Thursday, December 28, 2017

One Small Step: Massive Stratolaunch Aircraft Conducts First Taxi Tests

Scaled Composites' Stratolaunch, the world's widest plane intended to take rockets to the stratosphere for launch, underwent its first taxi test on a runway in California. The Model 351 - aka the Stratolaunch - boasts the world's widest wingspan of any plane. Made almost entirely from composite materials, the twin fuselage aircraft will deliver rockets to high altitude so that they can perform a fuel-saving air-launch. The Stratolaunch wingspan is measured at 117 m (385 ft), and each of its two fuselages is 73 m (238 ft) long. Proposed in the middle of 20th century, the idea of launching rockets in mid-air promised to conserve fuel, since the rocket would not have to fight Earth's gravity by spending a amount chunk of fuel just to get off the ground. Due to various reasons, such projects, both in the US and USSR, have never been widely successful, with Orbital ATK Pegasus, being one of notable exceptions. Carried by a Lockheed L-1011, Pegasus was successfully launched 40 times between 1990-2016. Before the new Model 351 Stratolaunch can take its payload into the sky, it must undergo much simpler tests. This time, it rolled its way to the runway of Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The idea was to test the plane's ability to taxi and to move on the ground via its own engines.


Most large aircraft cannot taxi, and require an airport tug to move them around. What might seem like a simple thing, for engineers and test crew becomes a complicated task.

"Multiple systems were monitored throughout the tests, including anti-skid and telemetry in addition to steering and braking. The ground team reported all of these systems operated as expected," Popular Mechanics reported.

"Our crew was able to demonstrate ground directional control with nose gear steering, and our brake systems were exercised successfully on the runway. Our first low speed taxi test is a very important step toward first flight. We are all proud and excited," stated George Bugg, aircraft program manager of Stratolaunch Systems.

After a series of similar tests, with moving speed gradually increasing, the plane will be ready for its maiden flight, sometime in 2018.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Mars Mission Sheds Light on Habitability of Distant Planets

How long might a rocky, Mars-like planet be habitable if it were orbiting a red dwarf star? It's a complex question but one that NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission can help answer. "The MAVEN mission tells us that Mars lost substantial amounts of its atmosphere over time, changing the planet's habitability," said David Brain, a MAVEN co-investigator and a professor at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. "We can use Mars, a planet that we know a lot about, as a laboratory for studying rocky planets outside our solar system, which we don't know much about yet." At the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 13, 2017, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Brain described how insights from the MAVEN mission could be applied to the habitability of rocky planets orbiting other stars. MAVEN carries a suite of instruments that have been measuring Mars' atmospheric loss since November 2014. The studies indicate that Mars has lost the majority of its atmosphere to space over time through a combination of chemical and physical processes. The spacecraft's instruments were chosen to determine how much each process contributes to the total escape.


In the past three years, the Sun has gone through periods of higher and lower solar activity, and Mars also has experienced solar storms, solar flares and coronal mass ejections. These varying conditions have given MAVEN the opportunity to observe Mars' atmospheric escape getting cranked up and dialed down.

Brain and his colleagues started to think about applying these insights to a hypothetical Mars-like planet in orbit around some type of M-star, or red dwarf, the most common class of stars in our galaxy.

The researchers did some preliminary calculations based on the MAVEN data. As with Mars, they assumed that this planet might be positioned at the edge of the habitable zone of its star. But because a red dwarf is dimmer overall than our Sun, a planet in the habitable zone would have to orbit much closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun.

The brightness of a red dwarf at extreme ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths combined with the close orbit would mean that the hypothetical planet would get hit with about 5 to 10 times more UV radiation than the real Mars does. That cranks up the amount of energy available to fuel the processes responsible for atmospheric escape. Based on what MAVEN has learned, Brain and colleagues estimated how the individual escape processes would respond to having the UV cranked up.

Their calculations indicate that the planet's atmosphere could lose 3 to 5 times as many charged particles, a process called ion escape. About 5 to 10 times more neutral particles could be lost through a process called photochemical escape, which happens when UV radiation breaks apart molecules in the upper atmosphere.

Because more charged particles would be created, there also would be more sputtering, another form of atmospheric loss. Sputtering happens when energetic particles are accelerated into the atmosphere and knock molecules around, kicking some of them out into space and sending others crashing into their neighbors, the way a cue ball does in a game of pool.

Finally, the hypothetical planet might experience about the same amount of thermal escape, also called Jeans escape. Thermal escape occurs only for lighter molecules, such as hydrogen. Mars loses its hydrogen by thermal escape at the top of the atmosphere. On the exo-Mars, thermal escape would increase only if the increase in UV radiation were to push more hydrogen to the top of the atmosphere.

Altogether, the estimates suggest that orbiting at the edge of the habitable zone of a quiet M-class star, instead of our Sun, could shorten the habitable period for the planet by a factor of about 5 to 20. For an M-star whose activity is amped up like that of a Tasmanian devil, the habitable period could be cut by a factor of about 1,000-reducing it to a mere blink of an eye in geological terms. The solar storms alone could zap the planet with radiation bursts thousands of times more intense than the normal activity from our Sun.

However, Brain and his colleagues have considered a particularly challenging situation for habitability by placing Mars around an M-class star. A different planet might have some mitigating factors-for example, active geological processes that replenish the atmosphere to a degree, a magnetic field to shield the atmosphere from stripping by the stellar wind, or a larger size that gives more gravity to hold on to the atmosphere.

"Habitability is one of the biggest topics in astronomy, and these estimates demonstrate one way to leverage what we know about Mars and the Sun to help determine the factors that control whether planets in other systems might be suitable for life," said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN's principal investigator at the University of Colorado Boulder.

MAVEN's principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, Boulder. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the MAVEN project and provided two science instruments for the mission.

Monday, December 25, 2017

ESA's butane-powered satellite will be able to change its orbit

ESA's next miniature satellite will be its first able to change orbit. Thanks to a compact thruster resembling a butane cigarette lighter, the cereal box-sized satellite will fly around its near-twin to test their radio communications. Ready to be launched with its counterpart from China on 2 February, GomX-4B is built from six standard 10 cm CubeSat units. Much quicker to build and cheaper to launch than traditional satellites, ESA is making use of CubeSats for testing new technologies in space. The main goal is to test the radio link at varying distances, routing data from one satellite to the other, then down to the ground. GomX-4A, from the Danish Ministry of Defence, will remain in position while ESA's GomX-4B manoeuvres up to 4500 km away. Supplied by Swedish firm NanoSpace, the thrusters fitted along one side will allow it to adjust its motion by a total of 15 m/s - a speed equivalent to a kicked football. "We have two pressurised fuel tanks linked to two pairs of thrusters," explains Tor-Arne Gronland, head of NanoSpace.



"Rather than burning propellant, these are simpler 'cold-gas' thrusters designed specifically for such a small mission. And simpler means cheaper and smaller.

"The fuel is stored under pressure, then released through a tiny rocket nozzle. Even though it's cold gas, we achieve a substantial velocity change by using liquid butane that turns to gas as it exits.

"Storing it as a liquid, like in a cigarette lighter, allows us to pack as many butane molecules as possible inside the small available volume - its liquid form being some 1000 times denser than its gas."

Each thruster will provide only 1 millinewton - the weight you would feel holding a feather in your hand - but enough to move the 8 kg satellite over time.

The thrusters will typically be fired in pairs although they can also work individually, for a few minutes at a time and up to an hour.

"Compared to a typical half-tonne satellite with 1 N hydrazine thrusters, we are almost a hundred times lighter and a thousand times weaker," adds Tor-Arne.

"All of the elements such as the chamber, nozzle and sensors are fitted into a 1x2 cm chip, just 1 mm thick."

NanoSpace already has flight experience behind its cold-gas thruster, with a smaller version carried on China's TW-1 in 2015.

The company plans to demonstrate a great many different operating methods during the GomX-4B mission: "We'll do different kinds of burns: long, short, pulsing and throttling up and down. It's important to do these things early in the mission then again late on, to show it can survive and perform well in space."

NanoSpace began as a commercial spin-off from Sweden's University of Uppsala, and was acquired last year by Danish company GomSpace, builder of the GomX-4 satellites. The companies are currently working together on a constellation of more than 200 CubeSats for a commercial customer.

NanoSpace is also developing an ESA thruster for flying several satellites in formation, rendezvous and docking, and for controlling the orientation of CubeSats in deep space.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

ArianeGroup to start production of the first Ariane 62

With the successful conclusion of Maturity Gate 6.2, ArianeGroup and its industrial partners are moving into an important new phase in the development of Ariane 6, a flagship European Space Agency (ESA) program. This review confirmed that the industrial process of Ariane 6 is mature enough to start construction of the first launcher, in line with the program's objectives. Ariane 6 is specifically designed to be able to respond to evolving market demands. It will be a versatile, modular, competitive launcher, available in two versions, Ariane 62 and Ariane 64, in order to guarantee the continuity of European access to space. "Starting the production of the first launcher just three years after the decision of ESA Member States to launch the Ariane 6 program in December 2014 is a major step forward," said Alain Charmeau, CEO of ArianeGroup. "This once again demonstrates the efficiency of the industrial process put in place for the development, production and operation of Ariane 6. The industry is thus meeting its commitments to serve all future Ariane 6 customers, in ESA-coordinated national and European institutions, which are currently preparing the operational launch phase with our subsidiary, Arianespace".



This milestone follows on from Maturity Gate 6.1 last April, which validated the technical, industrial and programming characteristics of Ariane 6, enabling launcher development to continue at the anticipated rate. The positive conclusion of this milestone thus made it possible to launch the production of the Ariane 6 ground qualification models.

At the same time, the European Space Agency is preparing to put the launcher into operation. A review called "Exploitation Readiness Key Point" (ERKP) analyzes in detail all the aspects associated with the commercialization and mass production of Ariane 6 launchers. The conclusions are expected in March 2018.

As the industrial lead contractor for development and operation of the Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 launchers, ArianeGroup coordinates an industrial network of more than 600 companies in 13 European countries, including more than 350 Small and Medium Enterprises. The ArianeGroup subsidiary Arianespace is responsible for the commercialization of Ariane 6.

Friday, December 22, 2017

PSI on Two Missions Receiving NASA Concept Development Funding

Planetary Science Institute scientists are involved in both missions selected by NASA Wednesday to receive concept development funding to robotically explore the solar system. Missions selected were Comet Astrobiology Exploration Sample Return (CAESAR), a mission to return a sample from the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and Dragonfly, a drone-like rotorcraft lander that would explore the prebiotic chemistry and habitability of dozens of sites on Saturn's moon Titan. One of the missions will be selected in 2019 for flight, with launch expected to be in the mid-2020s. PSI Senior Scientists Robert Gaskell and Eric Palmer will be co-investigators on CAESAR. They will be responsible for providing shape models of the comet for the mission's navigation team. The CAESAR sample will reveal how these materials contributed to the early Earth, including the origins of the Earth's oceans, and of life. PSI Senior Scientists R. Aileen Yingst and Research Scientist Catherine Neish will be co-investigators on the Dragonfly mission that will sample materials and determine surface composition to investigate Titan's organic chemistry and habitability, monitor atmospheric and surface conditions, image landforms to investigate geological processes, and perform seismic studies.


Neish will study Titan's geology, with a particular focus on impact cratering, volcanism, and aqueous surface chemistry. Yingst will research what geologic processes have been - and currently are - active on Titan.

Elizabeth Turtle, lead investigator on Dragonfly, worked at PSI from 2002-2006 and is now at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

The CAESAR and Dragonfly missions will receive NASA funding through the end of 2018 to further develop and mature their concepts. The selected mission will be the fourth in NASA's New Frontiers portfolio, a series planetary science investigations that fall under a development cost cap of approximately $850 million.

PSI Senior Scientist Amanda Hendrix, whose book "Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets" looks at the challenges of spaceflight and Titan as a human destination, said, "I am very excited about the Dragonfly concept. Titan is such a fascinating and Earth-like world, with its thick atmosphere, weather and surface liquids.

"I like that Dragonfly takes advantage of the Titan environment, namely the low gravity and thick atmosphere, to explore multiple sites across the diverse world. The Huygens probe gave us a first tantalizing glimpse of the surface of Titan, and I'm eager to see more."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A New Approach for Detecting Planets in the Alpha Centauri System

Yale astronomers have taken a fresh look at the nearby Alpha Centauri star system and found new ways to narrow the search for habitable planets there. According to a study led by Professor Debra Fischer and graduate student Lily Zhao, there may be small, Earth-like planets in Alpha Centauri that have been overlooked. Meanwhile, the study ruled out the existence of a number of larger planets in the system that had popped up in previous models. "The universe has told us the most common types of planets are small planets, and our study shows these are exactly the ones that are most likely to be orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B," said Fischer, a leading expert on exoplanets who has devoted decades of research to the search for an Earth analog. The new study appears in the Astronomical Journal. Co-authors are John Brewer and Matt Giguere of Yale and Barbara Rojas-Ayala of Universidad Andres Bello in Chile. The Alpha Centauri system is located 1.3 parsecs (24.9 trillion miles) from Earth, making it our closest neighboring system. It has three stars: Centauri A, Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri. Last year, the discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri set off a new wave of scientific and public interest in the system.



"Because Alpha Centauri is so close, it is our first stop outside our solar system," Fischer said. "There's almost certain to be small, rocky planets around Alpha Centauri A and B."

The findings are based on data coming in from a new wave of more advanced spectrographic instruments at observatories located in Chile: CHIRON, a spectrograph built by Fischer's team; HARPS, built by a team from Geneva; and UVES, part of the Very Large Telescope Array. "The precision of our instruments hasn't been good enough, until now," Fischer said.

The researchers set up a grid system for the Alpha Centauri system and asked, based on the spectrographic analysis, "If there was a small, rocky planet in the habitable zone, would we have been able to detect it?" Often, the answer came back: "No."

Zhao, the study's first author, determined that for Alpha Centauri A, there might still be orbiting planets that are smaller than 50 Earth masses. For Alpha Centauri B there might be orbiting planets than are smaller than 8 Earth masses; for Proxima Centauri, there might be orbiting planets that are less than one-half of Earth's mass.

In addition, the study eliminated the possibility of a number of larger planets. Zhao said this takes away the possibility of Jupiter-sized planets causing asteroids that might hit or change the orbits of smaller, Earth-like planets.


"This is a very green study in that it recycles existing data to draw new conclusions," said Zhao. "By using the data in a different way, we are able to rule out large planets that could endanger small, habitable worlds and narrow down the search area for future investigations."

This new information will help astronomers prioritize their efforts to detect additional planets in the system, the researchers said. Likewise, the continuing effort by Fischer and others to improve spectrographic technology will help identify and understand the composition of exoplanets.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

ArianeGroup signs contract with ESA for future Prometheus engine

Prometheus is a European demonstrator for a very low cost reusable engine, running on liquid oxygen (LOx) and methane. It is the precursor for future European launcher engines as of 2030. The aim is to be able to build future liquid propellant engines with a unit cost of about 1 million euros, or 10 times less than the cost of producing existing engines such as the Vulcain2. The success of this type of technological challenge demands an entirely new approach and the use of innovative design and production methods and toolsApart from switching from the traditional Ariane propellant (transition from the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen combination to a combination of liquid oxygen and methane), the demonstrator will entail major developments, including digitilization of engine control and diagnostics, and manufacturing using 3D printing in a connected factory environment. The 75 million euro contract signed by Daniel Neuenschwander, Director of Space Transportation at the European Space Agency (ESA), and Alain Charmeau, CEO of ArianeGroup, the 50/50 joint-venture set up by the Airbus and Safran groups, covers the design, manufacturing and testing of the first two examples of the Prometheus demonstrator.


The French space agency (CNES) is leading in the early design process, and testing is scheduled on the P5 test bed of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Lampoldshausen, Germany, as of 2020.

"The development of Ariane 6 is ontrack, with a first flight scheduled for 2020. This new Prometheus contract with the European Space Agency is paving the way for the future of European launchers, with the goal of designing and building a reusable engine for one tenth the cost of today's Vulcain2 type engines. I therefore thank ESA and the Member States for their contribution and their confidence in entrusting us with the development of the European technology of tomorrow."

Following the initial phase which was completed in early December, the first Program Review confirmed the consistency of the design choices with engine specifications and in particular with the recurring cost targets. At the same time, subsystems testing has started with the gas generator campaign (one of the parts built using 3D printing) on the DLR's P8 test bed in Lampoldshausen.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Opportunity Comes to a Fork in the Road

Opportunity is continuing her winter exploration of Perseverance Valley on the west rim of Endeavour Crater. The rover continued with several days of collecting color, stereo, Panoramic Camera (Pancam) panoramas of the surrounding terrain. Then, on Sol 4934 (Dec. 10, 2017), after a sol of recharging, Opportunity drove about 28 feet (8.4 meters), approximately east, down the valley to a modest energy lily pad. Beyond this point the channel features of the valley split into a left and right fork. The team will collect more imagery from this location to inform the decision as to which fork in the road the rover should take. As of Sol 4934 (Dec. 10, 2017), the solar array energy production was 408 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.406 and a solar array dust factor of 0.620.


Total odometry is 28.01 miles (45.08 kilometers).

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Thales Alenia Space signs 3 contracts for NASA's deep space exploration

Thales Alenia Space has signed three contracts in the frame of Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) activities with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital-ATK, to develop capabilities that can meet NASA human space exploration objectives while also supporting industry commercialization plans. Based on a public-private partnership model, the next step for human spaceflight is the development of deep space exploration capabilities to expand architectures to support more extensive missions in the proving ground around and beyond cis-lunar space and then towards deep space and, ultimately, Mars. In addition NASA hopes to incorporate modules and parts developed in the NextSTEP project into the follow on Deep Space Gateway and Deep Space Transport projects. An important part of NASA's strategy is to stimulate the commercial space industry while leveraging those same commercial capabilities through partnerships to deliver mission capabilities. In this frame, Thales Alenia Space has collaborated with a couple of the selected US Companies, namely Orbital ATK and Lockheed Martin, since the very beginning of NextSTEP. For NextSTEP-2, a third contract has been added with Boeing.



Thales Alenia Space support to the US partner's activities in NextSTEP is primarily focused on the definition of a key core element of the Cislunar infrastructure, i.e. the Habitat Module, but with potential additional contributions in terms of general deep space gateway architecture and other composing elements, such as a potential airlock. The support will capitalize on the Thales Alenia Space knowledge and heritage acquired in both exploration and space transportation domains.

Thanks to its flight proven know-how and capability accumulated through its strong contribution in the development of the ISS Pressurized Modules (both permanently operative in orbit like the Nodes, or used to support ISS cargo logistic like Cygnus), Thales Alenia Space will provide added values to the US partners by proposing sound and robust design solutions for the new generation exploration modules, where innovation and recent technological steps forwards can be injected as well.

In particular, this support will span from overall module configuration to layout, structures, micro-meteoroid and radiation protection, thermal control and more in general systems aspects (including manufacturing and integration capabilities) essential for the technical definition of such modules and for the setup of development approach and planning able to meet the stringent schedule of the program.

"We are very proud to bring our expertise to cooperate with NASA in expanding the frontiers of knowledge, capability and opportunities in space beyond Low Earth Orbit" - declared Walter Cugno Vice President Domain Exploration and Science Thales Alenia Space - "For Thales Alenia Space, the partnering with US companies in this very exciting adventure is also the culmination of a unique knowhow developed through European banner and now recognized worldwide".

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Lockheed Martin and NEC to Enhance Satellites, Space Travel with Artificial Intelligence

Lockheed Martin and NEC Corp have announced that Lockheed Martin will use NEC's System Invariant Analysis Technology (SIAT) in the space domain. SIAT's advanced analytics engine uses data collected from sensors to learn the behavior of systems, including computer systems, power plants, factories and buildings, enabling the system itself to automatically detect inconsistencies and prescribe resolutions. NEC's advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities and Lockheed Martin's space domain expertise offer new opportunities in developing enhanced integrated satellite and spacecraft operations with uniquely developed prescriptive analytics. These include rapid assessments of changes in performance and the space environment, such as the potential influence of space weather on electronics. With this information, operators can improve product performance and lifecycle efficiency. "Lockheed Martin and NEC are experts in space and systems, and that's the right blend to explore how AI can improve space products for astronauts and people on the ground," said Carl Marchetto, vice president of New Ventures at Lockheed Martin Space.


"AI can revolutionize how we use information from space, both in orbit and on deep space missions, including crewed missions to Mars and beyond."

"The innovative SIAT developed by NEC can make valuable contributions to solving the challenges faced by Lockheed Martin in the space field," said Tomoyasu Nishimura, senior vice president, NEC Corporation.

"Going forward, NEC aims to continue strengthening this solution and to globally support safety, security and operational efficiency in a wide variety of fields."

"It is an honor to see NEC's SIAT being used by Lockheed Martin, one of America's leading space innovators," said Masahiro (Mark) Ikeno, president and CEO, NEC Corporation of America.

"We are confident in SIAT's ability to contribute to the reliability, safety and security of Lockheed Martin's developments in the space field."

Friday, December 15, 2017

Boeing tapped to sustain Space-Based Space Surveillance system

The Boeing Co. has been awarded a modified contract from the U.S. Air Force for sustainment of the space-based space surveillance Block 10 satellite. The deal, announced Wednesday by the Department of Defense and worth more than $21.9 million under the terms of the contract, is classified as a cost-plus-incentive-fee and cost-plus-fixed-fee contract. The Space Based Space Surveillance, or SBSS, Block 10 satellite operates 24-hours a day, 7-days a week with a clear and unobstructed view of objects orbiting Earth. The SBSS is used to "collect metric and Space Object Identification data for man-made orbiting objects without the disruption of weather, time of day and atmosphere that can limit ground-based systems." Work on the contract will be performed in California and Colorado, and is expected to be completed by June 2022.


Defense Department operation and maintenance funds from fiscal 2018 of more than $14.8 million have been obligated to Boeing at the time of award.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Green Light for Continued Operations of ESA Science Missions

ESA's Science Programme Committee (SPC) has approved indicative extensions, up to 2019-2020, for the operation of eight scientific missions. During its meeting at ESA Headquarters in Paris, on 21-22 November, the SPC approved indicative extensions for the continued operation of five ESA-led missions: Gaia, INTEGRAL, Mars Express, SOHO, and XMM-Newton. This followed a comprehensive review of the current operational status and outlook of the missions and their expected scientific returns during the extension period. The decision will be subject to confirmation towards the end of 2018. [1] The lifetime of Gaia, ESA's billion star surveyor, was extended by eighteen months, from 25 July 2019 to 31 December 2020. This is the first time that Gaia, which was launched in 2013 and originally funded for a five-year mission, has been subject to the extension process. Mars Express, SOHO, and XMM-Newton each received extensions of two years, so their operations will continue at least until the end of 2020.


The SPC extended the operations of the high-energy observatory INTEGRAL by one year, until 31 December 2019. A proposal to extend INTEGRAL until the end of 2020, as well as a proposal concerning a two-year extension of the magnetospheric plasma mission, Cluster, will be presented to the next meeting of the SPC in February 2018.

The go-ahead was also given to continue ESA's contributions to the operations of three international collaborative missions: the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), which are both led by NASA, as well as the Japanese-led mission Hinode.

[1] Every two years, all missions whose approved operations end within the following four years are subject to review by the advisory structure of the Science Directorate. Extensions are granted to missions that satisfy the established criteria for operational status and science return, subject to the level of financial resources available in the science programme. These extensions are valid for the following four years, subject to a mid-term review and confirmation after two years. Extensions for operations in the period 2017-2018 were approved by the SPC in November 2016, but the indicative extension, for 2019-2020, had been deferred until the November 2017 meeting to allow the SPC to evaluate the outcome of the ESA Ministerial Council meeting in December 2016.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Ariane 5 rocket takes off with European GPS satellites

An Ariane 5 rocket put four GPS satellites into orbit on Tuesday for Europe's Galileo navigation project, Arianespace said. The European space workhorse took off at 1836 GMT and deployed the satellites four hours after launch. The Galileo programme, when complete, will have 30 satellites in three orbital planes by 2020. If all goes according to plan the system will be able to pinpoint a location on Earth to within a metre -- compared to several metres for the United States' GPS and the Russian GLONASS systems. The civilian-controlled Galileo system, seen as strategically important to Europe, went live in December last year, providing initial services with a weak signal, having taken 17 years at more than triple the original budget to get there. "With this sixth successful launch of an Ariane 5 in 2017, marking the second mission of the year for the benefit of the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA), Arianespace is proud to guarantee Europe reliable and independent access to space," said Stephane Israel, Arianespace's executive chairman. The satellites launched Tuesday, each one weighing 715 kilogrammes (1,590 pounds), were placed into orbit 23,000 kilometres (14,000 miles) from Earth.



The Galileo programme is funded and owned by the EU.

The European Commission has overall responsibility for the programme, managing and overseeing the implementation of all activities, but the deployment, design and development of the infrastructure is entrusted to the ESA.

The European Commission announced in July that investigators had uncovered the problems behind the failure of atomic clocks onboard satellites already launched as part of the Galileo satnav system.

For months, the ESA had been investigating the reasons behind failing clocks onboard some of the 18 navigation satellites it had already launched for Galileo.

The ESA found after an investigation that its rubidium clocks had a faulty component that could cause a short circuit, according to European sources.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Galileo satellites atop rocket for next Tuesday's flight

Europe's next four Galileo navigation satellites are in place atop their Ariane 5, ready to be launched next Tuesday. Liftoff from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana is scheduled for 18:36 GMT (19:36 CET, 15:36 local time), carrying Galileo satellites 19-22. Completion of Galileo's Ariane 5 rocket took place in the Spaceport's Final Assembly Building, following the arrival there of the quartet of satellites, already attached to the dispenser that will hold them in position during launch, then release them into their target 22 922 km-altitude orbit. Next, the satellites plus dispenser were placed atop the Ariane 5's upper stage, after which the 14 m-long protective fairing was lowered over the Galileos - the last time they will be seen by human eyes. This fairing will protect them from the onrushing atmosphere during ascent. Liftoff from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana is scheduled for 18:36 GMT (19:36 CET, 15:36 local time), carrying Galileo satellites 19-22. Completion of Galileo's Ariane 5 rocket took place in the Spaceport's Final Assembly Building, following the arrival there of the quartet of satellites, already attached to the dispenser that will hold them in position during launch, then release them into their target 22 922 km-altitude orbit.


Next, the satellites plus dispenser were placed atop the Ariane 5's upper stage, after which the 14 m-long protective fairing was lowered over the Galileos - the last time they will be seen by human eyes. This fairing will protect them from the onrushing atmosphere during ascent.

The next step will be Monday's rollout to the launch zone.

This mission will bring the Galileo system to 22 satellites. Initial Services began almost a year ago, on 15 December 2016.

Next year's launch of another quartet will bring the constellation of 24 satellites to completion, plus two orbital spares.

Galileo is Europe's civil global satellite navigation system. It will allow users worldwide to know their exact position in time and space with great precision and reliability.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Galaxy Orbits in the Local Supercluster

A team of astronomers from Maryland, Hawaii, Israel, and France has produced the most detailed map ever of the orbits of galaxies in our extended local neighborhood, showing the past motions of almost 1,400 galaxies within 100 million light-years of the Milky Way. The team reconstructed the galaxies' motions from 13 billion years in the past to the present day. The main gravitational attractor in the mapped area is the Virgo Cluster, with 600 trillion times the mass of the Sun, 50 million light-years from us. Over a thousand galaxies have already fallen into the Virgo Cluster, while in the future all galaxies that are currently within 40 million light-years of the cluster will be captured. Our Milky Way galaxy lies just outside this capture zone. However the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, each with 2 trillion times the mass of the Sun, are destined to collide and merge in 5 billion years.



"For the first time, we are not only visualizing the detailed structure of our local supercluster of galaxies but we are seeing how the structure developed over the history of the universe. An analogy is the study of the current geography of the Earth from the movement of plate tectonics," said co-author Brent Tully, from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.

These dramatic merger events are only part of a larger show. There are two overarching flow patterns within this volume of the universe. All galaxies in one hemisphere of the region - including our own Milky Way - are streaming toward a single flat sheet. In addition, essentially every galaxy over the whole volume is flowing, as a leaf would in a river, toward gravitational attractors at far greater distances.

Representations of the orbits can be seen in a video and, alternatively, with an interactive model.

With the interactive model, a viewer can pan, zoom, rotate, and pause/activate the time evolution of movement along orbits. The orbits are shown in a reference frame that removes the overall expansion of the universe. What we are seeing are the deviations from cosmic expansion caused by the interactions of local sources of gravity.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Wrapping up 2017 one year out from MU69

New Horizons is in good health and cruising closer each day to its next encounter: a flyby of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69 (or "MU69" for short). If you follow our mission, you likely know that flyby will occur on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day 2019, which is just barely over a year from now! As I write this, New Horizons is wrapping up an active period that began when the spacecraft emerged from hibernation mode in September. But soon, on Dec. 21, we'll put the spacecraft back in hibernation, where it will remain until June 4, 2018. After June 4 the spacecraft will stay "awake" until late in 2020, long after the MU69 flyby, when all of the data from that flyby have reached Earth. But before we put New Horizons into hibernation this month, we have some important work ahead. We'll observe five more KBOs with the onboard LORRI telescope/imager to learn about their surface properties, satellite systems and rotation periods. This work is part of a larger set of observations of 25-35 Kuiper Belt objects from 2016 to 2020 on this extended mission. Learning about these KBOs from close range and at angles that we cannot observe from Earth makes will give us key context for the more detailed studies we'll make of MU69 from a thousand times closer than we can study any other KBO. In addition to that LORRI imaging of these objects, we're continuing our nearly round-the-clock observations of the charged particle and dust environment of the Kuiper Belt-both before and while New Horizons hibernates.



Also right ahead is a 2.5-minute engine burn planned for Dec. 9 (yes, a Saturday). This maneuver will both refine our course and optimize our flyby arrival time at MU69, by setting closest approach to 5:33 Universal Time (12:33 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) on Jan. 1, 2019.

Flying by at that time provides better visibility by the antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network, which will attempt to reflect radar waves off the surface of MU69 for New Horizons to receive. If it succeeds, that difficult experiment will help us determine the surface reflectivity and roughness of MU69 at radar wavelengths-something that has been successfully applied to study asteroids, comets, planetary satellites and even some planets, including Pluto, which New Horizons observed the same way in 2015.

Our Pluto observation set a record for the most distant object ever studied with radar -shattering the previous record by over 300 percent! If our radar experiment is successful on the much-smaller MU69 (which is perhaps 30 kilometers [19 miles] in diameter-tiny compared to Pluto's almost 2,400-kilometer [1,480-mile] diameter), then we'll break our own record, something unlikely to be surpassed for decades.

Since hibernating, New Horizons requires less attention from mission control than when we're in active operations. This will allow our mission team to focus fully on planning the detailed sequences that will tell New Horizons how to make every scientific observation of MU69 during its close-range pass in the days surrounding Jan. 1, 2019.

The year ahead will also include many observations of other KBOs, more study of the Sun's heliosphere with our dust and plasma instruments - SDC, PEPSSI, and SWAP, and our Alice ultraviolet spectrometer - as well as all the remaining flyby planning for MU69.

MU69 flyby operations will begin with distant navigation imaging to help us accurately home in on our target; that work will start in late August or September and will continue until literally 48 hours before flyby.

Our navigation teams at KinetX and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab JPL will use those navigation images to compute the engine burns to further refine our course toward our planned closest approach point just 3,500 kilometers, or about 2,175 miles, from MU69. That's more than three times as close as we flew by Pluto, which should make for spectacular MU69 images and other data!

Additionally, beginning in the final weeks of 2018, we'll search for moons or dust structures around MU69 that could harm New Horizons if we were to collide with them during our 32,000-miles-per-hour flyby. If hazards that threaten the spacecraft are found, we can burn our engines to divert to a farther flyby, with a closest approach of 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles), which should be safer.

Well, that's my update for now. For more mission news, stay tuned to NASA websites, our own project website, and our social media channels, which are listed below so you can bookmark them.

I'll write again early next year. Until then, I hope you have a safe and productive finish to 2017, a happy new year, and that you'll keep on exploring-just as we do!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Spaceflight Prepares to Launch Eleven Spacecraft on India's PSLV-C40

Spaceflight, a satellite rideshare and mission management provider, has announced it will be launching 11 spacecraft in early January from India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Spacecraft include Finland's ICEYE-X1 SAR microsatellite, Planetary Resources' Arkyd-6 6U asteroid prospecting demonstration cubesat, four Spire Global Lemur-2 cubesats, Astro Digital's Landmapper-BC3, AMSAT's Fox-1D cubesat, and others. Spaceflight performed the cubesat integration at its Seattle Integration Facility and is in the process of shipping the spacecraft to India for the PSLV-C40 mission. The PSLV rocket is scheduled to lift off from India's Satish Dhawan Space Center in early January 2018 with the Cartosat-2ER navigation satellite, in addition to Spaceflight's rideshare customers. "PSLV-C40 is a perfect example of how our flexible, full-service rideshare model is enabling new commercial space businesses to exist while expanding into new markets," said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight. "This mission brings new customers from outside the industry into space while continuing partnerships with existing customers for their ongoing satellite constellations." One first-time customer on the mission is Finland's ICEYE with the country's first commercial satellite, ICEYE-X1. ICEYE developed its own synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) sensor technologies suitable for satellites under 100kg in weight, making it one of the bigger payloads on the PSLV-C40 mission.



This is ICEYE's first proof-of-concept microsatellite mission with a SAR sensor as its payload and also the world's first SAR satellite in this size, enabling radar imaging of the Earth through clouds and even in total darkness. Potential use-cases for the data are monitoring sea ice movements or marine oil spills, and prevention of illegal fishing.

"Working together with Spaceflight to schedule and make this launch a reality has been an outstanding experience for ICEYE, and it has given us the necessary opportunities for scaling up operations for our constellation of micro-SAR satellites as planned," said Rafal Modrzewski, CEO and co-founder at ICEYE.

Spaceflight offers customers the most options for getting to space, working with nearly every global launch vehicle provider, including the Falcon 9, PSLV, Antares, Cygnus, Electron, Soyuz and others.

Much like buying an airline ticket that is valid on multiple airlines, Spaceflight can ensure organizations have flexibility to move vehicles if changes or delays occur. Additionally, the smallsat rideshare service model helps organizations reach a desired orbit at a much lower cost than buying their own launch vehicle.

Spaceflight has negotiated the launch of more than 120 satellites on behalf of its customers and has contracts to deploy nearly 200 more through 2018. The company plans to coordinate and deploy its largest launch to date in 2018 with its first dedicated rideshare mission aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Winter wanderings put Opportunity at 28 Miles on the odometer

Opportunity is continuing her winter exploration of Perseverance Valley on the west rim of the Noachian-aged Endeavour Crater. Before moving to the next waypoint, the team commanded the rover on Sol 4916 (Nov. 21, 2017), to collect a Microscopic Image (MI) mosaic of a surface target, and then place the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (Perseverance Valley) for a multi-sol integration. While the APXS was integrating, Opportunity continued to collect extensive color panoramas of the surrounding terrain. These image data are part of a complete digital model the rover is assembling of the entire Perseverance Valley. With the in-situ (contact) science complete using the APXS, the rover drove on Sol 4922 (Nov. 27, 2017) about 46 feet (14 meters) to the next lily pad (energy favorable location) down the valley. Here Opportunity will continue the extensive image collection and take advantage of any surface targets under her feet.


As of Sol 4923 (Nov. 28, 2017), the solar array energy production was 390 watt-hours with an atmospheric opacity (Tau) of 0.416 and a solar array dust factor of 0.619.

Total odometry is 28.00 miles (45,067.60 kilometers).

Sunday, December 3, 2017

First finding of China's DAMPE may shed light on dark matter research

The Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE, also known as Wukong) mission published its first scientific results on Nov. 30 in Nature, presenting the precise measurement of cosmic ray electron flux, especially a spectral break at ~0.9 TeV. The data may shed light on the annihilation or decay of particle dark matter. DAMPE is a collaboration of more than a hundred scientists, technicians and students at nine institutes in China, Switzerland and Italy, under the leadership of the Purple Mountain Observatory (PMO) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). The DAMPE mission is funded by the strategic priority science and technology projects in space science of CAS. DAMPE, China's first astronomical satellite, was launched from China's Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center into sun-synchronous orbit on Dec. 17th, 2015. At an altitude of about 500 km, DAMPE has been collecting data since a week after its launch. In its first 530 days of science operation through June 8 of this year, DAMPE has detected 1.5 million cosmic ray electrons and positrons above 25 GeV. The electron and positron data are characterized by unprecedentedly high energy resolution and low particle background contamination.The spectral data in the energy range of 55 GeV-2.63 TeV strongly prefer a smoothly broken power-law model to a single power-law model.



DAMPE has directly detected a spectral break at ~0.9 TeV, with the spectral index changing from ~3.1 to ~3.9. The precise measurement of the cosmic ray electron and positron spectrum, in particular the flux declination at TeV energies, considerably narrows the parameter space of models such as nearby pulsars, supernova remnants, and/or candidates for particle dark matter that were proposed to account for the "positron anomaly" revealed previously by PAMELA and AMS-02, according to FAN Yizhong, deputy chief designer of DAMPE's scientific application system.

"Together with data from the cosmic microwave background experiments, high energy gamma-ray measurements, and other astronomical telescopes, the DAMPE data may help to ultimately clarify the connection between the positron anomaly and the annihilation or decay of particle dark matter," said FAN.

Data also hint at the presence of spectral structure between 1 and 2 TeV energies - a possible result of nearby cosmic ray sources or exotic physical processes. Yet, more data are definitely required to explore this phenomenon.

DAMPE has recorded over 3.5 billion cosmic ray events, with maximum event energies exceeding ~100 trillion electronvolts (TeV). DAMPE is expected to record more than 10 billion cosmic ray events over its useful life - projected to exceed five years given the current state of its instruments.

More statistics will allow more precise measurement of the cosmic ray electron and positron spectrum up to ~10 TeV. Scientists will also be able to explore spectral features potentially generated by dark matter particle annihilation/decay or nearby astrophysical sources, e.g., pulsars.

The DAMPE results reported here demonstrate the unique capability of DAMPE to explore possible new physics and/or new astrophysics in the TeV energy window, thanks to its high energy resolution, large instrumental acceptance, wide energy coverage, excellent electron/proton separation power, and long working life.

DAMPE's first scientific result is a milestone for the international collaboration. The mission will continue to study galactic cosmic rays up to ~10 TeV for electrons/gamma-rays and hundreds of TeV for nuclei, respectively. DAMPE data is expected to reveal new phenomena of the universe in the TeV window.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Huge exoplanet ten times more massive than Jupiter has unique carbon monoxide atmosphere

About 300 light years away lies a weird planet, unlike any other astronomers have ever seen. Called WASP-18b, this hot giant has 10 times the mass of Jupiter and a peculiar atmosphere mostly made of carbon monoxide. The data suggests that there’s no water vapor to be found in its stratosphere, which could change our understanding of the formation of such planets. WASP-18b was first identified by the Wide Angle Search for Planets survey which uses a double setup each comprising 8 cameras that cover 480 degrees of the sky. One set of cameras lies in the northern hemisphere, the other in the southern hemisphere. Since both setups entered operation in 2006, astronomers have used them to gather data on 30 million stars. By studying small changes or wobbles in the light of a star, scientists can determine whether a planet is passing by and, if yes, they can derive some of its properties. WASP-18b, along with another 100 planets or so have been discovered by the survey in this manner.


What's a Hot Jupiter
A ‘Hot Jupiter’ is an exoplanet like Jupiter but much hotter, with orbits that take it feverishly close to the parent star.

This behemoth planet is quite different from many others discovered by the WASP survey or the prolific Kepler Space Telescope responsible for over 2,000 confirmed exoplanet sightings. When NASA scientists directed the lenses of the Hubble and Spritzer telescopes towards WASP-18b, they determined that there likely isn’t any water in the stratosphere which is instead largely made of carbon monoxide. Data suggests the stratosphere is packed with hot gas while the lower troposphere is dominated by cooler carbon monoxide.

“The composition of WASP-18b defies all expectations,” said Kyle Sheppard of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“We don’t know of any other extrasolar planet where carbon monoxide so completely dominates the upper atmosphere,” Sheppard said.

The team determined the two types of carbon monoxide signatures at a wavelength of about 1.6 micrometers and an emission signature at about 4.5 micrometers. This is the first time researchers have detected both types of fingerprints for a single type of molecule in an exoplanet’s atmosphere.

All of these observations point to the curious possibility that this planet may contain 300 times more metals than other exoplanets of similar mass. If that’s true, WASp-18b clearly did not form in the same way as other Hot Jupiters before it.

“This rare combination of factors opens a new window into our understanding of physicochemical processes in exoplanetary atmospheres,” said Nikku Madhusudhan, a co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge.

NASA successfully fires Voyager 1 thrusters after 37 years

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft -- cruising interstellar space billions of miles from Earth -- was back on the right track Friday thanks to thrusters that were fired up for the first time in 37 years. The unmanned spaceship was launched along with its twin, Voyager 2, more than 40 years ago to explore the outer planets of our solar system, traveling further than any human-made object in history. But after decades of operation, the "attitude control thrusters" that turn the spacecraft by firing tiny "puffs" had degraded. The small adjustments are needed to turn Voyager's antenna toward Earth, allowing it to continue sending communications. "At 13 billion miles from Earth, there's no mechanic shop nearby to get a tune-up," NASA said in a news release. Experts at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California decided to turn to four backup thrusters that were last used on November 8, 1980. "The Voyager flight team dug up decades-old data and examined the software that was coded in an outdated assembler language, to make sure we could safely test the thrusters," said Chris Jones, chief engineer at JPL. The engineers fired up the thrusters on Tuesday and tested their ability to turn Voyager using 10-millisecond pulses. Then they waited 19 hours, 35 minutes for the test results to arrive at an antenna in Goldstone, California.



Turns out the thrusters worked just fine.

"The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test. The mood was one of relief, joy and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all," said Todd Barber, a JPL propulsion engineer.

Being able to use the backup thrusters means the lifespan of Voyager 1 has been extended by two or three years, added Suzanne Dodd, project manager for Voyager.

NASA plans to switch over to the formerly dormant thrusters in January. They will likely also conduct similar tests on the backup thrusters on Voyager 2.

Scientists still hear from the Voyager spacecraft daily, and expect to get data for about another decade.


Astronomy textbooks were rewritten on a wide scale thanks to the Voyager spacecraft, which zoomed past Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus.


The plutonium-powered spaceships will continue until they finally run out of fuel, and will then orbit in the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Crossing drones with satellites: ESA eyes high-altitude aerial platforms

ESA is considering extending its activities to a new region of the sky via a novel type of aerial vehicle, a 'missing link' between drones and satellites. High Altitude Pseudo-Satellites, or HAPS, are platforms that float or fly at high altitude like conventional aircraft but operate more like satellites - except that rather than working from space they can remain in position inside the atmosphere for weeks or even months, offering continuous coverage of the territory below. The best working altitude is about 20 km, above the clouds and jet streams, and 10 km above commercial airliners, where wind speeds are low enough for them to hold position for long periods. From such a height they can survey the ground to the horizon 500 km away, variously enabling precise monitoring and surveillance, high-bandwidth communications or back up to existing satellite navigation services. Several ESA directorates have teamed up to investigate their potential, explains future-systems specialist Antonio Ciccolella: "For Earth observation, they could provide prolonged high-resolution coverage for priority regions, while for navigation and telecoms they could shrink blind spots in coverage and combine wide bandwidth with negligible signal delay.


"ESA is looking into how these various domains can be best brought together."

Earth observation specialist Thorsten Fehr explains, "We've been looking into the concept for the last 20 years but now finally it's becoming reality.

"That's come about through the maturing of key technologies: miniaturised avionics, high-performance solar cells, lightweight batteries and harness, miniaturisation of Earth observation sensors and high-bandwidth communication links that can deliver competitively priced services."

Navigation engineer Roberto Prieto Cerdeira adds "There's obvious potential for emergency response. They could also be employed semi-permanently, perhaps extending satnav coverage into high, narrow valleys and cities."

European companies have already unveiled product lines. For instance, Airbus has developed the winged, solar-powered Zephyr, which in 2010 achieved a world record 14 days of continuous flight without refuelling.

Zephyr-S is designed to fly payloads of a few tens of kilograms for up to three months at a time, with secondary batteries employed to keep it powered and aloft overnight. A larger Zephyr-T version in preparation will support larger payloads and power needs.

Thales Alenia Space is meanwhile preparing the lighter-than-air Stratobus, with its first flight expected in 2021.

The buoyant Stratobus airship can carry up to 250 kg, its electric engines flying against the breeze to hold itself in position, relying on fuel cells at night.

Many other firms are also developing vehicles, payloads and services. Last month saw them gathered at ESA's inaugural workshop, together with representatives of potential customers, including the European Defence Agency, Frontex - the EU agency tasked with Europe's border management - and EU Copernicus environmental monitoring services.

"This was the first meeting of its kind in Europe, with more than 200 HAPS experts" explains Juan Lizarraga Cubillos, from ESA's telecoms area.

"We heard from them on the needs, opportunities and critical issues within the field, particularly as a complement for existing satellite services, to start preparing a future ESA programme." ESA regards the vehicles as a valuable way of establishing applications that complement its satellites while also accelerating space technologies through early, high-altitude flight testing.

The point was also made that market acceptance of HAPS would come down to their efficiency and cost-effectiveness - and the best way to show that would be through demonstration projects.

"We have to fly them," remarked Alvaro Rodriquez of the EU's Satellite Centre. "The technology is there, all the ingredients are there, now it's time to mix them into a nice recipe."

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Measuring neutron star sizes by using thermonuclear explosion models

Neutron stars are made out of cold ultra-dense matter. How this matter behaves is one of the biggest mysteries in modern nuclear physics. Researchers developed a new method for measuring the radius of neutron stars which helps them to understand what happens to the matter inside the star under extreme pressure. A new method for measuring neutron star size was developed in a study led by a high-energy astrophysics research group at the University of Turku, Finland. The method relies on modelling how thermonuclear explosions taking place in the uppermost layers of the star emit X-rays to us. By comparing the observed X-ray radiation from neutron stars to the state-of-the-art theoretical radiation models, researchers were able to put constraints on the size of the emitting source. This new analysis suggests that the neutron star radius should be about 12.4 kilometers. "Previous measurements have shown that the radius of a neutron star is circa 10-16 kilometres. We constrained it to be around 12 kilometres with about 400 meters accuracy, or maybe 1000 meters if one wants to be really sure. Therefore, the new measurement is a clear improvement compared to that before, says Doctoral Candidate Joonas Nattila from the University of Turku who developed the method.


The new measurements help researchers to study what kind of nuclear-physical conditions exist inside extremely dense neutron stars. Researchers are particularly interested in determining equation of state of the neutron matter, which shows how compressible the matter is at extremely high densities.

"The density of neutron star matter is circa 100 million tons per cubic centimetre. At the moment, neutron stars are the only objects appearing in nature, with which these types of extreme states of matter can be studied," says Juri Poutanen, the leader of the research group.

The new results also help to understand the recently discovered gravitational waves that originated from the collision of two neutron stars. That is why the LIGO/VIRGO consortium that discovered these waves was quick to compare their recent observations with the new constraints obtained by the Finnish researchers.

"The specific shape of the gravitational wave signal is highly dependent on the radii and the equation of state of the neutron stars. It is very exciting how these two completely different measurements tell the same story about the composition of neutron stars. The next natural step is to combine these two results. We have already been having active discussions with our colleagues on how to do this," says Nattila.

Aerojet Rocketdyne Supports ULA Delta II Launch of Joint Polar Satellite System-1

Aerojet Rocketdyne, Inc., a subsidiary of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:AJRD), helped propel the United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, carrying the Ball Aerospace-built JPSS-1 satellite, the first of the new JPSS (Joint Polar Satellite System) constellation, into orbit for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. The mission will provide sophisticated meteorological data and observations of atmosphere, ocean and land to help NOAA's National Weather Service improve the 3 to 7 day weather forecasts aiding emergency personnel in pre-storm preparation. JPSS-1 launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Aerojet Rocketdyne propulsion included an RS-27A engine system and an AJ10-118K upper-stage engine. "The RS-27A and AJ10-118K engines continue Aerojet Rocketdyne's strong legacy of placing critical satellites into orbit with 100 percent mission success," said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake. "It's an honor to know we are helping to support climate research, weather and storm prediction for civil, military and international partners. Congratulations to everyone involved."


The RS-27A and AJ10-118K engines have helped place payloads into space aboard the Delta II launch vehicle for the U.S. Air Force, NASA and commercial spacecraft missions, including the Phoenix Mars Lander, Deep Impact, Kepler, NEAR Shoemaker and the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, as well as the U.S. Air Force Global Positioning Block IIR fleet.

Aerojet Rocketdyne's role in the launch began during liftoff when the RS-27A engine ignited to provide 237,000 pounds of vacuum-level thrust to launch the Delta II rocket. The RS-27 family of engines has compiled one of the most consistent and successful launch records in the history of rocketry, with 240 launches since 1974.

After separation of the first stage, the AJ10-118K upper-stage engine ignited to place the payload into orbit, providing approximately 10,000 pounds of vacuum thrust for orbital insertion. The AJ10 family of engines has provided second-stage propulsion for more than 270 Delta flights, with 100 percent mission success.

The RS-27A and AJ10-118K engines have helped place payloads into space aboard the Delta II launch vehicle for the U.S. Air Force, NASA and commercial spacecraft missions, including the Phoenix Mars Lander, Deep Impact, Kepler, NEAR Shoemaker and the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, as well as the U.S. Air Force Global Positioning Block IIR fleet.

The JPSS next-generation polar-orbiting, non-geosynchronous satellites will circle the Earth from pole-to pole and cross the equator about 14 times per day, providing full global coverage twice a day, according to NOAA. It is a collaborative program between NOAA and NASA.

The JPSS constellation will carry a suite of sensors designed to collect measurements of atmospheric, terrestrial and ocean conditions, including clouds, rainfall, snow and ice cover, vegetation, fire location, water vapor and ozone, as well as sea and land surface temperatures.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Most Powerful Magnets in the Universe Are Collapsed Stars

When a large star dies, sometimes it becomes a neutron star, a tiny, 12 mile across ball that's made almost entirely out of neutrons. These dead stars are incredibly dense, and spin incredibly fast. Just one thimbleful of neutron star would weigh 100 million tons. Magnetars are a variation of neutron stars, and they somehow manage to be even scarier. Neutron stars already have extremely strong magnetic fields--about 2 trillion times more powerful than Earth's. Yet magnetars have magnetic fields 1,000 times stronger than that. Yeah, that's a pretty intense field. Magnetars are not just insanely powerful--they're also very, very dangerous. If you were a mere 1,000 kilometers from a magnetar, your entire body would dissolve as the magnetic field rearranged the sequence of atoms in your body. 


In addition to their terrifying magnetic powers, magnetars also have something called starquakes, which function similarly to earthquakes here on Earth--except with much more intense results. A crack in the crust of a magnetar is responsible for the brightest light we've ever observed from space. And if a magnetar was closer to us, like 10 light years away, and blasted us with the radiation from a starquake, it would destroy our ozone layer and probably kill all life on Earth.


But don't worry--thankfully, there aren't any magnetars near Earth. The closest one is about 9,000 light years away. Let's pray that it stays that way.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Three New Gas Giants May Provide Hint Into Major Astronomical Mystery

European astronomers with the Super Wide Angle Search for Planets (SuperWASP) consortium of planet hunters have detected three new gas giant alien worlds.The SuperWASP is an international effort to use the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in Spain and the South African Astronomical Observatory to discover exoplanets. Both observatories are equipped with eight wide-angle cameras that monitor the sky for planetary transit events (when planets pass in front of their stars, allowing them to be imaged by human telescopes). The three planets were discovered orbiting three stars also discovered by the SuperWASP program: WASP-151, WASP-153 and WASP-156. "In this paper, we report the discovery of three transiting exoplanets by the SuperWASP survey and the SOPHIE spectrograph with mass and radius determined with a precision better than 15 percent," wrote the astronomers, led by a team out of the University of Porto in Portugal.


Two of the planets are "hot Saturns," large but low-density gas giants that are very close to their stars. The larger of the two, WASP-153b, has a radius 1.86 times that of Saturn and is 1.3 times as dense. The smaller hot Saturn, WASP-151b, is 1.36 times larger than Saturn and is 1.03 times as dense. Both of them have orbital periods of less than a week.

Meanwhile, the third planet is a "super-Neptune:" a planet appreciably bigger than Neptune (2.5 times more massive in this case) but smaller than Saturn, which is about five times more massive than Neptune. This third planet, WASP-156b, only needs 3.83 days to complete a revolution around its star.

This third find is the exciting one to astronomers, as shockingly few super-Neptunes have been discovered — a dearth named the so-called "Neptunian Desert." Many terrestrial planets (like Earth and Venus), gas giants (like Jupiter and Saturn), and super-Earths (like Uranus and Neptune) have been discovered. Meanwhile 156b is only the ninth-ever super-Neptune to be found of the thousand-plus exoplanets confirmed — and nobody is sure why.

"These three planets also lie close to (WASP-151b and WASP-153b) or below (WASP-156b) the upper boundary of the Neptunian desert. (…) While a detailed analysis of the origin of the Neptunian desert is beyond the scope of this paper, it is still interesting to look into the similarities and differences between WASP-156b and WASP-151b/WASP-153b since they might provide useful hints on the nature of this desert," the paper reads.

Monday, October 30, 2017

SpaceX to Launch Korean Communications Satellite Today: Watch It Live

SpaceX aims to pull off another launch-and-landing double play today (Oct. 30), and you can watch all the spaceflight action live. A SpaceX two-stage Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch the KoreaSat 5A communications satellite at 3:34 p.m. EDT (1934 GMT) today from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. You can courtesy of SpaceX, or directly via the company at http://www.spacex.com/webcast. If all goes according to plan, the booster's first stage will return to Earth for a soft landing less than 10 minutes after liftoff, settling vertically onto a SpaceX "drone ship" stationed off the Florida coast. Such landings are part of SpaceX's plan to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets and space vehicles, a key priority for the company and its billionaire founder and CEO, Elon Musk. To date, SpaceX has aced 18 Falcon 9 touchdowns and re-launched landed boosters on three different occasions.


SpaceX has also re-flown a Dragon cargo capsule once and aims to do so again on its next resupply run to the International Space Station for NASA, which will launch no earlier than December.

KoreaSat 5A is owned by the South Korean company KTSat. The satellite will provide TV and other communications services to people in South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia, according to the company's website. The satellite will also aid maritime communications from East Africa to East Asia.


KoreaSat 5A will replace KoreaSat 5, which launched in 2006.

Friday, October 27, 2017

We may have just seen the first comet from another solar system

The solar system may be hosting a visitor from the stars. A newly discovered comet is screaming away from Earth, and based on its weird orbital trajectory astronomers think it might be the first comet ever observed that came from interstellar space. A sky-surveying telescope in Hawaii spotted the fast-moving object, now called C/2017 U1, on 18 October, after its closest approach to the sun. During the next week, astronomers made 34 separate observations of the object and found it has a strange trajectory that is at an angle to the orbits of the planets and does not circle the sun. Now, astronomers are hoping more skywatchers will take a look and pin down whether it’s from our neighborhood or an interloper from beyond. Most comets follow ellipse-shaped orbits around the sun, swooping in from the distant Oort Cloud to kiss the inner solar system before heading back out again. This one, by contrast, will never return. Its orbital path suggests it sailed in from the direction of the constellation Lyra above the relatively flat plane of the solar system, looped around the sun, and is headed back out for eternity.


Lyra is near the direction the sun is moving within the Milky Way, says Luke Dones at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “That’s exactly what you’d expect; there should be more interstellar comets coming from the direction the sun is heading toward,” he says.
Just popping in

“It’s coming from very far away, but we can’t actually backtrack how far away it started. It could be that it’s coming from outside the solar system, but it’s really hard to tell,” says Simon Porter, also at the Southwest Research Institute. Further observations in the next couple weeks will make the picture clearer.

What’s more, a comet on such an extreme path doesn’t necessarily have to come from interstellar space. “It could have interacted with Jupiter or another planet in such a way that changed its orbit,” says Maria Womack at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The comet’s origins are hard to pin down in part because of the nature of comets. “When you think of photos of comets, they’re a fuzzy blob. People have to make determinations of where they think the center is. Someone who is at the telescope has to make a call,” Womack says.

This necessary guesswork makes the measurements less precise, so astronomers want lots of observations before they’ll be convinced the comet really is from beyond our solar system, she adds.

Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities left to take a peek. The comet should be visible in powerful telescopes for at least another couple weeks, allowing amateurs and professionals alike to survey the icy visitor and determine its history.