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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Webb Finds Hints of a Third Planet at PDS 70

An artist's illustration of the PDS 70 system, not to scale. The two planets are clearing a gap in the circumstellar disk as they form. As they accrete in-falling material, the heat makes them glow. Image Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

The exoplanet census now stands at 5,599 confirmed discoveries in 4,163 star systems, with another 10,157 candidates awaiting confirmation. So far, the vast majority of these have been detected using indirect methods, including Transit Photometry (74.4%) and Radial Velocity measurements (19.4%). Only nineteen (or 1.2%) were detected via Direct Imaging, a method where light emitted or reflected from an exoplanet’s atmosphere or surface is used to detect and characterize it. Thanks to the latest generation of high-contrast and high-angular resolution instruments, this is starting to change.

This includes the James Webb Space Telescope and its sophisticated mirrors and advanced infrared imaging suite. Using data obtained by Webb‘s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), astronomers within the MIRI mid-INfrared Disk Survey (MINDS) survey recently studied a very young variable star (PDS 70) about 370 light-years away with two confirmed protoplanets. After examining the system and its extended protoplanetary disk, they found evidence of a third possible protoplanet orbiting the star. These observations could help advance our understanding of planetary systems that are still in the process of formation.

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Little Red Dots in Webb Photos Turned Out to Be Quasars

A n EIGER JWST image of the luminous quasar J1148+5251, an extremely rare active SMBH of 10 billion solar masses (blue box). Two “baby quasars” (red boxes) are seen in the same dataset. © NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Matthee (ISTA), R. Mackenzie (ETH Zurich), D. Kashino (National Observatory of Japan), S. Lilly (ETH Zurich)

In its first year of operation, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) made some profound discoveries. These included providing the sharpest views of iconic cosmic structures (like the Pillars of Creation), transmission spectra from exoplanet atmospheres, and breathtaking views of Jupiter, its largest moons, Saturn’s rings, its largest moon Titan, and Enceladus’ plumes. But Webb also made an unexpected find during its first year of observation that may prove to be a breakthrough: a series of little red dots in a tiny region of the night sky.

These little red dots were observed as part of Webb’s Emission-line galaxies and Intergalactic Gas in the Epoch of Reionization (EIGER) and the First Reionization Epoch Spectroscopically Complete Observations (FRESCO) surveys. According to a new analysis by an international team of astrophysicists, these dots are galactic nuclei containing the precursors of Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) that existed during the early Universe. The existence of these black holes shortly after the Big Bang could change our understanding of how the first SMBHs in our Universe formed.

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Webb Continues to Confirm That Universe is Behaving Strangely

Image of NGC 5468, a galaxy located about 130 million light-years from Earth, combines data from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/A. Riess (JHU/STScI)

Over a century ago, astronomers Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaitre independently discovered that the Universe was expanding. Since then, scientists have attempted to measure the rate of expansion (known as the Hubble-Lemaitre Constant) to determine the origin, age, and ultimate fate of the Universe. This has proved very daunting, as ground-based telescopes yielded huge uncertainties, leading to age estimates of anywhere between 10 and 20 billion years! This disparity between these measurements, produced by different techniques, gave rise to what is known as the Hubble Tension.

It was hoped that the aptly named Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990) would resolve this tension by providing the deepest views of the Universe to date. After 34 years of continuous service, Hubble has managed to shrink the level of uncertainty but not eliminate it. This led some in the scientific community to suggest (as an Occam’s Razor solution) that Hubble‘s measurements were incorrect. But according to the latest data from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Hubble’s successor, it appears that the venerable space telescope’s measurements were right all along.

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NASA and Boeing Release New Rendering of their X-66 Sustainable Experimental Airliner

Artist’s concept of the X-66 aircraft that Boeing will produce through NASA’s Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project. Credit: NASA

Climate change is arguably the single greatest threat facing the world today. According to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), average global temperatures are set to increase between 1.5 and 2 °C (2.7 to 3.6 °F) by mid-century. To restrict global temperatures to an increase of 1.5 C and avoid the worst-case scenarios, the nations of the world need to achieve net zero emissions by then. Otherwise, things will get a lot worse before they get better, assuming they ever do.

This means transitioning to cleaner methods in terms of energy, transportation, and aviation. To meet our climate commitments, the aviation industry is developing technology to significantly reduce air travel’s carbon footprint. To help meet this goal, NASA and Boeing have come together to create the X-66 Sustainable Experimental Airliner, the first experimental plane specifically focused on helping the U.S. achieve net-zero aviation. Last week, NASA released a new rendering of the concept, giving the public an updated look at the future of air travel.

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