Ariane 6 Fires its Engines, Simulating a Flight to Space

The Ariane 6 rocket test firing on its launch pad at the European Spaceport in French Guiana. Credit: ESA

Since 2010, the European aerospace manufacturer ArianeGroup has been developing the Ariane 6 launch vehicle, a next-generation rocket for the European Space Agency (ESA). This vehicle will replace the older Ariane 5 model, offering reduced launch costs while increasing the number of launches per year. In recent years, the ArianeGrouip has been putting the rocket through its paces to prepare it for its first launch, which is currently scheduled for 2024. This past week, on Wednesday, November 23rd, the Ariane 6 underwent its biggest test to date as ground controllers conducted a full-scale dress rehearsal.

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ESA’s Juice Mission is Approaching Earth. Why Has it Come Home Before Visiting Jupiter?

JUICE
JUICE approaches Earth. Credit: ESA.

JUICE Prepares for a first of its kind double-flyby next year.

A Jupiter-bound mission adjusted its course last week…for a rendezvous with Earth. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) fired its thrusters for 43 minutes on Friday, November 17th. This sets the mission up for a first of its kind double-flyby next year on August 23rd, as it passes the Moon and then the Earth to pick up momentum.

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Martian Green Nightglow Seen for the First Time

Artist's impression of the ExoMars Trace Gas orbiter spotting daylight green oxygen at Mars. Credit: ESA

On Earth, there is a phenomenon known as nightglow, where the atmosphere experiences faint light emissions that prevent the night sky from becoming completely dark. This is caused by various processes in the upper atmosphere, like the recombination of atoms, cosmic rays striking the atmosphere, or oxygen and nitrogen interacting with hydroxyl a few hundred kilometers from the surface. Thanks to data obtained by the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the same phenomenon has been observed in the Martian atmosphere for the first time.

While scientists have long suspected that Mars also experiences this atmospheric phenomenon, this is the first time that effectively proves it. The revelation was made by an international team of scientists based on their analysis of data from the TGO’s Nadir and Occultation for MArs Discovery (NOMAD) spectrometer. When astronauts and rovers explore Mars’ polar regions in the near future, they will see a green glow whenever they look up at the sky and could even use the glow to navigate and find their way in the dark of night.

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Take a Plunge Into the Ice Giants

The unique atmospheric compositions of ‘ice giant’ planets Uranus and Neptune were recreated to simulate a plunge deep within them. These simulations are part of preparation for eventual atmospheric probes the ESA intends to send. Image Credit: University of Stuttgart’s High Enthalpy Flow Diagnostics Group

Our Solar System’s ice giants, Uranus and Neptune, have been largely left out of the planetary probe game. While all of the other planets—including even the demoted Pluto—have been the subjects of dedicated missions, the ice giants have not. In fact, the only spacecraft to ever even fly by Uranus and Neptune was Voyager 2 in the late 1980s.

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Gaia is so Accurate it Can Predict Microlensing Events

ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Acknowledgement: A. Moitinho.

The ESA’s Gaia Observatory continues its astrometry mission, which consists of measuring the positions, distances, and motions of stars (and the positions of orbiting exoplanets) with unprecedented precision. Launched in 2013 and with a five-year nominal mission (2014-2019), the mission is expected to remain in operation until 2025. Once complete, the mission data will be used to create the most detailed 3D space catalog ever, totaling more than 1 billion astronomical objects – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids, and quasars.

Another benefit of this data, according to a team of researchers led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is the ability to predict future microlensing events. Similar to gravitational lensing, this phenomenon occurs when light from background sources is deflected and amplified by foreground objects. Using information from Gaia‘s third data release (DR3), the team predicted 4500 microlensing events, 1664 of which are unlike any we have seen. These events will allow astronomers to conduct lucrative research into distant star systems, exoplanets, and other celestial objects.

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An Epic Collaboration Between Hubble and JWST

This panchromatic view of galaxy cluster MACS0416 was created by combining infrared observations from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope with visible-light data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

In 2012, as part of the MAssive Cluster Survey (MACS), the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) discovered a pair of colliding galaxy clusters (MACS0416) that will eventually combine to form an even bigger cluster. Located about 4.3 billion light-years from Earth, the MACS0416 cluster contains multiple gravitational lenses that allow astronomers to look back in time and view galaxies as they appeared when the Universe was young. In a new collaboration that symbolizes the passing of the torch, the venerable Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) teamed up to conduct an extremely detailed study of MACS0416.

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ESA Plans to Eliminate New Space Debris by 2030

This image from the ESA's MASTER (Meteoroid and Space Debris Terrestrial Environment Reference) risk-assessment tool shows the dangerous debris orbiting Earth. Image Credit: IRAS/TU Braunschweig

What can we do about space junk? We know how much debris is in orbit, and we know the problem is getting worse. It’s our fault.

Our Earth now has a halo of orbital debris, and the ESA has a plan to stop contributing to the problem.

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ESA Has a Difficult Choice: Study Mars, Earth's Magnetosphere, or Gamma-Ray Bursts

The space science community has narrowed down the shortlist for ESA’s next ‘medium’ mission to three finalists: M-Matisse, Plasma Observatory and Theseus. Credit: ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) is looking to the future and contemplating its next M-class (Medium) mission. These missions are crucial to the ESA Science Programme (part of the agency’s Science Directorate), which aims to provide the best tools to ensure Europe’s continued participation in space exploration and sustain its capabilities in space by fostering innovation, maintaining launch services, and spacecraft operations. The latest round began in December 2021, when the ESA called for proposals for the next M-class mission to launch in the mid-2030s.

In a statement issued yesterday (Wednesday, November 8th), the ESA announced that it had narrowed the list of candidates to three concepts. These include the twin M-MATISSE, the seven-spacecraft Plasma Observatory, and the THESEUS satellite. The final selection will assist ESA operations and research in space by studying the evolution and past habitability of Mars, exploring the plasma environment around Earth, or studying powerful transient events across the Universe. The final selection of one mission is expected to happen by mid-2026.

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The Crab Reveals Its Secrets To JWST

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has gazed at the Crab Nebula in the search for answers about the supernova remnant’s origins. Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) have revealed new details in infrared light. Similar to the Hubble optical wavelength image released in 2005, with Webb the remnant appears to consist of a crisp, cage-like structure of fluffy red-orange filaments of gas that trace doubly ionised sulphur (sulphur III). Within the remnant’s interior, yellow-white and green fluffy ridges form large-scale loop-like structures, which represent areas where dust particles reside. The area is composed of translucent, milky material. This material is emitting synchrotron radiation, which is emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum but becomes particularly vibrant thanks to Webb’s sensitivity and spatial resolution. It is generated by particles accelerated to extremely high speeds as they wind around magnetic field lines. The synchrotron radiation can be traced throughout the majority of the Crab Nebula’s interior. Locate the wisps that follow a ripple-like pattern in the middle. In the centre of this ring-like structure is a bright white dot: a rapidly rotating neutron star. Further out from the core, follow the thin white ribbons of the radiation. The curvy wisps are closely grouped together, following different directions that mimic the structure of the pulsar’s magnetic field. Note how certain gas filaments are bluer in colour. These areas contain singly ionised iron (iron II). [Image description: An oval nebula with a complex structure against a black background. On the oval's exterior lie curtains of glowing red and orange fluffy material. Interior to this outer shell lie large-scale loops of mottled filaments of yellow-white and green, studded with clumps and knots. Translucent thin ribbons of smoky white lie within the remnant’s interior, brightest toward its centre.]
The Crab Nebula by JWST. Credit: NASA/ESA/JWST

The Crab Nebula – otherwise known as the first object on Charles Messier’s list of non-cometary objects or M1 for short – has never really failed to visually underwhelm me! I have spent countless hours hunting down this example of a supernova remnant and found myself wondering why I have bothered. Yet here I am, after decades of looking at it, and I still find it one of the most intriguing objects in the sky.

Never has this interest been piqued more than right now after another mirror-smashing beauty of an image from the James Webb Space Telescope, and it’s already found its way to my mobile phone wallpaper!

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The Solar Wind Whistles as it Passes Mercury

Image of chorus wave generation on Mercury. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury is the closest planet to our Sun, ranging from 46 million km (28.58 million mi) at perihelion to 69.82 million km (43.38 million mi) at aphelion. Because of its proximity, Mercury is strongly influenced by the steam of plasma constantly flowing from the Sun to the edge of the Solar System (aka. solar wind). Beginning with the Mariner 10 mission in 1974, robotic explorers have been sent to Mercury to measure how solar wind interacts with Mercury’s magnetic field to produce whistler-mode chorus waves – natural radio emissions that play a key role in electron acceleration in planetary magnetospheres.

In addition to being the cause of geomagnetic storms and auroras in planetary atmospheres, these waves also lead to electromagnetic vibrations at the same frequencies as sound, producing chirps and whistles. In a recent study, an international research team consulted data from the BepiColombo International Mercury Exploration Project, which gathered data on Mercury’s magnetosphere during its first and second flyby. Their results are the first direct probing of chorus waves in Mercury’s dawn sector, which showed evidence of possible background variations in magnetic field.

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