One of Life’s Building Blocks can Form in Space

A new kind of chemical reaction can explain how peptides can form on the icy layers of cosmic dust grains. Those peptides could have been transported to the early Earth by meteorites, asteroids or comets. Image Credit: © S. Krasnokutski / MPIA Graphics Department

Peptides are one of the smallest biomolecules and are one of life’s critical building blocks. New research shows that they could form on the surfaces of icy grains in space. This discovery lends credence to the idea that meteoroids, asteroids, or comets could have given life on Earth a kick start by crashing into the planet and delivering biological building blocks.

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Nearby Supernovae Exploded Just a few Million Years Ago, Leading to a Wave of Star Formation Around the Sun

Artist's illustration of the Local Bubble with star formation occurring on the bubble's surface. Scientists have now shown how a chain of events beginning 14 million years ago with a set of powerful supernovae led to the creation of the vast bubble, responsible for the formation of all young stars within 500 light years of the Sun and Earth. Credit: Leah Hustak (STScI)

The Sun isn’t the only star in this galactic neighbourhood. Other stars also call this neighbourhood home. But what’s the neighbourhood’s history? What triggered the birth of all those stars?

A team of astronomers say they’ve pieced the history together and identified the trigger: a series of supernovae explosions that began about 14 million years ago.

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NASA is now Planning a Mission to go 1,000 AU From the Sun, Deep Into Interstellar Space

A different perspective can do wonders.  Perceiving things from a different angle can both metaphorically and literally allow people to see things differently.  And in space, there are an almost infinite number of angles that objects can be observed from.  Like all perspectives, some are more informative than others.  Sometimes those informative perspectives are also the hardest to reach.  

Voyager’s two probes did an excellent job in allowing humanity to access some difficult new perspectives simply given their distance from the Earth.  But now a team of over 500 scientists and volunteers is urging NASA to go even further to find a better perspective by sending a satellite to a distance 1000 times the distance from the Sun to the Earth – almost 10 times how far the Voyagers have traveled in over 35 years.

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This is a Simulation of the Interstellar Medium Flowing Like Smoke Throughout the Milky Way

The figure shows a section through the cube of the turbulence simulation. The colors show the density contrast relative to the mean density of the gas. Its turbulent structure is clearly recognizable. Image Credit: Federrath et al, 2021.

How do stars form?

We know they form from massive structures called molecular clouds, which themselves form from the Interstellar Medium (ISM). But how and why do certain types of stars form? Why, in some situations, does a star like our Sun form, versus a red dwarf or a blue giant?

That’s one of the central questions in astronomy. It’s also a very complex one.

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Astronomers Find the Source of the Huge Bubbles of Gas Flowing Out of the Milky Way, Still No Idea What Caused Them

Astronomers used the WHAM telescope to measure huge outflows of gas extending from the Milky Way’s center known as the Fermi Bubbles. They were able to measure the velocity, density and pressure of the gas for the first time, confirming and extending previous measurements made by using a distant quasar as a light source to look through and measure the gas. IMAGE BY DHANESH KRISHNARAO AND NASA

There’s an unusual paradox hampering research into parts of the Milky Way. Dense gas blocks observations of the galactic core, and it can be difficult to observe in visible light from our vantage point. But distant galaxies don’t always present the same obstacles. So in some ways, we can observe distant galaxies better than we can observe our own.

In order to gain a better understanding of the Galactic Center (GC) and the Interstellar Medium (ISM), a team of astronomers used a telescope called the Wisconsin H-Alpha Mapper (WHAM) to look into the core of the Milky Way in part of the optical light spectrum.

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What Voyager 2 Learned After Spending a Year in Interstellar Space

An artist concept depicting one of NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft, humanity's farthest and longest-lived spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Only two of humanity’s spacecraft have left the Solar System: NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Voyager 1 left the heliosphere behind in 2012, while Voyager 2 did the same on Nov. 5th, 2018. Now Voyager 2 has been in interstellar space for one year, and five new papers are presenting the scientific results from that one year.

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Hubble Finds Buckyballs in Space

For the first time, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has detected little spheres of carbon, called buckyballs, in a galaxy beyond our Milky Way galaxy. The space balls were detected in a dying star, called a planetary nebula, within the nearby galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud. What's more, huge quantities were found -- the equivalent in mass to 15 of our moons. An infrared photo of the Small Magellanic Cloud taken by Spitzer is shown here in this artist's illustration, with two callouts. The middle callout shows a magnified view of an example of a planetary nebula, and the right callout shows an even further magnified depiction of buckyballs, which consist of 60 carbon atoms arranged like soccer balls. In July 2010, astronomers reported using Spitzer to find the first confirmed proof of buckyballs. Since then, Spitzer has detected the molecules again in our own galaxy -- as well as in the Small Magellanic Cloud. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists working with the Hubble Space Telescope have found a very complex molecule out there in space. Called Buckyballs, after renowned thinker Buckminster Fuller, they are a molecular arrangement of 60 carbon atoms (C60) in the rough shape of a soccer ball. Though it’s not the first time these exotic molecules have been spotted in space, it is the first time that Buckyball ions have been found.

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Voyager and Pioneer’s Grand Tour of the Milky Way

Artist concept of Voyager 1's View of Solar System. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); Artist's Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

During the early 1990s, NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 probes became the first robotic missions to venture beyond Neptune. In 2012 and 2018, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions went even farther by crossing the heliopause and entering interstellar space. Eventually, these probes may reach another star system, where their special cargo (the Pioneer Plaques and the Golden Records) could find their way into the hands of another species.

Which raises an important question: where might these spacecraft eventually wander? To address this, Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently conducted a study that examined which star systems the Voyager and Pioneer probes will likely encounter as they drift through the Milky Way over the next few million years…

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Could Magnetic Sails Slow an Interstellar Spacecraft Enough?

An artist's illustration of a light-sail powered by a radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. The leakage from such beams as they sweep across the sky would appear as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), similar to the new population of sources that was discovered recently at cosmological distances. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

The number of confirmed extra-solar planets has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years. With every new discovery, the question of when we might be able to explore these planets directly naturally arises. There have been several suggestions so far, ranging from laser-sail driven nanocraft that would travel to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years (Breakthrough Starshot) to slower-moving microcraft equipped with a gene laboratories (The Genesis Project).

But when it comes to braking these craft so that they can slow down and study distant stars and orbit planets, things become a bit more complicated. According to a recent study by the very man who conceived of The Genesis Project – Professor Claudius Gros of the Institute for Theoretical Physics Goethe University Frankfurt – special sails that rely on superconductors to generate magnetic fields could be used for just this purpose.

Starshot and Genesis are similar in that both concepts seek to leverage recent advancements in miniaturization. Today, engineers are able to create sensors, thrusters and cameras that are capable of carrying out computations and other functions, but are a fraction of the size of older instruments. And when it comes to propulsion, there are many options, ranging from conventional rockets and ion drives to laser-driven light sails.

Project Starshot, an initiative sponsored by the Breakthrough Foundation, is intended to be humanity’s first interstellar voyage. Credit: breakthroughinitiatives.org

Slowing an interstellar mission down, however, has remained a more significant challenge because such a craft cannot be fitted with braking thrusters and fuel without increasing its weight. To address this, Professor Gros suggests using magnetic sails, which would present numerous advantages over other available methods. As Prof. Gros explained to Universe Today via email:

“Classically, you would equip the spacecraft with rocket engines. Normal rocket engines, as we are using them for launching satellites, can change the velocity only by 5-15 km/s. And even that only when using several stages. That is not enough to slow down a craft flying at 1000 km/s (0.3% c) or 100000 km/s (c/3). Fusion or antimatter drives would help a bit, but not substantially.”

The sail he envisions would consist of a massive superconducting loop that measures about 50 kilometers in diameter, which would create a magnetic field once a lossless current was induced. Once activated, the ionized hydrogen in the interstellar medium would be reflected off the sail’s magnetic field. This would have the effect of transferring the spacecraft’s momentum to the interstellar gas, gradually slowing it down.

According to Gros’ calculations, this would work for slow-travelling sails despite the extremely low particle density of interstellar space, which works out to 0.005 to 0.1 particles per cubic centimeter. “A magnetic sail trades energy consumption with time,” said Gros.”If you turn off the engine of your car and let it roll idle, it will slow down due to friction (air, tires). The magnetic sail does the same, where the friction comes from the interstellar gas.”

Artist concept of lightsail craft approaching the potentially habitable exoplanet Proxima b. Credit: PHL @ UPR Arecibo

One of the advantages of this method is the fact that can be built using existing technology. The key technology behind the magnetic sail is a Biot Savart loop which, when paired with the same kind of superconducting coils used in high-energy physics, would create a powerful magnetic field. Using such a sail, even heavier spacecraft – those that weight up to 1,500 kilograms (1.5 metric tonnes; 3,307 lbs) – could be decelerated from an interstellar voyage.

The one big drawback is the time such a mission would take. Based on Gros’ own calculations, a high speed transit to Proxima Centauri that relied on magnetic momentum braking would require a ship that weighed about 1 million kg (1000 metric tonnes; 1102 tons). However, an interstellar mission involving a 1.5 metric tonne ship would be able to reach TRAPPIST-1 in about 12,000 years. As Gros concludes:

“It takes a long time (because the very low density of the interstellar media). That is bad if you want to see a return (scientific data, exciting pictures) in your lifetime. Magnetic sails work, but only when you are happy to take the (very) long perspective.”

In other words, such a system would not work for a nanocraft like that envisioned by Breakthrough Starshot. As Starshot’s own Dr. Abraham Loeb explained, the main goal of the project is to achieve the dream of interstellar travel within a generation of the ship’s departure. In addition to being the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Dr. Loeb is also the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee.

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

As he explained to Universe Today via email:

“[Gros] concludes that breaking on the interstellar gas is feasible only at low speeds (less than a fraction of a percent of the speed of light) and even then one needs a sail that is tens of miles wide, weighting tons. The problem is that with such a low speed, the journey to the nearest stars will take over a thousand years.

“The Breakthrough Starshot initiative aims to launch a spacecraft at a fifth of the speed of light so that it will reach the nearest stars within a human lifetime. It is difficult to get people excited about a journey whose completion will not be witnessed by them. But there is a caveat. If the longevity of people could be extended to millennia by genetic engineering, then designs of the type considered by Gros would certainly be more appealing.”

But for missions like The Genesis Project, which Gros originally proposed in 2016, time is not a factor. Such a probe, which would carry single-celled organisms – either encoded in a gene factory or stored as cryogenically-frozen spores – a could take thousands of years to reach a neighboring star system. Once there, it would begin seeding planets that had been identified as “transiently habitable” with single-celled organisms.

For such a mission, travel time is not the all-important factor. What matters is the ability to slow down and establish orbit around a planet. That way, the spacecraft would be able to seed these nearby worlds with terrestrial organisms, which could have the effect of slowly terraforming it in advance of human explorers or settlers.

Given how long it would take for humans to reach even the nearest extra-solar planets, a mission that last a few hundred or a few thousand years is no big deal. In the end, which method we choose to conduct interstellar mission will come down to how much time we’re willing to invest. For the sake of exploration, expedience is the key factor, which means lightweight craft and incredibly high speeds.

But where long-term goals – such as seeding other worlds with life and even terraforming them for human settlement – are concerned, the slow and steady approach is best. One thing is for sure: when these types of missions move from the concept stage to realization, it sure will be exciting to witness!

Further Reading: Goete University Frankfurt, Journal of Physics Communications

NASA Voyager Probes Still Going Strong After 40 Years

Earth's Greatest Hits: the Golden Record attached to the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Forty years ago, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions began their journey from Earth to become the farthest-reaching missions in history. In the course of their missions, the two probes spent the next two decades sailing past the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn. And while Voyager 1 then ventured into the outer Solar System, Voyager 2 swung by Uranus and Neptune, becoming the first and only probe in history to explore these worlds.

This summer, the probes will be marking the fortieth anniversary of their launch – on September 5th and August 20th, respectively. Despite having traveled for so long and reaching such considerable distances from Earth, the probes are still in contact with NASA and sending back valuable data. So in addition to being the most distant missions from Earth, they are the longest-running mission in history.

In addition to their distance and longevity, the Voyager spacecraft have also set numerous other records for robotic space missions. For example, in 2012, the Voyager 1 probe became the first and only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. Voyage 2, meanwhile, is the only probe that has explored all four of the Solar System’s gas/ice giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Voyager 2 Mission
The launch of the Voyager 2 probe, which took place on August 20th, 1977. Credit: NASA

Their discoveries also include the first active volcanoes beyond Earth – on Jupiter’s moon Io – the first evidence of a possible subsurface ocean on Europa, the dense atmosphere around Titan (the only body beyond Earth with a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere), the craggy surface of Uranus’ “Frankenstein Moon” Miranda, and the ice plume geysers of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.

These accomplishments have had immeasurable benefits for planetary science, astronomy and space exploration. They’ve also paved the way for future missions, such as the Galileo and Juno probes, the Cassini-Huygens mission, and the New Horizons spacecraft. As Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said in a recent press statement:

“I believe that few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager spacecraft during their four decades of exploration. They have educated us to the unknown wonders of the universe and truly inspired humanity to continue to explore our solar system and beyond.”

But what is perhaps most memorable about the Voyager missions is the special cargo they carry. Each spacecraft carries what is known as the Golden Record, a collection of sounds, pictures and messages that tell of Earth, human history and culture. These records were intended to serve as a sort of time capsule and/or message to any civilizations that retrieved them, should they ever be recovered.

Each of the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 carry a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph record with images and sounds from Earth. Credit: NASA

As noted, both ships are still in contact with NASA and sending back mission data. The Voyager 1 probe, as of the writing of this article, is about 20.9 billion km (13 billion mi; 140 AU) from Earth. As it travels northward out of the plane of the planets and into interstellar space, the probe continues to send back information about cosmic rays – which are about four times as abundant in interstellar space than around Earth.

From this, researchers have learned that the heliosphere – the region that contains the Solar System’s planets and solar wind – acts as a sort of radiation shield. Much in the say that Earth’s magnetic field protects us from solar wind (which would otherwise strip away our atmosphere), the heliopause protects the Solar planets from atomic nuclei that travel at close to the speed of light.

Voyager 2, meanwhile, is currently about 17.7 billion km (11 billion mi; 114.3 AU) from Earth. It is traveling south out of the plane of the planets, and is expected to enter interstellar space in a few years. And much like Voyager 1, it is also studying how the heliosphere interacts with the surroundings interstellar medium, using a suite of instruments that measure charged particles, magnetic fields, radio waves and solar wind plasma.

Once Voyager 2 crosses into interstellar space, both probes will be able to sample the medium from two different locations simultaneously. This is expected to tell us much about the magnetic environment that encapsulates our system, and will perhaps teach us more about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, it will let us know what kinds of hazards a possible interstellar mission will have to contend with.

Illustration showing how NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is looking along the paths of NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as they journey through the solar system and into interstellar space. Credit: NASA/ESA/Z. Levy (STScI)

The fact that the two probes are still active after all this time is nothing short of amazing. As Edward Stone – the David Morrisroe Professor of Physics at Caltech, the former VP and Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Voyager project scientist – said:

“None of us knew, when we launched 40 years ago, that anything would still be working, and continuing on this pioneering journey. The most exciting thing they find in the next five years is likely to be something that we didn’t know was out there to be discovered.”

Keeping the probes going has also been a challenge since the amount of power they generate decreases at a rate of about four watts per year. This has required that engineers learn how to operate the twin spacecraft with ever-decreasing amounts of power, which has forced them to consult documents that are decades old in order to understand the probes’ software and command functions.

Luckily, it has also given former NASA engineers who worked on the Voyager probes the opportunity to offer their experience and expertise. At present, the team that is operating the spacecraft estimate that the probes will run out of power by 2030. However, they will continue to drift along their trajectories long after they do so, traveling at a speed of 48,280 km per hour (30,000 mph) and covering a single AU every 126 days.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft has started to transverse what JPL has dubbed as a “cosmic purgatory” between our solar system – and interstellar space. Credit: NASA/JPL

At this rate, they will be within spitting distance of the nearest star in about 40,000 years, and will have completed an orbit of the Milky Way within 225 million years. So its entirely possible that someday, the Golden Records will find their way to a species capable of understanding what they represent. Then again, they might find their way back to Earth someday, informing our distant, distant relatives about life in the 20th century.

And if the craft avoid any catastrophic collisions and can survive in the interstellar medium of space, it is likely that they will continue to be emissaries for humanity long after humanity is dead. It’s good to leave something behind!

Further Reading: NASA