Stellar Winds Coming From Other Stars Measured for the First Time

Infrared image of the shockwave created by the massive giant star Zeta Ophiuchi in an interstellar dust cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech; NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); C. R. O'Dell, Vanderbilt University

An international research team led by the University of Vienna has made a major breakthrough. In a study recently published in Nature Astronomy, they describe how they conducted the first direct measurements of stellar wind in three Sun-like star systems. Using X-ray emission data obtained by the ESA’s X-ray Multi-Mirror-Newton (XMM-Newton) of these stars’ “astrospheres,” they measured the mass loss rate of these stars via stellar winds. The study of how stars and planets co-evolve could assist in the search for life while also helping astronomers predict the future evolution of our Solar System.

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Formation-Flying Spacecraft Could Probe the Solar System for New Physics

A solar flare erupts on the Sun. Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

It’s an exciting time for the fields of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. Thanks to cutting-edge observatories, instruments, and new techniques, scientists are getting closer to experimentally verifying theories that remain largely untested. These theories address some of the most pressing questions scientists have about the Universe and the physical laws governing it – like the nature of gravity, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy. For decades, scientists have postulated that either there is additional physics at work or that our predominant cosmological model needs to be revised.

While the investigation into the existence and nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy is ongoing, there are also attempts to resolve these mysteries with the possible existence of new physics. In a recent paper, a team of NASA researchers proposed how spacecraft could search for evidence of additional physical within our Solar Systems. This search, they argue, would be assisted by the spacecraft flying in a tetrahedral formation and using interferometers. Such a mission could help resolve a cosmological mystery that has eluded scientists for over half a century.

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Here's the Total Solar Eclipse, Seen From Space

Credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

On Monday, April 8th, people across North America witnessed a rare celestial event known as a total solar eclipse. This phenomenon occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth and blocks the face of the Sun for a short period. The eclipse plunged the sky into darkness for people living in the Canadian Maritimes, the American Eastern Seaboard, parts of the Midwest, and northern Mexico. Fortunately for all, geostationary satellites orbiting Earth captured images of the Moon’s shadow as it moved across North America.

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The World's Largest Digital Camera is Complete. It Will Go Into the Vera Rubin Observatory

Researchers examine the LSST Camera. The camera will soon be shipped to Chile, where it will be the heart of Vera C. Rubin Observatory (right). Credit: Vera C. Rubin Observatory/DOE/SLAC

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), was formally proposed in 2001 to create an astronomical facility that could conduct deep-sky surveys using the latest technology. This includes a wide-field reflecting telescope with an 8.4-meter (~27.5-foot) primary mirror that relies on a novel three-mirror design (the Simonyi Survey Telescope) and a 3.2-megapixel Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) imaging camera (the LSST Camera). Once complete, Rubin will perform a 10-year survey of the southern sky known as the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST).

While construction on the observatory itself did not begin until 2015, work began on the telescope’s digital cameras and primary mirror much sooner (in 2004 and 2007, respectively). After two decades of work, scientists and engineers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and their collaborators announced the completion of the LSST Camera – the largest digital camera ever constructed. Once mounted on the Simonyi Survey Telescope, this camera will help researchers observe our Universe in unprecedented detail.

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Webb Sees a Galaxy Awash in Star Formation

Starburst galaxy M82 was observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006, which showed the galaxy’s edge-on spiral disk, shredded clouds, and hot hydrogen gas. The James Webb Space Telescope has observed M82’s core, capturing in unprecedented detail the structure of the galactic wind and characterizing individual stars and star clusters. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Alberto Bolatto (UMD)

Since it began operations in July 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has fulfilled many scientific objectives. In addition to probing the depths of the Universe in search of galaxies that formed shortly after the Big Bang, it has also provided the clearest and most detailed images of nearby galaxies. In the process, Webb has provided new insight into the processes through which galaxies form and evolve over billions of years. This includes galaxies like Messier 82 (M82), a “starburst galaxy” located about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major.

Also known as the “Cigar Galaxy” because of its distinctive shape, M82 is a rather compact galaxy with a very high star formation rate. Roughly five times that of the Milky Way, this is why the core region of M82 is over 100 times as bright as the Milky Way’s. Combined with the gas and dust that naturally obscures visible light, this makes examining M82’s core region difficult. Using the extreme sensitivity of Webb‘s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), a team led by the University of Maryland observed the central region of this starburst galaxy to examine the physical conditions that give rise to new stars.

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China's Relay Satellite is in Lunar Orbit

Animation of Queqiao-2 satellite establishing orbit around the Moon. Credit: CGTN

On March 20th, China’s Queqiao-2 (“Magpie Bridge-2”) satellite launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Site LC-2 on the island of Hainan (in southern China) atop a Long March-8 Y3 carrier rocket. This mission is the second in a series of communications relay and radio astronomy satellites designed to support the fourth phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e). On March 24th, after 119 hours in transit, the satellite reached the Moon and began a perilune braking maneuver at a distance of 440 km (~270 mi) from the lunar surface.

The maneuver lasted 19 minutes, after which the satellite entered lunar orbit, where it will soon relay communications from missions on the far side of the Moon around the South Pole region. This includes the Chang’e-4 lander and rover and will extend to the Chang’e-6 sample-return mission, which is scheduled to launch in May. It will also assist Chang’e-7 and -8 (scheduled for 2026 and 2028, respectively), consisting of an orbiter, rover, and lander mission, and a platform that will test technologies necessary for the construction of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

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Lunar Night Permanently Ends the Odysseus Mission

Image of Odysseus moon landing
This image shows one of the Odysseus lander's legs breaking due to the shock of first contact on the moon. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

On February 15th, Intuitive Machines (IM) launched its first Nova-C class spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. On February 22nd, the spacecraft – codenamed Odysseus (or “Odie”) – became the first American-built vehicle to soft-land on the lunar surface since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. While the landing was a bit bumpy (Odysseus fell on its side), the IM-1 mission successfully demonstrated technologies and systems that will assist NASA in establishing a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.”

After seven days of operation on the lunar surface, Intuitive Machines announced on February 29th that the mission had ended with the onset of lunar night. While the lander was not intended to remain operational during the lunar night, flight controllers at Houston set Odysseus into a configuration that would “call home” if it made it through the two weeks of darkness. As of March 23rd, the company announced that their flight controllers’ predictions were correct and that Odie would not be making any more calls home.

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DART Changed the Shape of Asteroid Dimorphos, not Just its Orbit

The asteroid Dimorphos was captured by NASA’s DART mission just two seconds before the spacecraft struck its surface on Sept. 26, 2022. Observations of the asteroid before and after impact suggest it is a loosely packed “rubble pile” object. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

On September 26th, 2022, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) collided with the asteroid Dimorphos, a moonlet that orbits the larger asteroid Didymos. The purpose of this test was to evaluate a potential strategy for planetary defense. The demonstration showed that a kinetic impactor could alter the orbit of an asteroid that could potentially impact Earth someday – aka. Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA). According to a new NASA-led study, the DART mission’s impact not only altered the orbit of the asteroid but also its shape!

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Ice is Starting to Cloud Euclid's Optics

Artist impression of the Euclid mission in space. Credit: ESA

On July 1st, 2023, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Euclid Observatory, a mission that will spend the next six years investigating the composition and evolution of the Universe. In particular, Euclid will observe how the Universe has expanded over the past 10 billion years to test theories about Dark Energy. While fine-tuning and calibrating the telescope’s instruments in preparation for the mission’s first survey, the mission team noticed that a few layers of water ice formed on its mirrors after it entered the freezing cold of space.

While common, this is a problem for a highly sensitive mission like Euclid, which requires remarkable precision to investigate cosmic expansion. After months of research, the Euclid team tested a newly designed procedure to de-ice the mission’s optics. On March 20th, the ESA announced that the team’s de-icing approach worked (so far) and that Euclid’s vision has been restored. If the method proves successful, it will have validated the mission team’s plan to keep Euclid‘s optical system working for the rest of its mission.

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Northrup Grumman is Studying How to Build a Railway on the Moon

A concept of a lunar railway network. (Made with Dall-E)

Roughly two years and six months from now, as part of NASA’s Artemis III mission, astronauts will set foot on the lunar surface for the first time in over fifty years. Beyond this mission, NASA will deploy the elements of the Lunar Gateway, the Artemis Base Camp, and other infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” They will be joined by the European Space Agency (ESA), the China National Space Agency (CNSA), and Roscosmos, the latter two collaborating to build the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

Anticipating this process of lunar development (and looking to facilitate it), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the 10-year Lunar Architecture (LunA-10) Capability Study in August last year. In recent news, the agency announced that it selected Northrop Grumman to develop a moon-based railroad network. This envisioned network could transport humans, supplies, and resources for space agencies and commercial ventures, facilitating exploration, scientific research, and the creation of a lunar economy.

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