Gaia Hit by a Micrometeoroid AND Caught in a Solar Storm

Artist impression of ESA's Gaia satellite observing the Milky Way. The background image of the sky is compiled from data from more than 1.8 billion stars. It shows the total brightness and colour of stars observed by Gaia
Artist impression of ESA's Gaia satellite observing the Milky Way (Credit : ESA/ATG medialab; Milky Way: ESA/Gaia/DPAC)

For over ten years, the ESA’s Gaia Observatory has monitored the proper motion, luminosity, temperature, and composition of over a billion stars throughout our Milky Way galaxy and beyond. This data will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D map of the cosmos ever made and provide insight into the origins, structure, and evolutionary history of our galaxy. Unfortunately, this sophisticated astrometry telescope is positioned at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point, far beyond the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere.

As a result, Gaia has experienced two major hazards in recent months that could endanger the mission. These included a micrometeoroid impact in April that disrupted some of Gaia‘s very sensitive sensors. This was followed by a solar storm in May—the strongest in 20 years—that caused electrical problems for the mission. These two incidents could threaten Gaia‘s ability to continue mapping stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, and other objects in the Universe until its planned completion date of 2025.

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ESA is Building a Mission to Visit Asteroid Apophis, Joining it for its 2029 Earth Flyby

ESA's Ramses mission to asteroid Apophis. Credit: ESA

According to the ESA’s Near-Earth Objects Coordination Center (NEOCC), 35,264 known asteroids regularly cross the orbit of Earth and the other inner planets. Of these, 1,626 have been identified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), meaning that they may someday pass close enough to Earth to be caught by its gravity and impact its surface. While planetary defense has always been a concern, the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slamming into Jupiter in 1994 sparked intense interest in this field.

In 2022, NASA’s Double-Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) mission successfully tested the kinetic impact method when it collided with Dimorphos, the small asteroid orbiting Didymos. Today, the ESA Space Safety program is taking steps to test the next planetary defense mission – the Rapid Apophis Missin for Space Safety (RAMSES). In 2029, RAMSES will rendezvous with the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) 99942 Apophis and accompany it as it makes a very close (but safe) flyby of Earth in 2029. The data it collects will help scientists improve our ability to protect Earth from similar objects that could pose an impact risk.

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New Images From Webb Reveal Jupiter's Complex Atmosphere

New observations of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter have revealed that the planet’s atmosphere above and around the infamous storm is surprisingly interesting and active. Credit: ESA

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has accomplished some spectacular feats since it began operations in 2021. Thanks to its sensitivity in the near- and mid-infrared wavelengths, it can take detailed images of cooler objects and reveal things that would otherwise go unnoticed. This includes the iconic image Webb took of Jupiter in August 2022, which showed the planet’s atmospheric features (including its polar aurorae and Great Red Spot) in a new light. Using Webb, a team of European astronomers recently observed the region above the Great Red Spot and discovered previously unseen features.

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Dune-Inspired Stillsuits Could Allow Astronauts to Recycle Their Urine Into Water

A Fremen from Dune wearing a stillsuit. Credit: DALL-E generated image

If history has taught us one thing, it is that science fiction often gives way to science fact. Consider the Star Trek communicator and the rise of flip phones in the late 1990s and early 2000s, or how 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted orbiting space stations and reusable space planes – like the International Space Station (ISS) and the Space Shuttle. And who can forget Jules Verne’s classic, From the Earth to the Moon, and how it anticipated that humans would one day walk on the Moon? Almost a century later, this dream would be realized with the Apollo Program.

The latest comes from Cornell University, where a team of researchers has developed a novel in-suit urine collection and filtration system inspired by the suits the Fremen wore in Frank Herbert’s Dune. Once integrated into NASA’s standard spacesuit—the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU)—this system has the potential to provide astronauts with additional water while reducing the risk of hygiene-related medical events. In short, the stillsuit technology has the potential to enable longer-duration missions on the surface of the Moon, Mars, and orbit.

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Resources on Mars Could Support Human Explorers

Mineral map of Mars showing the presence of patches that formed in the presence of water. Credit: ESA

In the coming decades, multiple space agencies and private companies plan to establish outposts on the Moon and Mars. These outposts will allow for long-duration stays, astrobiological research, and facilitate future Solar System exploration. However, having crews operating far from Earth for extended periods will also present some serious logistical challenges. Given the distances and costs involved, sending resupply missions will be both impractical and expensive. For this reason, relying on local resources to meet mission needs – aka. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) – is the name of the game.

The need for ISRU is especially important on Mars as resupply missions could take 6 to 9 months to get there. Luckily, Mars has abundant resources that can be harvested and used to provide everything from oxygen, propellant, water, soil for growing food, and building materials. In a recent study, a Freie Universität Berlin-led team evaluated the potential of harvesting resources from several previously identified deposits of hydrated minerals on the surface of Mars. They also presented estimates of how much water and minerals can be retrieved and how they may be used.

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A Moon Base Will Need a Transport System

Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. How will they store power on the Moon? 3D printed batteries could help. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. How will they store power on the Moon? 3D printed batteries could help. Credit: NASA

Through the Artemis Program, NASA will return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 landed in 1972. Beyond this historic mission, scheduled for September 2026, NASA plans to establish the infrastructure that will enable annual missions to the Moon, eventually leading to a permanent human presence there. As we addressed in a previous article, this will lead to a huge demand for cargo delivery systems that meet the logistical, scientific, and technical requirements of crews engaged in exploration.

Beyond this capacity for delivering crews and cargo, there is also the need for transportation systems that will address logistical needs and assist in exploration efforts. These requirements were outlined in a 2024 Moon to Mars Architecture white paper titled “Lunar Mobility Drivers and Needs.” Picking up from the concurrently-released “Lunar Surface Cargo,” this whitepaper addresses the need for lunar infrastructure that will enable the movement of astronauts and payloads from landing sites to where they are needed the most. As usual, they identified a critical gap between the current capabilities and what is to be expected.

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NASA's Skyrocketing Need for Cargo Deliveries to the Moon

Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. Credit: NASA
Artist's impression of astronauts on the lunar surface, as part of the Artemis Program. Credit: NASA

NASA has big plans for the Moon. Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to create a program of “sustained exploration and lunar development.” This will include the creation of the Lunar Gateway, an orbital habitat that will facilitate missions to and from the surface, and the Artemis Base Camp that will allow for extended stays. Through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, NASA has contracted with commercial partners like SpaceX and Blue Origin to deliver scientific experiments and crew to the lunar surface.

However, these efforts are expected to culminate in the creation of a permanent outpost and human presence on the Moon. This will require far more in the way of crew and payload services to ensure crews can be sustained in the long run. In a recent white paper, “Lunar Surface Cargo,” NASA researchers identified a significant gap between current cargo delivery capabilities and future demand. The paper indicates that this growing cargo demand can only be met by creating a “mixed cargo lander fleet.”

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These Three Neutron Stars Shouldn't Be So Cold

Artist's impression of a neutron star, with white/blue filaments are streaming out from its polar regions, representing magnetic field lines. Credit: ESA

Neutron stars are among the densest objects in the Universe, second only to black holes. Like black holes, neutron stars are what remains after a star reaches the end of its life cycle and undergoes gravitational collapse. This produces a massive explosion (a supernova), in which a star sheds its outer layers and leaves behind a super-compressed stellar remnant. In fact, scientists speculate that matter at the center of the star is compressed to the point that even atoms collapse and electrons merge with protons to create neutrons.

Traditionally, scientists have relied on the “Equation of State” – a theoretical model that describes the state of matter under a given set of physical conditions – to understand what physical processes can occur inside a neutron star. But when a team led by scientists from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) examined three exceptionally young neutron stars, they noticed they were 10-100 times colder than other neutron stars of the same age. For this, the researchers concluded that these three stars are inconsistent with most of the proposed equations of state.

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Making Rocket Fuel Out of Lunar Regolith

An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018
An illustration of a Moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualisation: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

In the coming years, NASA and other space agencies plan to extend the reach of human exploration. This will include creating infrastructure on the Moon that will allow for crewed missions on a regular basis. This infrastructure will allow NASA and its international partners to make the next great leap by sending crewed missions to Mars (by 2039 at the earliest). Having missions operate this far from Earth for extended periods means that opportunities for resupply will be few and far between. As a result, crews will need to rely on In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), where local resources are leveraged to provide for basic needs.

In addition to air, water, and building materials, the ability to create propellant from local resources is essential. According to current mission architectures, this would consist of harvesting water ice in the polar regions and breaking it down to create liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2). However, according to a new study led by engineers from McGill University, rocket propellant could be fashioned from lunar regolith as well. Their findings could present new opportunities for future missions to the Moon, which would no longer be restricted to the polar regions.

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Simulating the Last Moments Before Neutron Stars Merge

Volume rendering of density in a simulation of a binary neutron star merger. New research shows that neutrinos created in the hot interface between the merging stars can be briefly trapped and remain out of equilibrium with the cold cores of the merging stars for 2 to 3 milliseconds. Credit: David Radice/Penn State

When stars reach the end of their life cycle, they shed their outer layers in a supernova. What is left behind is a neutron star, a stellar remnant that is incredibly dense despite being relatively small and cold. When this happens in binary systems, the resulting neutron stars will eventually spiral inward and collide. When they finally merge, the process triggers the release of gravitational waves and can lead to the formation of a black hole. But what happens as the neutron stars begin merging, right down to the quantum level, is something scientists are eager to learn more about.

When the stars begin to merge, very high temperatures are generated, creating “hot neutrinos” that remain out of equilibrium with the cold cores of the merging stars. Ordinarily, these tiny, massless particles only interact with normal matter via weak nuclear forces and possibly gravity. However, according to new simulations led by Penn State University (PSU) physicists, these neutrinos can weakly interact with normal matter during this time. These findings could lead to new insights into these powerful events.

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