Nancy Grace Roman Just Passed a Critical Design Review

By 2027, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope – or Roman Space Telescope (RST), for short – will take to space and build on the legacy of the venerable Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Combing a large primary mirror, a camera as sensitive as its predecessors, and next-generation surveying capabilities, Roman will have the power of “One-Hundred Hubbles.” It’s little wonder then why the telescope is named after Dr. Roman (1925 – 2018), NASA’s first Chief Astronomer and the “Mother of Hubble.”

As part of its journey towards realization, this next-generation space telescope recently passed a crucial milestone. This would be the all-important Mission Critical Design Review (CDR), signaling that all design and developmental engineering work is complete. With this milestone reached, the next-generation space telescope is now ready to move from the conceptual stage into the fabrication and assembly phase.

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Astronomers Detect Clouds on an Exoplanet, and Even Measure Their Altitude

The search for planets beyond our Solar System has grown immensely during the past few decades. To date, 4,521 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,353 systems, with an additional 7,761 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many distant worlds available for study (and improved instruments and methods), the process of exoplanet studies has been slowly transitioning away from discovery towards characterization.

For example, a team of international scientists recently showed how combining data from multiple observatories allowed them to reveal the structure and composition of an exoplanet’s upper atmosphere. The exoplanet in question is WASP-127b, a “hot Saturn” that orbits a Sun-like star located about 525 light-years away. These findings preview how astronomers will characterize exoplanet atmospheres and determine if they are conducive to life as we know it.

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Hubble Reveals the Final Stages of a Dying Star

In April 2021 Hubble released its 31st-anniversary image. It’s a portrait of AG Carinae, one of the most luminous stars in the entire Milky Way. AG Carinae is in a reckless struggle with itself, periodically ejecting matter until it reaches stability sometime in the future.

Thanks to the Hubble, we get to watch the brilliant struggle.

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A new Balloon-Based Observatory Could Produce Images as Fine as Hubble

Launching satellites is an expensive business – at least for now.  But satellites are necessary in astronomy for one major reason – it gets telescopes above the atmosphere.  The Earth’s atmosphere and its associated weather patterns are a massive hindrance to collecting good images.  If a stray cloud passes in front of the observational target once over the course of a few days, it could ruin the entire image.  Which is why some of the most striking astronomical pictures come from space-based observatories like Hubble. But now, a team of researchers from Durham, Toronto, and Princeton Universities has come up with a new way to get above that atmosphere that doesn’t involve a launch into orbit. They want to use a balloon.

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Good News! NASA Announces that they have Fixed Hubble!

Will China's new space telescope out-perform the Hubble? Image:

Update: Hubble took its first picture since it went into safe mode on June 13th! More info here.

On Sunday, June 13th, the Hubble Space Telescope gave the astronomical community a fright when its payload computer suddenly stopped working. This prompted the main computer to put the telescope and its scientific instruments into safe mode. What followed was many tense weeks as the operations team for the HST tried to figure out what the source of the problem was and come up with a strategy for turning Hubble back on.

On Friday, July 17th, after more than a month of checking, re-checking, and attempted restarts, the operations team for Hubble identified the root of the problem and restored power to the telescope’s hardware and all of its instruments. Science operations can now resume, and the pioneering space telescope that gave us over thirty years of dedicated astronomy, cosmology, and astrophysics, still has some life in her!

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NASA Continues to Try and Rescue Failing Hubble

Will China's new space telescope out-perform the Hubble? Image:

Things are not looking very good for the Hubble Space Telescope right now. On Sunday, June 13th, the telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working, prompting the main computer to put the telescope into safe mode. While the telescope itself and its science instruments remain in working order, science operations have been suspended until the operations team can figure out how to get the payload computer back online.

While attempting to restart the computer, the operations team has also tried to trace the issue to specific components in the payload computer and switch to their backup modules. As of June 30th, the team began looking into the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the Power Control Unit (PCU). Meanwhile, NASA is busy preparing and testing procedures to switch to backup hardware if either of these components are the culprit.

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There’s a Problem With Hubble, and NASA Hasn’t Been Able to fix it yet

The Hubble Space Telescope could be considered the first of the Super Telescopes. In this image it is being released from the carbo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Image: By NASA/IMAX - http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=1711, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6061254

For over thirty years, the Hubble Space Telescope has been in continuous operation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and revealing never-before-seen aspects of the Universe. In addition to capturing breathtaking images of our Solar System and discovering extrasolar planets, Hubble also probed the deepest reaches of time and space, causing astrophysicists to revise many of their previously-held theories about the cosmos.

Unfortunately, Hubble may finally be reaching the end of its lifespan. In recent weeks, NASA identified a problem with the telescope’s payload computer which suddenly stopped working. This caused Hubble and all of its scientific instruments to go into safe mode and shut down. After many days of tests and checks, technicians at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have yet to identify the root of the problem and get Hubble back online.

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Astronomers are Watching a gas Giant Grow, Right in Front of Their Eyes

In the vastness of space, astronomers are likely to find instances of almost every astronomical phenomena if they look hard enough.  Many planetary phenomena are starting to come into sharper focus as the astronomy community continues to focus on finding exoplanets.  Now a team led by Yifan Zhou at UT Austin has directly imaged a gas giant still in formation.

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Instead of Betelgeuse, Keep Your eye on AG Carinae, Another Star That’s About to go Supernova

Astrophotography is one of the most gratifying parts of space exploration, and there’s nothing better at it than Hubble.  Recently, it celebrated the 31st anniversary of its launch by taking a spectacular image of one of the most impressive stars in the sky – AG Carinae.  In the not too distant future, Hubble, or a successor, might be able to capture an even more spectacular display from the star when it goes supernova.

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VY Canis Majoris is “Like Betelgeuse on Steroids”

The disappearance of a star can take many forms.  It could go supernova.  It could turn into a black hole.  Or it could just fade away quietly.  Sometimes, the last of these is actually the most interesting to observe.  That is the case for one of the largest stars ever found – VY Canis Majoris, a red supergiant approximately 3840 light years away in the Canis Major constellation.  

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