Small space crystals reveal sun’s youth

Astronomers found that the sun had an explosive and energetic start to its existence.

Microscopic space crystals known as hibonite show that the young sun was an explosive, fiery mess, new research in the journal Nature Astronomy reports.

Long before the Earth first formed, the sun jetted out constant eruptions and massive quantities of high-energy particles. Though such events took place long, long ago, hibonite trapped the energy in a way where it can still be observed today.

The tiny crystals are much too small to see with the naked eye. Even so, they contain chemical traces of the early sun that give insight into what our solar system was like long before any of the planets formed.

Stars come about in dense, cold clouds of dust and gas. During that stage, they generate intense heat and pull materials towards their center. Though the sun experiences solar flares and coronal mass ejections today, it used to be much more wild during its stellar birth.

“A young star is more active in that it has more frequent and violent eruptions that launch particles and radiation into its surroundings,” said study co-author Philipp Heck, an associate curator of meteoritics and polar studies at The Field Museum in Chicago, according to Live Science.

Stars as big as the sun typically take 50 million years to settle into their mature state. Once there, they can last for tens of billions of years before exploding.

To see if the sun had a energetic youth, researchers from the Field Museum in Chicago analyzed samples collected from the Murchison meteorite that exploded over Australia in 1969. The remains contained dust grains shaped by supernova that existed before the sun.

The team then shot hibonite crystals within the rock with lasers, a process that released the neon and helium inside them. That revealed a unique mix of isotopes that confirmed the sun was extremely energetic billions of years ago.

Such information is important because it sheds new light onto, not just the sun, but the early solar system. That in turn could help scientists get a much better understanding of the mechanisms that govern our universe.

“What I think is exciting is that this tells us about conditions in the earliest Solar System, and finally confirms a long-standing suspicion,” added Heck, according to “If we understand the past better, we’ll gain a better understanding of the physics and chemistry of our natural world.”

Study recommends return missions to Uranus and Neptune

Proposal also calls for flybys of several Kuiper Belt dwarf planets.

A new white paper by planetary scientists who specialize in outer solar system worlds proposes return missions to Uranus and Neptune during the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Submitted to Arxiv, the white paper is a proposal that typically constitutes the first step toward a new mission in time for NASA’s decadal study, which sets the priorities for the next decade of planetary exploration.

Written by Amy Simon and Mark Hoffstadter, NASA experts on Uranus and Neptune, and Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the study proposes sending a flyby probe to Uranus and a separate Neptune orbiter.

The Uranus spacecraft would fly within the planet’s magnetic field, which strangely turns on and off for reasons not well understood. Scientists believe this happens because the planet orbits on its side, creating an unusual polar arrangement.

To study Uranus’s interior, the spacecraft would drop a probe into the giant planet’s atmosphere. It would then leave Uranus and head for the large dwarf planets Orcus and Varuna, then possibly travel on to Haumea, Makemake, and Sedna.

In contrast, the Neptune orbiter would concentrate solely on the planet and its large moon Triton, studying interactions between the two objects. Triton is the only solar system moon that orbits in the opposite direction of its parent planet, which scientists attribute to it being a captured Kuiper Belt Object that once orbited the Sun independently.

A geologically active world, Triton spews liquid geysers that likely come from a subsurface ocean.

Uranus and Neptune have each been visited just once, by the Voyager 2 spacecraft, in 1986 and 1989 respectively. Scientists have combined the Voyager data with observations of the planets by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in attempts to better understand these worlds, which are larger than terrestrial planets but significantly different from the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.

While Jupiter and Saturn are both composed largely of hydrogen and helium, Uranus and Neptune have larger percentages of water ice.

According to the proposal, the cost of both missions would be capped at $3.5 billion.

“You want to fill in some of the gaps with some of the instruments we didn’t have last time,” Simon noted.

Because these worlds are so far from the Sun, solar panels cannot be used to generate power on the spacecraft. Instead, the probes are powered by RTGs, radioactive batteries whose primary source of fuel is plutonium-238.

Production of plutonium-238, halted for close to 30 years due to international nuclear proliferation treaties, resumed in 2015.


Current technology not capable of terraforming Mars

Planet’s CO2 levels insufficient to warm it or create Earth-like atmospheric pressure.

Current technology is not capable of terraforming Mars, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Terraforming means transforming a planet’s climate to make it Earth-like and capable of supporting Earth life, including humans, to the point that no artificial life-support systems are required.

Such a project would require raising Mars’s temperature to the point that it could support liquid water on its surface. The Martian atmosphere would have to be thickened by releasing greenhouse gases already present on the planet, noted researchers led by Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator of NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission (MAVEN), which studies the Martian atmosphere, and by Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University (NAU).

While Mars’s polar ice caps and some of its rocks contain carbon dioxide, the amount present is not enough to sufficiently warm the planet should they be released.

For the study, Jakosky and Edwards documented all known surface and subsurface CO2 based on data collected by Mars rovers and orbiters over the last 20 years.

According to their calculations, the planet has enough CO2 reserves to triple its atmospheric pressure. This is just one-fiftieth of the CO2 necessary to sufficiently increase the atmospheric pressure to the point that people could walk on the surface without having to wear spacesuits.

Additionally, if released into the Martian atmosphere, the Red Planet’s CO2 would warm the planet by less than 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), far too little to raise planetary temperatures from their current average of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 60 degrees Celsius) to the point of habitability for humans.

During Martian winters, temperatures are cold enough for CO2 to freeze on the planet’s surface.

Accessing the CO2 and releasing it into the atmosphere would also prove to be a challenge. It would require detonating explosives on the polar caps to release the gas or using explosives elsewhere to increase the level of atmospheric dust to land on the polar caps and heat them up with solar energy, the researchers state.

Future technologies could potentially make terraforming Mars a possibility, Jakosky and Edwards acknowledge.

“With current technologies, we just don’t see that there are any viable options,” Edwards said.

While Mars is the closest and most accessible planet for humans to settle, the concept of terraforming remains largely a characteristic of science fiction and mythology, Jakosky said.



Mercury probes will launch together in October

Joint mission seeks better understanding of the ways planets near their parent stars form and evolve.

The BepiColombo mission to Mercury, which consists of one orbiter being sent by the European Space Agency (ESA) and  another being sent by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana on October 19.

At launch, the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter will be carried by a transfer module that will be positioned between them. A combination of solar and electric propulsion will power the three connected objects.

Bepi-Colombo will execute a total of nine gravity assist flybys of Earth, Venus, and Mercury to reach its destination and enter the desired orbit.

Three years after launch, the spacecraft will conduct their first scientific flybys of Mercury. Webcams on board the central transfer module will take the first, simple images of the planet before the probes’ main science cameras begin operations.

Both orbiters will be equipped with scientific instruments that will take measurements of Mercury’s surface environment, probe deeply into its interior, and study the planet’s interaction with the solar wind. Scientists hope data collected by the probes will shed light on the formation and evolution of a solar system’s innermost planet in close orbit around its parent star.

In May of this year, the three vehicles arrived at the Kourou Spaceport, where they are now undergoing deployment tests, being equipped with protective high-temperature blankets, being fitted with solar arrays, and having their nitrogen and xenon tanks checked, loaded, and pressurized.

Other preparations include planning for unexpected contingencies and computer simulations of the spacecraft’s operations. The latter are being conducted at ESA’s operations center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

“We have had a great start to our launch campaign in Kourou, and are on track for launch in less than 90 days,” emphasized BepiColombo project manager Ulrich Reininghaus of ESA.

“We have an incredibly packed schedule, but it is great to see our spacecraft building up together for the final time.”

The launch window for the mission will remain open through November 29.


Israel plans un-crewed Moon landing in 2019

Small, light craft scheduled for December launch on SpaceX rocket.

An Israeli non-profit organization, working in conjunction with a government-owned space corporation, plans to put a robotic lander on the Moon on February 13, 2019.

The joint project by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) was initially intended for the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which Google ended March 31 with no winner after five teams experienced repeated launch delays, largely due to lack of funds.

Google had offered a $20 million prize to the first non-profit, privately-funded group to land a craft on the Moon, have it travel a minimum of 1,650 feet, and send high-definition photos and videos of the event back to Earth.

Like several of its competitors, including American teams Moon Express and Astrobotic, SpaceIL decided to continue pursuing the project without the prize. The non-profit has raised about $88 million in investments, largely from private donors, to develop and build its spacecraft.

Current plans call for SpaceIL’s lander to launch as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in December.

After launch, the lander will first enter into an elliptical orbit around the Earth. Once there, mission control will command it to raise itself to a much higher Earth orbit, also elliptical. From this location, it will approach the Moon, igniting its engines to enter lunar orbit before touching down on the lunar surface.

All of these tasks will be carried out autonomously through the lander’s navigation control system.

Weighing just 1,322 pounds (600 kilograms), the lander will be the lightest and smallest spacecraft to land on the Moon. If the landing is successful, the lander will follow up by using a magnetometer to measure the Moon’s magnetic field as well as take photos and videos.

Should the mission succeed, it will make Israel the fourth country to land a vehicle on the Moon’s surface, following Russia, the United States, and China.

Representatives of SpaceIL hope the project will inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, much like the Apollo program did during the 1960s and 1970s.

Delays in commercial crew program problematic for ISS

Government report advises NASA to develop contingency plans in the event deadlines aren’t met.

Both Boeing and SpaceX, companies with which NASA contracted to transport astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2019, could face delays of a year or more in obtaining agency certification for their vehicles, causing a gap in space station supply missions and astronaut transport.

Current schedules specify both companies will conduct un-crewed test flights in August of this year and crewed test flights shortly after, with Boeing’s scheduled for November and SpaceX’s for December.

Meeting these deadlines would enable both companies to be certified to fly astronauts to the ISS in early 2019–Boeing in January and SpaceX in February.

However, a report issued July 11 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expresses concern that both companies could miss the deadline for certification by at least a year. NASA’s contract with Russia for transportation of astronauts to and from the ISS via Soyuz capsules expires at the end of 2019, potentially leaving a gap with no supply missions or means of ferrying astronauts.

“Boeing and SpaceX continue to make progress developing a capability to fly to the ISS, but both have continued to experience delays. Additional delays could also disrupt US access to the ISS,” the report states.

NASA’s latest risk analysis predicts Boeing will be certified in December 2019 and SpaceX in January 2020. But these dates are estimates, and further delays could postpone both companies’ certifications to the fall of 2020.

Emphasizing the potential gap in access to the ISS, the GAO report advises NASA to develop a contingency plan for ISS access should the current deadlines not be met.

“If NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further commercial crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the US policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met,” the report notes.

NASA is already considering several options for dealing with the possible delays. One is extending Soyuz transport of astronauts until the end of 2020. Another is extending the crewed demonstration flights and prolonging astronauts’ stay on the space station by several months.

According to the GAO report, NASA has continued to insist the initial deadlines will be met by both Boeing and SpaceX even though the companies admit delays are likely.

NASA agreed to recommendations made in the report, including developing a contingency plan for ISS access by the end of this year, documenting its risk tolerance level for crew safety, and separating the job of managing commercial crew safety from that of independent safety oversight.

Atmosphere of hot exoplanet is boiling away

Parent star’s gravitational pull is siphoning planet’s atmospheric hydrogen.

The atmosphere of the hottest known exoplanet is boiling away, and its escaping gases are being captured by its parent star, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

A hot Jupiter, or gas giant planet orbiting very close to its star, KELT-9b was discovered last year by a team of scientists using the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) at Winer Observatory in southeastern Arizona.

KELT uses the transit method to search for exoplanets, looking for periodic drops in a star’s brightness caused by a planet transiting or passing in front of its parent star.

The extremely hot star, KELT-9, is both hotter and larger than the Sun, with temperatures of 17,540 degrees Fahrenheit (9,726 degrees Celsius). Because the planet is in such a close orbit, circling KELT-9 once every 1.5 days, it is tidally locked to the star, with one hemisphere always facing the star and the other always facing away from it.

Temperatures on KELT-9b’s dayside are hotter than those of most stars and can reach 7,800 degrees Fahrenheit (4,300 degrees Celsius).  The planet is about twice the diameter of Jupiter and has nearly three times its mass.

In spite of being in such a close orbit, KELT-9b will not fall into its star, as some hot Jupiters do.

“This planet reminds me of the mythical Icarus, who came close to the Sun and crashed. Our planet will not crash, but it certainly will lose an essential part of itself, namely its atmosphere,” said Thomas Henning of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in a public statement.

When the researchers viewed the planet with the CARMENES instrument on the 3.5-meter telescope at Calar Alto Observatory in Spain, they found it to have an extended hydrogen atmosphere, a discovery that indicated the star’s gravity is not just heating the planet’s atmosphere, but sucking in its hydrogen.

“The large size (of the atmosphere) suggests the planet is losing hydrogen gas at a significant rate of more than 100,000 tons of hydrogen per second. The star is ‘boiling off’ the planet’s atmosphere, and pulling the gas onto itself, in a blatant case of interplanetary theft,” the researchers note in their statement.

The moon may have once supported life, study reports

New evidence suggests that the moon once had the right climate and atmosphere to support small microorganisms.

Scientists from the University of London and Washington State University have found evidence that the moon could have once had the conditions needed to support life, a new study published in Astrobiology reports.

Previously, astronomers believed that Earth’s natural satellite never had the volcanoes necessary to create an atmosphere.

However, the recent findings reveal that the lunar surface may have once had the conditions to support simple life forms around roughly 4 billion years ago.  

During that time, the moon spewed out superheated gas, including water vapor, from its core. That then created an atmosphere where the escaping steam may have turned into liquid pools on the surface.

If that happened, such areas could have been the perfect place for microorganisms to flourish. 

That is significant because if scientists can drill down into the moon and find signs of such life it will give them a glimpse of what used to exist on early Earth.

“It looks very much like the Moon was habitable at this time,” explained lead author Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Washington State University, according to Telegraph UK. “There could have actually been microbes thriving in water pools on the Moon until the surface became dry and dead. If liquid water and a significant atmosphere were present on the early Moon for long periods of time, we think the lunar surface would have been at least transiently habitable.”

The findings come from combination of recent space mission data and an analysis on lunar soil samples that show the moon is not as dry as previously believed.

In fact, in 2009 and 2010 a team of astronomers discovered that the celestial body holds hundreds of millions of metric tons of water ice. There could be water in the lunar mantle as well.

Such findings support the idea that the rocky satellite once held life. While today’s moon is sterile, four billions of years ago it would have been much more active.

“It seems bizarre to think about, but there may even have been liquid water on the Moon,” added study co-author Ian Crawford, a researcher at the University of London.

New map tracks radiation levels on Europa

Map will direct future Europa missions to locations that are potentially most habitable.

A new map that tracks radiation bombarding Jupiter’s moon Europa by its parent planet will prove an important tool in future missions searching for evidence of microbial life on the large moon.

After NASA’s Galileo mission revealed the likelihood of a global ocean beneath Europa’s surface, scientists have considered the Galilean moon a top contender for hosting microbial life.

Possible missions to Europa in various stage of planning seek to find biosignatures or signs of life in the underground ocean.

However, while Europa appears to be one of the solar system’s best hopes for finding life, the moon is regularly bombarded by powerful radiation from Jupiter, which could reduce habitability by breaking down or destroying material transported from the ocean to the surface.

Now, a new study led by Tom Nordheim of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has produced the most comprehensive map ever of radiation levels on Europa using data returned by the Galileo mission’s flybys of Europa 20 years ago and electron measurements returned by Voyager 1, which flew by the Jupiter system in early 1979.

From the data returned by these missions, Nordheim’s team found radiation levels on Europa to vary significantly depending on location, with the highest radiation levels found near the equator and the lowest levels found near the poles.

The researchers produced a map that depicts high radiation zones as ovals.

“This is our first prediction of radiation levels at each point on Europa’s surface and is important information for future Europa missions,” noted Chris Paranicas of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland, who took part in the study.

“If we want to understand what’s going on at the surface of Europa and how that links to the ocean underneath, we need to understand the radiation,” Nordheim emphasized. “When we examine materials that have come up from the subsurface, what are we looking at? Does this tell us what is in the ocean, or is this what happened to the materials after they have been radiated?”

Nordheim’s research team also measured how deeply radiation from Jupiter penetrates beneath Europa’s surface, providing important information for the Europa Clipper mission, which will conduct about 45 Europa flybys while orbiting Jupiter following an early 2020s launch.

They found that in the regions with the highest radiation levels, a probe would have to drill four to eight inches (10 to 20 cm) to find preserved biosignatures. In those with the lowest radiation levels, the probe would have to drill less than 0.4 inches (one cm).

A paper on the study has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

NASA releases new mosaics of Saturn moon Titan

Infrared instrument successfully peered through atmospheric haze to reveal surface features.

Using six separate images of Saturn’s largest moon Titan collected by the Cassini orbiter over 13 years, NASA released new mosaics  showing the moon in stunning detail.

The images were collected by Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument, which observed in infrared wavelengths, enabling it to penetrate Titan’s hazy atmosphere, a feat not possible in visible wavelengths.

While this is not the first time VIMS images were used to create mosaics, it is the first time mission scientists produced mosaics that do not show the prominent seams that result from putting together images taken at different times, with a variety of lighting conditions and from a variety of angles.

By reanalyzing the VIMS data and processing the mosaics by hand, mission scientists successfully created the first seamless images of Saturn’s large 3,200-mile- (5,150-km-) wide moon, sometimes viewed as an analogue of early Earth.

Clearly visible in the colorful mosaics are Titan’s complex, varied surfaces, including seas of liquid hydrocarbons, icy deposits, and dunes that contain organic compounds.

“With the seams now gone, this new collection of images is by far the best representation of how the globe of Titan might appear to the casual observer if it weren’t for the moon’s hazy atmosphere,” mission scientists noted in a public statement.

Titan’s thick atmosphere, which contains a high percentage of nitrogen, conceals these diverse terrains. Small particles known as aerosols in the moon’s upper atmosphere scatter visible light, allowing viewers to see only a hazy orange sphere.

Atmospheric scattering and light absorption are much weaker in infrared wavelengths, which is why VIMS was able to obtain detailed photos of Titan’s surface.

Other than Earth, Titan is the only solar system object known to host liquids on its surface.

VIMS’s unique images of Titan will serve as a starting point for future missions observing the moon in the infrared in higher resolutions.

A proposed return to Titan, dubbed the Dragonfly mission, is one of two finalists in NASA’s New Frontiers program. To determine Titan’s habitability for life as we know it, Dragonfly would study the moon’s surface via a robotic minihelicopter.

If selected, Dragonfly will launch in 2025.

Cassini scientists also released a map of Titan showing latitudes, longitudes, and labeled surface features.