Astronomy Cast Ep. 514: Planetary Protection Protocols

As we send rovers and landers to other worlds, we have to think about the tiny microbial astronauts we’re sending along with us. In fact, NASA is so concerned about infecting other worlds that it has established the planetary protection protocols. Just to be safe.

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Messier 77 – the Cetus A Barred Spiral Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at Cetus A, the barred spiral galaxy known as Messier 77!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is known as Messier 77 (aka. Cetus A), a barred spiral galaxy located 47 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus. Measuring some 170,000 light-years in diameter, it is one of the largest galaxies included in the Messier Catalog. Its size and bright core also make it relatively easy to spot with binoculars or small telescopes.

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Steam-Powered Spacecraft Could Explore the Asteroid Belt Forever, Refueling Itself in Space

The era of renewed space exploration has led to some rather ambitious proposals. While many have been on the books for decades, it has only been in recent years that some of these plans have become technologically feasible. A good example is asteroid mining, where robotic spacecraft would travel to Near-Earth Asteroids and the Main Asteroid Belt to harvest minerals and other resources.

At the moment, one of the main challenges is how these craft would be able to get around and refuel once they are in space. To address this, the New York-based company Honeybee Robotics has teemed up with the University of Central Florida (UFC) to develop a steam-powered robotic spacecraft. The company recently released a demonstration video that shows their prototype World is Not Enough (WINE) “steam hopper” in action.

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Geothermal Heating Could Make Life Possible on the Super Earth Planet at Barnard’s Star

In 2018, scientists announced the discovery of a extrasolar planet orbiting Barnard’s star, an M-type (red dwarf) that is just 6 light years away. Using the Radial Velocity method, the research team responsible for the discovery determined that this exoplanet (Barnard’s Star b) was at least 3.2 times as massive as Earth and experienced average surface temperatures of about -170 °C (-274 °F) – making it both a “Super-Earth” and “ice planet”.

Based on these findings, it was a foregone conclusion that Barnard b would be hostile to life as we know it. But according to new study by a team of researchers from Villanova University and the Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC), it is possible – assuming the planet has a hot iron/nickel core and experiences enhanced geothermal activity – that this giant iceball of a planet could actually support life.

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Seeding the Milky Way with Life Using Genesis Missions

When exploring other planets and celestial bodies, NASA missions are required to abide by the practice known as “planetary protection“. This practice states that measures must be taken during the designing of a mission to ensure that biological contamination of both the planet/body being explored and Earth (in the case of sample-return missions) are prevented.

Looking to the future, there is the question of whether or not this same practice will be extended to extra-solar planets. If so, it would conflict with proposals to “seed” other worlds with microbial life to kick-start the evolutionary process. To address this, Dr. Claudius Gros of Goethe University’s Institute for Theoretical Physics recently published a paper that looks at planetary protection and makes the case for “Genesis-type” missions.

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Cassini Saw Rain Falling at Titan’s North Pole

An image from the Nasa-Esa-Asi Cassini spacecraft provides evidence of rainfall on the north pole of Titan

The Cassini mission to Saturn ended in September 2017, but the data it gathered during its 13 year mission is still yielding scientific results. On the heels of a newly-released global image of Saturn’s moon Titan comes another discovery: Rainfall at Titan’s north pole.

Climate models developed by scientists during Cassini’s mission concluded that rain should fall in the north during Titan’s summer. But scientists hadn’t seen any clouds. Now, a team of scientists have published a paper centered on Cassini images that show light reflecting off a wet surface. They make the case that the reflecting light, called a Bright Ephemeral Flare (BEF) is sunlight reflecting from newly-fallen rain.

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CERN is Planning to Build a Much Larger Particle Collider. Much, Much, Larger.

CERN's Future Circular Collider. Image Credit: CERN

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, wants to build a particle collider that will dwarf the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC has made important discoveries, and planned upgrades to its power ensures it will keep working on physics problems into the future. But eventually, it won’t be enough to unlock the secrets of physics. Eventually, we’ll need something larger and more powerful.

Enter the Future Circular Collider (FCC.) The FCC will exceed the LHC in power by an order of magnitude. On January 15th, the FCC collaboration released its Conceptual Design Report (CDR) that lays out the options for CERN’s Future Circular Collider.

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Astronomers Aren’t Pleased About a Russian Plan to Put Billboards in Space

A screen capture from StartRocket's promotional video for their Orbital Display. Image Credit: StartRocket.

It was bound to happen.

While the rest of us look up at the night sky, and wonder at what we’re seeing, ponder how it all fits together, and strain ourselves trying to understand how our origins are intertwined with all that we see, others don’t. They look up at the magnitude of the night sky and think none of these things.

Instead they think, “Hmmm…that’s a big, empty billboard. How can I make money from it?”

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Weekly Space Hangout: Jan 16, 2019: Paul MacNeal of JPL’s Annual Invention Challenge

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Pamela Gay (astronomycast.com / cosmoquest.org / @starstryder)
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

This week’s guest Paul MacNeal, a mechanical systems engineer at JPL, created the Annual Invention Challenge twenty-one years ago after helping his son with an extra credit assignment. Since then, teams of high school students from around the world compete each year against JPL engineers to see who can design and build the smartest and most efficient machine. The objective of the 2018 Challenge, which took place on Friday, December 14th, was to “to get a 24-inch length of two-inch PVC pipe from a horizontal position to an upright position on a platform using whatever device they could come up with, instructions not included.”

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