Gaia Mission Passes Vital Tests

Caption: Fully integrated Gaia payload module with nearly all of the multilayer insulation fabric installed. Credit: Astrium SAS

Earlier this month ESA’s Gaia mission passed vital tests to ensure it can withstand the extreme temperatures of space. This week in the Astrium cleanroom at Intespace in Toulouse, France, had it’s payload module integrated, ready for further testing before it finally launches next year. This is a good opportunity to get to know the nuts and bolts of this exciting mission that will survey a billion stars in the Milky Way and create a 3D map to reveal its composition, formation and evolution.

Gaia will be operating at a distance of 1.5 million km from Earth (at L2 Lagrangian point, which keeps pace with Earth as we orbit the Sun) and at a temperature of -110°C. It will monitor each of its target stars about 70 times over a five-year period, repeatedly measuring the positions, to an accuracy of 24 microarcseconds, of all objects down to magnitude 20 (about 400,000 times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye) This will provide detailed maps of each star’s motion, to reveal their origins and evolution, as well as the physical properties of each star, including luminosity, temperature, gravity and composition.

The service module houses the electronics for the science instruments and the spacecraft resources, such as thermal control, propulsion, communication, and attitude and orbit control. During the 19-day tests earlier this month, Gaia endured the thermal balance and thermal-vacuum cycle tests, held under vacuum conditions and subjected to a range of temperatures. Temperatures inside Gaia during the test period were recorded between -20°C and +70°C.

“The thermal tests went very well; all measurements were close to predictions and the spacecraft proved to be robust with stable behavior,” reports Gaia Project Manager Giuseppe Sarri.

For the next two months the same thermal tests will be carried out on Gaia’s payload module, which contains the scientific instruments. The module is covered in multilayer insulation fabric to protect the spacecraft’s optics and mirrors from the cold of space, called the ‘thermal tent.’

Gaia contains two optical telescopes that can precisely determine the location of stars and analyze their spectra. The largest mirror in each telescope is 1.45 m by 0.5 m. The Focal Plane Assembly features three different zones associated with the science instruments: Astro, the astrometric instrument that detects and pinpoints celestial objects; the Blue and Red Photometers (BP/RP), that determines stellar properties like temperature, mass, age, elemental composition; and the Radial-Velocity Spectrometer (RVS),that measures the velocity of celestial objects along the line of sight.

The focal plane array will also carry the largest digital camera ever built with, the most sensitive set of light detectors ever assembled for a space mission, using 106 CCDs with nearly 1 billion pixels covering an area of 2.8 square metres

After launch, Gaia will always point away from the Sun. L2 offers a stable thermal environment, a clear view of the Universe as the Sun, Earth and Moon are always outside the instruments’ fields of view, and a moderate radiation environment. However Gaia must still be shielded from the heat of the Sun by a giant shade to keep its instruments in permanent shadow. A ‘skirt’ will unfold consisting of a dozen separate panels. These will deploy to form a circular disc about 10 m across. This acts as both a sunshade, to keep the telescopes stable at below –100°C, and its surface will be partially covered with solar panels to generate electricity.

Once testing is completed the payload module will be mated to the service module at the beginning of next year and Gaia will be launched from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana at the end of 2013.

Find out more about the mission here

A Jodrell Odyssey – Part 2 – The Observatory

Caption: The original Jodrell Bank Control Desk with view of the Lovell telescope. Credit: Anthony Holloway.

Last week we took a look at the public face of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, the Discovery Centre. But this week we get a behind-the-scenes tour of the heart of this impressive and historic observatory.

Dr. Tim O’Brien is Associate Director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory and a Reader in Astrophysics in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Manchester. As we begin our tour of the telescopes, control room and computers he explains the role of Jodrell in the historical development of radio astronomy. The Lovell telescope at the heart of the observatory, is today a Grade 1 listed building as well as being at the cutting edge of current, and indeed future, scientific research.

Jodrell Bank was originally the site of the university Botany Department’s testing ground. The Observatory was founded by Sir Bernard Lovell when interference from trams disrupted the research into cosmic rays that he was carrying out in the School of Physics at the University’s main campus in the city. Sir Bernard moved his radar equipment to the site in 1945 to try to find radio echoes from the ionized trails of cosmic rays but instead founded a whole new area of research into meteors.

The Lovell telescope (originally the Mark I) was the largest steerable radio telescope in the world (76.2m in diameter) and the only one able to track the launch rocket of Sputnik 1 in 1957; it is still the third largest in the world. Apart from tracking and receiving data from such probes as Pioneer 5 in 1960 and Luna 9 in 1966, a continual programme of upgrades enabled the scope to measure distances to the Moon and Venus and research pulsars, astrophysical masers, quasars and gravitational lenses. It has provided the most extensive studies of pulsars in binary star systems and discovered the first pulsar in a globular cluster. It detected the first gravitational lens and has also been used for SETI observations. Now on its third reflecting surface, a continual programme of upgrades has made it more powerful than ever.

In 1964 the Mark II elliptical radio telescope was completed. It stands in the middle of a field, dwarfing the small observing dome that house Tim’s optical teaching telescope and surrounded by post war huts named after the research that was done in them, so one is called Radiant (after meteors) and another Moon. With a major axis of 38.1m and minor axis of 25.4m the Mark II is mainly used alongside the Lovell as part of e-MERLIN (Multi Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network), the UK’s national radio astronomy facility run from Jodrell. This comprises up to 7 radio scopes: the Lovell, Mark II, Cambridge, Defford, Knockin, Darnhall and Pickmere. e-MERLIN has the longest baseline (separation of telescopes) of 217 Km and a resolution of better than 50 milliarcseconds, which compares with the Hubble Space Telescope but at radio rather than visible wavelengths. The Manchester branch of Jodrell also hosts the UK Regional Centre Node for ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array) in Chile.

The “42ft “ telescope stands by the entrance to the main building that houses the control room. The telescopes main task is to continually monitor the Pulsar at the heart of the Crab Nebula (all the time it is above the horizon). Tim at this point showed off his impressive party trick of mathematically demonstrating that the scope was indeed pointing at the Crab Pulsar by calculating from the pulsar’s Right Ascension ( 05h 34m 31.97s ) and Declination (+22d 00m 52.1s) where it would be in the sky at the time. It has collected over 30 years of data which represents 4% of the pulsar’s age, giving vital clues about how pulsars evolve.

Caption: Dr Tim O’Brien talking to Prof. Brian Cox and Dara O’Biain in the Control Room during Stargazing Live Credit: The University of Manchester

Tim was kind enough to allow me inside the Control Room, not often seen by general visitors to the site, though it plays host to BBC TV’s annual Stargazing Live series, hosted by Prof. Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain. It perfectly illustrates Jodrell historical and current role in radio astronomy. It is a wonderfully British mix of state of the art computer technology, original 1950’s equipment and all points between. There are massive flat screen monitors in one corner that display & can control each of the scopes, an atomic clock alongside wood and glass cabinets housing twitching needles that trace out air pressure, wind speed and temperature variations on rolls or discs of paper. In the centre of the room is the original horseshoe shaped control desk from the 1950s.

The vast window overlooks the Lovell scope which was ‘parked’ during my visit whilst the reflecting bowl was being given a new coat of paint, pointing straight up to the zenith with the brakes applied. If the winds increase during an observation the dish has to be raised and moved to a target higher in the sky. If the winds reach 45 miles per hour the dish has to be parked in this upright position. Luckily this doesn’t happen too often. A heavy accumulation of snow could distort the shape of the dish so it has to be tipped out. The control room is manned 24 hours a day 365 days of the year. The whole room has a very satisfying amount of blinking lights, dials, knobs and switches. As Tim rightly says “You need plenty of flashing lights.”

Jodrell houses a number of general-purpose and specialised computing clusters. Since the 1960s the Lovell and Mark II have been regularly involved with VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) which includes telescopes across Europe, China and Africa and can also be linked to the VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array) in America to create a telescope the size of the planet, able to produce the sharpest images in all astronomy. The VLBI room houses a huge array of receiver and recording equipment. This includes a GPS receiver, accurate to 0.5 millisec, affectionately known as the Totally Accurate Clock, though they have newer ones with 25 nanosecond accuracy and their maser atomic clock is accurate to 1 part in 10^15 or 1 second every 30 million years! Names are quite the thing at Jodrell, five signal generators, used to convert frequencies in the receiver are neatly labelled Sharon, Tracy, Nigel, Kevin and Darren.

Caption: The Mark II telescope at Jodrell Bank. Credit: The Author

Jodrell pioneered the connection of radio telescopes across hundreds of kilometres and constructed the dedicated optical fibre network that connects all seven e-MERLIN telescopes. Tim paused for effect in front of an impressively large and heavy-duty blue door that was adorned with numerous dramatic warning signs and hummed ominously, with his hand on a sturdy operating lever. This was the home of the e-MERLIN correlator, the focus of all seven telescopes and the heart of the network, it has to be carefully shielded so it doesn’t interfere with the radio scopes on site. Tim tapped in the entry code, pulled the lever and the gentle hum became a deafening roar as we entered a metal room, kept cold with air-conditioning. There are massive cylinders of gas in the corner ready to fill the room in case of fire. In the centre is a smoked glass cabinet, the size of a large wardrobe containing the computer hub with festoons of yellow optic fibre cables linked to the telescopes and bringing as much data into the room as travels on the rest of the UK internet combined.

Jodrell has about 40 staff on the site with over 100 more working from the University’s Alan Turing Building in Manchester. The group’s list of research programmes covers all aspects of astronomy, from studying the Big Bang to discovering exoplanets. They have used pulsars to test Einstein’s theory of gravity for which they were awarded the EC Descartes Research Prize. They developed low-noise amplifiers for ESA’s Planck spacecraft which will report its cosmology results next year. With a European network of radio telescopes they are using pulsars to attempt the first detection of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein.

Looking to the future, work is now underway alongside the main Control Building on the construction of a new building to house the International Project Office for SKA (the Square Kilometre Array) to be sited in Africa and Australia, that when completed in around 2024, will be the World’s largest radio telescope for the 21st century. As we are leaving I ask Tim what would be on his wish list for the future (all astronomers have a wish list don’t they?) He would like to see a system like SKA extended to cover the Northern hemisphere and a future telescope which could make real-time, whole-sky observations, instantly targeting transient objects such as the novae that are the main focus of his own research. I think Sir Bernard would approve.

Find out more about the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics

A Jodrell Odyssey – Part 1 – The Discovery Centre

Caption: The Lovell Telescope from The Discovery Centre Cafe. Credit: Howard Barlow for the University of Manchester

Ever get the feeling you are being watched? Visit Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, England and that feeling is doubled and intensified by two inescapable presences. First there is the vast 76 meter Lovell Telescope that dominates the site and the second is the spirit of the man who built it.

Sir Bernard Lovell came to Jodrell Bank in 1945, looking for a place away from the city, where the trams were interfering with the research he was carrying out into cosmic rays at the University of Manchester and it was here that he built his observatory. From the beginning he wanted to engage people with the work he was doing and the telescope he was building, that locals called “Lovell’s Contraption”. That dedication to public engagement and education continues to this day.

The new Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre opened in April 2011 and is watched over by the Director, Dr Teresa Anderson who studied for her physics degree at Manchester, took her PhD at the University of Edinburgh before returning to Jodrell to develop and build the new Centre. She is a woman who can stretch a budget till it squeals. She has managed to take the modest funds allocated to her and create an innovative, imaginative experience for visitors. Teresa is rightly proud of the site’s accessibility as well as its policy of using green energy.

She also has a wonderful eye for detail. The entrance to the Planet Pavilion is decorated with an embossed depiction of the 408 Mhz (radio continuum) map of the Milky Way. This building houses the gift shop and an inviting Cafe based on the theme of time. An array of different clocks on the wall show the passage of time on Earth, Venus (retrograde) Mars, Jupiter and a black hole. On the opposite wall is a timeline showing how far into the past we travel when viewing objects from Earth, one and a half seconds back in time when looking at the Moon, 8 minutes to the Sun and on back to the Big Bang. The glass doors give a stunning view of the Lovell telescope and open onto an outdoor dining area.

The reception area houses a display about the Lovell telescope and here staff post the latest astronomy related news bulletins, there is also a receiver that used to be installed on the Lovell which is currently on loan to the Centre. The cryogenic system used in receiver has to be cooled down to minus 260 degrees Celsius to reduce thermal noise from the receiver itself and engineers have just 20 minutes to get it up to the focus tower at the top of the dish and installed before is heats up.

Caption: Visitors at the Planet Pavilion. Credit: Howard Barlow for the University of Manchester.

A starlit passage echoing with the voices of Sir Bernard Lovell and Neil Armstrong leads you to a room where an early image of the CMB from the Planck mission is colourfully displayed around the walls (Jodrell constructed some low noise amplifiers for the mission) with a collection of touchscreen information points below that allow visitors to take part in quizzes and learn more. A beautiful clockwork orrery in the centre of the room has the IAU constellation maps including the 13 zodiac constellations (including Ophiuchus) which Teresa says, with a wry smile, causes some controversy with people who believe in astrology.

Outside is dominated by the Lovell Telescope. All the pathways are wheelchair and pushchair friendly and information boards are dotted along the circular pathway surrounding the dish giving information about the site, the telescope and the work it does. An acrylic sculpture of the Sun at the foot of the Lovell marks the centre of the Spaced Out project, the world’s largest scale model of the Solar System that stretches across the UK from Cornwall to the Shetland Isles.

The Space Pavilion’s glass front is adorned with Pulsar trace and is home to a wonderful hands-on science centre where you can print out a souvenir trace of what the Lovell is observing live or listen to the sound of the Big Bang, or touch a meteorite. There is a nice interactive touchscreen that introduces you to some of the people who work at the site and lets you ask them questions, an exhibit that explores the invisible universe of the different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum and a film pod that runs science animations as well as archive film of Jodrell’s history. The building is also the heart of the year round education programmes that offer children of all ages, a unique learning experience and opportunity to experiment with live science. There is a flexible space that can be used as a lecture hall or host events and is home to the popular Ask a Scientist sessions and where an inflatable planetarium can be erected for visiting groups.

Caption: Space Pavilion at The Discovery Centre. Credit: Howard Barlow for the University of Manchester.

Outside again there are 35 acres of gardens to explore, including the newly opened Galaxy Garden designed by TV gardener Chris Beardshaw with willow spirals, island flowerbeds planted to illustrate astronomical themes such as light or star formation, a meadow with over 70 species of native wildflowers and a chalk depiction of our spiral galaxy craved into a hillside. The arboretum was created by Sir Bernard Lovell, also an internationally renowned arboriculturist, and contains 2,000 species of trees and shrubs.

There is a planet path and children can borrow backpacks that contain a map, instructions and activities they can try at each planet on the way. One of the outdoor exhibits always popular and crawling with children are the Whispering Dishes that have been kept from the original centre. This reusing of resources is very much a tradition at Jodrell, The motors used to move the Lovell scope were taken from two battleships HMS Revenge and Royal Sovereign, and a supermarket till receipt dispenser is now used to print out the live trace from the telescope.

Teresa is very keen to encourage more people to enjoy astronomy, and they host spectacular rock concerts featuring bands such as Flaming Lips and Elbow, against the backdrop of the Lovell scope with a surrounding science fair. Jodrell is also the home to the very popular, annual Stargazing Live series for BBC TV, three nights of live astronomy programmes hosted by Prof. Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain. The Centre is always keen to encourage more girls and women to become involved in physics and astronomy. Currently Teresa is overseeing The Girls Night Out (under the stars) on Sat 27th October 2012 being planned by her team, with talks by female astrophysicists, a chance to see Moon rocks under a microscope and they can also enjoy cocktails and cupcakes alongside the telescopes.

Over tea outside the Cafe, Teresa talked fondly of Sir Bernard and his vision and close involvement and support both of the Centre, and of Teresa herself. He will be sadly missed by everyone at Jodrell. She is justly proud that she was the principal author of the proposal that led to the Department of Culture Media and Sport including Jodrell Bank on the UK’s list for World Heritage Site Status. She gets a very determined look in her eye that I’m sure the funding committee knows well, when she talks of her many plans for future displays, projects and exhibits. I think Sir Bernard’s legacy is in safe hands.

(Part 2 of Jodrell Odyssey will go behind the scenes in a full, privileged access tour of this cutting-edge science facility)

Find out more about the Discovery Centre here

Desert RATS Begin Simulated Asteroid Mission Today

Caption: Artist’s Concept, Space Exploration Vehicle Use Comparison. Credit: NASA

Conspiracy theories abound that the Apollo landings all took place on a film set in California, but today NASA’s Desert RATS team begins a mission to asteroid Itokawa. They will land, rove and even undertake spacewalks, without ever stepping foot out of their home base at Johnson Space Center in Texas. This is no hoax however, but a simulated mission to test out NASA’s audacious plan to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025.

The Desert RATS have been testing robots and other tools that could be used on future exploration missions since 1997, (this is their 15th mission) usually doing analog missions out in the field. “Desert” refers to the Arizona desert, where a lot of the team’s activities take place and “RATS” stands for “Research and Technology Studies.”

However, since they are now testing out a zero-G visit to an asteroid, the team will use mockups inside JSC’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, which offers a medley of tools and simulators that would be difficult to transport to a field test location.

For example, the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV) is designed to both rove across a planetary surface on a wheeled chassis or fly in space using advanced propulsion systems. Four crew members will take it in turns to live in and operate the simulator to explore the asteroid.

The MMSEV can be put on a sled on an air-bearing floor to simulate the moves that the crew might feel during a real mission. There will also be a 50-second delay in voice transmission, going each way to simulate the light-speed travel time between Earth and the asteroid.

The crew can also undertake spacewalks using ARGOS (Active Response Gravity Offload System) an overhead gantry crane system that simulates the reduced gravity environment. In reality nothing would stop astronauts from just floating off the surface but NASA is thinking about using jetpacks, tethers, bungees, nets or spiderwebs to allow them to float just above the surface attached to a smaller mini-spaceship.

A team of scientists from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate will ensure proper scientific methods are applied to asteroid sample collection techniques throughout the 10 day mission.

The mission is slated to run until August 30th or 31st. Find out more here or follow the NASA Desert RATS team on Twitter

Second image caption: ARGOS can be used to make spacewalkers feel as though they weigh 1/6 of their weight, as they would on the moon, or 1/3, as on Mars. Photo credit: NASA

Scientists Find Clues of Plate Tectonics on Mars

Valles Marineris NASA World Wind map Mars Credit NASA

Caption: Valles Marineris NASA World Wind Map Mars Credit: NASA

Until now, Earth was thought to be the only planet with plate tectonics. But a huge “crack” in Mars’ surface — the massive Valles Marinaris — shows evidence of the movement of huge crustal plates beneath the planet’s surface, meaning Mars may be showing the early stages of plate tectonics. This discovery can perhaps also shed light on how the plate tectonics process began here on Earth.

Valles Marineris is no ordinary crack on the Martian surface. It is the longest and deepest system of canyons in the Solar System. Stretching nearly 2,500 miles, it is nine times longer than Earth’s Grand Canyon.

An Yin, a planetary geologist and UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences, analyzed satellite images from THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System), on board the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, and from the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology,” he said.

The two plates that Yin calls Valles Marineris North and Valles Marineris South are moving approximately 93 miles horizontally relative to each other. By comparison, California’s San Andreas Fault, which is similarly over the intersection of two plates, has moved about twice as much, because Earth is about twice the size of Mars.

Yin believes Mars has no more than two plates whereas Earth has seven major plates and dozens of smaller ones. As Yin puts it “Earth has a very broken ‘egg shell,’ so its surface has many plates; Mars’ is slightly broken and may be on the way to becoming very broken, except its pace is very slow due to its small size and, thus, less thermal energy to drive it. This may be the reason Mars has fewer plates than on Earth.”

Mars also has several long, straight chains of volcanoes, including three that make up the Tharsis Montes, three large shield volcanoes which includes Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the Solar System at 22 km high. These volcanic chains may have formed from the motion of a plate sitting over a “hot spot” in the Martian mantle, in the same way the Hawaiian Islands are thought to have formed here on Earth. Yin also identified a steep cliff similar to cliffs in California’s Death Valley, which are generated by a fault, as well as a very smooth and flat side of a canyon wall which Yin says is also strong evidence of tectonic activity.

Yin also suggests that the fault is shifting occasionally, and may even produce “Marsquakes” every now and again. “I think the fault is probably still active, but not every day. It wakes up every once in a while, over a very long duration — perhaps every million years or more,” he said.

It is not known how far beneath the surface the plates on Mars are located. Yin admits “I don’t quite understand why the plates are moving with such a large magnitude or what the rate of movement is; maybe Mars has a different form of plate tectonics,” Yin said. “The rate is much slower than on Earth.”

“Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics,” Yin added. “It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth.”

Yin’s study was published in the August issue of the journal Lithosphere and he also plans to publish a follow-up paper hoping to shed more light on plate tectonics on both Mars and Earth.

Read the abstract.

Find out more at the

Sir Bernard Lovell, 1913 to 2012

Caption: Sir Bernard Lovell. Credit: Jodrell Bank, University of Manchester

Sir Bernard Lovell OBE FRS, Emeritus Professor of Radio Astronomy, died yesterday, 6th August 2012 at the age of 98. He was the founder and first Director of The University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire from 1945 to 1980.

Bernard Lovell was born in Gloucestershire on 31 August, 1913 and studied Physics at The University of Bristol, gaining his PhD in 1936. He then went to work at The University of Manchester researching cosmic rays. This work was interrupted during World War II when he worked in Telecommunications, leading the team that developed H2S radar for which he was awarded the OBE in 1946. He then returned to The University of Manchester. During his research he showed that radar echoes could be obtained from daytime meteor showers as they entered the Earth’s atmosphere and ionised the surrounding air.

He moved his research out to the university’s botany site at Jodrell Bank in late 1945 to avoid background interference from the Electric trams in Manchester. Here he worked with engineer Sir Charles Husband to construct the 76-metre Lovell Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world at the time, and still the third largest. The iconic telescope was completed in 1957 and within days it tracked the rocket that carried Sputnik 1 into orbit. Today the telescope is part of the e-MERLIN array of seven radio telescopes spread across the UK and European VLBI Network interferometric arrays of radio telescopes. Later this year the international headquarters of The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) the world’s largest telescope will move to Jodrell Bank.

Sir Bernard wrote many books about Jodrell Bank and astronomy, including ‘The Story of Jodrell Bank’ published in 1968. He was knighted for his contribution to the development of radio astronomy in 1961 and in 1981 was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

In 2009 Lovell claimed that during the cold war, when Jodrell Bank was being used as part of an early warning system for nuclear attacks, the Soviets allegedly tried to kill him with a lethal radiation dose. Lovell wrote a full account of the incident with instructions that it be published after his death.

Away from science he was also an accomplished musician, playing the church organ, a keen cricketer and a renowned arboriculturist. He is survived by four of his five children, fourteen grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren.

The University of Manchester paid tribute to him saying “Sir Bernard’s legacy is immense, extending from his wartime work to his pioneering contributions to radio astronomy and including his dedication to education and public engagement with scientific research. A great man, he will be sorely missed.”

A book of condolence has been opened at the observatory’s Discovery Centre and online.

Read more here

CINEMA and the Cube-Shaped Future of Space Science

Caption: Jerry Kim, a former student and systems engineer, holds the CINEMA nanosatellite before it was packaged up and sent to NASA in January 2012. Credit: Robert Sanders.

We all will be biting our nails on August 5th as Curiosity makes its perilous descent to the surface of Mars. We have put all our eggs in the biggest, heaviest, most expensive basket, with one of the the most complex science packages and landing procedures. But there is another mission that launches this Friday that likes to keep things small, simple, cheap and accessible!

Scheduled to launch Friday, Aug. 3 from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, at 12:27 a.m. PDT CINEMA (CubeSat for Ions, Neutrals, Electrons, & MAgnetic fields) is only one of 11 tiny cubesat satellites that are hitching a lift on an Atlas V rocket alongside the main payload, classified satellite

ESA included seven Cubesats in the payload for Vega’s maiden flight back in February, but this will be the first time for NASA. Cubesats are modular, cheap, nanosatellites, measuring 10 cm per side, with a maximum mass of 1 kg. CINEMA is comprised of three such cubes, forming a shoebox-sized package weighing 3.15 kg and was developed by students at the University of California, Berkeley, Kyung Hee University in Korea, Imperial College London, Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, and University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.

CINEMA is designed to obtain images of the electrical ring current that encircles the Earth and which, during large magnetic storms can knock out our power grids. It carries the STEIN (Suprathermal Electrons, Ions, and Neutrons) Sensor, which will produce an image of the high-energy charged particles in Earth’s atmosphere, mostly ionized hydrogen and oxygen, by detecting energetic neutral atoms (ENAs) As ionized particles spiral around magnetic field lines surrounding Earth, they occasionally hit a neutral particle and grab an electron, transforming into ENAs that travel in a straight line. These can reveal the energy and location of the charged particles from which they came. CINEMA will be joined next year by three identical satellites, two launched by Korea and another by NASA, together they will monitor the 3-dimensional structure of the ring current. Also on board is the MAGIC (MAGnetometer from Imperial College) instrument, provided by Imperial College London, to measure changes in Earth’s magnetic field caused by magnetic storms.

CINEMA is only one of five university-built CubeSats aboard the Atlas V rocket. As they can be bought for only around $1,000 and can then fitted with sensors, transmitters, cameras etc, being able to include multiple satellites in a single launch keeps costs down. Universities can use cubesats to give students hands-on experience of designing, planning, building, running and monitoring a real scientific space mission.

CINEMA principal investigator Robert Lin, professor emeritus of physics and former director of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, explained some of the pros and cons of cubesats. “There is more risk with these projects, because we use off-the-shelf products, 90 percent of the work is done by students, and the parts are not radiation-hard,” he said. “But it is cheaper and has the latest hardware. I will be very impressed if it lasts more than a year in orbit.”

Additionally, being small means that these satellites pose no threat as space junk either, burning up harmlessly in Earth’s atmosphere when they reach the end of their lifespan.

Find out more about CINEMA at the UC Berkley News Center

Beneath the Mask, Titan looks Surprisingly Smooth and Youthful

Images from the Cassini mission show river networks draining into lakes in Titans north polar region. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS.

Caption: Images from the Cassini mission show methane river networks draining into lakes in Titan’s north polar region. Credit: NASA/JPL/USG

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan has long been hidden beneath the thick shroud of its methane- and nitrogen-rich atmosphere. That all changed in 2004 when NASA’s Cassini mission was able to penetrate the haze and sent back detailed radar images of the surface. These showed an icy terrain, carved over millions of years, by rivers similar to those found here on Earth. However, Titan’s surface doesn’t look as old and weather-beaten as it should. The rivers have caused surprisingly little erosion and there are fewer impact craters than would be expected. So what is the secret to Titan’s youthful complexion?

Titan is around four billion years old, roughly the same age as the rest of the solar system. But the low number of impact craters put estimates of its surface at only between 100 million and one billion years old.

Researchers at MIT and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have analyzed images of Titan’s river networks and suggest two possible explanations: either erosion on Titan is extremely slow, or some recent phenomena has wiped out older surface features.

Taylor Perron, the Cecil and Ida Green Assistant Professor of Geology at MIT explains, “It’s a surface that should have eroded much more than what we’re seeing, if the river networks have been active for a long time. It raises some very interesting questions about what has been happening on Titan in the last billion years.”

Perron suggests that geological processes on Titan may be like those we see here on Earth. Here too, impact craters are scarce, as plate tectonics, erupting volcanoes, advancing glaciers and river networks reshaped our planet’s surface over billions of years, so, on Titan, tectonic upheaval, cryovolcanic eruptions, erosion and sedimentation by rivers could be altering the surface.

Discovering which processes are at work is not easy. The images from Cassini are like aerial photos but with much coarser resolution. They are flat, with no information about a surface elevation or depth.

Perron and MIT graduate student Benjamin Black analyzed the images and mapped 52 prominent river networks from four regions on Titan. They then compared the images with a model of river network evolution developed by Perron. Their data depicts the evolution of a river over time, taking into account variables such as the strength of the underlying material and the rate of flow through the river channels. As a river erodes, it transforms from a long, spindly thread into a dense, treelike network of tributaries. Titan’s river networks have maintained their long and spindly composition. They compare with recently renewed landscapes here including volcanic terrain on the island of Kauai and recently glaciated landscapes in North America.

Besides Earth, Titan is the only world with an active hydrologic cycle forming active river networks. Titan’s surface temperature may be about 94 K and its rivers run with liquid methane but as Perron says “It’s a weirdly Earth-like place, even with this exotic combination of materials and temperatures, and so you can still say something definitive about the erosion. It’s the same physics.”

Below is a video of Black and Perron explaining their research:

Find out more

A Space-Time Crystal to Outlive the Universe

Caption: Selfmade Alum Crystal. Weight 5.01g Source: JanDerChemiker via wikimedia commons

The second law of thermodynamics states that all isolated systems head towards entropy. Our universe will one day reach a state where all energy is evenly distributed and can no longer sustain motion or life. A group of physicists have speculated that a device called a ‘space-time crystal’ could theoretically continue to work as a computer even after the heat death of the universe. Trouble was that they had no idea how to build a space-time crystal, until now.

Crystals are made up of repeating patterns of atoms or molecules, they are symmetrical in space and in their lowest energy state. They are the result of removing all the energy from a system (like ice crystals forming when heat is taken away) Nobel-prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology speculated that the symmetry of such crystalline structures could exist in the fourth dimension of time as well as in space. The atoms in a time crystal would constantly rotate and return to their original location and, being in their lowest possible energy state they would continue to rotate even after the universe has succumbed to entropy. Such a repeating pattern of motion usually requires energy but now a group of scientists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Tsinghua University in Beijing, led by Tongcang Li at the University of California, Berkeley think they have worked out how to create such a crystal in its lowest energy state that shows this repeating pattern, or periodic structure, in both space and time, a space-time crystal.

They propose constructing an ion trap, which holds charged particles in place using an electric field. The ions naturally repel each other due to Coulomb repulsion, forming a ring-shaped crystal which can be made to rotate by applying a weak static magnetic field. If you then remove the electric field, the ions will continue rotating by themselves. This does not violate any laws of physics, it isn’t a perpetual motion machine as no energy can be taken out of the system, it can’t do any work even though it is moving. The main challenge to building the crystal will be the need to bring the temperatures close to absolute zero.

Space-time crystals’ periodicity makes them natural clocks. Wilczek suggests building a computer from a working time crystal, with different rotational states standing in for the 0s and 1s of a conventional computer. Such a computer would be able to survive the eventual heat death of the Universe. There is just one small snag, however, as Tongcang Li admits “we focus on a space-time crystal that can be created in a laboratory, so you need to figure out a method to make a laboratory that can survive in the heat-death of the universe.”

Read more here

Space Junk: Ideas for Cleaning up Earth Orbit

Artist's impression of debris in low Earth orbit. Credit: ESA

Caption: Artist’s impression of debris in low earth orbit Credit: ESA

Space may be big — vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big — but the space around Earth is beginning to get cluttered with space junk. This poses a threat, not only to other satellites, space stations and missions, but to us here on Earth as well. While we wrestle with environmental issues posed by human activity on our planet, ESA’s new ‘Clean Space’ initiative aims to address the same issues for its missions, making them greener by using more eco-friendly materials and finding ways to cut down levels of space debris.

Last month ESA and Eurospace organized the Clean Space Eco-design and Green Technologies Workshop 2012 held in the Netherlands. Clean Space is a major objective of Agenda 2015, the Agency’s upcoming action plan. The aim was outlined by ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain: “If we are convinced that space infrastructure will become more and more essential, then we must transmit the space environment to future generations as we found it, that is, pristine.”

The workshop looked at all aspects of space missions, their total environment impact, from concept development to end of life. The impact of regulations regarding substances such as hydrazine, which is used widely as a propellant in space programs and the development of Green Propulsion with propellants that have a reduced toxicity. Environmental friendliness and sustainability often mean increased efficiency, which ESA hopes will give the industry a competitive advantage, so they are looking at technologies which will consume less energy and produce less waste, therefore cutting costs.

Finally they looked at debris mitigation to minimize the impact to the space environment as well as the debris footprint on Earth using controlled and uncontrolled re-entry events and passive de-orbiting systems along with active de-orbiting and re-orbiting systems. They are even considering tethers or sails to help drag abandoned satellites out of low orbit within 25 years. New ‘design for demise’ concepts hope to prevent chunks of satellites surviving re-entry and hitting the ground intact. Active removal of existing debris is also needed, including robotic missions to repair or de-orbit satellites.

6,000 satellites have been launched during the Space Age; less than 1000 of these are still in operation. The rest are derelict and liable to fragment as leftover fuel or batteries explode. Traveling at around 7.5 km/s, a 2 cm screw has a ‘lethal diameter’ sufficient to take out a satellite. Taking the recent loss of the Envisat satellite as an example, this satellite now poses a considerable threat as space junk. An analysis of space debris at Envisat’s orbit suggests there is a 15% to 30% chance of collision with another piece of junk during the 150 years it is thought Envisat could remain in orbit. The satellite’s complexity and size means even a small piece of debris could cause a “fragmentation event” producing its own population of space garbage. Envisat is also too big to be allowed to drift back into the Earth’s atmosphere. The choices seem to be to raise the satellite to a higher, unused orbit, or guide it back in over the Pacific Ocean.

As ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain says “We will not succeed alone; we will need everyone’s help. The entire space sector has to be with us.”

Find out more about ESA’s Clean Space initiative here