Don't Get Your Hopes Up for Finding Liquid Water on Mars

In the coming decades, NASA and China intend to send the first crewed missions to Mars. Given the distance involved and the time it takes to make a single transit (six to nine months), opportunities for resupply missions will be few and far between. As a result, astronauts and taikonauts will be forced to rely on local resources to meet their basic needs – a process known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). For this reason, NASA and other space agencies have spent decades scouting for accessible sources of liquid water.

Finding this water is essential for future missions and scientific efforts to learn more about Mars’s past, when the planet was covered by oceans, rivers, and lakes that may have supported life. In 2018, using ground-penetrating radar, the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter detected bright radar reflections beneath the southern polar ice cap that were interpreted as a lake. However, a team of Cornell researchers recently conducted a series of simulations that suggest there may be another reason for these bright patches that do not include the presence of water.

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NASA is Considering Other Ways of Getting its Mars Samples Home

Artist's impression of the NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission. Credit: NASA

In 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars. For the next three years, this astrobiology mission collected soil and rock samples from the crater floor for eventual return to Earth. The analysis of these samples is expected to reveal much about Mars’ past and how it transitioned from being a warmer, wetter place to the frigid and desiccated place we know today. Unfortunately, budget cuts have placed the future of the proposed NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission in doubt.

As a result, NASA recently announced that it was seeking proposals for more cost-effective and rapid methods of bringing the samples home. This will consist of three studies by NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL). In addition, NASA has selected seven commercial partners for firm-fixed-price contracts for up to $1.5 million to conduct their own 90-day studies. Once complete, NASA will consider which proposals to integrate into the MSR mission architecture.

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ESA Sets the Launch Date for Ariane 6: July 9th

An artist concept of the Ariane 6 powering into space. Ariane 6 is Europe’s new heavy lift launch vehicle. Credit: ESA.

The European Space Agency has retired its Ariane 5 rocket, and all eyes are on its next generation, Ariane 6. The rocket’s pieces have been arriving at the Kourou facility in French Guiana and are now assembled.  ESA has now announced they’ll attempt a test launch on July 9th and hope to complete a second flight before the end of 2024. This new heavy-life rocket has a re-ignitable upper stage, allowing it to launch multiple payloads into different orbits.

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Metal is 3D Printed on the Space Station

S-curve 3D printing on the ISS

I have always wanted a 3D printer but never quite found a good enough reason to get one. Seeing that NASA are now 3D printing metal is even more tantalising than a plastic 3D printer. However, thinking about it, surely it is just a computer controlled soldering iron! I’m sure it’s far more advanced than that! Turns out that the first print really wasn’t much to right home about, just an s-curve deposited onto a metal plate! It does however prove and demonstrate the principle that a laser can liquify stainless steel and then deposit it precisely in a weightless environment. 

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Another Giant Antarctic Iceberg Breaks Free

Modified data obtained by the ESA's Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellite. Credit: ESA/USGS

On May 20th, 2024, an iceberg measuring 380 square kilometers (~147 mi2) broke off the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica. This event (A-83) is this region’s third significant iceberg calving in the past four years. The first came In 2021, when A-74 broke off the ice sheet, while an even larger berg named A-81 followed in 2023. The separation of this iceberg was captured by two Earth Observation satellites – the ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 and NASA’s Landsat 8 satellites – which provided radar imaging and thermal data, respectively.

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The BepiColombo Mission To Mercury is Losing Power

Artist's impression of the European Space Agency/JAXA BepiColombo mission in operation around Mercury. Credit: Astrium

BepiColombo is a joint ESA/JAXA mission to Mercury. It was launched in 2018 on a complex trajectory to the Solar System’s innermost planet. The ESA reports that the spacecraft’s thrusters have lost some power.

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Solar Orbiter Takes a Mind-Boggling Video of the Sun

The 'fuzzy' Sun. Credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team

You’ve seen the Sun, but you’ve never seen the Sun like this. This single frame from a video captured by ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission shows the Sun looking very …. fluffy!  You can see feathery, hair-like structures made of plasma following magnetic field lines in the Sun’s lower atmosphere as it transitions into the much hotter outer corona. The video was taken from about a third of the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

See the full video below, which shows unusual features on the Sun, including coronal moss, spicules, and coronal rain.  

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Hubble Has Accidentally Discovered Over a Thousand Asteroids

Illustration of Asteroid (Artist’s Impression). Credit: N. Bartmann (ESA/Webb), ESO/M. Kornmesser and S. Brunier, N. Risinger

The venerable Hubble Space Telescope is like a gift that keeps on giving. Not only is it still making astronomical discoveries after more than thirty years in operation. It is also making discoveries by accident! Thanks to an international team of citizen scientists, with the help of astronomers from the European Space Agency (ESA) and some machine learning algorithms, a new sample of over one thousand asteroids has been identified in Hubble‘s archival data. The methods used represent a new approach for finding objects in decades-old data that could be applied to other datasets as well.

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There Was a Doomed Comet Near the Sun During the Eclipse

Comet
Comet

A surprise appearance of a new comet made the April 8th total solar eclipse all the more memorable.

Any dedicated ‘umbraphile’ will tell you: no two eclipses are exactly the same. Weather, solar activity, and the just plain expeditionary nature of reaching and standing in the shadow of the Moon for those brief moments during totality assures a unique experience, every time out. The same can be said for catching a brief glimpse of what’s going on near the Sun, from prominences and the pearly white corona to the configuration of bright planets… and just maybe, a new comet.

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The Solar Wind is Stripping Oxygen and Carbon Away From Venus

Artist's impression of the European Space Agency/JAXA BepiColombo mission in operation around Mercury. Credit: Astrium

The BepiColombo mission, a joint effort between JAXA and the ESA, was only the second (and most advanced) mission to visit Mercury, the least explored planet in the Solar System. With two probes and an advanced suite of scientific instruments, the mission addressed several unresolved questions about Mercury, including the origin of its magnetic field, the depressions with bright material around them (“hollows”), and water ice around its poles. As it turns out, BepiColombo revealed some interesting things about Venus during its brief flyby.

Specifically, the two probes studied a previously unexplored region of Venus’ magnetic environment when they made their second pass on August 10th, 2021. In a recent study, an international team of scientists analyzed the data and found traces of carbon and oxygen being stripped from the upper layers of Venus’ atmosphere and accelerated to speeds where they can escape the planet’s gravitational pull. This data could provide new clues about atmospheric loss and how interactions between solar wind and planetary atmospheres influence planetary evolution.

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