray data suggests an overwhelming production of matter, but not antimatter, in the early universe. They detailed their findings in a paper published online May 14 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A universal magnetic field

The team claims to have identified a sort of “twisting” of the gamma rays that the Fermi telescope detects, and the researchers say the detection of this twisted gamma-ray signal is verified in their paper.

Vachaspati and his colleagues’ interpretation of what that signal means boils down to this: The twisted gamma-rays are evidence of a magnetic field that has been present in the universe since less than a second after the Big Bang. This magnetic field has a left-hand orientation, and that is evidence of the overwhelming production of matter in the early universe, as antimatter would have produced a right-hand orientation, they said. [Most Amazing Gamma Ray Sources in the Universe]

There are many particle-physics events that must occur for this magnetic field to leave an imprint on the gamma-rays, the researchers .

Scientists don’t know for sure if this kind of “primordial” magnetic field exists in our universe. There have been magnetic fields observed in some galaxies and galaxy clusters that could be magnifications of a magnetic field that already existed in the universe, and to demonstrate that it exists would be a fascinating discovery, scientists say.

The discovery of this left-hand signal was first reported by Vachaspati and colleagues in a paper published in 2014.

“We were kind of cautious, and we didn’t want to make a big deal of it, because we thought maybe the signal would go away with more data or more analysis,” Vachaspati said. “And then, in [the new paper], we used more data and did other kinds of analysis. And the signal is still there.”

But the signal may not be a “discovery” quite yet.

In analyzing statistical data from instruments like the Fermi telescope, there is always a chance that a signal could arise purely by chance. The odds of this occurring are measured by a value called sigma. A result with 1 sigma has roughly 1-in-3 odds of arising purely by chance (not a very good bet).

The signal detected by Vachaspati and colleagues has a 3-sigma uncertainty, or about 0.3 percent odds that it has appeared purely by chance. This may seem good, but in particle physics, most signals are not officially called a “discovery” until they have a 5-sigma value (1-in-2-million chance that the signal is a purely random fluctuation).

Tonia Venters, a researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who works with Fermi telescope data, said it’s important to practice caution.

“Our field has seen many results at [2- and 3-sigma] significances come and go, so we tend to be rather skeptical when faced with even a 3-sigma result (0.3% probability of occurring by chance),” Venters told Space.com in an email. “To us, a 3-sigma result is interesting enough to wait for more data, but not enough to generate much excitement.”

It should be noted that there are other ways to judge the validity of a signal, and sigma is not always the best metric to use. However, it often serves as a good way to quickly evaluate the strength of a result. Vachaspati said he puts more weight on the fact that certain predictions made about the signal in the first paper were confirmed in the new analysis.

The next step, Vachaspati said, is to continue to look for the signal in more Fermi telescope data. The collaboration is expected to release new data this year. He will discuss the work with colleagues from around the world at a monthlong conference on cosmological magnetic fields this June and July.

“I think the most important part is that we’re seeing a suspicious signal in the data, and then the rest is kind of one step at a time,” Vachaspati said. “We think the most likely candidate for why this is happening is the magnetic field. And then, if it is the magnetic field, then it seems most likely to me it’s going to be this matter-antimatter asymmetry.

“But people have different ideas, so that part becomes more theoretical,” he added. “The interesting thing is that there seems to be a signal.”

 

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Venus plane pushed for next NASA New Frontiers mission

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    Northrop Grumman has come up with a Venus mission concept called VAMP (Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform): An inflatable propeller plane that could cruise Earth’s super-heated sister planet for years, sampling the acidic alien atmopshere (Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman is developing an inflatable, propeller-powered aircraft for a years-long cruise in the sulfurous skies of Venus and is gearing up to enter the concept in NASA’s next New Frontiers planetary science competition.

That Northrop believes its Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform, or VAMP, could be ready to compete for about $1 billion in NASA funding as soon as Oct. 1 is a testament to the company’s confidence in the concept, which despite arousing the intrigue of some Venus scientists is technically immature and likely to face competition from finalists of NASA’s last New Frontiers contest.

“I think we can be ready,” Ron Polidan, Northrop’s Redondo, California-based chief architect of civil systems, told SpaceNews.

The next New Frontiers competition is set to begin in the U.S. government’s 2016 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. The winning mission would have to be ready for launch around 2021, Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said in February.

To make that flight date, VAMP has to clear some major engineering hurdles.

For one thing, neither VAMP nor anything like it has ever flown. The closest thing there is to a VAMP prototype today is a pair of ultra-light wings built in 2008 and 2010 by Northrop’s partner L.Garde Inc. of Tustin, California, for a defunctDefense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative called Rapid Eye. The Pentagon-funded experiment aimed to create a collapsible, rocket-deployed drone that could arrive for reconnaissance duties anywhere on Earth an hour after launch.

Northrop and L.Garde were working separate Rapid Eye contracts before combining their efforts prior to the project’s 2010 cancellation. The two L.Garde-built wings, essentially lightweight frames covered with an ultra-thin skin that would not survive in the caustic Venusian atmosphere, were tested in wind tunnels, but never in the sky. The larger of the wings was only about 2 meters long; an operational VAMP would have a 55-meter wingspan, Polidan said.

Factoring in L.Garde’s work on Rapid Eye, Polidan estimates the VAMP concept rates a three on NASA’s Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, meaning the enabling technologies are still at the “proof of concept” level of development. Technologies that have been “flight proven” through actual mission operations are designated TRL 9.

In its last New Frontiers competition, NASA accepted proposals only for concepts that had reached TRL 6 — a prototype demonstration in a relevant environment — or that could reach that benchmark by their preliminary design review.

New Frontiers is for “flight missions, not technology development projects,” NASA wrote in the solicitation for the last New Frontiers competition, which the Osiris-Rex asteroid sampler won in 2011.

Polidan does not think that is a deal-breaker.

“The one nice thing for New Frontiers is they would like you to be at TRL 6 by the preliminary design review, so that gives you a few more years,” Polidan said.

Unpacking Polidan’s reasoning, Osiris-Rex had its preliminary design review in March 2013, nearly four years after the start of the New Frontiers competition it eventually won. So if past is precedent (and if NASA maintains the same technology readiness standards for the next New Frontiers competition) Northrop could have as many as four years to prove VAMP can fly autonomously while bearing the weight and powering the instruments scientists most want aboard the craft.

“We have a list of a about a dozen instruments that people have proposed we fly … and we convened a science advisory board to help us define both the instruments and where the aircraft needs to be to take the needed measurements,” Polidan said.

Venus is one of the priority New Frontiers destinations identified in 2011 as part of the most recent planetary science decadal survey. Decadal surveys, published by the National Research Council, set science priorities in 10-year blocks. Hundreds of pages long, the surveys give NASA a compass to follow as it plans future missions and de facto triage instructions for times when budgets are tight.

In February, Green said NASA will not deviate from the decadal’s instructions for the upcoming New Frontiers competition. That means Venus is on the radar, but it also means neither Venus nor VAMP is a lock.

VAMP, should it enter the fray, will have to prove its mettle against missions to other high-priority New Frontiers destinations: the lunar poles; Jupiter’s moon, Io; the gas giant Saturn; and trojan asteroids.

Finalists from the 2011 competition that could be resubmitted for the 2016 contest are: the MoonRise lunar sample-return mission from Washington University in St. Louis, and a Venus lander called the Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, a University of Colorado, Boulder, proposal modeled after a sample mission described in the latest planetary science decadal survey.

Flying the (mostly) friendly skies

Venus, which Polidan jokingly called Earth’s “ugly stepsister,” is not well understood by scientists. That is due almost entirely to the planet’s unforgiving environment, which is a punishing place even for machines.

The ground temperature on Earth’s superheated sister planet, first measured directly by the Soviet Union’s Venera 7 lander in 1970, hovers around 460 degrees Celsius. Ambient surface pressure is about 90 Earth atmospheres. That is the sort of pressure found 900 meters below the ocean’s surface.

“Surviving on the surface for any longer than four hours and getting high-resolution data is a challenge,” said Constantine Tsang, a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a member of Northrop’s all-volunteer VAMP science advisory board

VAMP, however, would fly in a more forgiving environment. At its target altitude, 50 kilometers to 70 kilometers above the Venusian surface, pressures hover around 1 atmosphere, just like at sea level on Earth. The temperature at that altitude on Venus is about 15 degrees Celsius.

“Not a whole lot different than flying on Earth,” Polidan said. “If you wanna just sprinkle sulfuric acid all over yourself, that would be more like what you have on Venus.”

The acidity at altitude, unlike the unforgiving surface conditions, “we can handle now with a lot of the materials we have,” Tsang said.

Appliance of science

Engineering challenges aside, VAMP still has an existential question to answer before it stands a chance in any competed NASA mission line: Can an aircraft flying 50 kilometers above the surface of Venus answer the science community’s most pressing questions about the planet?

Northrop certainly thinks so. Its VAMP science advisory board is due to meet for the first time in May to help the company figure out the best ways to squeeze some of the priority science from the last planetary decadal onto VAMP.

VAMP also passed the scientific sniff test with Tsang and two other Venus specialists reached recently by SpaceNews.

All three of these scientists helped write the NASA-chartered Venus Exploration Analysis Group’s (VEXAG) 2014 science roadmap, “Goals, Objectives, and Investigations.” They agreed VAMP could complete some, although not all, of the roadmap’s proposed investigations.

“VAMP could not answer all key questions,” said Robert Herrick, a University of Alaska-based surface specialist who chaired the VEXAG committee in charge of the 2014 science roadmap. “Primarily, the platform would be for atmospheric science.”

That roadmap split Venus science objectives into three essential categories: atmospheric measurements, surface measurements and measurements of the surface’s interaction with the atmosphere.

VEXAG member Kevin McGouldrick, a research scientist with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said VAMP could probably answer all of the big atmospheric questions, half the questions about surface-atmosphere interactions, and even some of the big Venusian surface questions by “remotely sensing the surface.”

Constantine Tsang, a research associate at the Southwest Research Institute’s Boulder, Colorado, branch.

VAMP could make such remote surface measurements with nadir-facing infrared sensors, Tsang said.

“That would tell you whether the surface is basaltic, has igneous rocks, things like that,” he said. “But you couldn’t do isotopic ratio measurements of minerals, for example, that rovers could be doing.”

The three scientists differed about whether VAMP could fit inside the $1 billion New Frontiers cost cap. Herrick declined to make odds, McGouldrick was pessimistic, and Tsang saw a ray of hope.

“The downside of that is that VAMP is comparatively under-tested, which means it will be a difficult sell at any level of NASA mission, whether New Frontiers or flagship,” McGouldrick said.

Tsang, on the other hand, thought VAMP “probably would fit in a New Frontiers cost cap.”

Winging It on Other Planets

Conceivably, a VAMP-like aircraft, thanks to the low g-loads its light mass would produce, could inflate on orbit and descend into any planetary atmosphere for flight. That leaves the door open to fly VAMP any place in the solar system where a wing could create lift, such as Saturn’s moon Titan.

On Earth, a VAMP-like aircraft has science and defense applications that could, among other things, funnel some much-needed work to Northrop’s partner on VAMP, L.Garde.

“That third planet [Earth] may have interest in a vehicle of this nature for defense applications,” L.Garde spokesman Bert Watson told SpaceNews. Watson acknowledged L.Garde had “not yet” sniffed out any business leads at the Pentagon, however.

Any new business would help L.Garde, which in October laid off about half of its 35-person staff after NASA pulled the plug on the Sunjammer solar-sail mission. The small Sunjammer spacecraft would have used a shiny, 1,200-square-meter sail about 5 micrometers thick to perform near-perpetual station-keeping maneuvers at a solar orbit roughly 3 million kilometers from Earth.

But L.Garde could not find an experienced spacecraft prime to build the satellite, then failed to complete the build in house. NASA eventually lost confidence in the company and canceled the Sunjammer contract. L.Garde management subsequently admitted spacecraft development did not exactly fit in the company’s wheelhouse.

On the other hand, deployment of inflatable structures in space is a core competency, Watson said, pointing to L.Garde’s work on the successful Spartan 207/Inflatable Antenna Experiment that flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-77 mission in 1997.

On VAMP, L.Garde still has a relatively minor role, Watson said. The company’s contract with Northrop (Watson would not say how much the deal is worth) “will have L.Garde doing some materials evaluation for how the VAMP aircraft will be constructed.”

“If you’re talking about Venus, that’s a whole different set of atmospheric conditions than it would be for Earth,” Watson said. “So what materials meet the requirements? How you bring those layers together? What kind of adhesive? What kind of layering? Is permeability a concern?”

L.Garde expects to meet with Northrop soon to exchange ideas about the answers to some of those questions, Watson said.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Ocean on Saturn moon Enceladus may have potential energy source to support life

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This illustration shows the possible interior of the Saturn moon Enceladus. Data gathered by NASA’s Cassini probe suggests Enceladus has an ice outer shell and a rocky core with a regional water ocean sandwiched in between at high southern lati (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/PSI)

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is looking better and better as a potential abode for alien life.

Chemical reactions that free up energy that could potentially support a biosphere have occurred — and perhaps still are occurring — deep within Enceladus’ salty subsurface ocean, a new study suggests.

This determination comes less than two months after a different research team announced that active hydrothermal vents likely exist on Enceladus’ seafloor, suggesting that conditions there could be similar to those that gave rise to some of the first lifeforms on Earth. [Photos: Enceladus, Saturn’s Cold, Bright Moon]

A salty ocean

Astrobiologists regard the 314-mile-wide Enceladus as one of the solar system’s best bets to host life beyond Earth.

The satellite is covered by an icy shell, but it’s geologically quite active, as evidenced by the powerful geysers that blast continuously from its south polar region. These plumes contain significant amounts of water, which scientists think originates from a subsurface ocean.

Previous studies have suggested that this ocean is in contact with Enceladus’ rocky mantle, making possible all sorts of interesting chemical reactions. The new paper, published Wednesd May 6 in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, further supports that notion.

The researchers studied mass-spectrometry measurements of the gases and ice grains in Enceladus’ plumes made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. The team used this information to develop a model that estimates the saltiness and pH of Enceladus’ plumes, and, by extension, the moon’s underground ocean.

The scientists determined that the ocean is likely salty and quite basic, with a pH of 11 or 12 — roughly equivalent to that of ammonia-based glass-cleaning solutions, but still within the tolerance range of some organisms on Earth. (The pH scale runs from 0 to 14. Seven is neutral; anything higher is basic, and anything lower is acidic.)

Enceladus’ subsurface sea contains dissolved sodium chloride (NaCl) — run-of-the-mill table salt — just as Earth’s oceans do, researchers said. But it’s full of sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), which is also known as washing soda or soda ash, as well.

So this alien water body is probably more similar to terrestrial “soda lakes,” such as ?Mono Lake in California, than it is to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, study team members said.

An energy source in the dark depths

Such inferences shouldn’t dishearten astrobiologists; a variety of lifeforms thrive in Mono Lake, including brine shrimp and many different types of microbe. And the new study provides other reasons to be optimistic about Enceladus’ life-hosting potential, researchers said.

For example, the team’s model suggests that the subsurface ocean’s high pH is generated by a process called serpentization, in which certain kinds of metallic rocks from Enceladus’ upper mantle are transformed into new minerals (including serpentine, hence the name) via interactions with water.

In addition to raising pH, serpentization results in the production of molecular hydrogen (H2) — a potential source of chemical energy for any lifeforms that may exist in the underground sea, researchers said.

?”Molecular hydrogen can both drive the formation of organic compounds like amino acids that may lead to the origin of life, and serve as food for microbial life such as methane-producing organisms,” study lead author Christopher Glein, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, said in a statement.

“As such, serpentinization provides a link between geological processes and biological processes,” he added. “The discovery of serpentinization makes Enceladus an even more promising candidate for a separate genesis of life.”

Sunlight probably doesn’t flow through Enceladus’ underground sea, but any microbes that exist there may thus have access to two different sources metabolism-supporting energy sources — molecular hydrogen and the heat provided by hydrothermal vents.

 

 

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Astronaut sees huge winter storm from space (Photos)

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    NASA astronaut Terry Virts took this photo of the January 2015 winter storm from the International Space Station. He posted the picture, which shows the storm churning near Boston, on Twitter on Jan. 28. (NASA Astronaut Terry Virts (@AstroTerry))

The monster winter storm that dumped loads of snow on the northeastern United States on Monday and Tuesday (Jan. 26 and 27) looked pretty beastly from 250 miles above the planet.

NASA astronaut Terry Virts, a member of the current Expedition 42 crew aboard the International Space Station, captured several dramatic photos of the storm Tuesday night, as it wheeled and churned over New England.

The blizzard “looks like a hurricane — last night she was just east of #Boston,” Virts tweeted about one image, which also features what looks to be a flash of lightning northeast of the storm.

Robotic eyes have also been keeping tabs on the winter storm, from much higher altitudes. For example, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, which is operated jointly by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), looked on as the storm hammered the Northeast early Tuesday morning, when it was near peak intensity.

“The nighttime lights of the region were blurred by the high cloud tops associated with the most intense parts of the storm,” NASA officials wrote about the satellite image.

Other images of the winter storm — which is known as a nor’easter, because its winds are blowing primarily from the northeast — have come courtesy of NOAA’s GOES-East satellite.

GOES-East (short for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) captures infrared and visible-light cloud data, which is then overlain on views of land and sea taken by NASA’s Aqua and Terra Earth-observing satellites.

The winter storm, which meteorologists have been calling Juno, dumped up to 3 feet of snow on some parts of New England over the past few days. It is now petering out, but the U.S. National Weather Service says the Northeast will likely get another round of snowfall Friday (Jan. 30).

Indeed, parts of the planet look like a winter wonderland from orbit at the moment.

“In these winter time[s], sometimes it feels like the whole world is shrouded in cloud! ?#HelloEarth,” Virts’ Expedition 42 colleague, European Space Agency astronaut Sam Cristoforetti, posted on Twitter early Wednesday (Jan. 28), along with a stunning photo of the planet.

 

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NASA funds ‘squid rover,’ 14 other far-out space tech ideas

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Artist’s rendering showing 2015 NIAC Phase I Fellow Mason Peck’s soft-robotic rover that could explore ocean-harboring moons such as Europa. It resembles a squid, with tentacle-like structures that harvest power from locally changing magnetic f (NASA/Cornell University/NSF)

NASA has funded 15 ambitious tech concepts in the hopes that one or more of them may have a huge impact on space science or exploration down the road.

The new ideas funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program include a squid-like amphibious rover that could explore icy, ocean-harboring moons such as the Jupiter satellite Europa; a proposal to mine water from asteroids using concentrated sunlight; and “WindBots” that would cruise through the skies of Jupiter and Saturn, drawing energy from the gas giants’ magnetic fields and powerful winds.

Another concept seeks to develop small, cheap “crawler,” “hopper” and ball-like robots that would work together to search for water and other volatile materials in permanently shadowed craters near the poles of the moon. Accessing these volatitles could be key to establishing a human presence on the moon, many researchers say. [How Humans Will Explore the Moon (Infographic)]

The 15 proposals were selected under Phase 1 of the NIAC program. The research teams will each get about $100,000 to perform initial analyses; they can then apply for a Phase 2 award, which is worth an additional $500,000 and funds two more years of development.

“Most of the 2015 NIAC Phase I final candidates were outstanding, and choosing only 15 of them proved to be a challenge,” NIAC program executive Jason Derleth said in a statement. “We look forward to seeing how each new study will push boundaries and explore new approaches — that’s what makes NIAC unique.”

The selected concepts, and their principal investigators, are:

  • Virtual Flight Demonstration of Stratospheric Dual-Aircraft Platform (William Engblom, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University)
  • Thirsty Walls: A New Paradigm for Air Revitalization in Life Support (John Graf, NASA’s Johnson Space Center)
  • A Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By (Michael Hecht, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Haystack Observatory)
  • In-Space Manufacture of Storable Propellants (John Lewis, Deep Space Industries)
  • DEEP IN Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration (Philip Lubin, University of California, Santa Barbara)
  • Triton Hopper: Exploring Neptune’s Captured Kuiper Belt Object (Steven Oleson, COMPASS Conceptual Design Team)
  • Soft-Robotic Rover with Electrodynamic Power Scavenging (Mason Peck, Cornell University)
  • Seismic Exploration of Small Bodies (Jeffrey Plescia, Johns Hopkins University)
  • CRICKET: Cryogenic Reservoir Inventory by Cost-Effective Kinetically Enhanced Technology (Jeffrey Plescia, Johns Hopkins University)
  • APIS (Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies): 100MT Of Water from a Single Falcon 9 (Joel Sercel, ICS Associates Inc.)
  • WindBots: Persistent In-Situ Science Explorers for Gas Giants (Adrian Stoica, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)
  • Thin-Film Broadband Large Area Imaging System (Nelson Tabirian, BEAM Engineering for Advanced Measurements Co.)
  • Aperture: A Precise Extremely large Reflective Telescope Using Re-configurable Elements (Melville Ulmer, Northwestern University)
  • CubeSat with Nanostructured Sensing Instrumentation for Planetary Exploration (Joseph Wang, University of Southern California)
  • Cryogenic Selective Surfaces (Robert Youngquist, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center)

You can learn more about the studies here: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/niac-2015-phase-i-selections

“The latest NIAC selections include a number of exciting concepts,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in the same statement. “We are working with American innovators to reimagine the future of aerospace and focus our investments on concepts to address challenges of current interests both in space and here on Earth.”

NIAC began in 1998 as the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts program, and operated in this form through 2007. Congress ordered the U.S. National Research Council to investigate NIAC’s effectiveness and importance in 2008; favorable reviews led to the program’s resurrection (albeit under a slightly different name) in 2011.

 

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Century-old ‘mini-supernova’ captured in gorgeous NASA photo

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The classical nova remnant GK Persei, as seen by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. (NASA)

A stunning new photo shows the expanding celestial fireworks created by a stellar explosion that first lit up Earth’s skies more than a century ago.

The image, taken by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, depicts GK Persei, a sort of mini-supernova that first appeared in the night sky in 1901. Scientists aimed Chandra at GK Persei in February 2000 and then again in November 2013, measuring the brightness and temperature of the expanding debris both times.

Chandra’s data have revealed something surprising: The gas in GK Persei — which lies 1,500 light-years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Perseus — hardly cooled at all during the 13-year span, researchers said. [See a time-lapse video of the GK Persei explosion]

A hundred thousand years ago, GK Persei was a typical sunlike star on death row. It ran out of hydrogen fuel and shed its outer layers, transforming into a superdense stellar corpse called a white dwarf.

But GK Persei’s story was far from over. The white dwarf pulled hydrogen gas from the outer layers of an orbiting companion star, accumulating enough material to spur nuclear-fusion reactions. This eventually led to a huge explosion. The white dwarf’s outer layers were blown off, in an event known as a “classical nova.”

Such events can be thought of miniature versions of supernova explosions, which involve the death and complete destruction of stars much more massive than the sun, researchers said.

The light from GK Persei’s explosion first arrived at Earth in 1901 — 1,500 years after the star went boom. For a brief time, GK Persei was the brightest object in the night sky. It has faded over the decades, but the object can’t escape the peering eyes of Chandra and other powerful telescopes.

The new photo shows Chandra data in blue, optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope in yellow and radio data from the Very Large Array (VLA) in pink. Chandra’s X-ray observations reveal hot gas; Hubble’s show clumps that were ejected in the explosion, and the VLA data reveal emission from electrons, NASA officials said.

Chandra’s observations show that GK Persei’s debris expanded outward at about 700,000 mph between 2000 and 2013, moving about 90 billion miles during that time, researchers said.

The data also reveal that the temperature of gas in the nova remnant remained more or less constant from 2000 to 2013, a finding that was unexpected.

“As the shock wave expanded and heated an increasing amount of matter, the temperature behind the wave of energy should have decreased,” NASA officialswrote in a statement.

“The observed fading and constant temperature suggests that the wave of energy has swept up a negligible amount of gas in the environment around the star over the past 13 years,” they added. “This suggests that the wave must currently be expanding into a region of much lower density than before, giving clues to the stellar neighborhood in which GK Persei resides.”

The results were published in the March 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

 

 

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Spectacular space photos capture solar filament eruption

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     (SOHO, NASA/ESA)

NASA has released stunning images of a solar filament bursting out of the sun.  The “elongated solar filament,” extended almost half the sun’s visible hemisphere, according to NASA, and erupted into space on April 28 and 29 in a large burst of bright plasma.

Filaments are unstable strands of solar material suspended above the sun by magnetic forces. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite, which is run by NASA and the European Space Agency, captured the eruption.

SOHO’s Large Angle Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) telescopes use an “occulter disk” to block light directly from the sun and create an artificial eclipse within the instruments.

“Solar astronomers around the world had their eyes on this unusually large filament and kept track as it erupted,” said NASA, in a statement.

 

Study: Jupiter made our solar system weird

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Study: Jupiter made our solar system weird

This image provided by NASA shows a montage of New Horizons images of Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io, taken during the spacecraft���s Jupiter flyby. (AP Photo/NASA)

As astronomers get a better look at the planets circling other stars, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that our solar system is pretty strange—and Jupiter seems to be the reason why.

Most other solar systems appear to have at least one large planet orbiting very close to the star, but the inner part of our solar system is missing, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers believe Jupiter’s orbit wandered during the early years of our solar system, with the giant planet’s gravity causing destruction by, as Discovery puts it, flinging proto-planets around and “creating a shooting arcade that could have easily destroyed planets in the region,” including the “super-Earths” that appear in the “default mode” of solar system formation.

The research is based on the “Grand Tack” theory, which holds that Jupiter migrated toward the sun and then back out again with the influence of Saturn.

The destruction allowed a second generation of planets, including ours, to form out of the debris, researchers say, but the theory could mean that planets capable of sustaining life as we know it may be rarer than the number of other planets spotted suggests.

“In the context of our hypothesis, Earth-mass planets should be very common,” researcher Greg Laughlin tells the Christian Science Monitor. “Truly Earth-like planets, however, with solid surfaces and atmospheric pressures similar to what we have here on Earth, would be expected to be rather rare. I would hazard a guess that the Earth will indeed turn out to be rather special.” (A vast ocean has beendetected inside Jupiter’s biggest moon.)

This article originally appeared on Newser: Jupiter Made Our Solar System Weird

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Space station crew: Russia’s spinning supply ship total loss

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Russia’s robotic Progress 59 cargo spacecraft launches toward the International Space Station atop a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 28, 2015. (NASA TV)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A Russian supply capsule that went into an uncontrollable spin after launch was declared a total loss Wednesday, but the astronauts at the International Space Station said they will get by without the delivery of fresh food, water, clothes and equipment.

The space station’s one-year crew members, American Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko, told The Associated Press during an interview that flight controllers have given up trying to command the cargo carrier.

The unmanned Progress vessel, loaded with 3 tons of goods, began tumbling shortly after its launch Tuesday from Kazakhstan.

Kelly said the craft will fall out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere sometime soon. He’s not sure exactly when.

The capsule is expected to burn up in the atmosphere, as is the case for all Progress carriers, once they have delivered their shipments and are filled with trash.

“We should be OK,” said Kelly, one month into a planned one-year mission, which will be a record for NASA. “The program plans for these kinds of things to happen. They’re very unfortunate when they do.”

He added: “The important thing is hardware can be replaced.”

Kornienko called it “a big concern.” But he expressed “100 percent confidence” that operations will continue as planned until the next shipment arrives. The private SpaceX company plans to send up a load of supplies in June.

This is the second cargo ship lost in the past half year.

In October, Orbital Sciences Corp. suffered a launch explosion in Virginia that destroyed a cargo ship that had been intended for the orbiting lab.

SpaceX is currently NASA’s sole supplier. The Japanese Space Agency also periodically sends up cargo; it is aiming for a summer shipment.

Six people are currently living on the space station: two Americans, one Italian and three Russians.

Hubble Space Telescope marks 25th anniversary in orbit this week

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    In this April 25, 1990 photograph provided by NASA, most of the giant Hubble Space Telescope can be seen as it is suspended in space by Discovery’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) following the deployment of part of its solar panels and antennae. This was among the first photos NASA released on April 30 from the five-day STS-31 mission. The Hubble Space Telescope, one of NASA’S crowning glories, marks its 25th anniversary on Friday, April 24, 2015. With more than 1 million observations, including those of the farthest and oldest galaxies ever beholden by humanity, no man-made satellite has touched as many minds or hearts as Hubble. (NASA via AP) (The Associated Press)

One of NASA’s crowning glories, the Hubble Space Telescope, marks its 25th anniversary this week.

With 1 million-plus observations, including those of some of the farthest and oldest galaxies ever beheld by humanity, no man-made satellite has touched as many minds or hearts as Hubble.

NASA is celebrating Friday’s anniversary with ceremonies this week at the Smithsonian Institution and Newseum in Washington.

“Hubble has become part of our culture — very much,” said NASA’s science mission chief, John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who flew on the final three Hubble repair missions.

A look at Hubble’s quarter-century in orbit about 350 miles above Earth:

A BLURRY START

A full decade in the making, Hubble rocketed into orbit on April 24, 1990, aboard space shuttle Discovery.

NASA wanted an observatory free of the atmosphere’s distortion and, in some cases, absorption of light. Stars, for example, do not appear to twinkle when seen from space. The telescope was named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble, who in the 1920s determined that the universe is expanding.

Sky-high excitement turned into bottomless agony when it quickly became apparent that the telescope’s primary mirror had been botched during manufacturing, resulting in blurry eyesight. Three years later, with NASA’s reputation and entire future on the line, a team of astronauts managed to restore Hubble’s promised vision with replacement parts.

OVERHAULS AND TUNEUPS

Shuttle astronauts visited Hubble five times, from 1993 to 2009, to make improvements and repairs to the 43-foot-long observatory, about the size of a school bus. That last mission almost didn’t happen: NASA canceled it for safety reasons in the wake of the 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster. But public uproar and changing NASA administration, along with detailed crew-rescue plans just in case, led to the flight’s reinstatement. By the time Atlantis blasted off on the last servicing mission, NASA put the investment in Hubble at $10 billion.

Three-time Hubble mechanic Grunsfeld was the last person to lay hands on the orbiting observatory. He recalls giving Hubble “a little pat and a salute,” and telling it, “Good travels, Hubble.”

IMPRESSIVE STATS

Hubble has traveled 3.4 billion miles, circling Earth nearly 137,000 times and making more than 1.2 million observations of more than 38,000 celestial objects, according to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The most distant objects spotted by Hubble — primitive galaxies — are some 13 billion light-years away and date to within 400 million or so years of the universe’s origin, known as the Big Bang.

Hubble provides an average of 829 gigabytes of archival data every month, according to the institute. Altogether, Hubble has produced more than 100 terabytes of data.

DISCOVERIES

Early on, Hubble proved the existence of super-massive black holes — and found they’re located at the center of most galaxies. It also helped to pinpoint the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years old, by determining the current rate of expansion of the universe with an uncertainty of just 3 percent, according to the Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the space telescope institute.

Thanks to Hubble, he noted this week, astronomers now know that cosmic expansion is accelerating because of mysterious dark energy.

The space telescope has shown that the birth rate of stars hit a peak in the universe about 10 billion years ago and has been declining ever since, Livio said.

Astronomers have published 12,800 scientific papers based on data from Hubble. Some of the research on supernovas, or exploding stars, contributed to a Nobel Prize in physics in 2011.

FUTURE

NASA’s Grunsfeld said “there’s pretty high probability” that Hubble will keep working until at least 2020. Gravity is slowly lowering the telescope’s approximately 350-mile-high orbit, but the good news is that low solar activity is keeping the atmosphere thinner, which in turn should keep Hubble up until the 2030s.

On the last Hubble mission in 2009, Grunsfeld installed a docking adaptor on the bottom of the telescope. The plan was — and still is — to one day launch an unmanned rocket to Hubble so a motor can be installed to guide the telescope toward a Pacific re-entry.

The 8-foot primary mirror is the main concern: It’s expected to survive the atmospheric plunge. That’s why NASA does not want Hubble coming down, uncontrolled, over populated areas.

SUCCESSOR

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is due to be launched in 2018 to a vantage point 1 million miles away.

The Webb will specialize in the infrared wavelength, allowing it to peer into some of the faintest, most distant recesses of the universe. This should enable the telescope — named after the late NASA administrator who guided the Mercury and Gemini programs, and set the stage for the Apollo moon landings — to look back even farther in time than Hubble and detect galaxies formed a mere 200 million years following the Big Bang.

By 2019, Webb should be up and running with the Hubble still in action and powerful, new ground telescopes pointing skyward.

“It will just be absolutely the most capability we will have ever had to look at the cosmos and try and understand it,” Grunsfeld said. “I’m convinced there are going to be some big discoveries.”

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Online:

NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble

Space Telescope Science Institute: http://www.stsci.edu/portal/