Stacking Galactic Signals Reveals A Clearer Universe

Jacinta studies distant galaxies like those shown in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, using the new 'stacking' technique to gather information only available through radio telescope observations. Credit: NASA, STScI, and ESA.

Very similar to stacking astronomy images to achieve a better picture, researchers from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) are employing new methods which will give us a clearer look at the history of the Universe. Through data taken with the next generation of radio telescopes like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), scientists like Jacinta Delhaize can “stack” galactic signals en masse to study one of their most important properties… how much hydrogen gas is present.

Probing the cosmos with a telescope is virtually using a time machine. Astronomers are able to look back at the Universe as it appeared billions of years ago. By comparing the present with the past, they are able to chart its history. We can see how things have changed over the ages and speculate about the origin and future of the vastness of space and all its many wonders.

“Distant, younger, galaxies look very different to nearby galaxies, which means that they’ve changed, or evolved, over time,” said Delhaize. “The challenge is to try and figure out what physical properties within the galaxy have changed, and how and why this has happened.”

According to Delhaize a vital clue to solving the riddle lay in hydrogen gas. By understanding how much of it that galaxies contained will help us map their history.

“Hydrogen is the building block of the Universe, it’s what stars form from and what keeps a galaxy ‘alive’,” said Delhaize.

“Galaxies in the past formed stars at a much faster rate than galaxies now. We think that past galaxies had more hydrogen, and that might be why their star formation rate is higher.”

Jacinta Delhaize with CSIRO's Parkes Radio Telescope during one of her data collecting trips. Credit: Anita Redfern Photography.
Jacinta Delhaize with CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope during one of her data collecting trips. Credit: Anita Redfern Photography.
When it comes to distant galaxies, they don’t give up their information easily. Even so, it was a task that Delhaize and her supervisors were determined to observe. The faint radio signals of hydrogen gas were nearly impossible to detect, but the new stacking method allowed the team to collect enough data for her research. By combining the weak signals of thousands of galaxies, Delhaize then “stacked” them to create a stronger, averaged signal,

“What we are trying to achieve with stacking is sort of like detecting a faint whisper in a room full of people shouting,” said Delhaize. “When you combine together thousands of whispers, you get a shout that you can hear above a noisy room, just like combining the radio light from thousands of galaxies to detect them above the background.”

However, it wasn’t a slow process. The researchers engaged CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope for 87 hours and surveyed a large region of galactic landscape. Their work collected signals from hydrogen over a vast amount of space and stretched back over two billion years in time.

“The Parkes telescope views a big section of the sky at once, so it was quick to survey the large field we chose for our study,” said ICRAR Deputy Director and Jacinta’s supervisor, Professor Lister Staveley-Smith.

Stacking up a clearer picture of the Universe from ICRAR on Vimeo.

As Delhaize explains, observing such a massive volume of space means more accurate calculations of the average amount of hydrogen gas present in particular galaxies at a certain distance from Earth. These readings correspond to a given period in the history of the Universe. With this data, simulations can be created to depict the Universe’s evolution and give us a better understanding of how galaxies formed and evolved with time. What’s even more spectacular is that next generation telescopes like the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) will be able to observe even larger volumes of the Universe with higher resolution.

“That makes them fast, accurate and perfect for studying the distant Universe. We can use the stacking technique to get every last piece of valuable information out of their observations,” said Delhaize. “Bring on ASKAP and the SKA!”.

Original Story Source: International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.

Lone Signal: First Continous Message Beacon to Find and Say Hello to an Extraterrestrial Civilization

The Jamesburg Earth Station radio dish in Carmel, California will be used to send the Lone Signal messages to space. Image via Lone Signal.

Although scientists have been listening for years to search for indications of other sentient life in the Universe, just a few efforts have been made by humans to purposefully send out messages to the cosmos. Called METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) or Active SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), these messages have so far been just one-time bursts of info – or “pulses in time” said Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra.

Haqq-Misra is leading a team of scientists and entrepreneurs who are launching a new initiative called “Lone Signal” which will send the first continuous mass “hailing messages” out into space, starting later this month. They’ll be specifically targeting one star system, Gliese 526, which has been identified as a potentially habitable solar system.

And yes, the general public can participate.

“From the start we wanted to be an experiment where anyone on Earth could participate,” said Haqq-Misra during a press event on June 11, 2013, announcing the project.

“Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system,” said Lone Star co-founder Pierre Fabre, also speaking at the event. “But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.”

Lone Signal will be using the recommissioned radio dish at the Jamesburg Earth Station in Carmel, California, one of the dishes used to carry the Apollo Moon landings live to the world.

Timelapse of the Jamesburg Earth Station

Lone Signal will be sending two signals: one is a continuous wave (CW) signal, a hailing message that sends a slow binary broadcast to provide basic information about Earth and our Solar System using an encoding system created by astrophysicist and planetary scientist Michael W. Busch. The binary code is based on mathematical “first principles” which reflect established laws that, theoretically, are relatively constant throughout the universe; things like gravity and the structure of the hydrogen atom, etc.

“This hailing message is a language we think could be used to instigate communication,” said Haqq-Misra, “and is the most advanced binary coding currently in use.”

The second signal, embedded in the first signal, will be messages from the people of Earth.

Strength of various signals from Earth.  Graph courtesy of Dr. Haqq-Misra.
Strength of various signals from Earth. Graph courtesy of Dr. Haqq-Misra.

Since Gliese 526 is 17.6 light years from Earth, the messages will be beamed to the coordinates of where the star will be in 17.6 years from now. Even though no planets have been found yet in this system, the Lone Signal team said they are confident planets exist there since missions like Kepler and Corot have found that most stars host multiple planets.

The Lone Signal team is allowing anyone with access to the internet to send the equivalent of one free text message or Twitter message — a 144-character text-based message — into space. The team said they want to have messages sent from people all around the world to provide messages that are “representative of humanity.”

Anything additional, like more messages, images, etc., will cost money, but those funds will help support the project.

“In effect we are doing our own Kickstarter and doing the crowdfunding on our own,” said Lone Signal CEO Jamie King. “Long Signal would not be possible without crowd sourcing support, which will be used for maintaining the millions of dollars in equipment, powering the dish, running the web portal and other critical tech that makes the project possible.”

If you want to be part of the project and be a “beamer” you can currently sign up at the Lone Signal website –which currently doesn’t have much information. But on June 18th their public site will go live and ‘beamers will be able to submit messages as well as:

• Share Beams / Track Beams – Once signed in, users can see how far their beam has traveled from Earth as well as share it with the beaming community.

• Dedicate Beams – Parents, friends and loved ones can dedicate a beam to others.

• Explore – The Explore section gives beamers current data on the Lone Signal beam, who is sending messages, from where on Earth, overall stats, etc.

• Blog / Twitter – Via their blog and Twitter, the Lone Signal science team and other contributors will be posting opinion articles on associated topics of interest as well as sharing the latest science news and updates.

One you submit your “beam” you’ll be able to “echo” it on your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

After a user sends their initial free message, Lone Signal will be offering paid credit packages for purchase that allow users to transmit and share longer messages as well as images using credits in the following USD price structure:
• $0.99 buys 4 credits.
• $4.99 buys 40 credits.
• $19.99 buys 400 credits.
• $99.99 buys 4000 credits.

Following the initial free message, each subsequent text-based message costs 1 credit. Image-based messages cost 3 credits.

The team said that each message will be sent as an individual packet of information and won’t be bunched with other messages.

While some scientists have indicated that sending messages out into space might pose a hazard by attracting unwanted attention from potentially aggressive extraterrestrial civilizations, Haqq-Misra thinks the benefits outweigh the potential hazards. In fact, he and his team have written a paper about the concept.

“We want to inspire passion for the space sciences in people young and old, encourage citizens of Earth to think about their role in the Universe, and inspire the next generation of scientists and astronauts,” said Lone Signal chief marketing officer Ernesto Qualizza. “We’re really excited to find out what people will want to say, and the science of METI allows people to do this – to think about more than their own backyard.”

More info: Lone Signal

‘Space Selfie’ Telescope Could Hunt Alien Planets … If It Raises A Cool $2M

Example of an orbital 'selfie' that Planetary Resources' ARKYD telescope could provide to anyone who donates to their new Kickstarter campaign. Credit: Planetary Resources.

A crowdfunded telescope — best known for offering “space selfies” for backers as an incentive to send money — is now considering a search for alien planets.

Planetary Resources Inc. (the proposed asteroid miners) announced a new “stretch goal” for its asteroid-hunting Arkyd-100 telescope.

If the company can raise $2 million — double its original goal — it promises to equip the Arkyd telescope to look at star systems for exoplanets. The project is still short the $1 million required to receive any money, but the target appears to be close enough now to give Planetary Resources confidence that more funds will come for new initiatives.

The motivation for planet hunting was mechanical trouble besetting the famous Kepler space telescope. Kepler recently lost the second of its four reaction wheels, devices that are used to stabilize the telescope in space as it seeks alien worlds.

Artist's conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the Kepler Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because Kepler needs at least three reaction wheels to point towards targets, its future is uncertain. Some planet searching is still possible with ground-based observatories, however.

“With NASA’s recent equipment failure on the Kepler telescope (RIP, Kepler!), our search for extrasolar planets nearly came to a grinding halt. If we can meet our stretch goal, we can resume some of this progress by enhancing the Arkyd,” Arkyd organizers stated on their Kickstarter campaign website.

“We’re partnering with exoplanet researchers at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to equip citizen scientists like YOU with the tools to join a search that’s captivated us for generations.”

Arkyd would use two methods to hunt down planets:

Transiting, or seeing the dip in a star’s brightness when a planet passes in front of it;

Gravitational microlensing, or finding planets by measuring how the gravity of the star (and its planets) distorts light from stars and galaxies behind.

With 19 days to go, Arkyd is at about $857,000 of its preliminary $1 million goal that it must reach to receive any money.

If it can raise $1.3 million, Planetary Resources proposes to build a ground station at an undisclosed “educational partner” that would double the download speed of data from the orbiting observatory.

The project has more than 9,500 backers. Two more stretch goals will be revealed if Arkyd receives 11,000 backers and 15,000 backers, Planetary Resources stated.

More information on the Arkyd Kickstarter campaign is here.

A Rare Opportunity to Watch a Blue Straggler Forming

The globular cluster NGC 6388. Blue stragglers may clearly be seen around the edges. More are hidden within the central core. Credit: ESO

A unique and enigmatic variety of stars known as blue stragglers appear to defy the normal stellar aging process. Discovered in globular clusters, they appear much younger than the rest of the stellar population. Since their discovery in 1953, astronomers have been asking the question: how do these stars regain their youth?

For years, two theories have persisted. The first theory suggests that two stars collide, forming a single more massive star. The second theory proposes that blue stragglers emerge from binary pairs. As the more massive star evolves and expands, it blows material onto the smaller star. In both theories, the star grows steadily more massive and bluer – it regains its youth.

But now, a surprising finding may lend credence to the second theory. Astronomers at the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center in Poland recently observed a blue straggler caught in the midst of forming!

The binary system that was studied, known as M55-V60, is located within the globular cluster M55. Dr. Michal Rozyczka, one of the research scientists on the project, told Universe Today, “The system is a showcase example of a blue straggler formed via the theoretically predicted peaceful mass exchange between its components.”

The team used both photometric (the overall light from the system) and spectroscopic (the light spread out into a range of wavelengths) observations. The photometric data revealed the light curve – the change in brightness due to one star passing in front of the other – of the system. This provided evidence that the astronomers were looking at a binary system.

From the spectroscopic data, shifts in wavelength reveal the velocity (along the line of sight) of a source. The research team noted that the system’s center of mass was moving with respect to the binary system. This will occur in a semi-detached binary system, where mass transfers from one star to the other. As it does this, the center of mass will follow the mass-transfer.

From both photometric and spectroscopic observations (which covered more than 10 years!) the team was able to verify that this object is not only a binary, but a semi-detached binary, residing at the edge of M55.

An artist's conception of how a blue straggler may form from a binary system. Credit:NASA/ESA
An artist’s conception of how a blue straggler may form from a binary system. Credit: NASA/ESA

“The system is semi-detached with the less massive (secondary) component filling its Roche lobe,” explained Dr. Rozyczka. “The secondary has a tearlike shape, with the tip of the tear directed toward the more massive primary. A stream of gas flows out of the tip along a curved path and hits the primary.”

How do we know that it is in fact a blue straggler? The simple answer is that the secondary star, with is gaining mass, appears bluer than normal. This blue straggler is clearly in the process of forming. It is the second observation of such a formation, with the first being V228 in the globular cluster: 47 Tuc.

This research verifies that semi-detached binaries are a viable formation mechanism for blue stragglers. The binary was discovered by happenstance, in a project aimed at determining accurate ages and distances of nearby clusters. It’s certainly a surprising result from the survey.

The results will be published in Acta Astronomica, a peer-reviewed scientific journal located in Poland (preprint available here).


Weird Tracks on Mars Could be Caused by Moving Dry Ice

Several types of downhill flow features have been observed on Mars. This image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is an example of a type called "linear gullies." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Extreme sports taking on place on Mars? How about snowboarding – or actually sandboarding –down Martian dunes on a cushion of carbon dioxide? Sounds fun, and this might be happening already – sans the humanoid snowboarders, however.

Scientists have been wondering what caused unusual hillside grooves on Mars, called linear gullies. New research and test runs down sand dunes here on Earth has shown that these gullies may be formed by chunks of frozen carbon dioxide sliding down some Martian sand dunes on cushions of gas. They are plowing furrows as they slide, and creating open pits at the bottom of the run.

And these are not the Martian Sand Skimmers of Martian Chronicles fame. Just chunks of dry ice going for a joy ride.

“I have always dreamed of going to Mars,” said Serina Diniega, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of a report published online by the journal Icarus. “Now I dream of snowboarding down a Martian sand dune on a block of dry ice.”

In images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera the linear gullies seem to all have relatively constant width — up to a few yards, or meters, across — with raised banks or levees along the sides. Unlike gullies caused by water flows on Earth and possibly on Mars, they do not have aprons of debris at the downhill end of the gully. Instead, many have pits at the downhill end.

“In debris flows, you have water carrying sediment downhill, and the material eroded from the top is carried to the bottom and deposited as a fan-shaped apron,” said Diniega. “In the linear gullies, you’re not transporting material. You’re carving out a groove, pushing material to the sides.”

HiRISE images show the sand dunes with linear gullies covered by carbon-dioxide frost during the Martian winter. The location of the linear gullies is on dunes that spend the Martian winter covered by carbon-dioxide frost. By comparing before-and-after images from different seasons, researchers determined that the grooves are formed during early spring. Some images have even caught bright objects in the gullies.

Diniega and her team theorize the bright objects are pieces of dry ice that have broken away from points higher on the slope. According to the new hypothesis, the pits could result from the blocks of dry ice completely sublimating away into carbon-dioxide gas after they have stopped traveling.

“Linear gullies don’t look like gullies on Earth or other gullies on Mars, and this process wouldn’t happen on Earth,” said Diniega. “You don’t get blocks of dry ice on Earth unless you go buy them.”

Co-author on the paper Candice Hansen, of the Planetary Science Institute suspected that dry ice might be involved in forming these linear gullies, so like any good planetary scientist she bought some slabs of dry ice at a supermarket and slid them down sand dunes.

And voilà, similar looking linear gullies with the gaseous carbon dioxide from the thawing ice maintaining a lubricating layer under the slab. As the chunk slide down the dune, it also pushed sand aside into small levees. Handsen said the slabs glided down even low-angle slopes, not much pushing required.

Of course, the team said, the outdoor tests did not simulate Martian temperature and pressure, but calculations indicate the dry ice would act similarly in early Martian spring where the linear gullies form. Although water ice, too, can sublimate directly to gas under some Martian conditions, it would stay frozen at the temperatures at which these gullies form, the researchers calculate.

“MRO is showing that Mars is a very active planet,” Hansen said. “Some of the processes we see on Mars are like processes on Earth, but this one is in the category of uniquely Martian.”

Hansen also noted the process could be unique to the linear gullies etched on Martian sand dunes.

“There are a variety of different types of features on Mars that sometimes get lumped together as ‘gullies,’ but they are formed by different processes,” she said. “Just because this dry-ice hypothesis looks like a good explanation for one type doesn’t mean it applies to others.”

Harrumph. Dry ice having fun on Mars fun without us.

Next up – a Martian dry ice bomb.

Source: JPL

Space Observatories Watch a Black Hole Go Dormant

The Sculptor galaxy is seen in a new light, in this composite image from NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHU

The Chandra X-ray Observatory has been keeping an eye on a black hole actively munching away on gas at the middle of the nearby Sculptor galaxy. Now, with the added eyes of the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), which sees higher-energy X-ray light, the observatories have found the black hole has fallen asleep, even amid rampant star-formation going on around it.

“Our results imply that the black hole went dormant in the past 10 years,” said Bret Lehmer of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Periodic observations with both Chandra and NuSTAR should tell us unambiguously if the black hole wakes up again. If this happens in the next few years, we hope to be watching.”

Lehmer is lead author of a new study detailing the findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

The now-latent black hole is about 5 million times the mass of our Sun. The Sculptor galaxy (NGC 253) is a so-called starburst galaxy, which is actively giving birth to new stars. At just 13 million light-years away, it is one of the closest starbursts galaxies to us.

Why did the black hole go dormant?

“Black holes feed off surrounding accretion disks of material. When they run out of this fuel, they go dormant,” said co-author Ann Hornschemeier of Goddard. “NGC 253 is somewhat unusual because the giant black hole is asleep in the midst of tremendous star-forming activity all around it.”

“Black hole growth and star formation often go hand-in-hand in distant galaxies,” added Daniel Stern, a co-author and NuSTAR project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laborator. “It’s a bit surprising as to what’s going on here, but we’ve got two powerful complementary X-ray telescopes on the case.”

Chandra first observed signs of what appeared to be a feeding supermassive black hole at the heart of the Sculptor galaxy in 2003. Then, in September and November of 2012, Chandra and NuSTAR observed the same region simultaneously. NuSTAR, which launched in June of 2012, detected focused, high-energy X-ray light from the region, allowing the researchers to say conclusively that the black hole is not accreting material.

There are two possibilities: either the black hole has in fact gone dormant, or another possibility is that the black hole was not actually awake 10 years ago, and Chandra observed a different source of X-rays. Future observations with both telescopes may solve the puzzle.

The combination of coordinated Chandra and NuSTAR observations is extremely powerful for answering questions like this,” said Lou Kaluzienski, NuSTAR Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Now, we can get all sides of the story.”

NuSTAR launched into space in June of 2012.

If and when the Sculptor’s slumbering giant does wake up in the next few years amidst all the commotion, NuSTAR and Chandra will monitor the situation. The team plans to check back on the system periodically.

Source: JPL

SpaceX Fires Up Falcon 9-R in a Long Duration Test

Falcon 9-R 112-second test fire. Via SpaceX/YouTube.

Last week, SpaceX fired up a new version of the Falcon 9 for a short 10-second test fire. Now, they’ve completed a long-duration fire, lasting 112 seconds. The test was of the first stage of the F9-R, an advanced prototype for the world’s first reusable rocket. The test took place at SpaceX’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX noted that unlike airplanes, a rocket’s thrust increases with altitude, and the F9-R generates just over a million pounds of thrust at sea level (“enough to lift skyscraper,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said via Twitter) but gets up to 1.5 million pounds of thrust in the vacuum of space.

The rocket engines used on the test is the same as what’s used on the Grasshopper, which is the 10-story Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicle that SpaceX has designed to test the technologies needed to return a rocket back to Earth intact. While the Grasshopper uses just one Merlin 1D engine, the Falcon 9-R uses nine.

SpaceX hasn’t posted any details about the 9-R on their website, but they have said the Merlin 1-D’s 150:1 thrust-to-weight ratio would be the highest ever achieved for a rocket engine.

‘Space Class’ Among Aims of Chinese Taikonauts Who Left Earth Today

Shenzhou 10, atop the Long March 2F/Y10 rocket, en route to the launch pad in early June. Credit:

Riding atop a fiery Long March rocket, three taikonauts blasted off from Earth today (June 11) to kick off an expected 15-day mission in space that will include the first Chinese “space class” from orbit.

Shenzhou 10 departed the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 5:38 a.m. EDT (9:38 a.m. UTC), or 5:38 p.m. local time at the complex’s location in the Gobi desert. Aboard the spacecraft were one woman (Wang Yaping) and two men (Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang). Their next destination is the Chinese Tiangong-1 station.

China has a young manned space program. The first spaceflight with people was just a decade ago, in October 2003, and this is the fifth crewed mission since that time.

While China’s government keeps its long-term ambitions fairly private, observers in the United States and China point to its robotic moon missions as evidence that China is considering a manned lunar mission in the coming decades.

Shenzhou 10’s ultimate destination, however, is the Earth-orbiting, nine-ton Tiangong-1. Like the early U.S. and Soviet space stations, the Chinese one is fairly small (a single module) and serves as an experimental testbed for space station work. Taikonauts also visited the space station during Shenzhou 9 in 2012.

The taikonauts have four main ambitions during the Shenzhou 10 mission, the China Manned Space Engineering government office stated:

– Launch crew and cargo aboard Shenzhou 10 and verify rendezvous and docking technology for the meeting with Tiangong-1;

– Further test Tiangong-1’s capabilities to support humans;

The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft and Long March 2F/Y10 carrier rocket at the launchpad in early June 2013. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering
The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft and Long March 2F/Y10 carrier rocket at the launchpad in early June 2013. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering

– Conduct several experiments (focusing on space adaptability, space operation ergonomics and unspecified space science work), perform maintenance and do a “space class” with students;

– To see how well the CMSE is performing on a systems basis.

“To further improve the safety, reliability and to be suitable for the specific requirements of this mission,” stated spokesperson Wu Ping, “partial technical alterations have been made in [the] Shenzhou 10 spaceship and Long March 2F Y10 rocket.

“During this mission,” she added, “taikonauts will change and repair some of the equipment and facilities in Tiangong-1 through on-orbit operations.”

In the first few hours after launch, the CMSE stated that all systems are performing normally.

“The Shenzhou 10 spaceship has accurately entered its orbit and the crew members [are] in good condition,” stated Zhang Youxia, chief commander of China’s manned space program.

The mission drew praise from China’s president, Xi Jinping, who sent the crew good wishes just before they left Earth.

An artist's rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, China's space station, which was launched to space in September, 2011.  To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA
An artist’s rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, China’s space station, which was launched to space in September, 2011. To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA

“You have made Chinese people feel proud of ourselves,” Xi told the crew, according to a BBC report.

“You have trained and prepared yourselves carefully and thoroughly, so I am confident in your completing the mission successfully. I wish you success and look forward to your triumphant return.”

China ultimately plans to launch a larger space station sometime around 2020, which would include several modules.

The European Space Agency is considering working more closely with China around that time, the BBC added, and some astronauts have already starting Chinese language training.

Astrophotos: Crescent Moon, Mercury and Venus Together in the Sky

Waxing Crescent Moon with Mercury and Venus forming a beautiful celestial triangle. Shot at the Municipal Airport in Castroville, Texas, USA. Credit and copyright: Adrian New.

Last night (June 10, 2013) the two innermost worlds of our Solar System visible were joined by a very slender waxing crescent Moon, just over two days after New phase (see our preview of the event here). Several of our readers managed to capture this beautiful twilight triple conjunction. Our lead image is from Adrian New, who went to the Municipal Airport in Castroville, Texas to view the conjunction. “There was a rotating beacon light that would illuminate the planes wing tips at intervals, so I would wait to trip the shutter to capture the effect,” New said via email. This image was taken with a Nikon D800 and a 24-70mm F/2.8 lens set at 70mm @ ISO 2000 and a 1/2 second exposure.

Venus (low) and Mercury (high) were joined by a beautiful 4% dark-orange colored slice of Moon, with clouds adding a bit of drama in the skies over the Sulmona, Abruzzo region of Italy. Credit and copyright: Giuseppe Petricca.
Venus (low) and Mercury (high) were joined by a beautiful 4% dark-orange colored slice of Moon, with clouds adding a bit of drama in the skies over the Sulmona, Abruzzo region of Italy. Credit and copyright: Giuseppe Petricca.

Giuseppe Petricca from the Tuscany region of Italy said he felt lucky to manage to photograph the conjunction, “because the clouds were ‘a bit’ in the way, but also contributed positively to give a nice frame to the whole conjunction.” Giuseppe used a Nikon P90 Bridge digital camera, ISO 100, f5.6, 1/3″. Processed later with Photoshop to increase contrast to enhance the two planets in the sky.

4% Crescent Moon, Mercury, and Venus seen from Lost Mountain, Georgia, USA. Credit and copyright: Stephen Rahn.
4% Crescent Moon, Mercury, and Venus seen from Lost Mountain, Georgia, USA. Credit and copyright: Stephen Rahn.
The Moon joined Venus and Mercury in the clear sky near Salem, Missouri, USA. Credit and copyright: Joe Schuster, Lake County Astronomical Society.
The Moon joined Venus and Mercury in the clear sky near Salem, Missouri, USA. Credit and copyright: Joe Schuster, Lake County Astronomical Society.
The crescent Moon forms a triangle with Venus and Mercury. Taken near Las Vegas on June 10, 2013. Credit and copyright: John Lybrand.
The crescent Moon forms a triangle with Venus and Mercury. Taken near Las Vegas on June 10, 2013. Credit and copyright: John Lybrand.
The view of Venus, Mercury and the Moon from Ankara, Turkey on June 11, 2013, 21:10 UTC. Credit and copyright: Yuksel Kenaroglu   (Canon  A40.0, ISO: 50)
The view of Venus, Mercury and the Moon from Ankara, Turkey on June 11, 2013, 21:10 UTC. Credit and copyright: Yuksel Kenaroglu
(Canon A40.0, ISO: 50)

Just a reminder to keep looking at sunset for the elusive planet Mercury. As UT writer David Dickinson said in his preview article, if you’ve never seen Mercury, this week is a great time to try.

Cassini Captures Saturn’s Darkest Rings

Long-exposure Cassini NAC image of Saturn's D ring system (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

The closest to the planet itself, the hazy arcs of Saturn’s D ring may lack the reflective brilliance and sharply-defined edges of the other main rings, but they nevertheless possess their own ethereal beauty and mysteries. Here, the Cassini spacecraft has managed to capture the soft bands of the D ring in a long-exposure image acquired on April 2, 2013 — so long an exposure, in fact, that background stars seen through the rings appear as long vertical streaks, a testament to the ring’s dimness as well as the spacecraft’s continuing movement.

Beginning 8,768 km (5,448 miles) above the tops of Saturn’s clouds, the D ring is the innermost and thinnest segment of Saturn’s main ring system. Nearly transparent, the D ring extends about 7,500 km (4,660 miles) before transitioning to the considerably brighter C ring, which is over twice as wide.

The innermost portion of the C ring can be seen above along the left side. Saturn’s shadow blankets the lower right corner.

The cause of the alternating light-and-dark bands observed within the D ring isn’t yet known, but they may be the result of an impact by a comet or large meteor that set up recurring waves of material.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 510,000 kilometers (317,000 miles) from Saturn and at a phase angle of 147 degrees. Image scale is 2 miles (3 kilometers) per pixel.

Source: NASA/JPL Cassini mission site.