Progress for the Skylon. Europe agrees to continue working on the air-breathing SABRE engine

When it comes to the future of space exploration, the name of the game is “save money”. To do this, space agencies and aerospace companies around the world are investing in things like reusable rockets, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rockets, and reusable space planes. This last concept builds on the tradition established by the Space Shuttle and Buran spacecraft, two reusable vehicles designed to make space launches more affordable.

The one drawback of these spacecraft was the fact that it still took two rocket boosters and a huge external fuel tank to put them into orbit. This is where the Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) comes into play. With the help of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the UK Space Agency (UKSA), this revolutionary hypersonic engine recently took a big step towards fruition.

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Signs that Ancient Rivers Flowed Across the Surface of Mars, Billions of Years Ago

A topographic image of an area of anceint riverbeds on Mars. Created with data from the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on the Mars Express Orbiter. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin http://www.esa.int/spaceinimages/ESA_Multimedia/Copyright_Notice_Images

Billions of years ago, Mars was likely a much warmer and wetter place than the cold, dry, barren world we see today. Whether there was life there or not remains an open question. But there’s a massive, growing wall of evidence showing that Mars may have had the necessary conditions for life in the past, including at least one system of river valley networks.

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Did You Know the Earth’s Atmosphere Extends Beyond the Orbit of the Moon?

Earth's extended atmosphere is called the geocorona. Image not to scale. Image Credit: ESA.

Strictly speaking, there aren’t strict boundaries between Earth and space. Our atmosphere doesn’t just end at a certain altitude; it peters out gradually. A new study from Russia’s Space Research Institute (SRI) shows that our atmosphere extends out to 630,000 km into space.

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ESA is Planning a Mission to the Smallest Spacerock Ever Visited: the Moon of an Asteroid

An illustration of the ESA's Hera spacecraft at Didymos. Image Credit: ESA–ScienceOffice.org

For some small minority of humans, Death By Asteroid is a desirable fate. The idea probably satisfies their wonky Doomsday thinking. But for the rest of us, going out the same way the dinosaurs did would just be embarrassing. Thankfully, the ESA’s Hera mission will visit the smallest spacerock ever, and will help us avoid going the way of the dinosaurs.

For added kicks, it will forestall the happiness of any over-earger doomsday cultists, and the rest of us can revel in their existential anguish.

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In the far Future our Sun will Turn Into a Solid Crystalline White Dwarf. Here’s How it’ll Happen

About fifty years ago, astronomers predicted what the ultimate fate of our Sun will be. According to the theory, the Sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel billions of years from now and expand to become a Red Giant, followed by it shedding it’s outer layers and becoming a white dwarf. After a few more billion years of cooling, the interior will crystallize and become solid.

Until recently, astronomers had little evidence to back up this theory. But thanks to the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, astronomers are now able to observe hundreds of thousands of white dwarf stars with immense precision – gauging their distance, brightness and color. This in turn has allowed them to study what the future holds for our Sun when it is no longer the warm, yellow star that we know and love today.

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Remember the Discovery of Methane in the Martian Atmosphere? Now Scientists Can’t Find any Evidence of it, at all

In 2003, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Center made the first-ever detection of trace amounts of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, a find which was confirmed a year later by the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. In December of 2014, the Curiosity rover detected a tenfold spike of methane at the base of Mount Sharp, and later uncovered evidence that Mars has a seasonal methane cycle, where levels peak in the late northern summer.

Since it’s discovery, the existence of methane on Mars has been considered one of the strongest lines of evidence for the existence of past or present life. So it was quite the downer last week (on Dec. 12th) when the science team behind one of the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spectrometers announced that they had found no traces of methane in Mars’ atmosphere.

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Rosetta Flew Through the Bow Shock of Comet 67P Several Times During its Mission

In 2014 , the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft made history when it rendezvoused with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This mission would be the first of its kind, where a spacecraft intercepted a comet, followed it as it orbited the Sun, and deployed a lander to its surface. For the next two years, the orbiter would study this comet in the hopes of revealing things about the history of the Solar System.

In this time, Rosetta’s science team also directed the orbiter to look for signs of the comet’s bow shock – the boundary that forms around objects as a result of interaction with solar wind. Contrary to what they thought, a recent study has revealed that Rosetta managed to detect signs of a bow shock around the comet in its early stages. This constitutes the first time in history that the formation of a bow shock has been witnessed in our Solar System. Continue reading “Rosetta Flew Through the Bow Shock of Comet 67P Several Times During its Mission”

Every Few Hours There’s a Flash of Light Coming From the Moon. Another Impact.

Ever since the Apollo missions explored the lunar surface, scientists have known that the Moon’s craters are the result of a long history of meteor and asteroid impacts. But it has only been in the past few decades that we have come to understand how regular these are. In fact, every few hours, an impact on the lunar surface is indicated by a bright flash. These impact flashes are designed as a “transient lunar phenomena” because they are fleeting.

Basically, this means that the flashes (while common) last for only a fraction of a second, making them very difficult to detect. For this reason, the European Space Agency (ESA) created the NEO Lunar Impacts and Optical TrAnsients (NELIOTA) project in 2015 to monitor the moon for signs of impact flashes. By studying them, the project hopes to learn more about the size and distribution of near-Earth objects to determine if they pose a risk to Earth.

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Mercury-Bound BepiColombo is About to Start Using the Most Powerful Ion Engines Ever Sent to Space

An artist's impression of the BepiColombo spacecraft as it approaches Mercury at the end of its 7 year journey. Image: spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Mercury: NASA/JPL

A handful of spacecraft have used ion engines to reach their destinations, but none have been as powerful as the engines on the BepiColombo spacecraft. BepiColombo is a joint mission between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA.) It was launched on October 20, 2018, and has gone through weeks of in-flight commissioning. On Sunday it turned on its powerful ion thrusters for the first time.

“We put our trust in the thrusters and they have not let us down.” – Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.

BepiColombo is a three-part spacecraft. It has two orbiters, the Mercury Planet Orbiter (MPO) built by the ESA, and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO) built by JAXA. The third part is the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), built by ESA. The MTM is the propulsion part of the spacecraft and contains the spacecraft’s four ion engines.

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