In 1958, the first satellites launched by the United States (Explorer 1and 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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
For the first time ever, a spacecraft has flown through the Sun’s outer atmosphere. The Parker Solar Probe passed through the out portion of the Sun’s corona in April of 2021, passing directly through streamers of solar plasma.
And by the way …. there’s video of what the spacecraft “saw.”
Where did Earth’s water come from? Comets may have brought some of it. Asteroids may have brought some. Icy planetesimals may have played a role by crashing into the young Earth and depositing their water. Hydrogen from inside the Earth may have contributed, too. Another hypothesis states the collision that formed the Moon gave Earth its water.
There’s evidence to back up all of these hypotheses.
But new research suggests that the Sun and its Solar Wind may have helped delivered some water, too.
Scientists have found the unmistakable presence of certain isotopes in an iron meteorite. Since these meteorites are thought to leftover bits of planetary cores, similar isotopes must be in the Earth’s own core. And the only place to get those isotopes is from the solar wind.
Sometimes the sun spits out high-energy particles which slam into the Earth, potentially disrupting our sensitive electronics. New research has found that these particles originate in the plasma of the sun itself, and are trapped there by strong magnetic fields. When those fields weaken, the particles blast out.