Five ‘bright’ planets set to align in dawn sky

(REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah)

(REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah)

Stargazers are in for a treat starting Wednesday when all five visible planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, will be visible in the morning sky.

Earth Sky reports that the planets will appear together before dawn from about Jan. 20 to Feb. 20. The last time the stars aligned in this fashion was from Dec. 15, 2004 to Jan. 15, 2005.

“In their outward order from the sun, the five bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn,” explained Earth Sky. “These planets are easily seen in our sky because their disks reflect sunlight, and these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars.”

In September 2015 stargazers were treated to a rare supermoon eclipse – the first time that a supermoon had coincided with a lunar eclipse since 1982.

Although past sky shows have sent the astrological community into overdrive with doomsday predictions, is offering up five fun ways to celebrate the event.

Stunning NASA image shows Pluto’s atmosphere

Haze layers in Pluto's atmosphere (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Haze layers in Pluto’s atmosphere (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

NASA has released an incredible image of the haze layers in Pluto’s atmosphere taken by the New Horizons spacecraft.

The processed image is the highest-resolution color look yet at the haze layers, according to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which engineered New Horizons with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). The image, which was acquired on July 14, 2015, was taken by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), “splashed” with Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) four-color filter data.

The image resolution is 0.6 miles per pixel, with the sun illuminating the scene from the right.

“Scientists believe the haze is a photochemical smog resulting from the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere, producing a complex mixture of hydrocarbons such as acetylene and ethylene,” explained the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement. “These hydrocarbons accumulate into small particles, a fraction of a micrometer in size, and scatter sunlight to make the bright blue haze seen in this image.”

The haze layers extend to altitudes of over 120 miles.

NASA released the first images from New Horizons’ historic Pluto flyby in July. The spacecraft began its yearlong download of new images and other data over the Labor Day weekend.

‘Green Pea’ galaxies may explain transformation of the universe

This is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the compact green pea galaxy J0925+1403. The diameter of the galaxy is approximately 6,000 light years, and it is about twenty times smaller than the Milky Way. (NASA)

This is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the compact green pea galaxy J0925+1403. The diameter of the galaxy is approximately 6,000 light years, and it is about twenty times smaller than the Milky Way. (NASA)

About a billion years after the Big Bang, the Universe began to heat up for a second time and hydrogen became ionized.

But what was responsible for this transformation that was critical to understanding the universe as it is today?

A new study in Nature by an international team largely confirmed what astronomers long believed – that this dramatic change was due to galaxies. Specifically, they found that dwarf galaxies – so-called green peas, low-mass compact galaxies with very active star formation – were the culprit for the event that happened about 13 billion years ago.

“This galaxy appears to be an excellent local analog of the numerous dwarf galaxies thought to be responsible for the reionization of the early universe,” University of Virginia astronomer Trinh Thuan said in a statement. “The finding is significant because it gives us a good place to look for probing the reionization phenomenon, which took place early in the formation of the universe that became the universe we have today.”

Several hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, the universe was so hot and dense that matter was ionized instead of being in a neutral form. But 380,000 years later, the universe cooled as it expanded enough for matter to become neutral and gas clouds of hydrogen and helium to form. With help from gravity, these gas clouds grew and then collapsed to form the first stars and galaxies.

Then after remaining neutral for a few hundred million years, the Universe began to heat up for a second time and hydrogen became ionized, as it had shortly after the Big Bang, an event which astronomers call “cosmic re-ionization.”

Since the ultraviolet radiation emitted by nearly formed stars contains numerous ionizing photons, astronomers long believed galaxies were responsible for this cosmic ionization. But the trick was finding evidence of this process, in which galaxies eject these photons into the intergalactic medium.

Despite 20 years of searching, no galaxy could be found that was emitting sufficient amounts of ionized radiation.

In the latest search, astronomers decided to target the “green pea” galaxies. Discovered in 2007, these galaxies appear green to light sensors and are round and compact, like a pea. They are believed to host stellar explosions or winds strong enough to eject ionizing photons.

Using Hubble’s UV radiation detecting capabilities, the research team found that the “green pea” galaxy J0925+1403, located at a distance of three billion light-years from Earth, was “ejecting” ionizing photons, with an intensity never seen before – nearly an 8 percent ejection compared to 1-3 percent seen in the past measured from other nearby galaxies.

They concluded the total number of photons emitted during the starburst phase is sufficient to ionize intergalactic medium material that is about 40 times as massive as the stellar mass of the galaxy, the authors wrote.

“As we make additional observations using Hubble, we expect to gain a much better understanding of the way photons are ejected from this type of galaxy, and the specific galaxy types driving cosmic reionization,” Trinh said. “These are crucial observations in the process of stepping back in time to the early universe.”

The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Dawn Erb, in a News&Views column that accompanied the study, said the findings “broadly confirms our understanding of the general conditions that may facilitate the escape of ionizing radiation.”

But since the study involved a single galaxy, Erb cautioned more work was needed to shore up the findings.

“It is not yet clear whether or not J0925+1403 is typical of compact, highly ionized starbursts (galaxies with extremely high rates of star formation) in the nearby Universe,” she wrote. “We also do not know whether this galaxy is similar to those that reionized the Universe; its small size, high ionization state and relatively low degree of enrichment by elements heavier than helium generally match the expected properties of such objects, but none of these properties has been measured for the earliest galaxies.”

Yuri Izotov, a lead author on the study from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Ukraine, said they expect to soon show their initial findings apply to other galaxies.

“Now, we are preparing the second paper on this topic with the results for the remaining four galaxies. Before publishing of these data, I can only say that the leaking ionizing radiation was also detected in other galaxies from the sample,” Izotov told in an email interview.

“We also plan to continue this study applying for the new Hubble Space Telescope observations to increase the statistics and to derive average properties of the galaxies leaking the ionizing radiation,” he said. “For the moment, we have a number of good candidates selected from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which contains spectra of millions of galaxies.”

SpaceX releases stunning footage of Falcon 9 rocket landing

File photo - The first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket returns to land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Dec. 21, 2015. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

File photo – The first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket returns to land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, Dec. 21, 2015. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

SpaceX has released stunningly detailed footage of its audacious Falcon 9 rocket landing last month as it prepares to land a rocket on an ocean platform.

“The Falcon has landed,” tweeted the private space company Tuesday, with a link to new footage and a recap of the Dec. 21 rocket launch and landing.

The video also shows SpaceX staff at Mission Control in Hawthorne, Calif. erupt when the rocket is safely guided back to land. The impressive feat was the first time an unmanned rocket returned to land vertically at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and represented a tremendous success for SpaceX. The company led by billionaire Elon Musk is striving for reusability to drive launch costs down and open up space to more people.

SpaceX is planning a launch and rocket landing from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this weekend. The Jason-3 satellite launch could take place Sunday, according to news reports.

In a tweet on Monday Musk confirmed that the rocket landing attempt will use a droneship, or floating ocean platform. SpaceX’s previous landing attempts on droneships have ended in fiery blasts.

For the Dec. 21 rocket landing SpaceX used a former Atlas missile-launching site about six miles from the Cape Canaveral launch pad that the company leased from the Air Force.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Worldwide telescope network will take best-ever images of Black Holes

 An image from a simulation showing how matter might be moved around in the extreme environment around a black hole. The simulations will be compared to observational data collected by the Event Horizon Telescope, which will be increasing its sensitivity in 2017 and 2018.

  • An image from a simulation showing how matter might be moved around in the extreme environment around a black hole. The simulations will be compared to observational data collected by the Event Horizon Telescope, which will be increasing its sensitivity in 2017 and 2018. (Özel/Chan)

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Get ready for your close-up, black holes: The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which will take some of the best images of black holes ever captured by humans, is ramping up its worldwide network of telescopes.

By 2018, the EHT will be an observatory that harnesses the power of nine telescopes around the world, including ones in Chile, Arizona, Hawaii, Antarctica and Greenland. These instruments will work together to get higher-resolution images than any of these scopes can achieve alone. The target of their observations will be black holes — scientists hope to see the material moving around these dark monsters, as well as the shadow of the black hole itself.

“One thing that could excite the public almost as much as a Pluto flyby would be a picture of a black hole, up close and personal,” Feryal Ӧzel, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Arizona, said during a talk here at the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, where a few thousand astronomers and astrophysicists have gathered to discuss the latest news in the field. (Ӧzel comment was made in reference to the massive public interest in the images captured by NASA’s New Horizons probe, which flew by the dwarf planet last July.) [The Strangest Black Holes in the Universe]

Other telescopes have studied black holes in the past, but the goal of the EHT is to take images that surpass the resolution of any previous black-hole snapshots. With that information, scientists would be able to see the area around a black hole — a place where the pull of gravity is so extreme that very strange things happen.

For example, the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as Messier 87 has a massive, narrow jet of material, roughly 5,000 light-years long, spewing away from it. In contrast, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way — Sagittarius A* — has very little matter around it and no jets. In galaxies known as active galactic nuclei (AGNs), black holes accelerate huge clouds of material around them, and radiate more light than the entire Milky Way galaxy. What leads to such a drastic difference between these objects? With EHT, Ӧzel said, scientists may finally be able to answer that question.

“Is it the magnetic field structure that is different? Is it the spin that is different? Or is it something else about the accretion flow that is different?” Ӧzel said. “This will open a brand-new window into studying accretion physics.”

And then there’s Einstein. His theory of general relativity has been tested using observations in Earth’s solar system — for example, the way light bends around the sun — and beyond. But there are few cosmic environments as extreme as the one around a black hole, where the gravity can be millions of times stronger than it is around a star. As a result, the EHT will reveal the effects of gravity (which are described by the theory of relativity) “on scales that have never been probed before,” said Ӧzel, who is a scientist on the EHT project team and is leading some of the theoretical work that will be combined with the observations.

“Get to the edge of a black hole, and the general relativity tests you can performare qualitatively and quantitatively different,” ?zel said.

Understandably, Ӧzel and other black-hole scientists are eager to start getting data from EHT. One of the major requirements of imaging black holes in such high resolution is to have a very large telescope. In fact, Ӧzell said that achieving the resolution of EHT effectively requires a telescope the size of the Earth.

“Of course nobody would fund an Earth-sized telescope,” Ӧzel said. But the “next-best thing” is to combine observations from multiple telescopes on the surface of the Earth that are separated by very large distances, Ӧzel said. With this technique, scientists can observe an object in significantly higher resolution than the telescopes could achieve alone — effectively giving scientists an “Earth-size” telescope.

The first data from the EHT project were collected in the mid-2000s, by three telescopes — one each in Hawaii, Arizona and California. The group collaborated to look at the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A*. In 2014, the collaboration added the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile to its array, and doubled its resolution, according to the EHT website.

Six telescopes in the EHT array are already taking data, and a total of nine are expected to be contributing to the project by 2018, according to Shep Doeleman, principal investigator for EHT.

Early in 2015, the collaboration added the South Pole Telescope to its array, which connected the other telescopes such that the EHT effectively spanned the entire Earth. In 2017, the EHT will be able to make observations with ALMA that will boost its sensitivity by a factor of 10, Doeleman told in an email. In 2018, an additional telescope will join the group from Greenland.

“One of the innovative aspects of the EHT is that we use existing telescopes at the highest altitudes (where they are above most of the atmosphere) and outfit them with specialized instrumentation that enables us to link them together,” Doeleman said. “So we don’t build new dishes, and we leverage over a [billion dollars] of existing telescopes.”

However, there are still obstacles, he noted. “Last year, one of the facilities participating in the EHT had to close due to lack of funding,” Doeleman said. “We can still do all the EHT [work] planned because new sites are coming online, but we remain ‘en guard’ for threats against EHT sites.”

Scientists may have discovered remnants of the first stars

Snapshot from a simulation of the first stars in the universe, showing how the gas cloud might have become enriched with heavy elements. The image shows one of the first stars exploding, producing an expanding shell of gas (top) which enriches a nearby cloud, embedded inside a larger gas filament (center). The image scale is 3,000 light-years across, and the color map represents gas density, with red indicating higher density. (Britton Smith, John Wise, Brian O’Shea, Michael Norman, and Sadegh Khochfar)

Snapshot from a simulation of the first stars in the universe, showing how the gas cloud might have become enriched with heavy elements. The image shows one of the first stars exploding, producing an expanding shell of gas (top) which enriches a nearby cloud, embedded inside a larger gas filament (center). The image scale is 3,000 light-years across, and the color map represents gas density, with red indicating higher density. (Britton Smith, John Wise, Brian O’Shea, Michael Norman, and Sadegh Khochfar)

An ancient cloud of gas many billions of light years from Earth may contain the signature of the very first stars that formed in the Universe.

The gas cloud, discovered by a team of American and Australian scientists, has an extremely small percentage of heavy elements, such as carbon, oxygen and iron – less than one thousandth the fraction observed in the Sun. It was discovered, using the Very Large Telescope in Chile, as it was 1.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

Related: Stars in distant galaxies found to have a pulse

“Heavy elements weren’t manufactured during the Big Bang, they were made later by stars,” Neil Crighton, the lead researcher from Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, said in a statement. “The first stars were made from completely pristine gas, and astronomers think they formed quite differently from stars today.”

Soon after forming, these first stars – also known as Population III stars – exploded in powerful supernovae, spreading their heavy elements into surrounding pristine clouds of gas. As a result, those clouds carry a chemical record of the first stars and their deaths – allowing scientists to read it like a detective would a fingerprint.

Related: Astronomers find most distant object in solar system

“Previous gas clouds found by astronomers show a higher enrichment level of heavy elements, so they were probably polluted by more recent generations of stars, obscuring any signature from the first stars,” Crighton said.

“This is the first cloud to show the tiny heavy element fraction expected for a cloud enriched only by the first stars,” co-author Swinburne’s Professor Michael Murphy added.

The next step is finding more of these systems that would allow the researcher to measure the ratios of several different kinds of elements.

Related: Rare galaxy found with 2 black holes – one starved of stars

“We can measure the ratio of two elements in this cloud – carbon and silicon. But the value of that ratio doesn’t conclusively show that it was enriched by the first stars; later enrichment by older generations of stars is also possible,”said  John O’Meara, of Saint Michael’s College in Vermont and a co-author on a paper describing the findigns that will appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters on Jan. 13.

O’Meara presented the results at the American Astronomical Society meeting on Friday.

“By finding new clouds where we can detect more elements, we will be able to test for the unique pattern of abundances we expect for enrichment by the first stars,” O’Meara said.

Originally available here

Rare galaxy found with 2 black holes – one starved of stars

File Photo. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

File Photo. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

An astrophysicist has discovered something even rarer than a double-black hole galaxy: a skinny black hole.

The University of Colorado at Boulder’s Julie Comerford reported her findings Tuesday at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting in Kissimmee, Florida.

To date, only 12 galaxies are known to exist with two black holes in their midst, Comerford said. Normally galaxies have a single supermassive black hole at the center, equivalent to 1 million to 1 billion times the mass of our sun.

But in this newly identified galaxy about 1 billion light-years away, one of the two black holes is significantly smaller than the other and apparently starved of stars. Black holes typically are surrounded by stars; this one appears “naked.”

Comerford speculates the slim black hole lost mass in the collision of two galaxies that merged into this one -” a crash diet.” Or it’s a rare example of an intermediate-sized black hole that likely will morph over time into a supermassive monster.

Astronomers have yet to confirm an intermediate-size black hole, which makes Comerford’s streamlined target extra tantalizing. Intermediate black holes are 100 to 1 million times the mass of our sun.

Comerford used the Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in her study. She discovered this latest two-black hole galaxy – her fourth – last year. Finding a potential intermediate-size black hole inside was “an extra bonus,” she told reporters.

The first double-black hole galaxy was found in 2003 by accident, according to Comerford. She is trying to systematically uncover more. The findings should shed light on the evolution of black holes.

This particular galaxy is catalogued as SDSS J1126+2944.

Originally available here

NASA’s Kepler comes roaring back with 100 new exoplanet finds

The artist's illustration shows NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in its second-chance K2 mission.

The artist’s illustration shows NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in its second-chance K2 mission. (NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle)

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has bounced back nicely from the malfunction that ended its original exoplanet hunt more than two years ago.

Kepler has now discovered more than 100 confirmed alien planets during its second-chance K2 mission, researchers announced Jan. 5 here at the 227th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

The $600 million Kepler mission launched in March 2009, tasked with determining how commonly Earth-like planets occur throughout the Milky Way galaxy. Kepler has been incredibly successful, finding more than 1,000 alien worlds to date, more than half of all exoplanets ever discovered. [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]

The spacecraft finds planets by the “transit method,” noting the tiny brightness dips caused when a planet crosses its host star’s face from Kepler’s perspective. This technique requires extremely precise pointing, an ability Kepler lost in May 2013 when the second of the observatory’s four orientation-maintaining reaction wheels failed.

But the Kepler team quickly figured out a way to keep the telescope stable, using solar radiation pressure as a sort of third wheel. That meant the spacecraft could eye different patches of the sky for around 80 days at a time to search for planets and other cosmic bodies and phenomena. That’s what Kepler has been doing in its K2 mission, which NASA greenlit in May 2014.

Researchers had expressed hope that K2 could pick up some additional exoplanets and interesting structures in the sky. The extended mission has certainly delivered, spotting a few dozen confirmed planets, and now the tally will jump dramatically.

The first five K2 campaigns, which each looked at a different part of the sky, “have produced over 100 validated planets,” Ian Crossfield, an astronomer at University of Arizona, said today during a presentation at the AAS meeting. “This is a validation of the whole K2 program’s ability to find large numbers of true, bona fide planets.”

Crossfield said that Kepler observed more than 60,000 stars and found 7,000 transitlike signals during the first five 80-day observation campaigns. A validation process whittled some of these signals down to planet candidates, and then finally to validated planets, each of which has just a 1 percent chance of being a false positive, Crossfield added.

He also noted that K2 found more false positives among larger planets than small ones, and that more than half of the false positives were in multiplanet systems.

While planning K2, Kepler principal investigator Bill Borucki, who retired this past July after a 53-year NASA career, said the new mission could find “dozens, or maybe even hundreds” of exoplanets. Now, K2 has racked up more than 100, and lots of exciting extrasolar systems will likely be spotted in the future, Crossfield said.

“We’re only a quarter or so of the way done, we hope,” he said.


Originally available here

Stunning Hubble image shows two galaxies merging

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt (Geckzilla)

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt (Geckzilla)

The Hubble space telescope has captured an incredible image of two galaxies merging.

The image, which was taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, shows the galaxy NGC 6052, located around 230 million light-years away in the constellation of Hercules.

Related: The best of Hubble

A light year measures the astronomical distance that light travels in one year and is equivalent to 5.8 trillion miles.

“It would be reasonable to think of this as a single abnormal galaxy, and it was originally classified as such. However, it is in fact a ‘new’ galaxy in the process of forming,” explained the European Space Agency, one of NASA’s Hubble partners, in a statement. “Two separate galaxies have been gradually drawn together, attracted by gravity, and have collided. We now see them merging into a single structure.”

Related: Hubble space telescope captures stunning image of barred spiral galaxy

The ESA explained that as the merging process continues, individual stars are thrown out of their original orbits and placed onto entirely new paths, some very distant from the region of the collision itself. The new galaxy, it added, will settle down into a stable shape, which may not resemble either of the two original galaxies.

The Hubble space telescope, which was launched by NASA in 1990, celebratedits 25th anniversary last year.

In 2015 astronomers used three telescopes, including the Hubble to spot a baby blue galaxy that is farther away in space than any other galaxy ever seen. The galaxy, named EGS-zs8-1, is 13.1 billion light-years away. The telescope alsocaptured an incredible image of a barred spiral galaxy.

Originally available here

Lunar Leap: Europe Is Reaching for a Moon Base by the 2030s

There is growing interest in Europe to prioritize the moon as humanity’s next deep-space destination.

The moon, supporters say, can serve as a springboard to push the human exploration of the solar system, with Mars as the horizon goal. So Europe is ratcheting up what it sees as the strategic significance of the moon by pushing forward on lunar-exploration missions that would involve both humans and robots.

Calling the effort a “comeback to the moon,” European space planners envision a series of human missions to the lunar vicinity starting in the early 2020s. Those missions, according to the plan, will include coordination between astronauts and robotic systems on the lunar surface. Robots would land first, paving the way for human explorers to set foot on the moon later. [Video: New Moon Missions? Europe Says Yes]

Europe’s lunar intentions were clearly evident at an international symposium this month to discuss plans for a return to the moon. The European Space Agency (ESA) hosted the two-day symposium, called “Moon 2020-2030 – A New Era of Coordinated Human and Robotic Exploration,” on Dec. 15 at the European Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, Netherlands. More than 200 scientists and space officials from 28 countries attended the meeting.

Return to the moon

The intent of the symposium was to gain a strong common message from the representatives of the science, academic, agency and industrial communities, said Markus Landgraf, a symposium organizer and a space architecture analyst for the European Space Agency. [How to Build a Moon Colony (Infographic)]

The message would entail “how lunar exploration can be implemented as a sustainable international endeavor, building on past successes and enabled by new partnerships,” Landgraf told

ESA already participates in the critical effort to develop human space-transportation systems for missions beyond low-Earth orbit. The space agency isproviding the European Service Module to be used in conjunction with NASA’s next spaceship: the Orion crew module.

Furthermore, the head of ESA, Wörner, has repeatedly expressed his keenness for a moon base as a successor to the International Space Station. He has stated that such a lunar base should be international, drawing upon different competencies in various countries.

Telepresence lunar exploration

U.S. astronomer Dan Lester, a consultant and telerobotics specialist, said that his big takeaway message from the ESA symposium “was that exploration telepresence is no longer an off-the-wall idea, but one that seemed to be threaded throughout the conference.” [Deep-Space Station Visions for Exploration (Gallery)]

“This conference seemed to accept that it was a new way of doing exploration,” Lester told One strong recommendation that will come out of the meeting is that real analog studies will be necessary to understand how to do operations on the moon, he added.

“Not analog operations at a moonlike sites, which can be hugely expensive just for travel, but analog operations where geologists use a real rover robot, perhaps just in a rock yard, with vision, dexterity/haptics and low latency control to do real-time field geology,” Lester said.

One other theme that was clear from the meeting: A load of important science still needs to be done on the moon. “That was a regular reminder at this meeting,” Lester said. [Photos: Astronaut in Space Drives Rover on Earth]

Near the moon: Cislunar space

NASA’s Kathy Laurini, co-chair for the Exploration Roadmap Working Group for the Global Exploration Roadmap, also took part in the European gathering on lunar exploration.

“The symposium was very well-attended and effective in gathering community input on priorities for exploration of the moon,” Laurini told

A major topic at the meeting, she said, was how humans in cislunar space – the region of space near the moon – could contribute to lunar exploration. They could do so by working with robotic assets that demonstrated future human landing technologies and contributed information about high-priority science questions.

“The ESA space-exploration strategy sets the moon as a priority destination for humans on the way to Mars, and the recent talk of a ‘Moon Village’ certainly has generated a lot of positive energy in Europe … [of] Europe playing a role in a global human exploration scenario,” Laurini said. It is clear, she added, that the ESA Ministerial meeting in December 2016 will be an important milestone for Europe.

“The timing is right,” Laurini said, “to get started on the capabilities which allow Europe to meet its exploration objectives and ensure Europe remains a strong partner as humans begin to explore the solar system.”

Proving ground

Laurini took part in a panel discussion during the meeting, describing NASA’s journey-to-Mars vision, noting the agency’s “desire to lead an international effort to explore deep space with the ‘proving ground’ of cislunar space as the first step.”

All the strategic planning and scenarios done over the last several years, Laurini said, show the importance of human missions into cislunar space as the initial common step beyond low-Earth orbit to destinations such as the moon and Mars.

Human missions to the moon will only be possible with European investment in related technologies and capabilities,”Laurini said.

Ground truth

Also bullish on the European meeting and a U.S. meeting organizer is Clive Neal, professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

He said that take-home messages from the meeting were numerous.

“We keep talking about lunar resources, but we still need to demonstrate they can be used … [that] they are, in fact, reserves. So ground truth verification of deposit size, composition, form and homogeneity requires a coordinated prospecting program. A successful program would then clearly demonstrate thatlunar resources can enable solar system exploration,” Neal said.

The meeting highlighted technology development in terms of precision landing; robotic sample return; and cryogenic sampling, caching, return and curation, Neal said.

“Significant investments in the latter are required and starting to be made,” he said.

Quantifying the benefits from government investment in space exploration is critical for convincing both governments and the private sector to invest in such endeavors, Neal said.

In other meeting news, Neal said, it was evident that partnerships — especially those between ESA and Russia — are maturing rapidly.

The lunar path ahead

“There is most definitely international interest in human missions to the moon,” said Paul Spudis, of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

Spudis told there is recent and significant focus on the moon, not only by Europe, but also India, Japan and China, “whose lunar plans are probably the most ambitious of all, if not the most transparent.”

There are three possible paths to lunar return that Spudis can envision:

  • A single-nation effort, analogous to NASA’s Apollo moon-landing project. China is the most likely initiator of this path.
  • A cooperative, international effort, analogous to the International Space Station. ESA, Japan, India and Russia are likely major participants in such an effort.
  • A series of commercial lunar missions, largely led by American “New Space” companies, an effort that would likely be almost totally robotic and fairly small in scope.

“I do not rule out the possibility of a major change in the strategic direction of civil space in the USA,” Spudis said, “but only after we have a new administration in place, and dependent upon who the new president might be. In such a case, our involvement would likely be along path No. 2.”

Spudis said he supports all efforts to return to the moon under most circumstances, “except one by China in order to establish their cislunar hegemony.”

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and is co-author of Buzz Aldrin’s 2013 book “Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration” published by National Geographic with a new updated paperback version released in May 2015. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebookand Google+. Original article on

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