The World's Largest Digital Camera is Complete. It Will Go Into the Vera Rubin Observatory

Researchers examine the LSST Camera. The camera will soon be shipped to Chile, where it will be the heart of Vera C. Rubin Observatory (right). Credit: Vera C. Rubin Observatory/DOE/SLAC

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), was formally proposed in 2001 to create an astronomical facility that could conduct deep-sky surveys using the latest technology. This includes a wide-field reflecting telescope with an 8.4-meter (~27.5-foot) primary mirror that relies on a novel three-mirror design (the Simonyi Survey Telescope) and a 3.2-megapixel Charge-Coupled Device (CCD) imaging camera (the LSST Camera). Once complete, Rubin will perform a 10-year survey of the southern sky known as the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST).

While construction on the observatory itself did not begin until 2015, work began on the telescope’s digital cameras and primary mirror much sooner (in 2004 and 2007, respectively). After two decades of work, scientists and engineers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and their collaborators announced the completion of the LSST Camera – the largest digital camera ever constructed. Once mounted on the Simonyi Survey Telescope, this camera will help researchers observe our Universe in unprecedented detail.

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When an Object Like ‘Oumuamua Comes Around Again, We Could be Ready With an Interstellar Object Explorer (IOE)

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

On October 19th, 2017, astronomers with the Pann-STARRS survey observed an Interstellar Object (ISO) passing through our system – 1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua. This was the first time an ISO was detected, confirming that such objects pass through the Solar System regularly, as astronomers predicted decades prior. Just two years later, a second object was detected, the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov. Given ‘Oumuamua’s unusual nature (still a source of controversy) and the information ISOs could reveal about distant star systems, astronomers are keen to get a closer look at future visitors.

For instance, multiple proposals have been made for interceptor spacecraft that could catch up with future ISOs, study them, and even conduct a sample return (like the ESA’s Comet Interceptor). In a new paper by a team from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Alan Stern and his colleagues studied possible concepts and recommended a purpose-built robotic ISO flyby mission called the Interstellar Object Explorer (IOE). They also demonstrate how this mission could be performed on a modest budget with current spaceflight technology.

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The Vera Rubin’s Keen Eye On Our Solar System Will Inspire Future Missions

View of Rubin Observatory at sunset in December 2023. The 8.4-meter telescope at Rubin Observatory, equipped with the highest-resolution digital camera in the world, will take enormous images of the southern hemisphere sky, covering the entire sky every few nights. Rubin will do this over and over for 10 years, creating a timelapse view of the Universe that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. What new Solar System exploration missions will of these observations inspire? Image Credit: RubinObs/NSF/AURA/H. Stockebrand
View of Rubin Observatory at sunset in December 2023. The 8.4-meter telescope at Rubin Observatory, equipped with the highest-resolution digital camera in the world, will take enormous images of the southern hemisphere sky, covering the entire sky every few nights. Rubin will do this over and over for 10 years, creating a timelapse view of the Universe that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. What new Solar System exploration missions will of these observations inspire? Image Credit: RubinObs/NSF/AURA/H. Stockebrand

When the interstellar object (ISO) Oumuamua appeared in our Solar System in 2017, it generated a ton of interest. The urge to learn more about it was fierce, but unfortunately, there was no way to really do so. It came and went, and we were left to ponder what it was made of and where it came from. Then, in 2019, the ISO comet Borisov came for a brief visit, and again, we were left to wonder about it.

There’s bound to be more of these ISOs traversing our Solar System. There’s been talk of having missions ready to go to visit one of these interstellar visitors in the future, but for that to happen, we need advance notice of its arrival. Could the Vera Rubin Observatory tell us far enough in advance?

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NASA Invests in New Nuclear Rocket Concept for the Future of Space Exploration and Astrophysics

Graphic depiction of Thin Film Isotope Nuclear Engine Rocket (TFINER). Credit: James Bickford

In the coming years, NASA plans to send several astrobiology missions to Venus and Mars to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. These will occur alongside crewed missions to the Moon (for the first time since the Apollo Era) and the first crewed missions to Mars. Beyond the inner Solar System, there are ambitious plans to send robotic missions to Europa, Titan, and other “Ocean Worlds” that could host exotic life. To accomplish these objectives, NASA is investing in some interesting new technologies through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

This year’s selection includes solar-powered aircraft, bioreactors, lightsails, hibernation technology, astrobiology experiments, and nuclear propulsion technology. This includes a concept for a Thin Film Isotope Nuclear Engine Rocket (TFINER), a proposal by senior technical staff member James Bickford and his colleagues at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory – a Massachusetts-based independent technology developer. This proposal relies on the decay of radioactive isotopes to generate propulsion and was recently selected by the NIAC for Phase I development.

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Vera Rubin Observatory Could Find Up to 70 Interstellar Objects a Year

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory is under construction at Cerro Pachon, in Chile. This image shows construction progress in late 2019. The observatory should be able to spot interstellar objects like Oumuamua. Image Credit: Wil O'Mullaine/LSST .

Astronomers have discovered two known interstellar objects (ISO), ‘Oumuamua and 21/Borisov. But there could be thousands of these objects passing through the Solar System at any time. According to a new paper, the upcoming Vera Rubin Telescope will be a fantastic interstellar object hunter, and could possibly find up to 70 objects a year coming from other star systems.

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If Rogue Planets are Everywhere, How Could We Explore Them?

This artist’s impression shows an example of a rogue planet with the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex visible in the background. Rogue planets have masses comparable to those of the planets in our Solar System but do not orbit a star, instead roaming freely on their own. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/S. Guisard

At one time, astronomers believed that the planets formed in their current orbits, which remained stable over time. But more recent observations, theory, and calculations have shown that planetary systems are subject to shake-ups and change. Periodically, planets are kicked out of their star systems to become “rogue planets,” bodies that are no longer gravitationally bound to any star and are adrift in the interstellar medium (ISM). Some of these planets may be gas giants with tightly bound icy moons orbiting them, which they could bring with them into the ISM.

Like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, these satellites could have warm water interiors that might support life. Other research has indicated that rocky planets with plenty of water on their surfaces could also support life through a combination of geological activity and the decay of radionuclides. According to a recent paper by an international team of astronomers, there could be hundreds of rogue planets in our cosmic neighborhood. Based on their first-ever feasibility analysis, they also indicate that deep space missions could explore these unbound objects more easily than planets still bound to their stars.

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We Could Spread Life to the Milky Way With Comets. But Should We?

Gerald Rhemann captured this incredible image of Comet Leonard when a piece of the comet's tail was disconnected and carried away. Rhemann won Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2022 for the image. Image Credit: Gerald Rhemann

Here’s a thorny problem: What if life doesn’t always appear on planets that can support it? What if we find more and more exoplanets and determine that some of them are habitable? What if we also determine that life hasn’t appeared on them yet?

Could we send life-bringing comets to those planets and seed them with terrestrial life? And if we could do that, should we?

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We’ll Inevitably see Another Interstellar Object. Which Ones Make the Best Targets to Visit?

We finally have the technological means to detect interstellar objects. We’ve detected two in the last few years, ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, and there are undoubtedly more out there. As such, there’s been a lot of interest in developing a mission that could visit one once we detect it. But what would such a mission look like? Now, a draft paper from a team of primarily American scientists has taken a stab at answering that question and moved us one step closer to launching such a mission.

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Upcoming Missions Could Search for Ancient Alien Technology Within the Solar System

An artist’s overview of the mission concept for the Comet Interceptor spacecraft. Credit: ESA

Over sixty years ago, the first search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), known as Project Ozma, was conducted. This campaign was led by legendary astronomer Frank Drake, which relied on the 85-1 Tatel Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to listen to Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani for any signs of radio transmissions. Since then, the field of SETI has become more sophisticated thanks to more advanced radio telescopes, improved data analysis, and international collaboration. In the coming years, SETI will also benefit from advances in exoplanet studies and next-generation instruments and surveys.

In addition to examining exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”), there are also those who recommend that we look for them here at home. Examples include the Galileo Project, which is dedicated to studying interstellar objects (ISOs) and unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). There’s also the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, a research group dedicated to advancing SETI through the search for technosignatures. In a recent paper, they explain how future SETI efforts should consider looking for extraterrestrial technology in our Solar System.

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Alien Artifacts Could Be Hidden Across the Solar System. Here’s how we Could Search for Them.

Galileo Project members (from left: Carson Ezell, Ezra Kelderman, Abby White, Alex and Lily Delacroix) with the audio tower (left), radar spectrum tower (middle) and radar imaging tower (right) behind them on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory.
Galileo Project members (from left: Carson Ezell, Ezra Kelderman, Abby White, Alex and Lily Delacroix) with the audio tower (left), radar spectrum tower (middle) and radar imaging tower (right) behind them on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory. Image credit: The Galileo Project

Do aliens exist? Almost certainly. The universe is vast and ancient, and our corner of it is not particularly special. If life emerged here, it probably did elsewhere. Keep in mind this is a super broad assumption. A single instance of fossilized archaebacteria-like organisms five superclusters away would be all it takes to say, “Yes, there are aliens!” …if we could find them somehow.

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