In March of 2004, the European Space Agency’s Rosettaspacecraft blasted off from French Guiana aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. After ten years, by November of 2014, the spacecraft rendezvoused with its target – Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P/C-G). Over the more than two years that followed, the spacecraft remained in orbit of this comet, gathering information on its surface, interior, and gas and dust environment.
And on September 30th, 2016, Rosetta came closer than ever to the surface of 67P/C-G and concluded its mission with a controlled impact onto the surface. Since that time, scientists have still been processing all the data the spacecraft collected during its mission. This included some awe-inspiring photographs of the comet’s surface that were obtained shortly after the spacecraft made its rendezvous with 67P/C-G.
In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission. Since that time, this space observatory has been busy observing over 1 billion astronomical objects in our galaxy and beyond – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – all for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.
The ESA has also issued two data releases since then, both of which have led to some groundbreaking discoveries. The latest comes from the Leiden Observatory, where a team of astronomers used Gaia data to track what they thought were high-velocity stars being kicked out of the Milky Way, but which actually appeared to be moving into our galaxy.
Between 300 million and 900 million years ago, our Milky Way galaxy nearly collided with the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Data from the ESA’s Gaia mission shows the ongoing effect of this event, with stars moving like ripples on the surface of a pond. The galactic collision is part of an ongoing cannibalization of the dwarf galaxy by the much-larger Milky Way.
In 2003, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology-1 (SMART-1) lunar orbiter. After taking 13 months to reach the Moon using a Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) system, the orbiter then spent the next three years studying the lunar surface. Then, on September 3rd, 2006, the mission came to an end as the spacecraft was deliberately crashed onto the lunar surface.
While the bright flash that this created was captured by observers using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii, no other spacecraft were in orbit at the time to witness it. As a result, it has been impossible for over a decade to determine precisely where SMART-1 went down. But thanks to images captured last year by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the final resting place of SMART-1 is now known.
In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission, a space observatory designed to measure the positions of movements of celestial bodies. Over the course of its five-year mission, this observatory has been studying a total of 1 billion objects – including distant stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.
In the coming decades, many space agencies hope to conduct crewed missions to the Moon and even establish outposts there. In fact, between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos, and the Indian and Chinese space agencies, there are no shortages of plans to construct lunar bases and settlements. These will not only establish a human presence on the Moon, but facilitate missions to Mars and deeper into space.
To put it simply, the entire surface of the Moon is covered in dust (aka. regolith) that is composed of fine particles of rough silicate. This dust was formed over the course of billions of years by constant meteorite impacts which pounded the silicate mantle into fine particles. It has remained in a rough and fine state due to the fact that the lunar surface experiences no weathering or erosion (due to the lack of an atmosphere and liquid water).
Because it is so plentiful, reaching depths of 4-5 meters (13-16.5 feet) in some places – and up to 15 meters (49 feet) in the older highland areas – regolith is considered by many space agencies to be the building material of choice for lunar settlements. As Aidan Cowley, the ESA’s science advisor and an expert when it comes to lunar soil, explained in a recent ESA press release:
“Moon bricks will be made of dust. You can create solid blocks out of it to build roads and launch pads, or habitats that protect your astronauts from the harsh lunar environment.”
In addition to taking advantage of a seemingly inexhaustible local resource, the ESA’s plans to use lunar regolith to create this base and related infrastructure demonstrates their commitment to in-situ resource utilization. Basically, bases on the Moon, Mars, and other locations in the Solar System will need to be as self-sufficient as possible to reduce reliance on Earth for regular shipments of supplies – which would both expensive and resource-exhaustive.
To test how lunar regolith would fare as a building material, ESA scientists have been using Moon dust simulants harvested right here on Earth. As Aiden explained, regolith on both Earth and the Moon are the product of volcanism and are basically basaltic material made up of silicates. “The Moon and Earth share a common geological history,” he said, “and it is not difficult to find material similar to that found on the Moon in the remnants of lava flows.”
The simulant were harvested from the region around Cologne, Germany, that were volcanically active about 45 million years ago. Using volcanic powder from these ancient lava flows, which was determined to be a good match for lunar dust, researchers from the European Astronaut Center (EAC) began using the powder (which they’ve named EAC-1) to fashioning prototypes of the bricks that would be used to created the lunar village.
Spaceship EAC, an ESA initiative designed to tackle the challenges of crewed spaceflight, is also working with EAC-1 to develop the technologies and concepts that will be needed to create a lunar outpost and for future missions to the Moon. One of their projects centers on how to use the oxygen in lunar dust (which accounts for 40% of it) to help astronauts have extended stays on the Moon.
But before the ESA can sign off on lunar dust as a building material, a number of tests still need to be conducted. These include recreating the behavior of lunar dust in a radiation environment to simulate their electrostatic behavior. For decades, scientists have known that lunar dust is electrically-charged because of the way it is constantly bombarded by solar and cosmic radiation.
This is what causes it to lift off the surface and cling to anything it touches (which the Apollo 11 astronauts noticed upon returning to the Lunar Module). As Erin Transfield – a member of ESA’s lunar dust topical team – indicated, scientists still do not fully understand lunar dust’s electrostatic nature, which could pose a problem when it comes to using it as a building material.
What’s more, the radiation-environment experiments have not produced any conclusive results yet. As a biologist who dreams of being the first woman on the Moon, Transfield indicated that more research is necessary using actual lunar dust. “This gives us one more reason to go back to the Moon,” she said. “We need pristine samples from the surface exposed to the radiation environment.”
Beyond establishing a human presence on the Moon and allowing for deep-space missions, the construction of the ESA’s proposed lunar village would also offer opportunities to leverage new technologies and forge partnerships between the public and private sector. For instance, the ESA has collaborated with the architectural design firm Foster + Partners to come up with the design for their lunar village, and other private companies have been recruited to help investigate other aspects of building it.
This mission, a joint effort between the ESA and Roscosmos, will involve a Russian-built lander setting down in the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, where the PROSPECT probe will deploy and drill into the surface to retrieve samples of ice. Going forward, the ESA’s long-term plans also call for a series of missions to the Moon beginning in the 2020s that would involve robot workers paving the way for human explorers to land later.
In the coming decades, the intentions of the world’s leading space agencies are clear – not only are we going back to the Moon, but we intend to stay there! To that end, considerable resources are being dedicated towards researching and developing the necessary technologies and concepts needed to make this happen. By the 2030s, we might just see astronauts (and even private citizens) coming and going from the Moon with regular frequency.
And be sure to check out this video about the EAC’s efforts to study lunar regolith, courtesy of the ESA:
When it comes to space exploration, the motto “keep it simple” isn’t always followed! For the most part, satellites, spacecraft, telescopes, and the many other technologies that allow humans to study and explore the Universe are the result of highly-technical and complex feats of engineering. But sometimes, it is the simplest ideas that offer the most innovative solutions.
This is especially true when it comes to the today’s space agencies, who are concerned with cutting costs and increasing accessibility to space. A good example is the Fenix propulsion system, a proposal created by Italian tech company D-Orbit. As part of the last year’s Space Exploration Masters, this pen-sized booster will allow CubeSats to maneuver and accomplish more in space.
The Space Exploration Masters, which the European Space Agency (ESA) initiated in 2017, seeks to encourage space-based innovation and provide opportunities for commercial development. As such, this annual competition has become central to the implementation of the ESA Space Exploration strategy. For their application last year, D-Orbit was jointly awarded the the ESA and Space Application Services prize.
The thruster prototype itself measures only 10 cm long and 2 cm wide (~4 by 0.8 inches) and contain solid propellant that is triggered by a simple electrical ignition system. The boosters are designed to be placed at each corner of a 10 x 10 x 10 cm CubeSat, or can be doubled up for added thrust. Thanks to their lightweight and compact size, they do not take up much instrument space or add significantly to a CubeSat’s weight.
Currently, CubeSats are deployed directly into space, deorbit at the end of their missions, and have no means to change their orbits. But with this simple, chemical-propellant thruster, CubeSats could function for longer periods and would be able to take on more complicated missions. For instance, if they can maneuver in orbit, they will be able to study the Moon and asteroids from different angles.
In addition, boosters will allow CubeSats to deorbit themselves once they are finished their missions, thus reducing the threat of space debris. According to the latest report from the Space Debris Office at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC), an estimated 19,894 bits of space junk were circling our planet by the end of 2017, with a combined mass of at least 8135 metric tons (8967 US tons). This problem is only expected to get worse.
In fact, it is estimated that the small satellite market will grow by $5.3 billion in the next decade (according to Space Works and Eurostat) and many private companies are looking to provide regular launch services to accommodate that growth. As such, a propulsion system that not only presents opportunities to do more with CubeSats, but in a way that will not add to problem of space debris, will be highly sought-after.
In addition to the ESA and Space Application Services prize, D-Orbit won a four-month ticket to test their prototype on the newly-installed ICE Cubes facility, which is located in the Columbus module aboard the International Space Station. This facility is the first European commercial research center to operate aboard the ISS, and the D-Orbit team will use to test the booster’s safe ignition mechanism inside an ICE cube experiment.
This experiment, which will not involve firing the actual propulsion system, will help ensure that the booster can operate safe and effectively in space. Sensors and cameras will record the sparks, triggered by an electrical impulse, while the team relies on the ICE Cubes facility’s dedicated control center to provide them with remote viewing opportunities from the ground.
The Fenix boosters are set to launch for the ISS by the end of next year and, if successful, D-Orbit will likely secure permission to test their propulsion system in space. And if all goes well, future generations of CubeSats – which have already made Low Earth Orbit (LEO) accessible to private companies and research institutes – will be capable of performing far more tasks in orbit.
For this year’s Space Exploration Masters, the ESA is partnering with the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) to address health and food. For the main challenge, participants will be tasked with coming up with applications that promote nutritious food and food security, both on- and 0ff-planet. Among other challenges, this year’s SEM will also be looking for ideas that make missions more sustainable and new ways to use future spacecraft.
For more information on this year’s Space Exploration Masters, check out the ESA website page.
According to evidence gathered by multiple robotic orbiters, rovers, and landers over the course of several decades, scientists understand that Mars was once a warmer, watery place. But between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, this began to change. As Mars magnetic field disappeared, the atmosphere slowly began to be stripped away by solar wind, leaving the surface the cold and dry and making it impossible for water to exist in liquid form.
While much of the planet’s water is now concentrated in the polar ice caps, scientists have speculated some of Mars’ past water could still be located underground. Thanks to a new study by a team of Italian scientists, it has now been confirmed that liquid water still exists beneath Mars’ southern polar region. This discovery has put an end to a fifteen-year mystery and bolstered the potential for future missions to Mars.
So far, robotic missions have revealed considerable evidence of past water on Mars. These include dried-out river valleys and gigantic outflow channels discovered by orbiters, and evidence of mineral-rich soils that can only form in the presence of liquid water by rovers and landers. Early evidence from the ESA’s Mars Express probe has also showed that water-ice exists at the planet’s poles and is buried in the layers interspersed with dust.
However, scientists have long suspected that liquid water could exist beneath the polar ice caps, much in the same way that liquid water is believed to underlie glaciers here on Earth. In addition, the presence of salts on Mars could further reduce the melting point of subsurface water and keep it in a liquid state, despite the sub-zero temperatures present on both the surface and underground.
For many years, data from the Mars Express’Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument – which has been used to study the southern polar region – has remained inconclusive. Like all ground-penetrating radar, this instrument relies on radar pulses to map surface topography and determine the properties of the materials that lie beneath the surface.
Luckily, after considerable analysis, the study team was able to develop new techniques that allowed them to collect enough high-resolution data to confirm the presence of liquid water beneath the southern ice cap. As Andrea Cicchetti, the MARSIS operations manager and a co-author on the new paper, indicated:
“We’d seen hints of interesting subsurface features for years but we couldn’t reproduce the result from orbit to orbit, because the sampling rates and resolution of our data was previously too low. We had to come up with a new operating mode to bypass some onboard processing and trigger a higher sampling rate and thus improve the resolution of the footprint of our dataset: now we see things that simply were not possible before.”
What they found was that the southern polar region is made of many layers of ice and dust down to a depth of about 1.5 km over a 200 km-wide area, and featured an anomalous area measuring 20-km wide. As Roberto Orosei, the principal investigator of the MARSIS experiment and lead author of the paper, explained in a recent ESA press release:
“This subsurface anomaly on Mars has radar properties matching water or water-rich sediments. This is just one small study area; it is an exciting prospect to think there could be more of these underground pockets of water elsewhere, yet to be discovered.”
After analyzing the properties of the reflected radar signals and taking into account the composition of the layered deposits and expected temperature profiles below the surface, the scientists concluded that the 20-km wide feature is an interface between the ice and a stable body of liquid water. For MARSIS to be able to detect such a patch of water, it would need to be at least several tens of centimeters thick.
These findings also raise the possibility of there being life on Mars, both now and in the past. This is based on research that found microbial life in Lake Vostok, which is located some 4 km (2.5 mi) below the ice in Antarctica. If life can thrive in salty, subglacial environments on Earth, then it is possible that they could survive on Mars as well. Determining if this is the case will be the purpose of existing and future missions to Mars.
As Dmitri Titov, one of the Mars Express project scientist, explained:
“The long duration of Mars Express, and the exhausting effort made by the radar team to overcome many analytical challenges, enabled this much-awaited result, demonstrating that the mission and its payload still have a great science potential. This thrilling discovery is a highlight for planetary science and will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of Mars, the history of water on our neighbour planet and its habitability.”
The Mars Express launched on June 2nd, 2003, and will celebrate 15 years in orbit of Mars by December 25th this year. In the coming years, it will be joined by the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 mission, NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover, and a number of other scientific experiments. These missions will pave the way for a potential crewed mission, which NASA is planning to mount by the 2030s.
If there is indeed liquid water to be found on Mars, it will go a long way towards facilitating future research and even an ongoing human presence on the surface. And if there is still life on Mars, the careful research of its ecosystems will help address the all-important question of how and when life emerged in the Solar System.
On December 19th, 2013, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft took to space with for a very ambitious mission. Over the course of its planned 5-year mission (which was recently extended), this space observatory would map over a billion stars, planets, comets, asteroids and quasars in order to create the largest and most precise 3D catalog of the Milky Way ever created.
Since that time, the ESA has made two data releases that cover the first three years of the Gaia mission. The second data release, which took on April 25th, 2018, has already proven to be a treasure trove for astronomers. In addition to the positions, distance indicators and motions of over a billion stars and celestial objects in the Milky Way Galaxy, it also contained a hidden gem – the proper motions of stars within the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).
Located about 200,000 light-years from Earth, the LMC has dense clouds of dust that results in it experiencing high rates of star formation. In addition, it’s central bar is warped (where the east and west ends are nearer to the Milky Way), suggesting that it was once a barred dwarf spiral galaxy who’s spiral arms were disrupted by interaction with the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) and the Milky Way.
For these reasons, astronomers have been hoping to derive the orbits of dwarf galaxies (and globular clusters) that revolve around the Milky Way. In so doing, they hope to learn more about how our galaxy evolved due to mergers with clusters and other galaxies. By determining the proper motions of the LMC’s stars, the Gaia mission has provided clues as to how the Milky Way and its largest satellite galaxy have interacted over time.
As you can see from the image (at top), the bar of the LMC is outlined in great detail, along with individual star-forming regions like the Tarantula Nebula (aka. 30 Doradus, which is visible just above the center of the galaxy). The image combines the total amount of radiation detected by the observatory in each pixel. The radiation measurements were then taken through different filters on the spacecraft to generate color information.
This allowed Gaia to obtain information about the total density of stars within the LMC as well as their proper motions. As you can see, the image is dominated by the brightest, most massive stars, which greatly outshine their fainter, lower-mass counterparts. The proper motions of the stars observed is represented as the texture of the image – which looks a lot like a fingerprint.
From this, scientists were able to see an imprint of the stars rotating clockwise around the center of the galaxy. Using this information, astronomers will be able to create new models on how the LMC, SMC, and Milky Way evolved together over time. This, in turn, could shed light on how galaxies like our own, formed and evolved over the course of billions of years.
As with other information contained in the first and second data releases, this latest discovery demonstrates that the Gaia mission is fulfilling its intended purpose. The third release of Gaia data is scheduled to take place in late 2020, with the final catalog being published in the 2020s. Meanwhile, an extension has already been approved for the Gaia mission, which will now remain in operation until the end of 2020 (to be confirmed at the end of this year).
And be sure to enjoy this animated view of the LMC’s rotation, courtesy of the ESA:
On October 19th, 2016, the European Space Agency’s Exobiology on Mars (ExoMars) mission established orbit around Mars. Consisting of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander, the purpose of this mission is to investigate Mars for past signs of life. And whereas the Schiaparelli unfortunately crashed during deployment, the TGO has managed to begin its mission ahead of schedule.
A few weeks ago, the satellite achieved a near circular orbit around Mars after performing a series of braking maneuvers. Since that time, the orbiter’s Color and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) took a stunning image of the surface. This picture was not only the TGO’s first image of Mars, it was also a test to see if the orbiter is ready to being its main mission on April 28th.
The image captured a 40 km- (25 mi) long segment of the Korolev Crater, which is located high in Mars’ northern hemisphere. The image was a composite of three images in different colors that were taken simultaneously on April 15th, 2018, which were then assembled to produce this color image. The bright material that appears at the edge of the crater is water ice.
As Antoine Pommerol, a member of the CaSSIS science team working on the calibration of the data, explained in a recent ESA press release:
“We were really pleased to see how good this picture was given the lighting conditions. It shows that CaSSIS can make a major contribution to studies of the carbon dioxide and water cycles on Mars.”
Prior to the test phase, the camera team transmitted new software to the TGO, and after a few minor issues, they determined that the instrument was ready to work. The camera is one of four instruments on the TGO, which also carries two spectrometer suites and a neutron detector. The spectrometers began their science mission on April 21st by taking the first sample of the atmosphere to see how its molecules absorb sunlight.
By doing this, the TGO hopes to determine the chemical composition of Mars atmosphere and find evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes. Eventually, the camera will help characterize features on the surface that could be related to trace gas sources. Hence the importance of this recent test.
“We aim to fully automate the image production process,” said Nicolas Thomas, the camera’s principal investigator from the University of Bern. “Once we achieve this, we can distribute the data quickly to the science community for analysis.”
A lot of challenges lie ahead, which includes a long period of data collection to bring out the details of rare (or yet to be discovered) trace gases in Mars’ atmosphere. This is necessary since trace gases (as the name would suggest) are present in only very small amounts – i.e. less than 1% of the volume of the planet’s atmosphere. But as Håkan Svedhem – the ESA’s TGO project scientist – indicated, the test image was a good start.
“We are excited to finally be starting collecting data at Mars with this phenomenal spacecraft,” he said. “The test images we have seen so far certainly set the bar high.”
By 2020, the second part of the ExoMars mission is scheduled to launch. This will consist of a Russian surface platform and a European rover landing on the surface in support of a science mission that is expected to last into 2022 or longer. Alongside NASA’s proposed Mars 2020 rover, the Red Planet is due to have several more visitors in the coming years!