Engineers at NASA have completed an important milestone in developing the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) spacecraft. It’s now moving from development and design to the assembly, testing, and integration phase, targeting a launch in late Spring 2025. After launch, the spacecraft will fly to the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange Point and analyze how the Sun’s solar wind interacts with charged particles originating from outside the Solar System.
IMAP will follow up on discoveries and insights from the two Voyager spacecraft and the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) and will help investigate two of the most important overarching issues in heliophysics: the energization of charged particles from the Sun and the interaction of the solar wind at its boundary with interstellar space.
Chinese and Indian astronomers were the first to measure Earth’s axial tilt accurately, and they did it about 3,000 years ago. Their measurements were remarkably accurate: in 1120 BC, Chinese astronomers pegged the Earth’s axial tilt at 24 degrees. Now we know that all of the planets in the Solar System, with the exception of Mercury, have some tilt.
While astronomers have puzzled over why our Solar System’s planets are tilted, it turns out it’s rather normal.
Stars are gravitationally fastened to their galaxies and move in concert with their surroundings. But sometimes, something breaks the bond. If a star gets too close to a supermassive black hole, for example, the black hole can expel it out into space as a rogue star.
What would happen to Earth if one of these stellar interlopers got too close?
A study published today in The Planetary Science Journal examines how NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has conducted a first-time detection of carbon dioxide in a Centaur, this one designated 39P/Oterma. A Centaur is a small planetary body that orbits between Jupiter and Neptune and frequently crosses the orbits of one or more of the gas giant planets within our solar system. While no Centaur has been imaged up-close, they typically exhibit a combination of attributes between comets and asteroids. While carbon monoxide has been detected in two known centaurs, this recent discovery could mark a turning point in how scientists understand the formation, evolution, and composition of not only Centaurs, but of the early solar system, as well.
Jupiter’s Io stands apart from the Solar System’s other moons, with its numerous volcanoes and its surface dominated by lava flows. Io’s surface volcanism was confirmed in 1979 when the Voyager spacecraft imaged it, but its volcanic nature isn’t duplicated anywhere else in our system. Tidal heating is behind the moon’s eruptive nature, driven by Jupiter’s powerful gravity, and by resonance with other moons. But is there a magma ocean inside Io?
A final answer to that question has been elusive, but new research supports the idea of a magma ocean.
There’s always a need for new technologies or for novel uses of existing technologies to lower the cost of space exploration and extend our reach. Lightsails are a novel type of spacecraft that could eventually be our first visitors to nearby stars like the Alpha Centauri system. But they could be put to productive use right here in our Solar System.
If we could wind the clock back billions of years, we’d see our Solar System the way it used to be. Planetesimals and other rocky bodies were constantly colliding with each other, and new objects would coalesce out of the debris. Asteroids rained down on the planets and their moons. The gas giants were migrating and contributing to the chaos by destroying gravitational relationships and creating new ones. Even moons and moonlets would’ve been part of the cascade of collisions and impacts.
When nature crams enough objects into a small enough space, it breeds collisions. A new study says that’s what happened at Saturn and created the planet’s dramatic rings.
Way back in time, about 4.6 billion years ago, our Sun and planets were busily forming nestled inside a cloud of gas and dust. Not far away, a supernova exploded, threatening to tear everything apart. Luckily, a filament of molecular gas protected the infant Solar System from imminent destruction.
Our solar system has had a chaotic past. Earth and the other planets are now in stable orbits, but while they were forming they experienced drastic location shifts. Jupiter was likely much closer to the Sun than it is now, and its shift not only shifted other planets but also cleared the solar system of debris, tossing much of it to the Oort Cloud.
When Oumuamua travelled through our Solar System back in 2017, people around the world paid attention. It was the first Interstellar Object (ISO) astronomers had ever identified. Then in August 2019, Comet 2I Borisov travelled through our Solar System, becoming the second ISO to cruise through for a visit. Together, the visiting ISOs generated a wave of inquiry and speculation.
There’s bound to be more ISOs than just those two, and a new study says our Solar System has probably captured some of these interstellar visitors, though they don’t stay for long.