In June of 2017, NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) was installed aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The purpose of this instrument is to provide high-precision measurements of neutron stars and other super-dense objects that are on the verge of collapsing into black holes. NICER is also be the first instrument designed to test technology that will use pulsars as navigation beacons.
Recently, NASA used data obtained from NICER’s first 22 months of science operations to create an x-ray map of the entire sky. What resulted was a lovely image that looks like a long-exposure image of fire dancers, solar flare activity from hundreds of stars, or even a visualization of the world wide web. But in fact, each bright spot represents an x-ray source while the bright filaments are their paths across the night sky.
When a large star undergoes gravitational collapse near the end of its lifespan, a neutron star is often the result. This is what remains after the outer layers of the star have been blown off in a massive explosion (i.e. a supernova) and the core has compressed to extreme density. Afterwards, the star’s rotation rate increases considerably, and where they emit beams of electromagnetic radiation, they become “pulsars”.
And now, 50 years after they were first discovered by British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell, the first mission devoted to the study of these objects is about to be mounted. It is known as the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), a two-part experiment that will be deployed to the International Space Station this summer. If all goes well, this platform will shed light on one of the greatest astronomical mysteries, and test out new technologies.
Astronomers have been studying neutron stars for almost a century, which have yielded some very precise measurements of their masses and radii. However, what actually transpires in the interior of a neutron star remains an enduring mystery. While numerous models have been advanced that describe the physics governing their interiors, it is still unclear how matter would behave under these types of conditions.
Not surprising, since neutron stars typically hold about 1.4 times the mass of our Sun (or 460,000 times the mass of the Earth) within a volume of space that is the size of a city. This kind of situation, where a considerable amount of matter is packed into a very small volume – resulting in crushing gravity and an incredible matter density – is not seen anywhere else in the Universe.
As Keith Gendreau, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained in a recent NASA press statement:
“The nature of matter under these conditions is a decades-old unsolved problem. Theory has advanced a host of models to describe the physics governing the interiors of neutron stars. With NICER, we can finally test these theories with precise observations.”
NICE was developed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with the assistance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Naval Research Laboratory, and universities across the U.S. and Canada. It consists of a refrigerator-sized apparatus that contains 56 X-ray telescopes and silicon detectors. Though it was originally intended to be deployed late in 2016, a launch window did not become available until this year.
Once installed as an external payload aboard the ISS, it will gather data on neutron stars (mainly pulsars) over an 18-month period by observing neutron stars in the X-ray band. Even though these stars emit radiation across the spectrum, X-ray observations are believed to be the most promising when it comes to revealing things about their structure and various high-energy phenomena associated with them.
These include starquakes, thermonuclear explosions, and the most powerful magnetic fields known in the Universe. To do this, NICER will collect X-rays generated from these stars’ magnetic fields and magnetic poles. This is key, since it is at the poles that the strength of a neutron star’s magnetic fields causes particles to be trapped and rain down on the surface, which produces X-rays.
In pulsars, it is these intense magnetic fields which cause energetic particles to become focused beams of radiation. These beams are what give pulsars their name, as they appear like flashes thanks to the star’s rotation (giving them their “lighthouse”-like appearance). As physicists have observed, these pulsations are predictable, and can therefore be used the same way atomic-clocks and Global Positioning System are here on Earth.
While the primary goal of NICER is science, it also offers the possibility of testing new forms of technology. For instance, the instrument will be used to conduct the first-ever demonstration of autonomous X-ray pulsar-based navigation. As part of the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT), the team will use NICER’s telescopes to detect the X-ray beams generated by pulsars to estimate the arrival times of their pulses.
The team will then use specifically-designed algorithms to create an on-board navigation solution. In the future, interstellar spaceships could theoretically rely on this to calculate their location autonomously. This wold allow them to find their way in space without having to rely on NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which is considered to be the most sensitive telecommunications system in the world.
Beyond navigation, the NICER project also hopes to conduct the first-ever test of the viability of X-ray based-communications (XCOM). By using X-rays to send and receive data (in the same way we currently use radio waves), spacecraft could transmit data at the rate of gigabits per second over interplanetary distances. Such a capacity could revolutionize the way we communicate with crewed missions, rover and orbiters.
Central to both demonstrations is the Modulated X-ray Source (MXS), which the NICER team developed to calibrate the payload’s detectors and test the navigation algorithms. Generating X-rays with rapidly varying intensity (by switching on and off many times per second), this device will simulate a neutron star’s pulsations. As Gendreau explained:
“This is a very interesting experiment that we’re doing on the space station. We’ve had a lot of great support from the science and space technology folks at NASA Headquarters. They have helped us advance the technologies that make NICER possible as well as those that NICER will demonstrate. The mission is blazing trails on several different levels.”
It is hoped that the MXS will be ready to ship to the station sometime next year; at which time, navigation and communication demonstrations could begin. And it is expected that before July 25th, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Bell’s discovery, the team will have collected enough data to present findings at scientific conferences scheduled for later this year.
If successful, NICER could revolutionize our understanding of how neutron stars (and how matter behaves in a super-dense state) behaves. This knowledge could also help us to understand other cosmological mysteries such as black holes. On top of that, X-ray communications and navigation could revolutionize space exploration and travel as we know it. In addition to providing greater returns from robotic missions located closer to home, it could also enable more lucrative missions to locations in the outer Solar System and even beyond.
40 micetonauts are also aboard for a first of its kind osteoporosis science study – that seeks to stem the loss of bone density afflicting millions of people on Earth and astronauts crews in space by testing an experimental drug called NELL-1. Update: The rocket was lowered into horizontal position in order to swap out the 40 micetonauts and other time critial cargo items.
Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the unmanned Dragon cargo freighter from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is slated for 5:55 p.m. EDT Thursday, June 1.
Everything is on track for Thursday’s dinnertime launch of the 230 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 on the NASA contracted SpaceX CRS-11 resupply mission to the million pound orbiting lab complex.
However since the launch window is instantaneous there is no margin. In case any delays arise during the countdown due to technical or weather issues a 48 hour scrub to Saturday will result.
The launch is coincidently scheduled for dinnertime offering a spectacular opportunity for fun for the whole family as space enthusiasts flock in from around the globe.
Plus SpaceX will attempt a land landing of the 156 foot tall first stage back at the Cape at Landing Zone 1 some 9 minutes after liftoff.
To date SpaceX has successfully recovered 10 boosters, 4 by land and 6 by sea, over the past 18 months – in a feat straight out of science fiction but aimed at drastically slashing the cost of access to space.
If you can’t personally be here to witness the launch in Florida, you can watch NASA’s live coverage on NASA Television and the agency’s website.
The SpaceX/Dragon CRS-11 launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning 5:15 p.m. on June 1. with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog.
SpaceX will also feature their own live webcast beginning approximately 20 minutes before launch at 5:35 p.m. EDT.
In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is 5:07 p.m. Saturday, June 3, with NASA TV coverage starting at 4:30 p.m.
The weather looks somewhat iffy at this time with a 70% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on June 1 are for afternoon thunderstorms, anvil clouds and cumulus clouds.
The odds drop to 60% favorable for the scrub day on June 3.
The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-11 counts as SpaceX’s eleventh contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.
The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon is carrying almost 5,970 pounds of science research, crew supplies and hardware to the orbiting laboratory in support of Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.
The flight will deliver investigations and facilities that study neutron stars, osteoporosis, solar panels, tools for Earth-observation, and more.
The unpressurized trunk of the spacecraft also will transport 3 payloads for science and technology experiments and demonstrations.
The truck payloads include the Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA) solar panels, the Multiple User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES) facility which hosts Earth-viewing instruments and tools for Earth-observation and equipment to study neutron stars with the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) payload.
NICER is the first ever space mission to study the rapidly spinning neutron stars – the densest objects in the universe. The launch coincidentally comes nearly 50 years after they were discovered by British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell.
Dragon CRS-11 will be the second SpaceX resupply mission to launch this year.
The prior SpaceX cargo ship launched on Feb 19, 2017 on the CRS-10 mission to the space station. It was also the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.
Another significant milestone for this flight is that it features the first reuse of a previously launched Dragon. It previously launched on the CRS-4 resupply mission.
The recycled Dragon has undergone some refurbishments to requalify it for flight.
If all goes well, Dragon will arrive at the ISS 2 days after launch and be grappled by Expedition 51 astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer using the 57 foot long (17 meter long) Canadian-built robotic arm.
They will berth Dragon at the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module. .
Overall CRS-11 marks the 100th launch from pad 39A and the sixth SpaceX launch from this pad.
SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA in 2014 and after refurbishments placed the pad back in service this year for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. To date this is the sixth SpaceX launch from this pad.
Previous launches include 11 Apollo flights, the launch of the unmanned Skylab in 1973, 82 shuttle flights and five SpaceX launches.
Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-10 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
NASA’s ongoing hunt for exoplanets has entered a new phase as NASA officially confirmed that the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is moving into the development phase. This marks a significant step for the TESS mission, which will search the entire sky for planets outside our solar system (a.k.a. exoplanets). Designed as the first all-sky survey, TESS will spend two years of an overall three-year mission searching both hemispheres of the sky for nearby exoplanets.
Previous sky surveys with ground-based telescopes have mainly picked out giant exoplanets. In contrast, TESS will examine a large number of small planets around the very brightest stars in the sky. TESS will then record the nearest and brightest main sequence stars hosting transiting exoplanets, which will forever be the most favorable targets for detailed investigations. During the third year of the TESS mission, ground-based astronomical observatories will continue monitoring exoplanets identified by the TESS spacecraft.
“This is an incredibly exciting time for the search of planets outside our solar system,” said Mark Sistilli, the TESS program executive from NASA Headquarters, Washington. “We got the green light to start building what is going to be a spacecraft that could change what we think we know about exoplanets.”
“During its first two years in orbit, the TESS spacecraft will concentrate its gaze on several hundred thousand specially chosen stars, looking for small dips in their light caused by orbiting planets passing between their host star and us,” said TESS Principal Investigator George Ricker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology..
All in all, TESS is expected to find more than 5,000 exoplanet candidates, including 50 Earth-sized planets. It will also find a wide array of exoplanet types, ranging from small, rocky planets to gas giants. Some of these planets could be the right sizes, and orbit at the correct distances from their stars, to potentially support life.
“The most exciting part of the search for planets outside our solar system is the identification of ‘earthlike’ planets with rocky surfaces and liquid water as well as temperatures and atmospheric constituents that appear hospitable to life,” said TESS Project Manager Jeff Volosin at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Although these planets are small and harder to detect from so far away, this is exactly the type of world that the TESS mission will focus on identifying.”
Now that NASA has confirmed the development of TESS, the next step is the Critical Design Review, which is scheduled to take place in 2015. This would clear the mission to build the necessary flight hardware for its proposed launch in 2017.
“After spending the past year building the team and honing the design, it is incredibly exciting to be approved to move forward toward implementing NASA’s newest exoplanet hunting mission,” Volosin said.
TESS is designed to complement several other critical missions in the search for life on other planets. Once TESS finds nearby exoplanets to study and determines their sizes, ground-based observatories and other NASA missions, like the James Webb Space Telescope, would make follow-up observations on the most promising candidates to determine their density and other key properties.
By figuring out a planet’s characteristics, like its atmospheric conditions, scientists could determine whether the targeted planet has a habitable environment.
“TESS should discover thousands of new exoplanets within two hundred light years of Earth,” Ricker said. “Most of these will be orbiting bright stars, making them ideal targets for characterization observations with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.”
“The Webb telescope and other teams will focus on understanding the atmospheres and surfaces of these distant worlds, and someday, hopefully identify the first signs of life outside of our solar system,” Volosin said.
TESS will use four cameras to study sections of the sky’s north and south hemispheres, looking for exoplanets. The cameras would cover about 90 percent of the sky by the end of the mission.
This makes TESS an ideal follow-up to the Kepler mission, which searches for exoplanets in a fixed area of the sky. Because the TESS mission surveys the entire sky, TESS is expected to find exoplanets much closer to Earth, making them easier for further study.
In addition, Ricker said TESS would provide precision, full-frame images for more than 20 million bright stars and galaxies.
“This unique new data will comprise a treasure trove for astronomers throughout the world for many decades to come,” Ricker said.
Now that TESS is cleared to move into the next development stage, it can continue towards its goal of being a key part of NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.
“I’m still hopeful that in my lifetime, we will discover the existence of life outside of our solar system and I’m excited to be part of a NASA mission that serves as a key stepping stone in that search,” Volosin said.
Move over Kepler. NASA has recently green-lighted two new missions as part of its Astrophysics Explorer Program.
These come as the result of four proposals submitted in 2012. The most anticipated and high profile mission is TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.
Slated for launch in 2017, TESS will search for exoplanets via the transit method, looking for faint tell-tale dips in brightness as the unseen planet passes in front of its host star. This is the same method currently employed by Kepler, launched in 2009. Unlike Kepler, which stares continuously at a single segment of the sky along the galactic plane in the direction of the constellations Cygnus, Hercules, and Lyra, TESS will be the first dedicated all-sky exoplanet hunting satellite.
The mission will be a partnership of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, Orbital Sciences Corporation, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI).
TESS will launch onboard an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket released from the fuselage of a Lockheed L-1011 aircraft, the same system that deployed IBEX in 2008 & NuSTAR in 2012. NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) will also launch using a Pegasus XL rocket this summer in June.
“TESS will carry out the first space-borne all-sky transit survey, covering 400 times as much sky as any previous mission. It will identify thousands of new planets in the solar neighborhood, with a special focus on planets comparable in size to the Earth,” said George Riker, a senior researcher from MKI.
TESS will utilize four wide angle telescopes to get the job done. The effective size of the detectors onboard is 192 megapixels. TESS is slated for a two year mission. Unlike Kepler, which sits in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit, TESS will be in an elliptical path in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
TESS will examine approximately 2 million stars brighter than 12th magnitude including 1,000 of the nearest red dwarfs. Not only will TESS expand the growing catalog of exoplanets, but it is also expected to find planets with longer orbital periods.
One dilemma with the transit method is that it favors the discovery of planets with short orbital periods, which are much more likely to be seen transiting their host star from a given vantage point in space.
TESS will also serve as a logical progression from Kepler to later proposed exoplanet search platforms. TESS will also discover candidates for further scrutiny by as the James Webb Space Telescope to be launched in 2018 and the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrometer based at La Silla Observatory in Chile.
Also on the board for launch in 2017 is NICER, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer to be placed on the exterior of the International Space Station. NICER will employ an array 56 telescopes which will collect and study X-rays from neutron stars. NICER will specialize in the study of a particular sub-class of neutron star known as millisecond pulsars. The X-ray telescopes are in a configuration utilizing a set of nested glass shells looking like the layers of an onion.
Observing pulsars in the X-ray range of the spectrum will offer scientists tremendous insight into their inner workings and structure. The International Space Station offers a unique vantage point to do this sort of science. Like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), the power requirements of NICER dictate that it cannot be a free-flying satellite. X-Ray astronomy must also be done above the hindering effects of the Earth’s atmosphere.
NICER will be deployed as an exterior payload aboard an ISS ExPRESS Logistics Carrier. These are unpressurized platforms used for experiments that must be directly exposed to space.
Another fascinating project working in tandem with NICER is SEXTANT, the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing And Navigation Technology. This project seeks to test the precision of millisecond pulsars for interplanetary navigation.
“They (pulsars) are extremely reliable celestial clocks and can provide high-precision timing just like the atomic signals supplied through the 26-satellite military operated Global Positioning System (GPS),” said NASA Goddard scientist Zaven Arzoumanian. The chief difficulty with relying on this system for interplanetary journeys is that the signal gets progressively weaker the farther you travel from the Earth.
“Pulsars, on the other hand, are accessible in virtually every conceivable flight regime, from LEO to interplanetary and deepest space,” said NICER/SEXTANT principle investigator Keith Gendreau.
Both NICER and TESS follow the long legacy of NASA’s Astrophysics Explorer Program, which can be traced all the way back to the launch Explorer 1. This was the very first U.S. satellite launched in 1958. Explorer 1 discovered the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth.
“The Explorer Program has a long and stellar history of deploying truly innovative missions to study some of the most exciting questions in space science,” stated NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld. “With these missions, we will learn about the most extreme states of matter by studying neutron stars and we will identify many nearby star systems with rocky planets in the habitable zones for further study by telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope.”
Of course, Grunsfeld is referring to planets orbiting red dwarf stars, which will be targeted by TESS. These are expected have a habitable zone much closer to their primary star than our own Sun. It has even been suggested by MIT scientists that the first exoplanets visited by humans on some far off date might be initially discovered by TESS. The spacecraft may also discover future targets for follow up spectroscopic analysis, the best chance of discovering alien life on an exoplanet in the next 50 years. One can imagine the excitement that a positive detection of a chemical exclusive to life as we know it such as chlorophyll in the spectra of a far of world would generate. More ominously, detection of such synthetic elements as plutonium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet might suggest we found them… but alas, too late.
But on a happier note, it’ll be exciting times for space exploration to see both projects get underway. Perhaps human explorers will indeed one day visit the worlds discovered by TESS… and use navigation techniques pioneered by SEXTANT to do it!
Neutron stars have been classed as “undead”… real zombie stars. Even though technically defunct, the neutron star continues to shine – and occasionally feed on a neighbor if it gets too close. They are born when a massive star collapses under its gravity and its outer layers are blown far and wide, outshining a billion suns, in a supernova event. What’s left is a stellar corpse… a core of inconceivable density… where one teaspoon would weigh about a billion tons on Earth. How would we study such a curiosity? NASA has proposed a mission called the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) that would detect the zombie and allow us to see into the dark heart of a neutron star.
The core of a neutron star is pretty incredible. Despite the fact that it has blown away most of its exterior and stopped nuclear fusion, it still radiates heat from the explosion and exudes a magnetic field which tips the scales. This intense form of radiation caused by core collapse measures out at over a trillion times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field. If you don’t think that impressive, then think of the size. Originally the star could have been a trillion miles or more in diameter, yet now is compressed to the size of an average city. That makes a neutron star a tiny dynamo – capable of condensing matter into itself at more than 1.4 times the content of the Sun, or at least 460,000 Earths.
“A neutron star is right at the threshold of matter as it can exist – if it gets any denser, it becomes a black hole,” says Dr. Zaven Arzoumanian of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We have no way of creating neutron star interiors on Earth, so what happens to matter under such incredible pressure is a mystery – there are many theories about how it behaves. The closest we come to simulating these conditions is in particle accelerators that smash atoms together at almost the speed of light. However, these collisions are not an exact substitute – they only last a split second, and they generate temperatures that are much higher than what’s inside neutron stars.”
If approved, the NICER mission will be launched by the summer of 2016 and attached robotically to the International Space Station. In September 2011, NASA selected NICER for study as a potential Explorer Mission of Opportunity. The mission will receive $250,000 to conduct an 11-month implementation concept study. Five Mission of Opportunity proposals were selected from 20 submissions. Following the detailed studies, NASA plans to select for development one or more of the five Mission of Opportunity proposals in February 2013.
What will NICER do? First off, an array of 56 telescopes will gather X-ray information from a neutron stars magnetic poles and hotspots. It is from these areas that our zombie stars release X-rays, and as they rotate create a pulse of light – thereby the term “pulsar”. As the neutron star shrinks, it spins faster and the resultant intense gravity can pull in material from a closely orbiting star. Some of these pulsars spin so fast they can reach speeds of several hundred of rotations per second! What scientists are itching to understand is how matter behaves inside a neutron star and “pinning down the correct Equation Of State (EOS) that most accurately describes how matter responds to increasing pressure. Currently, there are many suggested EOSs, each proposing that matter can be compressed by different amounts inside neutron stars. Suppose you held two balls of the same size, but one was made of foam and the other was made of wood. You could squeeze the foam ball down to a smaller size than the wooden one. In the same way, an EOS that says matter is highly compressible will predict a smaller neutron star for a given mass than an EOS that says matter is less compressible.”
Now all NICER will need to do is help us to measure a pulsar’s mass. Once it is determined, we can get a correct EOS and unlock the mystery of how matter behaves under intense gravity. “The problem is that neutron stars are small, and much too far away to allow their sizes to be measured directly,” says NICER Principal Investigator Dr. Keith Gendreau of NASA Goddard. “However, NICER will be the first mission that has enough sensitivity and time-resolution to figure out a neutron star’s size indirectly. The key is to precisely measure how much the brightness of the X-rays changes as the neutron star rotates.”
So what else does our zombie star do that’s impressive? Because of their extreme gravity in such small volume, they distort space/time in accordance with Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. It is this space “warp” that allows astronomers to reveal the presence of a companion star. It also produces effects like an orbital shift called precession, allowing the pair to orbit around each other causing gravitational waves and producing measurable orbital energy. One of the goals of NICER is to detect these effects. The warp itself will allow the team to determine the neutron star’s size. How? Imagine pushing your finger into a stretchy material – then imagine pushing your whole hand against it. The smaller the neutron star, the more it will warp space and light.
Here light curves become very important. When a neutron star’s hotspots are aligned with our observations, the brightness increases as one rotates into view and dims as it rotates away. This results in a light curve with large waves. But, when space is distorted we’re allowed to view around the curve and see the second hotspot – resulting in a light curve with smoother, smaller waves. The team has models that produce “unique light curves for the various sizes predicted by different EOSs. By choosing the light curve that best matches the observed one, they will get the correct EOS and solve the riddle of matter on the edge of oblivion.”