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« Reply #1155 on: Nov 29, 2016, 05:52 AM »

CS Monitor

Can NASA whip up the perfect breakfast for deep-space travel?

NASA is developing a breakfast bar to save space and weight for missions into deep-space and Mars.

By Ben Rosen, Staff November 29, 2016
   
When astronauts travel beyond the moon, breakfast could become the most important meal of the day, for a different reason than on Earth.

A calorie-dense breakfast bar NASA has started to whip up could save the Orion crew valuable space and weight as it travels to far-off destinations and, perhaps, to Mars.

“When you have 700 to 900 calories of something, it’s going to have some mass regardless of what shape it’s in, so we’ve taken a look at how to get some mass savings by reducing how we’re packaging and stowing what the crew would eat for breakfast for early Orion flights with crew,” Jessica Vos, Orion’s deputy health and medical technical authority, said in a statement.

NASA and its food scientists haven’t developed the perfect breakfast bar just yet. If they do, though, they will have solved a basic problem that has bedeviled the US space agency ever since it has started to eye sending humans past the moon: What will these deep-space explorers eat?

NASA hopes to send a crew aboard the Orion capsule into deep space by 2023 with an unmanned mission of the capsule and heavy-lift launcher scheduled for 2018.

Breakfast bars could be crucial for saving space on the capsule, while the crew could eat a greater variety of foods for lunch and dinner.

NASA’s goal is to offer the Orion crew a number of flavors to choose from. So far, breakfast-bar flavors include banana nut, orange cranberry, ginger vanilla, and barbecue nut, according to a NASA Johnson Space Center YouTube video.

For lunch and dinner, the crew could eat meals similar to those served on the International Space Station (ISS). That food is either thermostabilized, meaning its heated to destroy harmful microorganisms and enzymes, or dehydrated to save weight. Through these processes, crew members on the space station can choose from 200 varieties of meals that include mac n’ cheese, spaghetti, and even a Thanksgiving dinner almost fit for Earth.

But the small Orion capsule NASA plans to send past the moon doesn’t have enough room to store enough of these packages for a multi-week mission. Even if it did, the extra weight would require it to use more fuel, according to the NASA statement. So the space agency looked to food bars. But finding such a bar wasn’t easy.

“There’s no commercially-available bar right now that meets our needs, so we’ve had to go design something that will work for the crew, while trying to achieve a multi-year shelf-life,” said Takiyah Sirmons, a food scientist with the Advanced Food Technology team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The bars have been taste-tested by crew members inside NASA’s Human Research Program, the agency’s three-story habitat at the Johnson Space Center. The habitat is meant to resemble the isolation and remote conditions crews will face in deep space.

Right now, NASA hopes to determine if crews can eat the bars every day, a few times a week, or not at all, according to Vice. They’re also trying to determine how the bars could affect morale.

NASA has long known food has a major impact on mission morale. The agency has vastly improved on the food tubes and gelatin coated, bite-sized snacks it served crews on early missions. But it also believes astronauts growing their own food could have as much of a positive effect on morale as on their diets. That's why, in addition to these bars, NASA is also testing how crews can grow their own food aboard the International Space Station and on missions deeper into space.   

"We think that having that additional component of fresh food grown on the station, would make the crew generally happier, and hopefully healthier," said Gioia Massa, NASA project scientist for Veggie, the space station's plant growth system. "It's something to look at. It is something that changes with the passage of time."


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« Reply #1156 on: Nov 30, 2016, 05:53 AM »

November 30, 2016

Cassini spacecraft to enter ‘ring-grazing orbit’ around Saturn on Tuesday

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

Tuesday marks the beginning of the end for NASA’s Cassini mission, as the titular spacecraft will enter a new “ring-grazing” orbit that will bring it to within 5,000 miles of Saturn’s F-ring, the first step in its “Grand Finale” after 12 years of studying the planet and its moons.

According to The Verge, Cassini will be analyzing the particles and gas molecules around the planet’s ring system, while also observing the tiny moons that orbit close to the edges of these iconic features as it prepares for a final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere next September.

On Tuesday, Cassini will complete one final fly-by of Titan, which Spaceflight Insider said will place it on the correct trajectory for a December 4 encounter with Saturn’s F-ring – the first of 20 planned encounters scheduled to take place, one every seven days, through April 22, 2017.

As Linda Spilker, project scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, explained in a statement, “We're calling this phase of the mission Cassini's Ring-Grazing Orbits, because we'll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings. In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ringplane.”

Countdown to the spacecraft’s ‘Grand Finale’ officially underway

During those 20 encounters with Saturn’s ring system, Cassini will circle high above and under the planet’s polar regions, studying a previously unexplored portion of its main rings while using a variety of instruments to directly sample ring particles and nearby faint gas molecules.

According to NASA, during its first two orbits, the spacecraft will pass directly through a faint ring that was created by tiny meteors that struck the moons Janus and Epimetheus. Later flights will see the probe travel through the dusty outer portions of the F-ring, the agency added, while also getting its best looks to date at the moons known as Atlas, Daphnis, Pan and Pandora.

In December, Cassini will begin imaging Saturn’s main rings along their entire with, resolving details smaller and 0.6 miles (1.0 km) per pixel, NASA said. This will allow it to create the best possible complete scans of the rings’ structure, and as the mission continues, it will take a close look at tiny features in the A-ring that may reveal the existence previously unseen moonlets.

Next March, Cassini will travel through Saturn’s shadow, which will allow it to observe the rings backlit by the sun, which scientists at the agency hope will allow it to see dust clouds ejected due to meteor impacts. Then, next April, Cassini (which is running low on fuel) will enter its “Grand Finale” phase, which will culminate with a crash-landing onto Saturn’s surface on September 15, bringing the spacecraft’s two decade long spaceflight to a spectacular conclusion.


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« Reply #1157 on: Nov 30, 2016, 06:04 AM »

CS Monitor

Why the new James Webb telescope folds like origami

Final ground tests are being performed on the James Webb telescope, which will need to fold like origami in order to launch.

By Christina Beck, Staff November 29, 2016

For years, the Hubble telescope has delivered us fantastic and otherworldly images of the universe. Now, with Hubble’s tenure in the skies running out, the approximately $9 billion James Webb telescope is set to take its place.

With a launch date set for October 2018, the James Webb telescope will soon introduce the world to next-generation images of outer space. But with next-generation imaging power comes next-generation engineering – and telescope scientists say that the James Webb telescope will be something to behold.

The telescope is slated to be an engineering marvel: in order to fit inside the rocket that will launch it into space, it must fold up completely. The infrared telescope also features a folding shield to protect the vulnerable lens from the sun’s heat, since infrared telescopes must remain cold to work properly.

"That's like a big umbrella – beach umbrella – so, we keep that facing the sun and the Earth so it dissipates all the heat through all the layers," astrophysicist and systems engineer Begona Vila told NPR. "That allows all the instruments to cool to the temperatures that we need."

Approximately the size of a tennis court, the James Webb telescope’s sunshield must squeeze into a much smaller package. Other parts must be carefully engineered to fit into a compact space, as well.

NASA plans to launch the telescope from the European Spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana.

Over the course of the two weeks following launch, the telescope’s component parts will carefully unfurl and become functional, allowing astronomers to view some of the oldest stars and galaxies in the universe. The James Webb telescope will reach its final destination after approximately 30 days and one million miles of travel.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Zhai Yun Tan reported on the telescope’s progress earlier this month:

    While its predecessor is credited with unveiling important discoveries including the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, the JWST is expected to go even further by exploring the birthplaces of planets, stars, and first galaxies born after the Big Bang more than 13.5 billion years ago with its sensitive infrared cameras. These observations will not only help scientists understand the origins of the universe but at the same time, look for signs of life in other planets.

    "We'd like to know if another planet out there has enough water to have an ocean, and we think we can do that," Dr. Mather said on one of the project’s missions to explore the Alpha Centauri system, Popular Mechanics reports.

Although the project is designed to be groundbreaking, it has also long been a source of frustration at NASA. Despite going over budget and employing a massive crew of engineers and astronomers, the telescope project is behind schedule.

Failure at this point could be catastrophic, leaving the telescope useless. 

"Yes, I think that scares all of us," Vila told NPR. "We do as much testing as we can."


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« Reply #1158 on: Nov 30, 2016, 06:06 AM »

CS Monitor

How can we keep aliens and Earthlings from contaminating each other?

Last year, more than 100 researchers convened at a three-day summit to identify the risks and possible solutions of biological contamination.

By Joseph Dussault, Staff November 29, 2016
   
As crewed trips to Mars become increasingly feasible in terms of rocket technology, researchers are beginning to work out the minutiae of space travel. Where will astronauts live, work, and socialize on the six-month journey? How will they exercise? What will their kitchens look like?

And once they get to there, how will they avoid contamination?

Last year, more than 100 researchers convened at a three-day summit to identify the risks and explore possible solutions. For each of NASA’s robotic missions to other planets, the agency has implemented comprehensive protocols designed to minimize biological contamination: craft are scrubbed meticulously, and were once even baked before flight. But so far, there are no such requirements for human travel to the Red Planet.

“The benefit of having humans in space is that they're much more flexible than robots, but they could contaminate Mars with Earth life,” Catharine Conley, NASA's planetary protection officer, told Space.com.

Contamination is a major concern for NASA and other space agencies, but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect. It's not so much about keeping Martian lifeforms from Earth – as far as we know, there are none – but about keeping Earth's microbes away from Mars. Scientists guess that most bacteria would be killed by the Red Planet’s harsh conditions, but that could take hundreds or even thousands of years.

In a worst-case scenario, those microbes could thrive. That would present a major problem for astrobiologists working on the planet. Finding evidence of past Martian life could become even more difficult if researchers have to comb through microbial hitchhikers. But there’s much we don’t know when it comes to preventing such contamination.

Researchers have identified 25 such knowledge gaps, organized into three basic categories: monitoring microbes and human health; investigating how contaminants might travel between Mars and Earth; and technology and strategies for controlling potential contamination.

“A really interesting development that came to light was all the work done in the biomedical community to investigate the human microbiome and environmental microbiome – what microbes live in people and their environments,” Dr. Conley said. “Ten years ago, the technology to analyze these microbiomes was not well-established, but now there are devices on the International Space Station with microbial monitoring capabilities.”

Now, researchers are considering new ways to collect and analyze microbes while limiting risks. Safe disinfectants are also just out of reach.

“By closing knowledge gaps we will be able to establish clear quantitative guidelines on planetary protection that will lead to eventual international consensus standards for human missions beyond Earth orbit and particularly in support of a collaborative journey to Mars,” Gerhard Kminek, the planetary protection officer of the ESA, said in a statement.

It may seem a bit preemptive to consider things like contamination before a Mars spacecraft is even finished, but many of the smaller-scale challenges of interplanetary travel can be solved now.

On the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa, for example, astronauts have endured year-long isolation missions as part of NASA’s HI-SEAS project. The mission was designed to test astronaut’s physical and psychological limits, as The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month:

    Psychological research in prisons strongly suggests that solitary confinement can have a negative impact on decision-making and emotional health. The same is likely true in deep space: studies of crew members on the International Space Station have found that on prolonged space journeys isolation may have negative effects on astronaut performance.

    “They get to miss the feeling of wind on their faces,” Gloria Leon, a University of Minnesota psychologist who advises NASA on astronaut selection, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. “They miss the smells of nature, or the smell of food cooking. On a Mars voyage, Earth will be out of view. It will be the equivalent of twilight, looking out of the porthole. So there will be boredom – monotony, really – in terms of the environment.”

Small comforts may also play a significant role in the physical and psychological well being of future space travelers – doubly true for the non-professionals who may fly with private companies such as Mars One or SpaceX. To this end, agencies have already developed building concepts for Martian dwellings, complete with exercise units and small indoor gardens.


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« Reply #1159 on: Dec 01, 2016, 05:30 AM »

ESA receives first images from the Trace Gas Orbiter around Mars

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit
12/1/2016

A European Space Agency orbiter recently evaluated its collection of onboard devices in Mars orbit for the first time, resulting in some breathtaking images and suggesting a bright future for the mission.

The Trace Gas Orbiter arrived at the Red Planet back on October 19, and sent back its first images to Earth on November 22, during its first close flyby of Mars.

Some of the new images, merged to produce a video, showed details of the Martian surface when the probe was at an altitude of approximately 150 miles. Other pictures were captured when the orbiter was flying thousands of miles from Mars.

The TGO video revealed craters, mountain ranges, and dark lines covering various regions, including one referred to as Arsia Chasmata, near the large Martian volcano referred to as Arsia Mons.

“We are extremely happy and proud to see that all the instruments are working so well in the Mars environment, and this first impression gives a fantastic preview of what’s to come when we start collecting data for real at the end of next year,” Håkan Svedhem, a TGO scientist, said in a press release.

The First of Many Things to Come

The ESA said information from the first orbit was presented to demonstrate the range of findings expected to come once the probe arrives at its destination orbit, about 250 miles above Mars, later next year.

TGO’s primary goal is to detect gasses thought to make up less than 1 percent of the Martian atmosphere, including methane, water vapor, nitrogen dioxide and acetylene. ESA scientists said they are particularly interested in methane, which is primarily generated on Earth by biological activity and, on a smaller scale, geological activities.

The two instruments given this job have now shown they can take very sensitive spectra of the atmosphere, the ESA said. During the test studies last week, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite looked at carbon dioxide, while the Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery instrument focused on water vapor.

The TGO team also synchronized observations with ESA’s Mars Express and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, as they will down the road.


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« Reply #1160 on: Dec 01, 2016, 05:34 AM »

12/1/2016

Giant water deposit could be the key to a base on Mars

by Chuck Bednar
Red Orbit

A recently-discovered cache of subsurface water ice on Mars may very well be the key to the success of future manned missions to the Red Planet, serving as an oasis for the astronauts who are charged with establishing a colony or outpost on the barren world, experts warn.

The ice deposits, which were discovered beneath a 3 to 33-foot thick layer of soil in the region known as Utopia Planitia earlier this month, are said to be between 260 feet and 560 feet thick, roughly equal in volume to Lake Superior, and larger than the state of New Mexico.

First detected by Cassie Stuurman of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and her colleagues using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument, the ice deposits is believed to have between 50% and 85% water composition and is located roughly halfway between the Martian equator and the north pole, 39 degrees to 49 degrees latitude.

While the discovery of the ice deposits was initially treated as potentially good news for those who will ultimately be travelling to the Red Planet, Ian O’Neill, the space science producer for Discovery News, suggests that the discovery “could represent a game-changer for the future of Mars colonization” and could be essential to such a mission’s success.

Location of ice deposit ideal – if astronauts can extract the water

In a recent article published on the Discovery News website Seeker.com, O’Neill wrote, “The necessity of landing future Mars explorers near a known water resource is a no-brainer... Water isn't only a requirement for keeping astronauts alive, it's needed for fuel production and would sustain any burgeoning Martian agriculture.”

“Put simply, unless we find Martian water and understand how to access it, our Mars colonization dreams are over,” he added. However, the newfound subsurface ice deposit “may, someday, be an oasis for future Mars explorers” as they try to survive on a world that is “more barren (and a lot more toxic) than the dryest desert on Earth,” according to O’Neill.

In a statement, Stuurman said that this deposit (which most likely originated as snowfall before mixing with dust and other particles and accumulating into an ice sheet) represents less than 1% of all known water ice on Mars – so what makes it so important? Like the old real estate mantra, it’s all about “location, location, location.”

For starters, the ice deposits are located near the surface, which would make it easier for a team of astronauts to access. In addition, as co-author and UT professor Jack Holt explained following its initial discovery, this specific deposit is “more accessible than most water ice on Mars,” since it is “at a relatively low latitude and it lies in a flat, smooth area” – meaning it would be easier to land a spacecraft nearby than it would be at other regions near subsurface water ice.

Of course, all that water is useless unless you can find a way to extract it from the underground ice deposits. Fortunately, researchers from the University of Washington are developing a way to do just that, according to GeekWire. They want to use nearly 20-year-old technology known as a water vapor adsorption reactor (WAVAR) to “cook” water out of the soil using microwaves.


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« Reply #1161 on: Dec 01, 2016, 05:44 AM »

CS Monitor

Is it time to think about how to prevent a space war?

With tensions rising between space-capable powers such as Russia, China, and the United States, the Pentagon is taking orbital threats to satellite systems more seriously.

By Weston Williams, Staff November 30, 2016

Earlier this month, top space experts said that the international community should update space treaties to prevent satellite collisions that could cripple major powers across the globe.

As relations remain tense between many space-faring powers – including China, Russia, and the United States – that level of cooperation could be difficult, but it would almost certainly be worth the effort, said Rear Admiral Brian Brown, deputy commander for the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, at a summit earlier this month.

"Everything is about not having a war extend to space," he said.

Revisiting the international laws that govern how various nations use space would support that, he argued. Most of these laws and treaties date from the cold war era and do not reflect the current dependence on satellites for civilian and military applications.

Since the end of the cold war, US military conflicts have involved smaller guerrilla forces with no spacefaring capabilities, which has allowed the spectre of war in space to fade. But with the rise of antagonism between space-faring powers, that prospect has become more of a concern for Pentagon officials.

Of particular worry is China's military-based space program, which has expanded rapidly in recent years, following a mandate from Chinese President Xi Jinping for the country to become an "aerospace power," as The Christian Science Monitor's Ellen Powell reported.

In order to could prevent conflict in space, norms continue to be established governing orbital devices such as satellites, says Admiral Brown.

"Much like the maritime laws that we have, they established over time by safe and responsible behaviors and patterns of life," he said. "That is something we are pushing for in a lot of different areas, so we don't have miscalculations in space."

Space law, which was first established at the height of the space race, was initially an attempt to avert a destructive all-out war between the United States and Soviet Union. The historic United Nations-brokered Outer Space Treaty of 1967 banned all orbital or moon-based weapons of mass destruction – remaining mum on conventional orbital weapons – and established the principle that no country could claim any celestial body in space as its own.

The agreement helped lay the foundations for decades of peaceful cooperation in space by its signatories.

But in the years since the cold war ended, Russia and China have developed satellites capable of destroying or crippling US satellites, reports CNN's Jim Sciutto, and some in the US military are hoping to build and launch protective satellites in case of a confrontation.

The US, more than any other country, depends on a network of satellites for communications, research, and military applications.

"These satellites were built 15 years ago and launched during an era when space was a benign environment," Lt. Gen. David Buck, Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space told CNN. "There was no threat."

He continued, "Can you imagine building a refueler aircraft, or a jet for that matter, with no inherent defensive capabilities? So our satellites are at risk, and our ground infrastructure is at risk. And we're working hard to make sure that we can protect and defend them."

The Pentagon's current space budget stands at $22 billion per year.

In the decades since Sputnik, Earth's orbit has grown crowded, with more than 4,200 satellites now circling the planet. With more satellites launching every year, it is becoming increasingly likely that an unlucky hit – let alone an intentional strike – could send debris flying in the path of other satellites, causing a domino effect with massive technical and political consequences.

"It's important to note that if something were to happen in space, our response wouldn't necessarily be in space," said Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, at the Nov. 17 summit.

"If someone were to do something, we would respond in a time and place of our choosing, primarily because we wouldn't expect something to happen in space in isolation," he said. "It would be an extension of some conflict that would be occurring terrestrially."

Updated space laws could revitalize international cooperation in space, said Mr. Beauchamp, and halt the "erosion" of decades-old space norms "as folks around the world have tried to find advantage, find seams."

"That's part of the reason why we want to codify our norms and behavior in space," he said, "because it is such an important domain, not just for us, but for humanity."


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« Reply #1162 on: Dec 01, 2016, 05:54 AM »

CS Monitor

Did Pluto's icy heart sink into that depression all by itself?

Scientists propose a new model for the formation of the ice-filled crater that is Pluto's iconic heart.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer November 30, 2016

Pluto's "icy heart" rests in a depression on the surface of the dwarf planet and scientists now have a new idea how that feature formed.

The feature first captured the interest of researchers and regular people alike because of its heart shape visible in an image beamed back to Earth by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015. Since then researchers have largely thought that the smooth western lobe of the heart, informally called Sputnik Planitia, is an impact crater that filled with the nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide ices that give the iconic feature its bright look.

But now scientists have proposed a less violent model for how Sputnik Planitia may have formed, in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Instead of a massive space rock slamming into the dwarf planet, the research team says the weight of ices themselves may have made Pluto's heart sink, creating the depression in which the ice now sits.

Or, as study lead author, Douglas Hamilton, a professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland, poetically described it: "Pluto’s big heart weighs heavily on the small planet, leading inevitably to depression."

Something similar happens on Earth too, Dr. Hamilton added in a press release. The Greenland Ice Sheet has pressed down on the crust, creating a basin. Sputnik Planitia is formed by ice that is about 2.5 miles thick that sits in a depression that is about 600 miles wide.

But why did ice accumulate and press down on the dwarf planet at 30 degrees latitude and 180 degrees longitude rather than somewhere else, perhaps closer to its poles?

Pluto's unique spin axis could explain the location of its heart, Hamilton suggests. Pluto's spin axis is tilted by 120 degrees, which is extreme (Earth's tilt is 23.5 degrees). As a result, the coldest places on the dwarf planet would end up being along the 30 degrees north and south latitudes. (The center of Sputnik Planitia is at 25 degrees north latitude.)

According to Hamilton's model, as ice formed in these cold regions, it would lead to more ice formation. That's because the ice would reflect light and heat, keeping the temperature low. Eventually this positive feedback loop, called the runaway albedo effect, would make it so just one dominant ice cap exists on the dwarf planet – like Sputnik Planitia.

And, Hamilton explained to the Los Angeles Times, "On Pluto, nitrogen ice weighs more than the bedrock, which is water ice ... If you lay that much nitrogen on top of the water ice, the ices make the hole by themselves."

Hamilton's model could also help explain the location of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. Early in Pluto's existence, a humongous space rock slammed into the dwarf planet, kicking up debris and ultimately forming Charon.

The impact also would have nudged Pluto to spin rather quickly. Over time, Pluto's rotation would have slowed, eventually matching Charon's orbital rate so that the moon became tidally locked, with each planet only ever seeing one side of the other. (Picture it as if the two bodies were "joined by a rigid stick," Amy Barr of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona writes in companion commentary published in Nature News and Views.)

And Charon happens to face the side opposite Sputnik Planitia almost squarely.

Hamilton thinks this is because the weight of the ice in Sputnik Planitia shifts the dwarf planet's center of mass so that the mass of Charon is gravitationally pulled to be on line with the mass of Sputnik Planitia. As such, Sputnik Planitia had a 50 percent chance of ended up directly facing or directly opposite the moon.

Hamilton's model is still just a computer model and other models based around the idea that the dwarf planet's icy heart sits in an impact crater were described in other papers published alongside Hamilton's in the journal Nature on Wednesday.


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« Reply #1163 on: Dec 02, 2016, 05:55 AM »

December 2, 2016

This 6-foot wide asteroid is the smallest ever found

by Brett Smith
Red Orbit

Scientists have made observations of the smallest asteroid ever described in detail, according to a new report in The Astronomical Journal.

At 6 feet across, the small space stone named 2015 TC25 was also found to be one of the brightest near-Earth asteroids ever discovered. Using information from four different telescopes, a team of scientists reported 2015 TC25 reflects around 60 percent of the sunlight that hits it.

Identified by the Catalina Sky Survey last October, 2015 TC25 was analyzed extensively by Earth-based telescopes throughout a close flyby that saw the space rock sailing past Earth at just 80,000 miles away, one-third of the distance to the moon.

In their report, the researchers said new observations from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility and Arecibo Planetary Radar revealed that the exterior of 2015 TC25 is just like an uncommon kind of highly-reflective meteorite known as an aubrite. Aubrites are composed of brilliant minerals, mostly silicates, that developed in an oxygen-free, basaltic habitat at extremely high temperatures. Just one out of every 1,000 meteorites that fall to Earth is a part of this class.

Small near-Earth asteroids the same size as 2015 TC25 do fall to Earth and scientists discover them frequently, but not very much is known about them as they are challenging to characterize. By investigating such items in more detail, scientists said they hope to learn more about the parent bodies these meteorites come from.

Asteroids are leftover fragments from the creation of the Solar System that generally orbit sunlight between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter today. Near-Earth asteroids certainly are a subset that cross Earth's path. More than 15,000 near-Earth asteroids have been found so far.

The study researchers said are curious about meteoroids like 2015 TC25 since they are the precursors to meteorites impacting Earth.

"If we can discover and characterize asteroids and meteoroids this small, then we can understand the population of objects from which they originate: large asteroids, which have a much smaller likelihood of impacting Earth," study author Vishnu Reddy, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, said in a news release. "In the case of 2015 TC25, the likelihood of impacting Earth is fairly small."


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« Reply #1164 on: Dec 02, 2016, 05:59 AM »

CS Monitor

Why Pluto's 'icy heart' may have sunk under its own weight

Scientists propose a new model for the formation of the ice-filled crater that is Pluto's iconic heart.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Staff writer 12/2/2016

Pluto's "icy heart" rests in a depression on the surface of the dwarf planet and scientists now have a new idea how that feature formed.

The feature first captured the interest of researchers and regular people alike because of its heart shape visible in an image beamed back to Earth by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015. Since then researchers have largely thought that the smooth western lobe of the heart, informally called Sputnik Planitia, is an impact crater that filled with the nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide ices that give the iconic feature its bright look.

But now scientists have proposed a less violent model for how Sputnik Planitia may have formed, in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Instead of a massive space rock slamming into the dwarf planet, the research team says the weight of ices themselves may have made Pluto's heart sink, creating the depression in which the ice now sits.

Or, as study lead author, Douglas Hamilton, a professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland, poetically described it: "Pluto’s big heart weighs heavily on the small planet, leading inevitably to depression."

Something similar happens on Earth, too, Dr. Hamilton added in a press release. The Greenland Ice Sheet has pressed down on the crust, creating a basin. Sputnik Planitia is formed by ice that is about 2.5 miles thick that sits in a depression that is about 600 miles wide.

But why did ice accumulate and press down on the dwarf planet at 30 degrees latitude and 180 degrees longitude rather than somewhere else, perhaps closer to its poles?

Pluto's unique spin axis could explain the location of its heart, Hamilton suggests. Pluto's spin axis is tilted by 120 degrees, which is extreme (Earth's tilt is 23.5 degrees). As a result, the coldest places on the dwarf planet would end up being along the 30 degrees north and south latitudes. (The center of Sputnik Planitia is at 25 degrees north latitude.)

According to Hamilton's model, as ice formed in these cold regions, it would lead to more ice formation. That's because the ice would reflect light and heat, keeping the temperature low. Eventually this positive feedback loop, called the runaway albedo effect, would make it so just one dominant ice cap exists on the dwarf planet – like Sputnik Planitia.

And, Hamilton explained to the Los Angeles Times, "On Pluto, nitrogen ice weighs more than the bedrock, which is water ice.... If you lay that much nitrogen on top of the water ice, the ices make the hole by themselves."

Hamilton's model could also help explain the location of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. Early in Pluto's existence, a humongous space rock slammed into the dwarf planet, kicking up debris and ultimately forming Charon.

The impact also would have nudged Pluto to spin rather quickly. Over time, Pluto's rotation would have slowed, eventually matching Charon's orbital rate so that the moon became tidally locked, with each planet only ever seeing one side of the other. (Picture it as if the two bodies were "joined by a rigid stick," Amy Barr of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona writes in companion commentary published in Nature News and Views.)

And Charon happens to face the side opposite Sputnik Planitia almost squarely.

Hamilton thinks this is because the weight of the ice in Sputnik Planitia shifts the dwarf planet's center of mass so that the mass of Charon is gravitationally pulled to be on line with the mass of Sputnik Planitia. As such, Sputnik Planitia had a 50 percent chance of ending up directly facing or directly opposite the moon.

Hamilton's model is still just a computer model and other models based around the idea that the dwarf planet's icy heart sits in an impact crater were described in other papers published alongside Hamilton's in the journal Nature on Wednesday.


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« Reply #1165 on: Dec 02, 2016, 06:01 AM »

CS Monitor

Why Audi is backing a trip to the moon

The German automaker is supporting an entry into Google's Lunar XPRIZE space travel competition. It's a race to reach the Apollo 17 landing site and send photos back to Earth – with a $20 million prize for the first team to get there.

By Ellen Powell, Staff December 1, 2016

Forty-five years after the last humans traveled to the moon, a privately-funded Audi team is one of 16 racing to explore the site where Apollo 17 touched down. At stake: a $20 million payday – and innumerable advances for private space exploration.

The Berlin-based Part Time Scientists group announced on Tuesday that it had signed a contract to launch two rovers for a planned moon landing next year. The Audi Lunar quattro rovers are a collaboration between the international team of scientists and their industrial partners, principally Audi, a subsidiary of German automaker Volkswagen. The rover is scheduled to land 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) from the Apollo 17 landing site and is expected travel to within 200 meters (220 yards) of the site in order to send back high-definition images of the area, Deutsche Welle reported.

Google, which is sponsoring the competition, sees exploring the moon as an opportunity to make scientific and technological advances. The contest calls on companies like Audi to transfer their existing expertise to a new field, and underscores the potential for public-private partnership in space even as government-funded efforts dominate.

“The Moon is not only our nearest planetary neighbor, but it is also the gateway to the rest of the universe,” Google’s website describing the Lunar XPRIZE states. “The Moon provides exciting opportunities for discovery in the fields of science, technology, resource detection and utilization, and human habitation.”

NASA put the first astronauts on the moon in 1969. The final manned moon landing came with Apollo 17 in 1972. There has been renewed interest in traveling to the moon in recent years, with the European Space Agency, Russia's Roscosmos, and the China National Space Administration planning missions. NASA, too, may choose to return to the moon during the administration of President-elect Trump.

Google established the Lunar XPRIZE in 2007, with the aim of revisiting the Apollo 17 site and involving private organizations in the effort. The moon offers valuable opportunities to learn about the universe, and prepare for the journey to Mars that NASA and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), among others, hope to take.

Public-private cooperation, the internet giant suggested, will lower costs of future space exploration by allowing private companies like Audi to repurpose the knowledge they already have. This builds upon the involvement of dedicated space companies like SpaceX and Axiom Space.

This has already allowed for advances in science and technology. Audi’s website reports that the company’s experience of “lightweight construction, electric mobility, permanent four-wheel drive and piloted driving” have allowed it to get involved in various areas of rover development: design, construction, and testing.

To help with its journey to the Apollo 17 site, the rover features an adjustable solar panel that will supply energy to a lithium battery; four wheel-hub motors; and three cameras. It also has off-roading abilities and reliable navigation, the company says.

Sixteen teams are developing rovers capable of traveling to the landing site and taking photographs of it. The first team to meet the challenge will win a $20 million grand prize.

A further $5 million in prize money is available for any team that goes above and beyond the challenge to make further scientific discoveries while on the moon surface. Perhaps with that in mind, the Audi team has planned a test for future 3D printing technology and will try to grow a plant in the lunar atmosphere, PTScientist rover driver Karsen Becker told New Scientist.

The Audi Lunar quattro rovers will take flight in late 2017 or early 2018.


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« Reply #1166 on: Dec 02, 2016, 06:03 AM »

CS Monitor

Gravitational-wave observatory gets back to spotting spacetime weirdness

After months offline, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is up and running again.

By Joseph Dussault, Staff December 1, 2016

Last year, a team of astrophysicists made a momentous discovery: gravitational waves, ripples emanating through the fabric of space and time, caused by collisions of black holes and other violent events. Now, after months offline, the observatory responsible is up and running again.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), operated by physicists at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, was shut down in January for scheduled updates to sensitivity and performance. On Wednesday, researchers brought the observatory back online to continue its search for gravitational waves – the elusive astronomical phenomenon first theorized a century ago by Albert Einstein.

“The significance of this expanding ‘window to the universe’ cannot be stressed enough, as it will illuminate the physics of merging black holes, neutron stars and other astronomical phenomena that cannot be reproduced in a laboratory setting,” said National Science Foundation Director France Córdova in a statement.

In 1916, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves as part of his theory of general relativity. His work suggested that space and time are inextricably linked, like a single fabric. As such, high-mass objects can weigh down the fabric – imagine a stellar bowling ball on a cosmic trampoline. Extreme gravitational events, he argued, could make waves in the fabric.

These waves, which may originate from neutron stars or black hole binaries, radiate outward at the speed of light, compressing and stretching space-time. Gravitational waves were detected as early as 1974 – notably, by Joseph H. Taylor Jr. and Russell A. Hulse, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize for their work – but only indirectly.

In February, an international team of LIGO researchers became the first to directly observe gravitational waves. The waves originated from a pair of black holes orbiting more than 1 billion light-years away. As the binary system spiraled inward, the two black holes violently merged at half the speed of light. The 20-millisecond collision produced gravitational waves 50 times more powerful than all the stars in the universe combined.

“For our first run, we made two confirmed detections of black-hole mergers in four months,” said Dave Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory. “With our improved sensitivity, and a longer observing period, we will likely observe even more black-hole mergers in the coming run and further enhance our knowledge of black-hole dynamics. We are only just now, thanks to LIGO, learning about how often events like these occur.”

Now that LIGO has resumed its search, researchers are optimistic that it could reveal new insights about the nature of gravity itself.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Pete Spotts reported in Febuary:

    This has been a nagging thorn in the side of theoretical physicists working an another Big Idea – that the four basic forces of nature are low-energy remnants of what was a single force during the earliest fractions of a second after the big bang. These forces are gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force binding particles in the nuclei of atoms, and the weak force governing radioactive decay.

    Physicists have been able to show through quantum theory that three of the four forces have a common ancestor. Gravity remains the stubborn holdout.

Non-scientists can also aid LIGO researchers in their quest for discovery. The Einstein@home program, launched in 2005, can automatically download observatory data onto any idle personal computer. Once the data is analyzed, the results are sent back to a central server. With LIGO’s expanded scope, researchers may need the help more than ever.


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« Reply #1167 on: Dec 03, 2016, 06:08 AM »

ESA reaffirms commitment to Mars after disappointing lander crash

After the ESA's Schiaparelli lander crashed to the surface of the Red Planet in October, there may have been doubts about the project's future. But experts say they can fix the problem – and renewed funding is a sign of confidence.

By Ellen Powell, Staff December 3, 2016

The Schiaparelli lander may have crashed, but that doesn't mean Europe is giving up on Mars.

In a show of confidence, member states on Friday approved 450 million euros ($480 million) in funding for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. Numerous other projects, including several related to the International Space Station, were also given the go-ahead as part of a 10.3 billion euro ($11 billion) budget approved by the ESA’s 22 members during a two-day meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland.

The renewed funding should answer any lingering questions about the future of ExoMars, a joint project between the ESA and Russia’s Roscosmos. And plans to send a rover in 2020 must proceed on schedule, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said.

"It's not an easy thing, but we are confident we will succeed," Dr. Woerner said, emphasizing that delaying the mission beyond 2020 was not an option.

The ExoMars mission sent the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli test lander to Mars earlier this year. The Trace Gas Orbiter is orbiting the planet, looking for gases such as methane that may indicate the possibility for life on the planet. The Schiaparelli lander, meanwhile, crashed in October: a software glitch caused the lander to detach its parachute more than 2 miles above the planet’s surface, thinking it was already on the ground.

While the crash was certainly a disappointment, experts remain optimistic about the future of the project.

“As it is, we have one part that works very well and one part that didn’t work as we expected,” Jorge Vago, project scientist for ExoMars, told Nature after the first photos of the crash site were released. “The silver lining is that we think we have in hand the necessary information to fix the problem.”

The first photos from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), released on Tuesday, have only added to that enthusiasm. Onboard the orbiter is the Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS), which takes high-definition images of the planet’s surface as the TGO orbits the planet every four days.

The photos are “absolutely spectacular,” said Nicolas Thomas, CaSSIS team leader, at the University of Bern's Center of Space and Habitability in Switzerland. And soon, CaSSIS may produce 3D maps of the surface of Mars.

At the Lucerne meeting, ESA member states also extended their commitment to participate in the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024. This will allow the agency to send more European astronauts into space. France’s first astronaut, Thomas Pesquet, arrived at the ISS in November.

Other programs received less support. The Asteroid Impact Mission, intended to investigate ways of deflecting an asteroid approaching Earth, will be cancelled, though asteroid-defense study will continue, Woerner said. Asteroid-deflection was the subject of a recent NASA exercise.

The Trace Gas Orbiter is intended to remain in orbit around Mars for seven years, and ESA plans to put a rover on the Red Planet’s surface by 2020.


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