Stellar Winds Coming From Other Stars Measured for the First Time

Infrared image of the shockwave created by the massive giant star Zeta Ophiuchi in an interstellar dust cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech; NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); C. R. O'Dell, Vanderbilt University

An international research team led by the University of Vienna has made a major breakthrough. In a study recently published in Nature Astronomy, they describe how they conducted the first direct measurements of stellar wind in three Sun-like star systems. Using X-ray emission data obtained by the ESA’s X-ray Multi-Mirror-Newton (XMM-Newton) of these stars’ “astrospheres,” they measured the mass loss rate of these stars via stellar winds. The study of how stars and planets co-evolve could assist in the search for life while also helping astronomers predict the future evolution of our Solar System.

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Solar Storms Could Cause Mayhem to Trains

Solar storm. Image credit: NASA
Solar storm. Image credit: NASA

The rail service here in the UK is often the brunt of jokes. If it’s not the wrong type of rain, or the leaves are laying on the tracks the wrong way then it’s some other seemingly ludicrous reason that the trains are delayed, or even cancelled. A recent study by scientists at the University of Lancaster suggest that even the solar wind might cause train signals to be incorrectly triggered with potentially disastrous consequences.

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Apollo Samples Contain Hydrogen Hurled from the Sun

Apollo astronauts used specialized tools and technology made for space to collect lunar samples.
Apollo astronaut collecting lunar samples (Credit NASA)

According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, men should drink 3.7litres of water a day and women 2.7litres. Now imagine a crew of three heading to the Moon for a 3 week trip, that’s something of the order of 189 litres of water, that’s about 189 kilograms! Assuming you have to carry all the water rather than recycle some of it longer trips into space with more people are going to be logistically challenging for water carriage alone.  Researchers from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) have discovered lunar rocks with hydrogen in them which, when combined with lunar oxygen provide a possibly supply for future explorers.

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Earth’s Past and Future Habitability Depends on Our Protection from Space Weather

Sun with a huge coronal mass ejection. Image credit: NASA

A bewildering number of factors and variables led up to the planet we occupy today, where life finds a way to survive and even thrive in the most marginal conditions. The Sun is the catalyst for it all, propelling life on its journey to greater complexity with its steady fusion.

But the Sun is only benign because of Earth’s built-in protection, the magnetosphere. Both the Sun and the magnetosphere have changed over time, with each one’s strength ebbing and flowing. The Sun drives powerful space weather our way, and the magnetosphere shields the Earth.

How have these two phenomena shaped Earth’s habitability?

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An Astronomical First! A Radiation Belt Seen Outside the Solar System

Artist’s impression of an aurora and the surrounding radiation belt of the ultracool dwarf LSR J1835+3259. Credit: Chuck Carter/Melodie Kao/Heising-Simons Foundation)

In 1958, the first satellites launched by the United States (Explorer 1 and 3) detected a massive radiation belt around planet Earth. This confirmed something that many scientists suspected before the Space Age began: that energetic particles emanating from the Sun (solar wind) were captured and held around the planet by Earth’s magnetosphere. This region was named the Van Allen Belt in honor of University of Iowa professor James Van Allen who led the research effort. As robotic missions explored more of the Solar System, scientists discovered similar radiation belts around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Given the boom in extrasolar planet research, scientists have eagerly awaited the day when a Van Allen Belt would be discovered around an exoplanet. Thanks to a team of astronomers led by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), that day may have arrived! Using the global High Sensitivity Array (HSA), the team obtained images of persistent, intense radio emissions from an ultracool dwarf star. These revealed the presence of a cloud of high-energy particles forming a massive radiation belt similar to what scientists have observed around Jupiter.

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Planetary Interiors in TRAPPIST-1 System Could be Affected by Stellar Flares

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, an international team of researchers led by the University of Cologne in Germany examined how stellar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) erupted by the TRAPPIST-1 star could affect the interior heating of its orbiting exoplanets. This study holds the potential to help us better understand how solar flares affect planetary evolution. The TRAPPIST-1 system is an exolanetary system located approximately 39 light-years from Earth with at least seven potentially rocky exoplanets in orbit around a star that has 12 times less mass than our own Sun. Since the parent star is much smaller than our own Sun, then the the planetary orbits within the TRAPPIST-1 system are much smaller than our own solar system, as well. So, how can this study help us better understand the potential habitability of planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system?

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Birds use Dynamic Soaring to Pick Up Velocity. We Could Use a Similar Trick to Go Interstellar

The Solar Sail demonstration mission. Credit: NASA

To stand on a coastal shore and watch how eagles, ravens, seagulls, and crows take flight in high winds. it’s an inspiring sight, to be sure. Additionally, it illustrates an important concept in aerial mechanics, like how the proper angling of wings can allow birds to exploit differences in wind speed to hover in mid-air. Similarly, birds can use these same differences in wind speed to gain bursts of velocity to soar and dive. These same lessons can be applied to space, where spacecraft could perform special maneuvers to pick up bursts of speed from “space weather” (solar wind).

This was the subject of a recent study led by researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. By circling between regions of the heliosphere with different wind speeds, they state, a spacecraft would be capable of “dynamic soaring” the same way avian species are. Such a spacecraft would not require propellant (which makes up the biggest mass fraction of conventional missions) and would need only a minimal power supply. Their proposal is one of many concepts for low-mass, low-cost missions that could become interplanetary (or interstellar) explorers.

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NASA Tests a Solar Sail Segment of its Enormous Solar Cruiser Mission

Artist's concept of the Solar Cruiser mission. Credit: NASA

A team led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) was recently selected to develop a solar sail spacecraft that would launch sometime in 2025. Known as the Solar Cruiser, this mission of opportunity measures 1653 m2 (~17790 ft2) in area and is about the same thickness as a human hair. Sponsored by the Science Mission Directorate’s (SMD) Heliophysics Division, this technology demonstrator will integrate several new solar sail technologies developed by various organizations to mature solar sail technology for future missions.

In a recent video released by NASA, we see engineers and industry partners at the MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama, unfurling a segment of the prototype solar sail. The video, taken on October 13th, shows how the teams used two 30.5 m (100-foot) lightweight composite booms to unfurl a 400 m2 (4,300 ft2) quadrant of the solar sail prototype for the first time. Once realized, the Solar Cruiser demonstrator will validate technologies that enable future missions to study the Sun, its interaction with Earth, and its extended atmosphere (aka. heliosphere).

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Solar Orbiter’s Pictures of the Sun are Every Bit as Dramatic as You Were Hoping

This is one of the new images of the Sun from the ESA's Solar Orbiter's closest approach on March 26th, 2022. Image Credit: ESA

On March 26th, the ESA’s Solar Orbiter made its closest approach to the Sun so far. It ventured inside Mercury’s orbit and was about one-third the distance from Earth to the Sun. It was hot but worth it.

The Solar Orbiter’s primary mission is to understand the connection between the Sun and its heliosphere, and new images from the close approach are helping build that understanding.

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The Strange Swirls on the Lunar Surface are Somehow Related to Topography

This is an image of the Reiner Gamma lunar swirl from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credits: NASA LRO WAC science team
This is an image of the Reiner Gamma lunar swirl from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credits: NASA LRO WAC science team

The Moon is the most studied object in space. But our nearest neighbour still holds a few mysteries. One of those mysteries is the lunar swirls. These strange serpentine features are brighter than their surroundings and are much younger. They’re not associated with any specific composition of lunar rock, and they appear to overlay other surface features like craters and ejecta.

Scientists have been puzzling over the swirls for decades, and with lunar outposts looming as a real possibility, understanding these swirls takes on new importance. Now a new study finds a link between lunar topography and the swirls.

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