We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!
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The currently accepted theory of planet formation goes like this: clouds of gas and dust are compressed or begin to draw together. When enough material clumps together, a star is formed and begins fusion. As the star, and its cloud of gas and dust rotate, other clumps of matter coagulate within the cloud, eventually forming planets. Voila, solar system.
There’s lots of evidence to support this, but getting a good look at the early stages of planetary formation has been difficult.
But now, an international team of astronomers using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) have captured the earliest image yet of the process of planetary formation. “We believe this clump of dust represents the earliest stage in the formation of protoplanets, and this is the first time we’ve seen that stage,” said Thomas Henning, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA).
This story actually started back in 2014, when astronomers studied the star HL Tau and its dusty disk with the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA.) That image, which showed gaps in HL Tau’s proto-planetary disk caused by proto-planets sweeping up dust in their orbits, was at the time the earliest image we had of planet formation. HL Tau is only about a million years old, so planet formation in HL Tau’s system was in its early days.
Now, astronomers have studied the same star, and its disk, with the VLA. The capabilities of the VLA allowed them do get an even better look at HL Tau and its disk, in particular the denser area closest to the star. What VLA revealed was a distinct clump of dust in the innermost region of the disk that contains between 3 to 8 times the mass of the Earth. That’s enough to form a few terrestrial planets of the type that inhabit our inner Solar System.
“This is an important discovery, because we have not yet been able to observe most stages in the process of planet formation,” said Carlos Carrasco-Gonzalez from the Institute of Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics (IRyA) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Of course the star in question, HL Tau, is interesting as well. But the formation and evolution of stars is much more easily studied. It’s our theory of planet formation which needed some observational confirmation. “This is quite different from the case of star formation, where, in different objects, we have seen stars in different stages of their life cycle. With planets, we haven’t been so fortunate, so getting a look at this very early stage in planet formation is extremely valuable,” said Carrasco-Gonzalez.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The next Cygnus cargo resupply ship targeted to blastoff for the International Space Station (ISS) on March 22, has been named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.
The ‘S.S. Rick Husband’ was announced as the Cygnus delivery vessels name by former astronaut Dan Tani, now senior director of Missions and Cargo Operations for Orbital ATK in Dulles, Virginia, during a media briefing in the clean room processing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“Rick was a very accomplished astronaut, and a devoted husband and father,” said Tani.
The commercial Cygnus cargo freighter was built by Orbital ATK, based in Dulles, Virginia.
Christened the S.S. Rick Husband, the spacecraft is a tribute to NASA astronaut Col. Rick Husband, of U.S. Air Force, who served as commander of Columbia’s STS-107 mission. The mission and all aboard were lost as Columbia disintegrated due to the effects of reentry heating into the Earth’s atmosphere high over Texas.
“We are proud to unveil the name of our #OA6 #Cygnus spacecraft—the S.S. Rick Husband, in honor of the late astronaut,” added Orbital ATK in a statement.
This flight is known as OA-6 and is being launched as under terms of the firm’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. It also counts as the Orbital ATK’s fifth cargo delivery mission to the space station.
Final processing of the cargo ship was completed as bunny suited media including myself observed technicians putting the finishing touches on the vehicle inside Kennedy’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF). Technicians had already finished fueling the vehicle with hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.
Liftoff of the commercial resupply services mission to the orbiting outpost is now targeted for Tuesday, March 22, during a 30-minute launch window that opens at 11:05 p.m. EDT.
The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, also known as Commercial Resupply Services-6 (CRS-6), will launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from the seaside Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.
OA-6 is loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware to the orbital laboratory in support over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.
When the ISS Expedition 47 crew members open the hatch, they will be greeted with a sign noting the spacecraft was named ‘SS Rick Husband’ in honor of the STS-107 mission commander.
Overall, Orbital will deliver approximately 28,700 kilograms of cargo to the ISS under the life of the CRS contract, which extends to 2018.
STS-107 was Husband’s second flight to space.
OA-6 is the first Cygnus to named after an astronaut who actually participated in building the ISS – during his first flight as shuttle pilot on the STS-96 mission in 1999.
The prior Cygnus cargo spacecraft was named the S.S. Deke Slayton during the OA-4 mission. OA-4 successfully launched to the ISS in December 2015 – read my on site articles here.
Orbital ATK has named each Cygnus after a deceased NASA astronaut, several of whom later worked for the company.
OA-6 is only the second Cygnus to be launch atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, following the OA-4 mission last December.
The CRS-6/OA-6 flight is also the second flight of the enhanced Cygnus variant, that is over 1 meter longer and sports 50% more volume capability.
Thus it is capable of carrying a much heavier payload of some 3500 kg (7700 lbs) vs. a maximum of 2300 kg (5070 lbs) for the standard version.
Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, ULA Atlas rocket, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:
Mar 21/22: “Orbital ATK Atlas/Cygnus launch to the ISS, ULA, SpaceX, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evening Mar 21 /late afternoon Mar 22
The early Solar System was a much different place than it is now. Chaos reigned supreme before things settled down into their present state. New research shows that the young Sun was more chaotic and expressive than it is now, and that Earth’s magnetic field was key for the development of life on Earth.
Researchers at the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics have been studying a star called Kappa Ceti, about 30 light years away in the Cetus constellation. Kappa Ceti is in many ways similar to our own Sun, but it’s estimated to be between 400 million to 600 million years old, about the same age as our Sun when life appeared on Earth. Studying Kappa Ceti gives scientists a good idea of the type of star that early life on Earth had to contend with.
Kappa Ceti, at its young age, is much more magnetically active than our 4.6 billion year old Sun, according to this new research. It emits a relentless solar wind, which the research team at Harvard says is 50 times as powerful as the solar wind from our Sun. It’s surface is also much more active and chaotic. Rather than the sunspots that we can see on our Sun, Kappa Ceti displays numerous starspots, the larger brother of the sunspot. And the starspots on Kappa Ceti are much more numerous than the sunspots observed on the Sun.
We’re familiar with the solar flares that come from the Sun periodically, but in the early life of the Sun, the flares were much more energetic too. Researchers have found evidence on Kappa Ceti of what are called super-flares. These monsters are similar to the flares we see today, but can release 10 to 100 million times more energy than the flares we can observe on our Sun today.
So if early life on Earth had to contend with such a noisy neighbour for a Sun, how did it cope? What prevented all that solar output from stripping away Earth’s atmosphere, and killing anything alive? Then, as now, the Earth’s electromagnetic field protected it. But in the same way that the Sun was so different long ago, so was the Earth’s protective shield. It may have been weaker than it is now.
The researchers found that if the Earth’s magnetic field was indeed weaker, then the magnetosphere may have been only 34% to 48% as large as it is now. The conclusion of the study says “… the early magnetic interaction between the stellar wind and the young Earth planetary magnetic field may well have prevented the volatile losses from the Earth exosphere and created conditions to support life.”
Or, in plain language: “The early Earth didn’t have as much protection as it does now, but it had enough,” says Do Nascimento.
Intentionally lighting a fire onboard a spacecraft might seem like a bad idea. But in order to understand how fire behaves on a spacecraft, and in order to reduce the risk from fire to crew members and equipment, NASA engineers are doing just that. The test, dubbed Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or Saffire, will be conducted on the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vehicle, on March 22nd.
The fire will be ignited remotely inside a 3ft. x 3ft. x 5ft. container inside Cygnus, once the craft has delivered its supplies to the ISS and is returning to Earth. Until now, the only combustion tests performed have been small fires aboard the ISS, in microgravity conditions. The containers at the heart of the Saffire experiments will allow the team of engineers conducting the tests to burn larger materials, and get a better understanding of how a larger fire will behave.
The tests will be performed prior to the destruction of Cygnus as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. Data and images from the fire will be transmitted to the researchers at the Glenn Research Center, home of the Saffire experiment, and shared with international partners.
Jason Crusan is NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems director, and he had this to say about the experiment: “NASA’s objective is to reduce the risk of long-duration exploration missions, and a spacecraft fire is one of the biggest concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community.”
A fire aboard a deep space mission could be disastrous, with no possibility of escape or rescue for crew members. Inside a spacecraft, there’s no way for the heat and pressure generated by a fire to escape. If the fire generates any toxic by-products, they can’t escape either, which creates a very dangerous situation.
The Soviet space station MIR suffered a fire in 1997. The fire lasted either 90 seconds, or 14 minutes, depending on who you ask. American astronaut Jerry Linenger was on-board MIR at the time. Here’s his description of the fire, from his memoir “Off the Planet.”
As the fire spewed with angry intensity, sparks – resembling an entire box of sparklers ignited simultaneously – extended a foot or so beyond the flame’s furthest edge. Beyond the sparks, I saw what appeared to be melting wax splattering on the bulkhead opposite the blaze. But it was not melting max. It was molten metal. The fire was so hot that it was melting metal.
A catastrophic spacecraft fire hit NASA in the early years of the Apollo missions. Apollo 1, which was the first of the manned Apollo missions, never got off the ground. A cabin fire broke out during a launch rehearsal test in January 1967, and killed the entire crew.
“Gaining a better understanding of how fire behaves in space will help further NASA’s efforts in developing better materials and technologies to reduce crew risk and increase space flight safety,” said Gary A. Ruff, NASA’s Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration project manager.
There will actually be 3 Saffire tests in 2016. All three will be conducted on Cygnus ships, inside the same containers, but each test will burn different material samples. Three more similar tests are planned for 2018.
With the ever-increasing affordability of technology, Virtual Reality is making its way into people’s homes. Systems like the Oculus Rift, and Sony’s PlayStation VR when it’s released next Fall, are becoming increasingly common. These systems, and others to come, will allow people to not only watch VR movies and play VR games, but also to explore space from the comfort of their own homes. This won’t be the only intersection of Virtual Reality and space, though.
NASA, as is often the case, has already blazed a trail when it comes to VR and space. They’ve been using VR to train astronauts for quite a while now. They have a whole lab dedicated to it, called the Virtual Reality Lab, located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. At this facility, astronauts use VR to prepare them for working aboard the ISS.
NASA has flirted with other VR solutions as well. They used an Oculus Rift and a VR Treadmill combined with Mars footage from the Curiosity rover to create a virtual walk on the surface of Mars.
NASA’s use of VR is the most advanced around, naturally, but it’s not something most of us will ever encounter. For the rest of us, VR is making it’s way into our space-loving lives in other ways.
A company called Immersive Education has created a VR simulation of the Apollo 11 mission. It allows users to re-live the mission. You can look around the inside of the spacecraft, look out the window toward Earth, even watch and listen as astronauts walk on the surface of the Moon. The company promises “Historically accurate spacecraft interiors and exteriors.”
Here, Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke checks out the Apollo 11 VR on Oculus Rift.
Companies DEEP Inc. and Freedom 360 collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency to create a VR film called “The Edge of Space.” They used 360 degree cameras to record the view from a balloon that reached an altitude of 40km above Earth. Check out their video here. To get the real interactive effect, visit their page to download their app and view it.
Then there’s what I call virtual VR. Or you could call it “headsetless” VR, I guess. Though it lacks the immersion of full VR, it’s still cool. It’s a virtual planetarium from Escapist Games Limited, called Star Chart. Star Chart allows users to cruise through the Solar System and the Universe, checking out stars, nebulae, planets and other objects along the way.
This is just the beginning of VR’s entertainment and educational capabilities. With the growing affordability of VR, and the technological advancements to come, there’s going to some great implementations of VR technology for we space enthusiasts. I expect that in the next few years, we wannabe space explorers will be able to explore the surface of other worlds with VR, right in our own living rooms.
All right, maybe not blinking like a flashlight (or a beacon on the tippity-top of a communication tower—don’t even start that speculation up) but the now-famous “bright spots” on the dwarf planet Ceres have been observed to detectably increase and decrease in brightness, if ever-so-slightly.
And what’s particularly interesting is that these observations were made not by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, currently in orbit around Ceres, but from a telescope right here on Earth.
Researchers using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) instrument on ESO’s 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla detected “unexpected” changes in the brightness of Ceres during observations in July and August of 2015. Variations in line with Ceres’ 9-hour rotational period—specifically a Doppler effect in spectral wavelength created by the motion of the bright spots toward or away from Earth—were expected, but other fluctuations in brightness were also detected.
“The result was a surprise,” said Antonino Lanza from the INAF–Catania Astrophysical Observatory, co-author of the study. “We did find the expected changes to the spectrum from the rotation of Ceres, but with considerable other variations from night to night.”
Watch a video below illustrating the rotation of Ceres and how reflected light from the bright spots within Occator crater are alternately blue- and red-shifted according to the motion relative to Earth.
First observed with Hubble in December 2003, Ceres’ curious bright spots were resolved by Dawn’s cameras to be a cluster of separate regions clustered inside the 60-mile (90-km) -wide Occator crater. Based on Dawn data they are composed of some type of highly-reflective materials like salt and ice, although the exact composition or method of formation isn’t yet known.
Since they are made of such volatile materials though, interaction with solar radiation is likely the cause of the observed daily brightening. As the deposits heat up during the course of the 4.5-hour Ceres daytime they may create hazes and plumes of reflective particles.
“It has been noted that the spots appear bright at dawn on Ceres while they seem to fade by dusk,” noted study lead author Paolo Molaro in the team’s paper. “That could mean that sunlight plays an important role, for instance by heating up ice just beneath the surface and causing it to blast off some kind of plume or other feature.”
Once day turns to night these hazes will re-freeze, depositing the particles back down to the surface—although never in exactly the same way. These slight differences in evaporation and condensation could explain the random variation in daily brightening observed with HARPS.
What is a treasure? A pirate’s hoard of gold coins safely locked up in a chest would certainly fit. But would you say that something is a treasure when it’s freely available to anyone who wants to take the time? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it. Yet you may change your mind once you take in André van der Hoeven’s book “Treasures of the Universe – Amateur and Professional Visions of the Cosmos”. Within it are striking images that display the natural wealth and beauty that constantly surrounds us and that no chest could ever lock up.
Astrophotography at its core is quite simple; at night, take a camera outside, point the lens up and snap the shutter release. Anyone can do it. However, putting reason to what one captures in the lens is quite a different story. And to add further complexity, consider combining your captured image with someone else’s who’s taken a picture while on another continent or while in space. Last, after taking thousands of images, identify those with artistic as well as scientific merit.
Yes, this is a more complete way of considering astrophotography. And many people are partaking in it. So here’s a book that’s selling its version of night sky images. For anyone who enjoys the night skies, there’s a lot to like. The contents are divided into four groups; galaxies, clusters, nebulae and our solar system. Most images from beyond our solar system are well known, whether of entries in the Messier catalogue or the New General Catalogue (NGC). A few are of farther afield, such as from the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field.
The image presentation is often on a double page spread and has complementary text adjoining. The text provides the scientific merit usually by identifying how the subject of the image fits into the scheme of things, such as the supernova SN2011fe in the Galactic Wheel. The text also provides the photographic particulars, such as that of the Andromeda galaxy that resulted from the compilation of 11 000 separate snapshots. The selection of images makes for a fairly well known set and won’t lead to surprises. Given this, van der Hoeven’s book is a comfortable, complete treatise of his astrophotography.
Now views of space are everywhere on the Internet and other publications so you’re probably wondering “What’s this book bring to the table?” so to speak. After all, a lot of its images come from other government sources like the Hubble space telescope. That’s data free for anyone to peruse. And, the subject of the images, the universe, remains in place for anyone else to capture if they so desire. Both of these are true, but what isn’t obvious is the time and effort to create the images as well as the talent to engender a sense of artistry. Can you imagine the time to compile 11,000 pictures into one? Or spending over 27 night-time hours to collect data for one image? That’s the sort of time and effort involved.
Measuring artistry is another skill altogether and one of which I lay no great claim. Yet, looking at the composition of the spread of the Wizard Nebula warmly shrouded by a complex hydrogen cloud makes me pause. Yes, I know I’m looking at the result of the random arrangement of matter and energy. But there’s something just so darn compelling about the shapes and textures that makes me wonder. And I realize my wonder comes from the skill of the author in composing the shape. I’m impressed. This doesn’t mean that the author has claimed any predominance. Rather, throughout the book he provides encouragement and incitements for bigger and better. Whether it calls for astrophotography from the next-generation telescopes or for beginner astrophotographers to develop their skill, it pushes for more and better imagery. Yes, this book is more than just pretty pictures. It’s also instructive and telling. Another unusual aspect is that the book was funded through a Kickstarter.
As with a few other marvelous books with vistas of the universe, this book’s pages are in in a wide format (almost landscape size). The pages have matte-black background with clear white font text. The text for each image is usually clear, except for some with underlying images of light colours. These are few. For the selection of images, I find ones of galaxies and nebulae most rewarding. Finding shapes and patterns from clusters is more challenging.
And, after seeing the depth and expanse of the universe, I find the images from our solar system almost ordinary, though I know I shouldn’t. I like the section at the book’s end that describes the image details including the telescope, the camera and the exposures for various filters. Perhaps I can use these to dabble at my own artistry. I also appreciate the credits that list all the data sources and perhaps the people who processed the data, though these aren’t always obvious. I don’t like that the book had to eventually come to an end. I could have kept looking at many more pages.
Treasures are a measure of worth. For those who like gold, a pirate’s chest may be the ultimate high. For those who are drawn to the night, to the limitlessness of space, then the jewels of the night sky are the only ones worth viewing. For you who like the night, let André van der Hoeven’s book “Treasures of the Universe – Amateur and Professional Visions of the Cosmos” spirit you away to a viewing pleasure. With it in your hands you will hold more than any pirate’s chest could ever contain.