In 2025, NASA’s next-generation telescope, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), will take to space and join in the search for extrasolar planets. Between its 2.4-meter (8 ft) telescope, 18 detectors, 300-megapixel camera, and the extraordinary survey speed it will offer, the WFIRST will be able to scan areas of the sky a hundred times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.
Beyond its high-sensitivity and advanced suite of instruments, WFIRST will also rely on a technique known as Gravitational Microlensing to search for and characterize exoplanets. This is essentially a small-scale version of the gravitational lensing technique, where the gravitational force of a massive object between the observer and the target is used to focus and magnify the light coming from a distant source.
About 570 light years from Earth lies WD 1145+017, a white dwarf star. In many respects it’s a typical white dwarf star. Its mass is about 0.6 solar masses, and its temperature is about 15,900 Kelvin. But five years ago, a team of astronomers wrote a paper on the white dwarf, showing that something unusual was going on.
In 2016, China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope – the largest single-aperture radio telescope in the world – gathered its first light. Since then, the telescope has undergone extensive testing and commissioning and officially went online in Jan of 2020. In all that time, it has also been responsible for multiple discoveries, including close to one hundred new pulsars.
According to a recent study by an international team of scientists and led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) suggests that FAST might have another use as well: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)! Building on their collaboration with the non-profit science organization Breakthrough Initiatives, the authors of the study highlight the ways in which FAST could allow for some novel SETI observations.
Astronomers are very sure that dark matter exists, but they’re not sure at all what it’s made of.
The problem is that it isn’t just dark, it’s invisible. As far as we know, dark matter doesn’t emit light, absorb light, reflect light, refract light, scatter light, diffract light, or really have anything to do with light at all. This makes it hard to study. We know that dark matter exists, however, through its gravitational effects. Even though it’s invisible, it still has mass, and so the dark matter in our universe (which, by the way, makes up 85% of all the mass in the cosmos) can affect the motions of normal (or light-interacting) matter, like stars and galaxies.
This week we are excited to welcome Colonel Mike Mullane to the Weekly Space Hangout. Mike was selected as a Mission Specialist in 1978 in the first group of Space Shuttle Astronauts. He completed three space missions aboard the Shuttles Discovery (STS-41D) and Atlantis (STS-27 & 36) before retiring from NASA and the Air Force in 1990.
In the coming years, NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon as part of Project Artemis. However, the long-term goal is to establish a sustainable program for lunar exploration, as well as a permanent human presence on the Moon. A key aspect of this plan is the Lunar Gateway, an orbiting habitat that will allow for long-duration missions to the lunar surface (and eventually to Mars.)
To realize this goal, NASA is moving ahead with the development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. The agency also recently announced that it has awarded its first contract to SpaceX as part of the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) program. As per this agreement, SpaceX will be tasked with delivering cargo, experiments, and other supplies to the agency’s Lunar Gateway once it is deployed in orbit of the Moon.
Sometimes it’s easy being an astronomer. When your celestial target is something simple and bright, the game can be pretty straightforward: point your telescope at the thing and just wait for all the juicy photons to pour on in.
But sometimes being an astronomer is tough, like when you’re trying to study the first stars to appear in the universe. They’re much too far away and too faint to see directly with telescopes (even the much-hyped James Webb Space Telescope will only be able to see the first galaxies, an accumulation of light from hundreds of billions of stars). To date, we don’t have any observations of the first stars, which is a major bummer.
SpaceX just cannot catch a break! Last night, during the same cryogenic proof test that killed the previous two prototypes, SpaceX’s SN3 prototype experienced a structural failure. On-site video footage provided by famed NASASpaceFlight member BocaChicaGal shows the SN3 experiencing what appears to be a leak, followed by the fuselage collapsing.
The pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus is creating all kinds of chaos for human society. But for the dear old Earth, and the humans and creatures that breathe its air, it’s a bit of a reprieve. Mirroring what happened in China during lock-down, Europe is now seeing the same drop in air pollution.
The development of the Starship – SpaceX’s super-heavy launch system that will take cargo and crews to orbit, the Moon, and even Mars – has been fraught with setbacks and frustration. But Musk has no intention of stopping and is even planning ahead for the day when the Starship and Super Heavy are making regular flights.
In keeping with this, SpaceX recently released a Payload User’s Guide for consumers that lays out what kind of services the launch system will provide – once it’s up and running. While no price points have been established yet, the guide provides a good summary of the Starship’s technical specifications and capabilities.