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  • richardmitnick 10:18 pm on January 12, 2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "NOIRLab Scientist Finds the Universe to be Brighter than Expected", , , , , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From NOIRLab: “NOIRLab Scientist Finds the Universe to be Brighter than Expected” 

    NOIRLab composite

    From NOIRLab

    12 January 2021

    Tod Lauer
    NSF’s NOIRLab
    Cell: +1 520 861 4618

    Amanda Kocz
    NSF’s NOIRLab
    Cell: +1 626 524 5884

    Measurements of the Universe’s darkness performed with NASA’s New Horizons probe reveal an unexplained glow to the Universe. These results are presented at the January 2021 meeting of the American Astronomical Society.[1]

    NOIRLab’s facilities focus on ground-based astronomy, but NOIRLab scientists also use data from space telescopes to answer their astronomical questions — and sometimes even use space probes designed to visit other planets. A team of astronomers led by NOIRLab scientist Tod Lauer, which included other members of the New Horizons science team and Marc Postman from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), used the New Horizons spacecraft [2] to answer a fundamental question — how dark is the Universe?

    “The Universe is dark, but not as dark as we thought,” said Lauer.

    This measurement — known as the cosmic optical background — is the visible equivalent of the well-known cosmic microwave background.

    Cosmic Optical Background.
    Researchers analyzed these fields imaged by LORRI [Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA/New Horizons spacecraft]. Image Credit: Tod Lauer et al.

    “While the cosmic microwave background tells us about the first 450,000 years after the Big Bang, the cosmic optical background tells us something about the sum total of all the stars that have ever formed since then,” explained Postman. “It puts a constraint on the total number of galaxies that have been created, and where they might be in time.”

    The key to the team’s approach was to use a telescopic camera on the New Horizons space probe as it was traveling through the outer regions of the Solar System, rather than the Hubble Space Telescope or any other probe operating around Earth or the inner Solar System. Having flown past Pluto in 2015 and the remote Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth in 2019, New Horizons is now more than 7 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from Earth. This distance gives the space probe a much darker sky to measure, providing astronomers with more accurate results. Just as light pollution limits the view of the night sky in cities, sunlight scattered by tiny dust particles in the inner Solar System completely overwhelms the faint background light coming from the distant Universe.[3]

    In the far outer regions of the Solar System, New Horizons was able to measure the intrinsic darkness of the night sky and estimate the number of galaxies populating the Universe.

    After correcting their measurement by subtracting a number of light sources, such as the known stars in the Milky Way and reflections from interstellar dust, the team found that some light remained. The source of this extra light remains unclear. One possibility is that a large number of dwarf galaxies in the nearby Universe lie just beyond detectability. Equally possible is that the diffuse halos of stars that surround galaxies might be brighter than expected. Other possibilities include a population of rogue, intergalactic stars spread throughout the cosmos — or there simply may be many more faint, distant galaxies than theories suggest.

    In addition, the study shows that there are far fewer unseen galaxies — galaxies that are too faint to be directly observed — in the Universe than previous estimates suggested. The measurements of this weak background glow show that the unseen galaxies are less plentiful than some theoretical studies suggested. Galaxies appear to number only in the hundreds of billions rather than the two trillion previously extrapolated from observations by the Hubble Space Telescope.

    [1] This result will be featured in an online session at the 237th American Astronomical Society meeting: “New Horizons Detection of the Cosmic Optical Background” on Wednesday, 13 January at 12:40pm EST.

    [2] New Horizons is a NASA space probe designed to explore the outer Solar System, particularly Pluto. Launched in 2006, it completed its Pluto flyby in 2015 and is now on an extended voyage through the Kuiper Belt. Amongst its various scientific instruments, New Horizons is equipped with a small 20-centimeter (8-inch) telescope — which proved to be key for this research (LORRI [Long Range Reconnaissance Imager]).

    [3] This ambient glow is known as zodiacal light and is often seen from Earth by astrophotographers, stargazers, and other dark sky enthusiasts.

    Science paper:
    New Horizons Observations of the Cosmic Optical Background
    Accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

    See the full article here.


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    What is NSF’s NOIRLab?

    NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab), the US center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy, operates the international Gemini Observatory (a facility of NSF, NRC–Canada, ANID–Chile, MCTIC–Brazil, MINCyT–Argentina, and KASI–Republic of Korea), Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), the Community Science and Data Center (CSDC), and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. It is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with NSF and is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. The astronomical community is honored to have the opportunity to conduct astronomical research on Iolkam Du’ag (Kitt Peak) in Arizona, on Maunakea in Hawaiʻi, and on Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón in Chile. We recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that these sites have to the Tohono O’odham Nation, to the Native Hawaiian community, and to the local communities in Chile, respectively.

  • richardmitnick 1:23 pm on December 8, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Outer Space Just Got a Little Brighter", , , , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From The New York Times: “Outer Space Just Got a Little Brighter” 

    From The New York Times

    Dec. 8, 2020
    Dennis Overbye

    The universe is not as black as astronomers once thought.

    Credit: Guy Billout.

    The universe is a shade too bright.

    That might be the last news you expected to hear toward the darkening end of a dark year. But that is what a band of astronomers has discovered, using cameras on the New Horizons spacecraft that once visited Pluto to measure the darkness of interplanetary space.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft annotated.

    “There’s something out there unknown,” said Tod Lauer, of the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Tucson, Ariz. “The universe is not completely dark, and we don’t yet completely know what it comprises.”

    Four billion miles from the sun, far from bright planets and the light scattered by interplanetary dust, empty space was about twice as bright as would be expected Dr. Lauer and his colleagues found. The most likely explanation, he said, was that there were more very faint galaxies or star clusters contributing to the background light of the universe than their models indicated. Or even that black holes in the centers of otherwise undistinguished galaxies were pumping extra energy into the void.

    A less exciting possibility, Dr. Lauer said in an email, was that “we messed up and missed a light source or camera artifact that we should have figured out. This is what I worry about the most.”

    A more intriguing, if speculative, suggestion involves what might be called cold dim matter. The universe is thought to be filled with “Dark Matter,” its exact substance unknown but whose gravity shapes the visible cosmos. Some theories suggest that this matter could be clouds of exotic subatomic particles that decay radioactively or collide and annihilate themselves in flashes of energy that add to the universal glow.

    Dr. Lauer and his colleagues prefer to leave such speculations to particle physicists. “Our work is solely concerned with measuring the flux level itself,” he said in an email. “As observers, we offer this up for those who can figure out what to do with it.”

    Marc Postman, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and an author of the report, which was published online in November [The Astrophysical Journal], said, “It is important to do this to get an estimate of the total energy content of the universe, which helps inform us about the overall cosmic history of star formation.”

    For the record, the amount of extra light they found bouncing around the universe is about 10 nanowatts per square meter per steradian, a measure of solid angle on the sky. (It takes 4𝞹 steradians to cover the entire sky).

    Dr. Lauer compared this measurement to the amount of light supplied by the star Sirius or an open refrigerator a mile away. “To make it a little closer to what we did, you can think of lying in bed with the curtains open on a dark moonless night,” he wrote in an email. “Perhaps you’re awake and are staring at the walls. When Sirius clears the mountains, or your neighbor raids his fridge, we would see the light in the room get a little brighter.”

    However, he noted, “Your distant neighbor eating leftover turkey at three in the morning is not going to wake you up at night from the glare.”

    He said the measurement had a 5 percent chance of being a fluke; that margin of error is known as 2 sigma, and is a far cry from the gold standard for a discovery of “5 sigma,” or 1 chance in 3.5 million of being wrong.

    The team’s measurement included only light in the visible wavelengths and needed to be augmented by radio, X-ray and infrared background measurements, Dr. Postman said.

    For centuries, the darkness of the night sky was the source of a paradox named after the German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers. Presumably, in an infinite static universe, every line of sight ends at a star, so shouldn’t the sky appear as bright as the sun?

    But astronomers now know that the universe is only 13.8 billion years old and expanding. As a result, most lines of sight do not end on stars but on the fading glow of the Big Bang, and the wavelengths of the glow are now so extended that they are invisible to the eye, making the sky look dark.

    But how dark is dark?

    It’s no small feat to add up all the light you cannot see. There are distant galaxies too faint to trip the most sensitive detectors on giant telescopes, but which pump energy into the dust and gas that is strewn about space.

    The New Horizons spacecraft was launched on January 19, 2006, and sped by Pluto on July 14, 2015. On Jan 1., 2019, it zoomed past Arrokoth, formerly called Ultima Thule, one of untold numbers of cosmic icebergs that live in the Kuiper belt on the outskirts of the solar system.

    NASA’s New Horizons probe captured an image of Arrokoth earlier this year, as part of the farthest flyby ever conducted by spacecraft.Credit: NASA, via Associated Press.

    Can you spot a Kuiper belt object in this picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope? In searching for a next destination for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, astronomers had to sift through a haystack of stars and asteroids.Credit: STScI/NASA/SwRI.

    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

    It is still going.

    Dr. Lauer’s measurements were based on seven images from the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager, a camera on New Horizons, and taken when the spacecraft was some 4 billion miles from Earth. At that distance the spacecraft was well beyond the distracting glow of planets or of interplanetary dust. Indeed, Dr. Postman said, going even 10 times farther out would not have produced a cleaner darkness.

    “When you have a telescope on New Horizons way out at the edge of the solar system, you can ask, How dark does space get anyway,” Dr. Lauer wrote. “Use your camera just to measure the glow from the sky.” In this case, the images were of distant Kuiper belt objects. Subtract them, and any stars, and what remains is pure sky.

    The camera, Dr. Postman said, is a “white light imager,” receiving light across a wide spectrum spanning visible and some ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths.

    Once the team measured the level of light in the sky background, they then had to resort to mathematical models of how many faint galaxies were lurking under the normal limits of detection. When that amount was subtracted from their measurements, an equal amount of light remained of unknown origin.

    “It’s as if you counted all the people on Earth but left out Asia,” Dr. Postman said. Dr. Lauer said this was the most accurate measurement of the background light yet.

    The study follows on earlier work by Michael Zemcov of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who had a smaller set of images to analyze — four 10-second exposures instead of 195 30-second exposures.

    He and his colleagues derived an upper limit of about 19 nanowatts per square meter per steradian — in the same ballpark as Dr. Lauer’s results.

    “This kind of measurement really pushes our understanding of both the instrument and the brightness of the light from all the stuff between us and the distant universe,” Dr. Zemcov said in an email. “People have posited a variety of sources, but the jury is still out on what it could be.”

    What we can’t see may yet change our understanding of the universe, but Dan Hooper, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., splashed cold water on the idea that the culprit was dark matter. In an email, he said that he and his colleagues, brainstorming, had not come up with any new physics that would explain this added light, “with the exception of a couple of really baroque and otherwise unappealing options.”

    See the full article here .


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  • richardmitnick 8:48 am on November 25, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Precise maps of millions of bright quasars show our place in the cosmos as never before", , , , , , Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth, NASA New Horizons,   

    From Science Magazine: “Precise maps of millions of bright quasars show our place in the cosmos as never before” 

    From Science Magazine

    Nov. 24, 2020
    Joshua Sokol

    Quasars, generated by black holes in distant galaxies, are far more stable beacons than nearby stars. Credit:J. PAULSON/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO.

    On a Friday at the end of 2018, the top brass of a NASA deep space mission convened for a tense meeting. Hour by hour the New Horizons probe was hurtling toward a New Year’s Day rendezvous with Arrokoth, an ancient, icy rock at the edge of the Solar System.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft annotated.

    Color composite image of Arrokoth. This composite image of the primordial contact binary Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69.
    Arrokoth was discovered on 26 June 2014 by astronomer Marc Buie and the New Horizons Search Team using the Hubble Space Telescope as part of a search for a Kuiper belt object for the New Horizons mission to target in its first extended mission.

    The team had one last chance to send instructions for pointing the probe’s cameras. Success would ensure in-frame pictures of Arrokoth, and the clues it held for how the planets formed. Failure would mean expensive pictures of an empty void.

    The mission managers who gathered at New Horizons headquarters in suburban Maryland realized they had a “massive problem,” says Marc Buie, a team member and planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Something was off in images already beamed back. Either the flying spacecraft or the orbiting rock was a teensy bit lost in a universe where nothing is nailed down.

    The team debated what to fix. Some thought the probe’s position, calculated from Earth-based measurements, was correct, in which case Arrokoth was in an unexpected place. But Buie believed the rock was right where it should be, which suggested thrusters had nudged the spacecraft itself a hair off course.

    Buie was confident because he was tracking Arrokoth’s position relative to an ultraprecise map of far-off beacons called quasars: cosmic lighthouses generated by black holes in distant galactic centers. But the map was largely untested, having just been released by a European Space Agency star-mapping satellite called Gaia. It was the basis of a brand-new celestial reference frame, a fixed, imaginary grid against which everything else moves, akin to lines of latitude and longitude on Earth. And Buie was gambling the Arrokoth flyby on that new grid.

    For the past few decades, astronomers have based their celestial grid on radio observations of several thousand quasars. These radio beacons not only guide the pointing of telescopes, but they are also the bedrock of the reference frame for the spinning, bucking Earth. Without them, GPS devices would lose their accuracy and many ultraprecise studies of processes such as plate tectonics and climate change would be impossible. But observations of these beacons are costly and rely on radio telescopes.

    By 2018, when New Horizons was approaching Arrokoth, Gaia had produced its own version of a reference frame, based on half a million quasars seen in the visible wavelengths most astronomers use, not radio. Buie persuaded the New Horizons team to trust the new framework. A correction based on the Gaia positions went up to the probe.

    The team got it right: When the closest flyby images came back, Arrokoth was framed perfectly. “None of that would have happened if we hadn’t had the Gaia catalog,” Buie says. “It’s a fundamental rewriting of how we do positional astronomy.”

    The rewriting has continued. Next week, on 3 December, Gaia will release, along with the latest data about billions of Milky Way stars, its newest reference frame, built from 1.6 million quasars scattered across the sky. “It is improved, larger, better, more beautiful,” says François Mignard, an astronomer at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France who leads Gaia’s reference frame team.

    The Gaia reference frame is only the latest solution to a very, very old problem. From planets to comets to asteroids, much of the sky drifts from night to night. Studying these objects would be hopeless without comparing them with points that stay still.

    At first, the stars looked like trustworthy reference points. In the second century C.E., the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy revisited constellations his predecessor Hipparcos had observed some 3 centuries earlier. With his naked eyes, Ptolemy couldn’t find any movement among the stars, which he assumed were fixed points on a sphere rotating around Earth.

    But by the 1700s, careful observations with telescopes proved the stars’ apparent positions in the sky do shift over the years, as they move through the cosmos. In response, astronomers spent whole lifetimes building catalogs of stars far enough away or slow enough to mostly stay still.


    Next week, Europe’s star-mapping Gaia mission will release a new celestial reference frame, built from the positions of 1.6 million quasars. Credit: ESA/ATG MEDIALAB; ESO/S. BRUNIER.

    The game changed again when astronomers started to observe quasars in the 1970s, using radio dishes on different continents to make hyperprecise measurements of their positions. Like stars, quasars appear as points of light. But they are billions of light-years away, so they barely budge within human lifetimes. Finally, the distant sky, not Earth, was the ultimate arbiter of where things are.

    Today, the radio measurements feed into a global bureaucracy that maintains reference frames, imposing order on space in the same way astronomical observatories used to keep time. Many of the quasar measurements are accurate to about a hundred-millionth of a degree—smaller than the apparent size of a basketball on the Moon. They not only hold the sky in place, but also reveal jerks in Earth’s rotation speed and wobbles in its axis that arise from earthquakes and hurricanes. The calculated tweaks are used in turn to correct GPS devices, which would otherwise lose track of Earth’s spinning surface.

    The growing number of rock-solid quasars, now in the thousands, also transformed interplanetary navigation. For decades, NASA tracked its spacecraft mainly by measuring their velocities as they flew away, which made it possible to calculate their distances from Earth. Their positions in other dimensions were only coarsely estimated by the sensors on the spacecraft. But after a pair of high-profile Mars failures in 1999, the agency added another method: It looks for quasars that are near the craft’s current location in the sky—anchoring the probe to the reference frame. The approach has enabled subsequent bull’s-eye landings on Mars and elsewhere, says Barry Geldzahler, who recently retired as NASA’s navigation lead. “We make the hard things routine, and kind of boring.”

    For the many space scientists who work outside of radio wavelengths, however, a radio-based reference frame isn’t so useful. Astronomers had spent decades trying to build up rival reference points in visible light. But quasars are faint specks at those wavelengths, and optical telescopes peering through Earth’s blurry atmosphere struggled to match the precision of radio arrays.

    Then the 2018 Gaia data set dropped, after the probe scanned the whole sky with sensitive space-based detectors. “Ninety-eight percent of that work was obliterated after the Gaia release,” says Leonid Petrov, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who conducts radio quasar observations to build reference frames. “In 1 day, they became history.”

    The consensus grid for outer space—the third iteration of the official International Celestial Reference Frame, maintained by the International Astronomical Union (IAU)—still relies on radio quasars. But at the next IAU general assembly in 2021, Mignard says he plans to propose a multi-wavelength system, with the optical quasar positions listed alongside the radio ones.

    Tiny offsets between the two systems can already be seen, but they are not errors. They reflect astrophysical reality—and a tantalizing research opportunity. Quasars are powered by gas swirling around supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. As the gas circles the drain, it kicks out bright jets of plasma at nearly the speed of light. The radio telescopes are trained on the black hole itself, whereas Gaia picks up an average position between the black hole and the jets. No single telescope can distinguish between these locations. But the discrepancies between the radio and optical positions point to these fine details and offer a new way to investigate the physics at galaxy centers.

    “If you’re a fan of active galactic nuclei, this is a great time to be alive,” says Bryan Dorland, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory. “The last time positional astronomy was exciting was around, like, Ptolemy. Right?”

    Eventually, the Gaia data might even feed back into terrestrial position-finding systems, but not before lengthy studies and negotiations, says Manuela Seitz, of the German Geodetic Research Institute. “It’s a long way between showing, OK, you can have an improvement if you use it to, OK, you now have products which are really consistent,” she says.

    To stay useful, the Gaia system will require tending. Right now, it has a firm handle on not just its quasars, but also more than 1 billion closer, drifting stars. These stars, anchored to the quasar-based grid, are useful guides for spacecraft with simple star trackers, or when no quasar is visible in a particular part of the sky. But the Gaia mission is set to end its vigil in 2025. After that, the stars will meander relative to background quasars unless astronomers dispatch a follow-up mission to remap the sky.

    Meanwhile, the quasars themselves will drift glacially. Ultimately, Mignard says, high-precision reference frames of the future might require anchors even more stable than quasars: perhaps points on the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow of the big bang, which lies at the farthest observable distance in the cosmos.

    Buie, for his part, plans to use the Gaia reference frame for as long as he can in his work pinpointing and studying tiny outer Solar System rocks. The Gaia data make it easier for him to calculate when and where to go on Earth to watch a star wink out as a remote object crosses in front of it—a so-called occultation event that relies on the momentary backlight to reveal details about the object.

    He’s also playing the same game he did with New Horizons and Arrokoth for Lucy, an upcoming NASA mission that plans to buzz past five small asteroids near the orbit of Jupiter. The extra precision of the Gaia system will help mission controllers home in precisely on their targets. “They don’t think they need it, but they do,” Buie says.

    See the full article here .


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  • richardmitnick 8:51 am on October 16, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Pluto’s snowcapped mountains are unlike any on Earth", Centre Nationnal de la Recherche Scientifique [CNRS](FR), , NASA New Horizons,   

    From Centre Nationnal de la Recherche Scientifique [CNRS](FR) via EarthSky: “Pluto’s snowcapped mountains are unlike any on Earth” 

    CNRS bloc

    From Centre Nationnal de la Recherche Scientifique [CNRS](FR)




    October 16, 2020
    Paul Scott Anderson

    A new study shows how methane snow accumulates on Pluto’s mountain peaks. These snowcaps – first seen by New Horizons in 2015 – look a lot like ones on Earth, but form in a very alien environment.

    Comparison of snowcapped mountains in Cthulhu Macula on Pluto (left) with the Alps on Earth (right). Image via NASA/ Johns Hopkins APL/ SWRI/ Thomas Pesquet/ ESA/ EurekAlert!.

    With their tall peaks reaching into the sky and and their snow glistening in the sun, snowcapped mountains on Earth are beautiful. Other planets, like Mars and Venus and even some moons, also have mountains, but they lack the scenic snow cover of earthly mountains. One notable exception, though, was discovered in 2015 by the New Horizons spacecraft, when it made its sweep through the outer reaches of our solar system. I’m talking about the snowcapped mountains of Pluto!

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft.

    Not only does Pluto have mountains, which was a bit surprising given its small size, but Pluto’s mountains also have snow on their peaks. There is one significant difference, though, between the mountains of Earth and Pluto. The “snow” or frost on Pluto consists of frozen methane (CH4) instead of water ice crystals.

    Meanwhile, Pluto’s mountains themselves are composed of rock-hard water ice.

    The new research, by an international team of scientists led by researchers from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) (FR), was announced on October 13, 2020.

    The associated peer-reviewed paper was published in Nature Communications on the same day.

    Enhanced color view of the methane snowcapped Pigafetta Montes mountain range in Cthulhu Macula on Pluto, as seen by New Horizons on July 14, 2015. The new study helps explain how snow comes to be on Pluto’s mountains, in a process that is opposite to the way in which snow comes to be on mountain peaks on Earth. The resolution of this image is about 2,230 feet (680 meters) per pixel. The image measures approximately 280 miles (450 km) long by 140 miles (225 km) wide. Image via NASA/ Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/ Southwest Research Institute/ NASA JPL-Caltech.

    The snow on Pluto’s mountains – particularly in Cthulhu Macula (formerly called Cthulhu Regio) – is part of a cycle, reminiscent of Earth’s water cycle, but integrating traces of methane in Pluto’s thin atmosphere instead of water vapor. The researchers used a climate model to find out just how the methane snow could be produced in Pluto’s un-Earthlike conditions. They found that Pluto’s mountain peaks are the only places high enough in altitude on the little world so that methane could condense out from the atmosphere. From the paper:

    “Here we demonstrate that the bright frosts observed in Cthulhu are mostly made of CH4-rich ice. We then use a numerical climate model of Pluto to investigate the origin of their formation. Our simulations reproduce the accumulation of high-altitude CH4 ice where the frostcapped mountains are observed, in particular on the ridges and crests of the Pigafetta and Elcano Montes in eastern Cthulhu. They show that CH4 condensation is favored by sublimation-induced circulation cells that seasonally enrich the atmosphere with gaseous methane at those higher altitudes.

    Overall, the formation of CH4 frost on top of Pluto’s mountains appears to be driven by a process completely different from the one forming snowcapped mountains on the Earth, according to our model. It is remarkable that two phenomena and two materials that are so dissimilar could produce the same landscape, when seen at similar resolution.”

    Two diagrams of blue mountains with white peaks, showing different airflow patterns.

    Comparison of snow-capped mountains on Pluto and Earth. Image via Tanguy Bertrand et al.

    Detection of methane ice “snow” on the peaks of Pigafetta Montes and Elcano Montes in Cthulhu Macula on Pluto. Image via Tanguy Bertrand et al./ Nature Communications.

    The findings also help solve another mystery as to why glaciers on Pluto, also composed of methane, have craggy ridges on them, while Earth’s glaciers, composed of water ice, tend to have smoother surfaces. As described in the paper:

    “Pluto is covered by numerous deposits of methane, either diluted in nitrogen or as methane-rich ice. Within the dark equatorial region of Cthulhu, bright frost containing methane is observed coating crater rims and walls as well as mountain tops, providing spectacular resemblance to terrestrial snowcapped mountain chains. However, the origin of these deposits remained enigmatic. Here we report that they are composed of methane-rich ice. We use high-resolution numerical simulations of Pluto’s climate to show that the processes forming them are likely to be completely different to those forming high-altitude snowpack on Earth. The methane deposits may not result from adiabatic cooling in upwardly moving air like on our planet, but from a circulation-induced enrichment of gaseous methane a few kilometers above Pluto’s plains that favors methane condensation at mountain summits. This process could have shaped other methane reservoirs on Pluto and help explain the appearance of the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa.”

    As Tanguy Bertrand, lead author of the study at NASA Ames Research Center, told CNN:

    “Pluto is covered by exotic-composition ices and its landscape strongly resembles the polar caps on Earth (Greenland and Antarctica). New Horizons even discovered spectacular mountains on Pluto covered by bright deposits, strikingly resembling snowcapped mountain chains seen on Earth. Such a landscape had never been observed elsewhere in the solar system. Could Pluto’s atmosphere behave like Earth’s? We discovered that a new and unique (in the solar system) atmospheric process forms these snowy mountains on Pluto.”

    New Horizons’ view of Sputnik Planitia on Pluto, a vast, smooth field of nitrogen ice glaciers which makes up half of Pluto’s “heart” feature. Pluto also has possible cryovolcanoes (ice volcanoes) and a subsurface ocean of water, making it a surprisingly geologically active world. Image via NASA/ SwRI/ JHUAPL/ Science News.

    On Earth, temperatures in the atmosphere decrease with altitude. The opposite occurs on Pluto, however. Its thin atmosphere is warmed by the sun, and temperatures increase the higher up you go, which allows the methane to condense onto the mountain peaks. As Bertrand explained:

    “At its contact the air is cooled and flows downslope. Pluto’s atmosphere has more gaseous methane at its warmer, higher altitudes, allowing for that gas to saturate and freeze directly on the mountain peaks tall enough to reach the enriched zone. At lower altitudes, the concentration of gaseous methane is lower, and it cannot condense.

    This discovery teaches us that there are still plenty of physical and dynamical processes out there in space that we do not know about, and that climates can be very different than that of Earth (despite forming a similar landscape). It is important to study Pluto and other planetary bodies because they are natural laboratories to explore and investigate the diversity of possible climates (and geology, and other planetary sciences) which gives us more perspective on our own climate.”

    The discovery of a snowcap cycle on Pluto is a fascinating example of how active this cold, distant dwarf planet actually is. Pluto also has vast, smooth glaciers of nitrogen ice such as in Sputnik Planum, dunes of methane ice and odd “bladed terrain” with blades of ice as tall as skyscrapers. There may also be cryovolcanoes – ice volcanoes – and a subsurface ocean of water. This little world is surprisingly geologically active despite being so small and so far from the sun. It even has five moons!

    Even though its visit to Pluto was just a brief flyby, New Horizons has already transformed our knowledge about this little world, and its findings will keep scientists busy for decades to come.

    See the full article here .


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    CNRS (FR) encourages collaboration between specialists from different disciplines in particular with the university thus opening up new fields of enquiry to meet social and economic needs. CNRS has developed interdisciplinary programs which bring together various CNRS departments as well as other research institutions and industry.

    Interdisciplinary research is undertaken in the following domains:

    Life and its social implications
    Information, communication and knowledge
    Environment, energy and sustainable development
    Nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials
    Astroparticles: from particles to the Universe

  • richardmitnick 8:56 am on July 3, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Pluto has likely maintained an underground liquid ocean for billions of years", According to S. Alan Stern “We’re going to need an orbiter to clinch the case [for Pluto’s ocean]., , , , , , , NASA New Horizons, Oceans are ubiquitous. Most of them are in the outer solar system. And they could be abodes for life.   

    From Astronomy Magazine: “Pluto has likely maintained an underground liquid ocean for billions of years” 

    From Astronomy Magazine

    June 23, 2020
    Eric Betz

    The discovery hints that subsurface oceans are common in the outer solar system, which is good news for the those seeking extraterrestrial life.

    Pluto as imaged by the New Horizons mission. NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI.

    When early Earth was still a molten mass with a surface swimming in liquid magma, Pluto and its underground ocean were just forming. And for the billions of years since, liquid plutonian water has remained in the distant solar system, providing a potential abode for life. At least, that’s the conclusion of a new study published June 22 in the journal Nature Geoscience.

    The study rewrites scientists’ theories about the early history of Pluto and suggests that other liquid oceans — once thought to be unique to Earth — are common on dwarf planets across the outer solar system.

    “Oceans are ubiquitous. Most of them are in the outer solar system. And they could be abodes for life,” says S. Alan Stern, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute and head of NASA’s New Horizons mission. “This is a fundamental sea change in the way we view the solar system.”

    Just 15 minutes after closest approach, New Horizons captured a near-sunset view of Pluto’s rugged terrain and hazy, layered atmosphere. The scene is 230 miles across. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    Pluto’s buried ocean

    When the New Horizons spacecraft made its flyby of Pluto in 2015, it revealed a surface geology so active and complex that scientists suspected there may have once been an ocean buried miles beneath Pluto’s thick crust of ice. Those suspicions have grown closer to presumptions in recent years. And now, most planetary scientists agree that, even today, Pluto has a global liquid ocean under its surface.

    But how does a world smaller than Earth’s moon harbor on ocean? And how did it manage to keep it from freezing over the course of billions of years?

    With the new study, scientists think they finally have an answer to these questions.

    Until now, astronomers assumed that Pluto formed out of cold material glomming together very slowly. As a dusty disk of debris coalesced around our Sun, the dwarf planet would have gradually clumped together out of bits of rock and ice. Once large enough, Pluto’s internal heat would have melted some of its ice, creating a subsurface ocean. That story works well, astronomers say, as Pluto’s underground ocean is explained simply by the decay of radioactive elements.

    But the team behind this latest research wanted to test that theory anyway. They wanted to find out whether Pluto started off hot instead, and formed through a series of massive impacts much like early Earth.

    “We understand this picture fairly well from the early inner solar system through meteorites and other things,” says lead study author Carver Bierson, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. However, he adds, “we actually don’t have much of a picture for the outer solar system.”

    Putting Pluto in the freezer

    As it turns out, there is a way to tell whether Pluto formed hot or cold by simply observing the dwarf planet’s surface. It relates to the straightforward fact that water expands as it freezes and compresses when it melts.

    “If you take a glass of water and put it in the freezer, that glass is going to break overnight because when the water freezes, it expands,” Stern says. “The same thing is true on Pluto.”

    When water freezes, the molecules inside vibrate less and form a crystalline structure that leaves ice less dense. That’s why ice cubes float in your glass, and why this solid water also expands.

    So if Pluto started hot and then slowly froze, its surface should have expanded, leaving evidence of geologic features formed through expansion. But if Pluto had a cold start, the dwarf planet’s surface should show evidence of compression going back into the world’s distant history.

    To probe which of these two scenarios fits the evidence, the team took a closer look at New Horizons’ data, searching for signs of either expansion or compression. They were surprised by what they found.

    “We see terrains on Pluto that look to be very old, roughly the age of the solar system, and we don’t see evidence of that compression,” Bierson says. That suggests a hot start.

    One such example comes from craters. Impacts on an icy world typically form neat circles. But over time, Pluto’s craters have all been stretched out, even ones that sit in the oldest terrains. However, none of them are compressed.

    There are other lines of evidence, too.

    Bierson went on to model Pluto’s early formation using a hot-start scenario. He found that if Pluto formed through a rapid succession of large impacts, the heat from those explosions would continue to build up. This would maintain Pluto’s internal ocean in a liquid state. But for that to have happened, Bierson says, the world must have formed in some 30,000 years — if not less.

    Still, this idea actually matches up well with other recent models of the early evolution of the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy objects and dwarf planets beyond Neptune. Studies suggest that smaller Kuiper Belt objects could have formed in just a few hundred or thousand years.

    “It’s kind of nice that the geology is telling us this,” he says. “People trying to understand the [Kuiper Belt] dynamics are also coming to this conclusion.” The conclusion of a hot start for Pluto “is a weird, surprising answer,” he adds.

    Pluto’s suspected sizzling start also carries major implications for the small world’s neighbors, like Eris, Makemake, and Haumea. If Pluto formed hot and fast, other dwarf planets likely did as well. Taken together with new knowledge of the icy ocean moons around the gas giant planets, astronomers are overturning the old notion of Earth as the sole ocean world in our solar system. Instead, it could be that the outer solar system is surprisingly rich in liquid water.

    “Dozens of worlds in the inner and outer solar systems could have oceans,” Stern says. “It’s one of the most profound discoveries in planetary science in the Space Age.”

    These alien worlds might not seem like a likely place for life to emerge. Pluto sits an average of some 4 billion miles from the Sun (about 40 times farther away than Earth), where very little light reaches the dwarf planet’s surface, letting temperatures drop to around –400 degrees Fahrenheit.

    But below Pluto’s frigid surface, in the relatively warm subsurface ocean, life would be protected from radiation and asteroid impacts.

    “The interesting thing about oceans on the inside is that, in some ways, they’re much safer havens for life,” Stern says. “You’re protected from impacts like the ones that killed the dinosaurs. If the Sun releases flares or a supernova goes off, then you’re safe from that.”

    How Pluto got its heart

    This latest find adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests Pluto has long harbored an active ocean. And another piece of that puzzle only arrived earlier this year.

    Pluto’s icy “heart” is the world’s most recognizable feature. The region is shaped by what looks like a giant impact basin the size of Texas. The heart’s left lobe consists of a 600-mile-wide (1,000 kilometers) ice plain called Sputnik Planitia, which is the largest glacier in the solar system. When New Horizons first brought this feature into clear focus, astronomers thought it must have formed when another large object smashed into Pluto in its past.

    However, the exact location of the basin is suspicious. It sits on precisely the opposite side of world from Pluto’s large moon, Charon. Because an impactor could have hit Pluto anywhere, Stern says, “the idea that this just happened to strike opposite to Charon could be coincidence, but it seems to me too much to believe that it happened entirely by chance.”

    Instead, he thinks the alignment between Charon and Sputnik Planitia could be due to a complicated process called polar wander. Based on models, scientists think the massive glacier could have easily slid along the dwarf planet’s surface until it sat directly opposite from Charon. But that model only makes sense if Pluto has an ocean.

    Still, Stern admits the evidence they have for the existence of Pluto’s ocean is indirect. “We have several lines of circumstantial evidence, but you usually can’t convict in a court of law on circumstantial evidence,” he says.

    And that’s why Stern and a team of researchers are pushing for a Pluto orbiter that would not just return to the dwarf planet, but actually orbit it. New Horizons only got a quick look at Pluto during its brief flyby. And though groundbreaking, the probe only captured high-quality images of 40 percent of the distant world. And another 40 percent of the surface was too dark for New Horizons to even make out anything at all. A Pluto orbiter, on the other hand, could be built with radar and laser instruments that don’t need visible light to see the surface.

    According to Stern, “We’re going to need an orbiter to clinch the case [for Pluto’s ocean], just like it took Cassini to clinch the case for an ocean at Enceladus and Galileo to clinch the case for an ocean at Europa.”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Astronomy is a magazine about the science and hobby of astronomy. Based near Milwaukee in Waukesha, Wisconsin, it is produced by Kalmbach Publishing. Astronomy’s readers include those interested in astronomy and those who want to know about sky events, observing techniques, astrophotography, and amateur astronomy in general.

    Astronomy was founded in 1973 by Stephen A. Walther, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and amateur astronomer. The first issue, August 1973, consisted of 48 pages with five feature articles and information about what to see in the sky that month. Issues contained astrophotos and illustrations created by astronomical artists. Walther had worked part time as a planetarium lecturer at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and developed an interest in photographing constellations at an early age. Although even in childhood he was interested to obsession in Astronomy, he did so poorly in mathematics that his mother despaired that he would ever be able to earn a living. However he graduated in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, and as a senior class project he created a business plan for a magazine for amateur astronomers. With the help of his brother David, he was able to bring the magazine to fruition. He died in 1977.

  • richardmitnick 5:29 pm on December 3, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "New Horizons Confirms Solar Wind Slows Farther from the Sun", , , , , NASA New Horizons, Research could help predict when spacecraft will cross the termination shock, The SWAP instrument aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has confirmed that the solar wind slows as it travels farther from the Sun.   

    NASA From New Horizons: “New Horizons Confirms Solar Wind Slows Farther from the Sun” 

    NASA image


    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    From New Horizons

    Research could help predict when spacecraft will cross the termination shock

    The SWAP instrument aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has confirmed that the solar wind slows as it travels farther from the Sun. This schematic of the heliosphere shows the solar wind begins slowing at approximately 4 AU radial distance from the Sun and continues to slow as it moves toward the outer solar system and picks up interstellar material. Current extrapolations reveal the termination shock may currently be closer than found by the Voyager spacecraft. However, increasing solar activity will soon expand the heliosphere and push the termination shock farther out, possibly to the 84-94 AU range encountered by the Voyager spacecraft. (Image credit: Southwest Research Institute; background artist rendering by NASA and Adler Planetarium)

    Measurements taken by the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are providing important new insights from some of the farthest reaches of space ever explored. In a paper published recently in The Astrophysical Journal, New Horizons scientists show how the solar wind — the supersonic stream of charged particles blown out by the Sun — evolves at increasing distances from the Sun.

    “Previously, only the Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 missions have explored the outer solar system and outer heliosphere, but now New Horizons is doing that with more modern scientific instruments,” said Heather Elliott, a staff scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, deputy principal investigator of the SWAP instrument and lead author of the paper. “Our Sun’s influence on the space environment extends well beyond the outer planets, and SWAP is showing us new aspects of how that environment changes with distance.”

    The solar wind fills a bubble-like region of space encompassing our solar system, called the heliosphere. From aboard New Horizons, SWAP collects detailed, daily measurements of the solar wind as well as other key components called “interstellar pickup ions” in the outer heliosphere. These interstellar pickup ions are created when neutral material from interstellar space enters the solar system and becomes ionized by light from the Sun or by charge exchange interactions with solar wind ions.

    The journey New Horizons is taking through the outer heliosphere contrasts that of Voyager since this solar cycle is mild compared to the very active solar cycle explored during the Voyager passage through the outer heliosphere. In addition to measuring the solar wind, SWAP is extremely sensitive and simultaneously measures the low fluxes of interstellar pickup ions with unprecedented time resolution and extensive spatial coverage. Currently, New Horizons is the only spacecraft in the solar wind beyond Mars and consequently the only spacecraft measuring the interaction between the solar wind and interstellar material in the outer heliosphere.

    As the solar wind moves farther from the Sun, it encounters an increasing amount of material from interstellar space. When interstellar material is ionized, the solar wind picks up the material and, researchers theorized, slows and heats in response. SWAP has now detected and confirmed this predicted effect.

    The SWAP team compared the New Horizons solar wind speed measurements from 21 to 42 astronomical units to the speeds at 1 AU from both the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft. (One astronomical unit, or AU, is equal to the distance between the Sun and Earth.) By 21 AU, it appeared that SWAP could be detecting the slowing of the solar wind in response to picking up interstellar material. However, when New Horizons traveled beyond Pluto, between 33 and 42 AU, the solar wind measured 6-7% slower than at the 1 AU distance, confirming the effect.

    In addition to confirming the slowing of the solar wind at great distances, the change in the solar wind temperature and density could also provide a means to estimate when New Horizons will join the Voyager spacecraft on the other side of the termination shock, the boundary marking where the solar wind slows to less than the sound speed as it approaches the interstellar medium. Voyager 1 crossed the termination shock in 2004 at 94 AU, followed by Voyager 2 in 2007 at 84 AU. Based on current lower levels of solar activity and lower solar wind pressures, the termination shock is expected to have moved closer to the Sun since the Voyager crossings.

    Extrapolating current trends in the New Horizons measurements also indicates that the termination shock might now be closer than when it was intersected by Voyager. At the earliest, New Horizons will reach the termination shock in the mid-2020s. As the solar cycle activity increases, the increase in pressure will likely expand the heliosphere. This could push the termination shock to the 84-94 AU range found by the Voyager spacecraft before New Horizons has time to reach it.

    “New Horizons has significantly advanced our knowledge of distant planetary objects, and it’s only fitting that it is now also revealing new knowledge about our own Sun and its heliosphere,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI.

    New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI led the payload instrument development and leads the New Horizons science and mission teams from the Tombaugh Science Operations Center located at SwRI facilities in Boulder, Colo. For more information, go to: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/.

    The paper “Slowing of the Solar Wind in the Outer Heliosphere” by Elliott, D.J. McComas, E.J. Zirnstein, B.M. Randol, P.A. Delamere, G. Livadiotis, F. Bagenal, N.P. Barnes, S.A. Stern, L.A. Young, C.B. Olkin, J. Spencer, H.A. Weaver, K. Ennico, G.R. Gladstone, and C.W. Smith, was published November 11 in The Astrophysical Journal.

    Sorry for the WordPress eeror of repeating material in the right side bar. This is not of my doing. I think it is fixed.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    The New Horizons mission is helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation.

    The Journey

    New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and conducted a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015, culminating with Pluto closest approach on July 14, 2015. As part of an extended mission, pending NASA approval, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine another of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.

    Sending a spacecraft on this long journey is helping us to answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies.

    New Science

    The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – including Pluto – of the highest priority for solar system exploration. Generally, New Horizons seeks to understand where Pluto and its moons “fit in” with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).

    Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a third category known as “ice dwarfs.” They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.

    Using Hubble Space Telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.

    A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system. New Horizons is exploring – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.

    The Need to Explore

    The United States has been the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. New Horizons is allowing the U.S. to complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.

    A Team Approach

    The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

  • richardmitnick 10:53 am on August 21, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , European Space Agency's Euclid telescope, , , , , NASA New Horizons, , , , Parker Solar Probe Plus,   

    From Science Alert: “Here Are NASA’s Wild Plans to Explore Time And Space For The Next 10 Years” 


    From Science Alert

    21 AUG 2019

    NASA hopes to reach a dead planet called Psyche. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

    NASA’s 10-year plan involves billions of dollars and spans millions of miles. And much like the universe, it’s only expanding.

    Last year, the agency announced that it’s planning to send astronauts back to the Moon and eventually build a base there, with a Mars-bound mission to follow in the years after that.

    In June, the agency introduced a mission that aims to fly a nuclear-powered helicopter over the surface of Titan, an icy Moon of Saturn’s, to scan for alien life. NASA wants to looking for life in other places too, like the ocean below the icy surface of Jupiter’s Moon Europa.

    Other future missions will try to photograph our entire cosmic history and map the dark matter and dark energy that govern our Universe.

    Here are some of NASA’s biggest and most ambitious plans for the coming decade.
    1. Several ground-breaking NASA missions are already in progress, including the Parker Solar Probe, which will will rocket past the Sun a total of 24 times.

    NASA Parker Solar Probe Plus named to honor Pioneering Physicist Eugene Parker

    Launched: August 12, 2018

    Arrived: November 5, 2018

    The probe is travelling closer to the Sun than anything from Earth before it. The mission aims to investigate the forces behind solar wind, which could inform efforts to protect technology on Earth from the Sun’s flare-ups.

    Parker slingshots around the Sun at record speeds of up to 213,200 mph (343,000 km/h); it’s currently approaching its third close encounter. A powerful heat shield keeps the spacecraft’s equipment cool.

    The Parker Solar Probe will get closer to the sun than any other probe before it. (NASA Goddard/Youtube)

    2. Far from the Sun, New Horizons is exploring the Kuiper Belt, a region of millions of chunks of ice left over from the Solar System’s birth.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

    Launched: January 19, 2006

    Arrived at Ultima Thule: January 1, 2019

    The New Horizons spacecraft visited Pluto and the ice dwarfs surrounding it in 2015. In January, the spacecraft reached the farthest object anything human-made has ever visited: a snowman-shaped space rock called 2014 MU69 (or Ultima Thule).

    It sent back the following video of Ultima Thule, though it will likely take until late 2020 for scientists to receive and download all the data from New Horizons’ flyby.

    So far, we’ve learned that the primordial object contains methanol, water ice, and organic molecules.

    3. On the surface of Mars, the InSight lander is listening for quakes.

    NASA/Mars InSight Lander

    Launched: May 5, 2018

    Arrived: November 26, 2018

    Since the InSight lander touched down on the surface of the red planet, it has detected dozens of Mars quakes. The early data is giving scientists new insight into the planet’s internal structure.

    Illustration of the InSight lander on Mars. (NASA/JPL-CaltechAn)

    4. A new Mars rover will join InSight next year. NASA is currently building the vehicle in its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

    NASA Mars 2020 rover schematic

    NASA Mars 2020 Rover

    Members of NASA’s Mars 2020 project after attaching the rover’s mast. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

    5. Researchers hope a future mission to Mars could return the Martian rock samples that the Mars 2020 rover collects back to Earth.

    Planned launch: Unknown

    Anticipated arrival: Unknown

    Until NASA sends another robot to Mars that could launch the stored samples to Earth, the 2020 rover will store the samples in its belly and search for a place on Mars where it can stash them for pickup.

    Proposed Mars Sample Return mission launching samples towards Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

    Planned launch: July 2020

    Anticipated arrival: February 2021

    The Mars 2020 rover will search for signs of ancient microbial alien life on the red planet, collect and stash rock samples, and test out technology that could pave the way for humans to walk the Martian surface one day.

    You can tune in to NASA’s live broadcast of the Mars 2020 rover’s construction anytime to watch the US$2.1 billion mission take shape.

    6. NASA eventually hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars. But before that, the agency plans to return astronauts to the Moon and built a lunar base there.

    Planned launch: Unknown

    Anticipated arrival: 2024

    NASA wants to send humans to the Moon again by 2024. Those would be the first boots on the lunar surface since the Apollo program ended over 45 years ago. This time, however, NASA wants to build a Moon-orbiting space station with a reusable lunar-landing system.

    The idea is that the lunar base could allow for more in-depth scientific research of the Moon, and potentially even enable us to mine resources there that could be converted to fuel for further space travel.

    7. From the lunar surface, astronauts may springboard to Mars.

    Planned launch: 2030s

    Anticipated arrival: 2030s

    The next Moon mission will test deep-space exploration systems that NASA hopes will carry humans on to Mars.

    Astronauts travelling to Mars would have to spend about three years away from Earth. In order to explore of the red planet, human travellers would have to be able to use the materials available on the lunar and Martian surfaces.

    NASA is already designing future astronauts’ gear. They’re sending spacesuit material on the Mars 2020 rover to test how it holds up in the planet’s harsh atmosphere. A deep-space habitat competition this year yielded a 3D-printable pod that could be constructed using materials found on Mars.

    Concept illustration of Martian habitats. (JPL/NASA)

    8. NASA also plans to investigate our Solar System’s past by launching a mission to an asteroid belt surrounding Jupiter.

    Planned launch: October 2021

    Anticipated arrival: 2027

    A mysterious swarm of Trojan asteroids – the term for space rocks that follow planets – trail Jupiter’s orbit around the Sun. NASA’s Lucy mission plans to visit six of them.

    “We know very little about these objects,” Jim Green, the leader of NASA’s planetary science program, said in a NASA video. “They may be captured asteroids, comets, or even Kuiper Belt objects.”

    What we do know is that the objects are as old as the Sun, so they can serve as a kind of fossil record of the Solar System.

    9. Relatively nearby, a spacecraft will scan for alien life in the saltwater ocean on Jupiter’s Moon Europa.

    Planned launch: 2020s

    Anticipated arrival: Unknown

    When Galileo Galilei first looked at Jupiter through his homemade telescope in 1610, he spotted four Moons circling the planet. Nearly 400 years later, NASA’s Galileo mission found evidence that one of those Moons, Europa, conceals a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust.

    NASA is planning to visit that ocean with the Europa Clipper, a spacecraft that will fly by the Moon 45 times, getting as close at 16 miles above the Moon’s surface.

    NASA/Europa Clipper annotated

    Clipper will fly through water vapour plumes that shoot out from Europa’s surface (as seen in the NASA visual above) to analyse what might be in the ocean. Radar tools will also measure the thickness of the ice and scan for subsurface water.

    10. That investigation could help scientists prepare to land a future spacecraft on Europa’s surface and punch through the ice.

    NASA’s Lucy mission visiting asteroids near Jupiter. (Southwest Research Institute)

    Anticipated launch and arrival: Unknown

    The future lander would search for signs of life in the ocean, digging 4 inches below the surface to extract samples for analysis in a mini, on-the-go laboratory.

    11. A nuclear-powered helicopter called Dragonfly will take the search for alien life one planet further, to Saturn’s largest Moon, Titan.

    Dragonfly visiting sampling location on Titan. (NASA)

    Planned launch: 2026

    Anticipated arrival: 2034

    Titan is a world with ice, liquid methane pools, and a thick nitrogen atmosphere. It somewhat resembles early Earth, since it has carbon-rich organic materials like methane and ethane. Scientists suspect that an ocean of liquid water might lurk 60 miles below the ice.

    All that makes Titan a contender for alien life.

    But getting to the distant, cold Moon is not easy – Saturn only gets about 1 percent of the sunlight that bathes Earth, so a spacecraft can’t rely on solar energy. Instead, Dragonfly will propel itself using the heat of decaying plutonium.

    12. Another NASA team is developing a spacecraft to probe the metal core of a dead planet called Psyche.

    Planned launch: 2022

    Anticipated arrival: 2026

    Most of the asteroids in our Solar System are made of rock or ice, but Psyche is composed of iron and nickel. That’s similar to the makeup of Earth’s core, so scientists think Psyche could be a remnant of an early planet that was decimated by violent collisions billions of years ago.

    NASA is sending a probe to find out.

    “This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal,” Linda Elkins-Tanton, who’s leading the mission, said in a press release. “This is the only way humans will ever visit a core.”

    If Psyche really is the exposed core of a dead planet, it could reveal clues about the Solar System’s early years.

    The probe NASA plans to send to Psyche would be the first spacecraft to use light, rather than radio waves, to transmit information back to Earth. The agency gave the team the green light to start the final design and early assembly process in June.

    13. NASA also has 176 missions in the works that use CubeSats: 4-by-4-inch cube-shaped nanotechnology satellites.

    Three CubeSats ejected from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Kibo laboratory. (NASA)

    NASA is partnering with 93 organisations across the US on these CubeSat projects. Such satellites have already been built and sent to space by an elementary school, a high school, and the Salish Kootenai College of the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

    The first CubeSats sent to deep space trailed behind the InSight Mars lander last year. They successfully sent data from the InSight lander back to Earth as it landed on the Martian surface.

    One planned mission using the nanotechnology will use lasers to search for ice on the Moon’s shadowy south pole. It’s expected to launch in November 2020.

    Another CubeSat mission, also set to launch in 2020, will fly past an asteroid near Earth and send back data. It will be the first exploration of an asteroid less than 100 meters in diameter.

    That data will help scientists plan for future human missions to asteroids, where astronauts might mine resources as they explore deep space.

    14. Closer to home, the European Space Agency’s Euclid telescope will study dark matter and dark energy.

    ESA/Euclid spacecraft

    Planned launch and arrival: 2022

    Dark matter makes up 85 percent of the universe, but nobody is sure what it is. Part of the problem is that we can’t see it because it doesn’t interact with light.

    Dark matter’s gravity holds the entire universe together, while an unknown force called dark energy pushes everything apart. Dark energy is winning, and that’s why the universe is expanding.

    As Euclid orbits Earth, the space telescope will measure the universe’s expansion and attempt to map the mysterious geometry of dark matter and energy.

    NASA is working with the ESA on imaging and infrared equipment for the telescope.

    15. The James Webb Space Telescope, which has a massive, 18-panel mirror, will scan the universe for life-hosting planets and attempt to look back in time to photograph the Big Bang.

    NASA/ESA/CSA Webb Telescope annotated

    Planned launch and arrival: 2021

    It’s been almost 30 years since the Hubble Space Telescope launched. The James Webb Space Telescope is its planned replacement, and it packs new infrared technology to detect light beyond what the human eye can see.

    The telescope’s goal is to study every phase of the universe’s history in order to learn about how the first stars and galaxies formed, how planets are born, and where there might be life in the universe.

    A 21-foot-wide folding beryllium mirror will help the telescope observe faraway galaxies in detail. A five-layer, tennis court-size shield protects it from the Sun’s heat and blocks sunlight that could interfere with the images.

    16. The James Webb Space Telescope will be capable of capturing extremely faint signals. The farther it looks out into space, the more it will look back in time, so the telescope could even detect the first glows of the Big Bang.

    The telescope will also observe distant, young galaxies in detail we’ve never seen before.

    The expanding universe. (NASA)

    17. The Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is expected to detect thousands of new planets and test theories of general relativity and dark energy.


    Planned launch and arrival: mid-2020s

    WFIRST’s field of view will be 100 times greater than Hubble’s. Over its five-year lifetime, the space telescope will measure light from a billion galaxies and survey the inner Milky Way with the hope of finding about 2,600 exoplanets.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 12:08 pm on December 27, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From Astronomy Now: “Ultima Thule poses an initial surprise for New Horizons team” 

    Astronomy Now bloc

    From Astronomy Now

    23 December 2018

    Hints about Ultima Thule’s shape were gleaned during occultation observations in 2017 when the Kuiper Belt body passed in front of the star seen here. Researchers will finally get a close up view 1 January when NASA’s New Horizons probe flies past. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

    Over the past three months, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been racing toward a New Year’s Day flyby of a Kuiper Belt object known as Ultima Thule, snapping hundreds of photos to measure the body’s brightness and rotation.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft

    But the images do not show any hints of rotation, even though observations in 2017 showed Ultima Thule is not shaped like a sphere. Rather, it is an elongated body or perhaps made up of two asteroid-like objects in direct contact or very close together. One would expect such a body to be rotating and the light reflected from it to oscillate.

    “It’s really a puzzle,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “I call this Ultima’s first puzzle: why does it have such a tiny light curve that we can’t even detect it? I expect the detailed flyby images coming soon to give us many more mysteries, but I did not expect this, and so soon.”

    Researchers have three potential explanations. Ultima’s rotation axis could be aimed at or close to New Horizon’s trajectory. Another explanation is that Ultima “may be surrounded by a cloud of dust that obscures its light curve, much the way a comet’s coma often overwhelms the light reflected by its central nucleus,” said Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute.

    But that would require some sort of heat source and at 6.4 billion kilometres (4 billion miles) from the sun, that does not seem likely.

    “An even more bizarre scenario is one in which Ultima is surrounded by many tiny tumbling moons,” said Anne Verbiscer, a New Horizons assistant project scientist at the University of Virginia. “If each moon has its own light curve, then together they could create a jumbled superposition of light curves that make it look to New Horizons like Ultima has a small light curve.”

    But nothing like that has ever been seen.

    “It’s hard to say which of these ideas is right,” Stern said. “Perhaps its even something we haven’t even thought of. In any case, we’ll get to the bottom of this puzzle soon.”

    New Horizons is on course to race past Ultima and take high-resolution images on 31 December and 1 January. The first close-up images will be available on Earth just a day later.

    “When we see those high-resolution images,” Stern said, “we’ll know the answer to Ultima’s vexing, first puzzle. Stay tuned!”

    See the full article here .


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  • richardmitnick 6:00 pm on October 27, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , NASA New Horizons, , ,   

    From Spaceflight Insider: “New Horizons team previews Ultima Thule flyby” 


    From Spaceflight Insider

    October 27th, 2018
    Laurel Kornfeld

    An artist’s illustration of New Horizons flying by the Kuiper Belt Object Ultima Thule. Image Credit NASA / JPL / JHUAPL

    In an Oct. 24 online press conference broadcast from the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) 50th Annual Meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee, four members of NASA’s New Horizons team presented a preview of the spacecraft’s Jan. 1, 2019, flyby of Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) Ultima Thule, now just 10 weeks away.

    The presenting speakers included principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), science team collaborator Carey Lisse of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), project scientist Hal Weaver, also of JHUAPL, and co-investigator Kelsi Singer, also of SwRI.

    Because Ultima Thule is so far away, details cannot yet be resolved and are not expected to be until about a day before the closest approach. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

    Stern said this flyby will be more challenging than New Horizons’ Pluto flyby in July 2015 because Ultima Thule is located a billion miles beyond Pluto and much about it remains unknown. Mission scientists are still uncertain about its exact position and the presence of any potentially hazardous rings or moons. The spacecraft is older than it was at Pluto and has less battery power now while light levels are lower at such a great distance from the Sun.

    Additionally, communication between Earth and the spacecraft takes six hours one way, as opposed to four-and-a-half hours to Pluto.

    “New Horizons is going to have the capacity, in the space of one week, the first week of January 2019, to confirm or refute the very models [of solar system formation] presented here at the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting,” Stern said.

    Ultima Thule is estimated to be about 23 miles (37 kilometers) wide, much smaller than Pluto, which has a diameter of 1,477 miles (2,377 kilometers). For this reason, pre-flyby images 10 weeks before closest approach reveal just a dot rather than the increasing level of detail seen on Pluto during the same time frame. Details on the KBO will not be resolved until about one day before closest approach, Stern said.

    In addition to being the most distant object ever explored by a spacecraft, Ultima Thule, which is about ten times as wide and 1,000 times as massive as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was orbited by the Rosetta spacecraft, is set to be the most primitive object studied by a spacecraft.

    ESA/Rosetta spacecraft

    ESA Rosetta Philae Lander

    To preview what the KBO’s surface might look like, Lisse presented images of Comet Wild 2, Saturn’s moon Phoebe, Saturn’s moon Hyperion, and Comet 67P.

    All seven instruments aboard New Horizons will study Ultima Thule. Between now and the flyby, mission scientists will prepare by monitoring changes in the KBO’s brightness to determine its size, shape, and rotation speed, search for moons and other potential hazards to the spacecraft, and refine navigation if hazards are found, Weaver explained.

    Diversion from the optimal closest approach of 2,170 miles (3,500 kilometers) can be made as late as Dec. 16 if hazards are discovered. An alternate, safer approach would bring New Horizons within 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers) of Ultima Thule. Image resolution will be better than that obtained at Pluto because of the closer approach.

    Possible Shapes of Ultima Thule. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

    Singer outlined the mission’s goals as mapping the KBO’s geology and morphology and mapping its color and composition. Specifically, scientists will look for craters and grooves and various ices, including ammonia, carbon monoxide, methane, and water ice. They will also determine whether Ultima Thule is a binary or contact binary object or a double-lobed object like Comet 67P.

    Because KBOs are composed of pristine materials left over from the formation of the solar system, studying Ultima Thule’s ices will give scientists insight into the materials from which Earth and the solar system’s other planets were built.

    Mission scientists also hope to find answers as to why Ultima Thule, a very dark object, is slightly brighter than expected. They do not expect to find active geology or an atmosphere on such a small object.

    “This will be our first ground truth, our first close look at what makes these [Kuiper Belt] objects dark and red,” Singer said.

    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

    As done at Pluto, New Horizons will return a final image of Ultima Thule just before closest approach, then remain out of contact with Earth, instead focusing on data collection. Between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. EST (15:00-15:30 GMT) Jan. 1, a signal from the probe is expected to arrive, confirming it survived the flyby.

    New Horizons will continue to study the KBO and its environment for a short time after closest approach. Return of the data collected will continue through late 2020.

    Ultima Thule Timeline Overview. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

    Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science.

    HPHS Owls

    She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program.

    Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

    [Sorry folks, I could not resist the references to my home town and my university]

    See the full article here .


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    SpaceFlight Insiderreports on events taking place within the aerospace industry. With our team of writers and photographers, we provide an “insider’s” view of all aspects of space exploration efforts. We go so far as to take their questions directly to those officials within NASA and other space-related organizations. At SpaceFlight Insider, the “insider” is not anyone on our team, but our readers.

    Our team has decades of experience covering the space program and we are focused on providing you with the absolute latest on all things space. SpaceFlight Insider is comprised of individuals located in the United States, Europe, South America and Canada. Most of them are volunteers, hard-working space enthusiasts who freely give their time to share the thrill of space exploration with the world.

  • richardmitnick 2:12 pm on April 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons, ,   

    From SETI Institute: “Introducing “Ultima Thule”: NASA’s Ultimate Destination in the Kuiper Belt!” 

    SETI Logo new
    SETI Institute

    March 13, 2018

    Thule (here spelled “Tile”) as it appeared on a 1539 map. No image credit.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    NASA and the New Horizons team are pleased to announce that our target body in the Kuiper Belt, formally known as “(486958) 2014 MU69”, is being nicknamed Ultima Thule. The name comes from medieval mapmakers, where Thule (pronounced “thoo-lee”) was a distant and unknown island thought to be the northernmost place on Earth. “Ultima Thule” (which translates as “farthest Thule” or “beyond Thule”) has come to be used as a metaphor for any mysterious place “beyond the borders of the known world”. This is an apt metaphor for the tiny object, four billion miles away, that will be the next destination of the New Horizons spacecraft.

    The name was nominated independently by about 40 participants in the Frontier Worlds campaign, and was ranked very highly in the voting. Ultima Thule will serve as the unofficial nickname for MU69 through the flyby on New Year’s day, 2019. Later in 2019, we will work with the International Astronomical Union to establish a formal, permanent name for the body.

    Thank you to everyone who participated in the naming campaign! Now join us on our ultimate journey.

    –Mark Showalter and the New Horizons Science Team

    See the full article here .


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