8th June

On June 8, 1959, NASA’s rocket-powered X-15 experimental plane made its first glide flight.

The X-15 rocket plane was part of a series of experimental hypersonic aircraft.

This flight marked the beginning of almost a decade of research that explored the altitudes and hypersonic speed at the edge of space. At maximum speed, the X-15 would fly at Mach 6.7 ― 4,520 miles per hour!

The X-15 program had a total of 12 test pilots, including Neil Armstrong, between 1959 and 1968, making 199 flights in the process. The aircraft flew over a period of almost 10 years. And with a max altitude of 67 miles, it was even able to reach the edge of outer space in the 1960s. 

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

24th May 2020

The astronauts began their conference just after a critical review that determines whether the mission will go forward concluded successfully. 

“We are go for launch! The Flight Readiness Review has concluded and @NASA’s SpaceX Crew Dragon mission is cleared to proceed toward liftoff,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

“Just heard that everything went well with the FRR, we’re excited to be still on the countdown,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, we’ll see the static fire here in a couple hours.” 

Veteran NASA astronauts preparing to blast off in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule shared their expectations for the approaching historic launch. 

On Friday, (May 22), less than a week before their scheduled May 27 launch, veteran NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley addressed the public in a virtual conference from crew quarters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The astronauts offered their final thoughts before heading to the International Space Station. 

Their mission, known as Demo-2, will see the astronauts launch from Kennedy aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which will make them the first astronauts to ride an American rocket in nearly a decade. Once they arrive at the International Space Station, Behnken and Hurley will spend anywhere from one to four months in orbit. 

Astronaut family life

Leading up to launch, all astronauts undergo a standard preflight quarantine to prevent bringing any viruses or unwanted bacteria up to space. Unusually, both Behnken’s and Hurley’s families have been living in quarantine conditions ahead of the launch anyway because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, up until the astronauts arrived at Kennedy on May 20, they could quarantine with their families. 

Behnken noted that it’s been a “silver lining” that he and Hurley have had “the time with our sons leading up to this launch,” he said during today’s remarks. “They would have not normally been inside of our quarantine.”

In addition to standard quarantine conditions, both SpaceX and NASA have taken extra precautions to limit any possible exposure to the novel coronavirus. The astronauts have been tested multiple times for the virus and might be tested again leading up to the launch, they said. “We’ve been tested at least twice so far, and rumor has it we might be tested again before we go,” Hurley said.

In less than a week, the pair will say goodbye to their families as they leave astronaut crew quarters and walk out to a modified Tesla Model X car bearing NASA’s iconic Worm logo, which will take them to the launch pad. Before they get in the Tesla “will be the point where we get a chance to really see our families for the final time prior to launch,” Behnken said.

During their remarks, Behnken and Hurley each offered some kind words for his crewmate. The two have been training together through NASA’s commercial crew program since 2015. 

“Doug is ready for anything all the time,” Behnken said about Hurley. “He’s always prepared and when you’re going to fly into space on a test mission, you couldn’t ask for a better person or a better type of individual to be there with you.”

Hurley had a few equally positive remarks about Behnken’s thorough nature. “There’s no stone unturned, there’s no way that he doesn’t have every potential eventuality already thought about,” Hurley said. “There’s no question I can ask him that he doesn’t already have probably the best answer for.” 

The astronauts began their conference just after a critical review that determines whether the mission will go forward concluded successfully. 

“We are go for launch! The Flight Readiness Review has concluded and @NASA’s SpaceX Crew Dragon mission is cleared to proceed toward liftoff,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote on Twitter.

“Just heard that everything went well with the FRR, we’re excited to be still on the countdown,” Hurley said. “Hopefully, we’ll see the static fire here in a couple hours.” 

Source: https://www.space.com/astronauts-ready-launch-spacex-demo-2.html

May 17th 1974

On May 17, 1974, NASA launched the first Synchronous Meteorological Satellite, SMS-1. This was the first satellite designed to monitor meteorological conditions from a geostationary orbit. This kind of orbit allowed it to stay above a fixed location as Earth rotates. 

One of the instruments on this spacecraft was a visible infrared spin-scan radiometer (VISSR), which provided high-quality cloud cover data 24 hours a day. It also carried a data collection and transmission system that allowed it to relay data from central weather facilities to smaller regional stations. 

Another device known as a space environmental monitor measured the charged particles in Earth’s radiation belts and the solar wind. 

The satellite was shaped like a cylinder and measured about 7.5 feet long, not including a 33-inch magnetometer that stuck out of one end. It launched from Cape Canaveral on a Delta rocket and remained operational for about 7 years. It was replaced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new GOES satellite, which was almost identical.

Source: https://www.space.com/39251-on-this-day-in-space.html

May 5th 1961

From Cape Canaveral, Florida, Navy Commander Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. is launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 space capsule, becoming the first American astronaut to travel into space. The suborbital flight, which lasted 15 minutes and reached a height of 116 miles into the atmosphere, was a major triumph for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA was established in 1958 to keep U.S. space efforts abreast of recent Soviet achievements, such as the launching of the world’s first artificial satellite–Sputnik 1–in 1957. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the two superpowers raced to become the first country to put a man in space and return him to Earth. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet space program won the race when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, put in orbit around the planet, and safely returned to Earth. One month later, Shepard’s suborbital flight restored faith in the U.S. space program.

NASA continued to trail the Soviets closely until the late 1960s and the successes of the Apollo lunar program. In July 1969, the Americans took a giant leap forward with Apollo 11, a three-stage spacecraft that took U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon and returned them to Earth. On February 5, 1971, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, became the fifth astronaut to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.

Source: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-first-american-in-space

April 6th

Astronomers have detected two stellar corpses whirling around each other, and they might be producing gravitational waves. 

White dwarf stars are what become of stars like our sun after they run out of fuel and turn into leftover hot cores. For many years, researchers have predicted that there should be binary, or two-object, systems made up of white dwarf stars. According to general relativity, two such masses orbiting each other should emit energy in the form of gravitational waves, which are ripples or disturbances in the fabric of spacetime. 

Now, this is not the discovery of gravitational waves, rather it is the discovery of this binary which may be a source for gravitational waves. But, not only will this study advance our understanding of these systems and gravitational wave sources, it will also be important in validating the efficiency of an instrument that will launch in 2034. 

The instrument, LISA (the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) gravitational wave observatory, will use the J2322+0509 system to essentially train with. Because they already know they exist, it’s a good test to make sure the instrument can correctly spot it.

“Verification binaries are important because we know that LISA will see them within a few weeks of turning on the telescopes,” Mukuemin Kilic, a co-author on this study from the University of Oklahoma, said in the statement. “There’s only a handful of LISA sources that we know of today. The discovery of the first prototype of a new class of verification binary puts us well ahead of where anyone could have anticipated.”

In a new study identifying and exploring this binary, researchers at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) at Harvard have detected, for the first time, a binary white dwarf system made up of two white dwarf stars (with helium cores) that are clearly separate stars. This system, known as J2322+0509, has a short orbital period of 1,201 seconds (just over 20 minutes) and is the first gravitational wave source of its kind ever identified.

“Theories predict that there are many double helium-core white dwarf binaries out there,” Warren Brown, CfA astronomer and lead author on the study, said in a statement. “This detection provides an anchor for those models, and for doing future experiments so that we can find more of these stars and determine their true numbers.”

This system, whose orbital period is the third shortest period of all detached binaries ever found, was fairly tough to spot. “This binary had no light curve,” Brown said in the statement. “We couldn’t detect a photometric signal because there isn’t one.” So instead of using a photometric study, which looks at light itself, the team used spectroscopic studies, which observe how matter interacts with electromagnetic radiation like visible light, to identify the star’s orbital motion.

But, while the system was tricky to spot, it turns out that this type of binary is an extremely strong source of gravitational waves, the team found using theoretical calculations, according to the statement and the study. The researchers determined that because of the system’s alignment with respect to Earth, instruments should pick up a signal 2.5 times stronger than from the same system twisted a different direction. 

This binary won’t be a binary forever, though, as a consequence of the very gravitational waves the scientists hope to someday detect. “The orbit of this pair of objects is decaying,” Brown said. “The gravitational waves that are being emitted are causing the pair to lose energy; in six or seven million years they will merge into a single, more massive white dwarf.”

Source: https://www.space.com/white-dwarf-binary-gravitational-wave-source-discovery.html

March 29th

On March 29, 1807, the German astronomer Heinrich Olbers discovered the asteroid Vesta. Vesta is the second-largest body in the asteroid belt and is surpassed in size only by the dwarf planet Ceres. 

To look for asteroids, astronomers would draw sky charts every night and look for spots that moved. Sunlight reflecting off the asteroids can make them look like faint stars, but unlike stars, the asteroids didn’t have a fixed location in the sky. 

Vesta was the fourth object to be discovered in the region between Mars and Jupiter, which we now know as the asteroid belt. Olbers and other astronomers thought the asteroid belt might be the remains of a hypothetical planet that was either smashed to pieces by a collision or ripped apart by Jupiter’s gravity. 

Source: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/on-this-day-in-space-march-29-1807-heinrich-olbers-discovers-asteroid-vesta/ar-BB11S1U9

23rd March 2020

As the U.S. scrambles to respond to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, NASA supercomputers are joining the effort to look for potential treatment and vaccine candidates.

A new initiative brings together NASA and the National Science Foundation as well as a host of Department of Energy laboratories, companies and academic institutions. The White House announced the effort, meant to divert spare computing resources to research aimed at slowing the pandemic, today (March 23).

“I’m proud that @NASA is lending our supercomputing expertise to assist in the global fight against COVID-19,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement on Twitter. “For more than six decades the agency has used its expertise to take on challenges that have benefited people worldwide in unexpected ways.”

One of the areas of NASA redirecting its supercomputer time is the Earth science division, according to Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen. “Researchers input satellite data to run climate models to predict Earth’s future climate,” Zurbuchen said in a statement on Twitter. “NASA is pleased to lend our supercomputing expertise to assist in the global fight against #COVID19.”

Researchers working on projects related to COVID-19 will be able to apply for time on the supercomputers, according to a White House statement, which should speed up calculations necessary for slowing the pandemic.

“America is coming together to fight COVID-19, and that means unleashing the full capacity of our world-class supercomputers to rapidly advance scientific research for treatments and a vaccine,” Michael Kratsios, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, said in the statement.

Source: https://www.space.com/nasa-supercomputers-join-fight-against-coronavirus.html

March 16th 2020

There’s a new contender for the “most exotic exoplanet” title.

The crown may have rested for a while now on the head of HD 189733 b, a cobalt-blue alien world where molten-glass rain whips sideways through the air at up to 5,400 mph (8,790 km/h). But a new study reports that iron rain likely falls through the thick, turbulent air of WASP-76 b, a bizarre “ultrahot Jupiter” that lies about 640 light-years from the sun, in the constellation Pisces.

WASP-76 b zips around its host star once every 1.8 Earth days, an orbit so tight that the gaseous planet is “tidally locked,” always showing the star the same face. Temperatures on this dayside climb above 4,350 degrees Fahrenheit (2,400 degrees Celsius) — hot enough to vaporize metals — whereas the nightside is a much cooler (but still ridiculous) 2,730 F (1,500 C), researchers said.

“These are likely the most extreme climates we could ever find on a planet,” said study lead author David Ehrenreich, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

“We have to stretch our understanding of what is a climate, what is a planetary atmosphere, to understand this object,” Ehrenreich told Space.com.

WASP-76 b was discovered in 2013. The alien planet is about as massive as Jupiter but nearly twice as wide, likely because the massive radiation loads the exoplanet receives from its host star puff up its atmosphere considerably. (And one quick note about the object’s distance: Some sources say that WASP-76 b is about 390 light-years away, but that number is inaccurate, Ehrenreich said. He and his colleagues calculated WASP-76 b’s distance using data from Europe’s ultraprecise star-mapping spacecraft Gaia.)

For the new study, the researchers studied WASP-76 b using the Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO), an instrument installed on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.

ESPRESSO detected a strong signature of iron vapor at the “evening” border that separates WASP-76 b’s dayside from its nightside. But no such signature was spotted at the “morning” border on the other side of the planet, where the nightside melds into day.

“Something must be happening on the nightside that makes iron disappear,” Ehrenreich said. 

The best explanation, he added, is that winds and WASP-76 b’s rotation carry vaporized iron from the dayside to the nightside. The nightside is cool enough for the iron vapor to condense into clouds, which then dump rain into the air over there. That rain could consist of compounds such as iron sulfide or iron hydride.

But, “given the conditions, the most likely [scenario] is that iron condenses into liquid droplets of pure iron,” Ehrenreich said. (This iron rain probably eventually makes its way back to the dayside again via atmospheric circulation, perpetuating the cycle, he added.)

And that rain probably isn’t sprinkling down in a gentle mist, because the big temperature disparity between WASP-76 b’s two halves generates winds of startling ferocity. The iron in the planet’s dayside air, for example, is hurtling toward the nightside at about 11,000 mph (18,000 km/h), Ehrenreich said.

WASP-76 b’s exoticism doesn’t end there. The dayside atmosphere may be much more puffed up than that of the nightside because of the higher heat loads, the researchers said. So the “evening” and “morning” borders between the two hemispheres might be marked by towering clouds that fall from the light toward darkness.

“And the drizzle of this fall would not be water droplets but iron droplets,” Ehrenreich said.

The craziness of WASP-76 b has more than just gee-whiz appeal. The new information about this odd exoplanet should help scientists refine and test climate and global circulation models, leading to a better understanding of exoplanetary atmospheres in general, Ehrenreich said. And WASP-76 b also serves as a compelling reminder for researchers to keep an open mind, because nature churns out a dizzying diversity of worlds.

“Exoplanets are a real treasure trove full of surprises,” Ehrenreich said. “The more you look, the more you find.”

He and his colleagues aim to dig up more such surprises. The new results, which were published online today (March 11) in the journal Nature, come from the very first science observations ever made with ESPRESSO, back in September 2018. The researchers are now conducting a broad survey of exoplanet atmospheres using ESPRESSO, which could reveal if WASP-76 b is an outlier or a member of a very weird class of worlds.

“What we have now is a whole new way to trace the climate of the most extreme exoplanets,” Ehrenreich said in a statement.

Source: https://www.space.com/alien-planet-iron-rain-WASP-76b.html

11th March 1960

Pioneer 5 (also known as Pioneer P-2, and Able 4, and nicknamed the “Paddle-Wheel Satellite”) was a spin-stabilized space probe in the NASA Pioneer program used to investigate interplanetary space between the orbits of Earth and Venus. It was launched on 11 March 1960 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 17A at 13:00:00 UTC with an on-orbit dry mass of 43 kg. It was a 0.66 m diameter sphere with 1.4 m span across its four solar panels and achieved a solar orbit of 0.806 × 0.995 AU (121,000,000 by 149,000,000 km).

Data was received until 30 April 1960. Among other accomplishments, the probe confirmed the existence of interplanetary magnetic fields. Pioneer 5 was the most successful probe in the Pioneer/Able series.

The original mission plan was for a launch in November 1959 where Pioneer 5 would conduct a flyby of Venus, but technical issues prevented the launch from occurring until early 1960 by which time the Venus window for the year had closed. Since it was not possible to send the probe to Venus, it would instead merely investigate interplanetary space and an actual mission to the planet would have to wait another three years.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_5

February 17th

Not just one, but seven Earth-size planets that could potentially harbor life have been identified orbiting a tiny star not too far away, offering the first realistic opportunity to search for signs of alien life outside the solar system.

The planets orbit a dwarf star named Trappist-1, about 40 light-years, or 235 trillion miles, from Earth. That is quite close in cosmic terms, and by happy accident, the orientation of the orbits of the seven planets allows them to be studied in great detail.

One or more of the exoplanets in this new system could be at the right temperature to be awash in oceans of water, astronomers said, based on the distance of the planets from the dwarf star.

“This is the first time so many planets of this kind are found around the same star,” Michael Gillon, an astronomer at the University of Liege in Belgium and the leader of an international team that has been observing Trappist-1, said during a telephone news conference organized by the journal Nature, which published the findings on Wednesday.

Scientists could even discover compelling evidence of aliens.

“I think that we have made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there,” said Amaury H. M. J. Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England and another member of the research team. “Here, if life managed to thrive and releases gases similar to that we have on Earth, then we will know.”

Cool red dwarfs are the most common type of star, so astronomers are likely to find more planetary systems like that around Trappist-1 in the coming years.

“You can just imagine how many worlds are out there that have a shot to becoming a habitable ecosystem,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, said during a NASA news conference on Wednesday. “Are we alone out there? We’re making a step forward with this — a leap forward, in fact — towards answering that question.”

Telescopes on the ground now and the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit will be able to discern some of the molecules in the planetary atmospheres. The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch next year, will peer at the infrared wavelengths of light, ideal for studying Trappist-1.

Comparisons among the different conditions of the seven will also be revealing.

“The Trappist-1 planets make the search for life in the galaxy imminent,” said Sara Seager, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not a member of the research team. “For the first time ever, we don’t have to speculate. We just have to wait and then make very careful observations and see what is in the atmospheres of the Trappist planets.”

Even if the planets all turn out to be lifeless, scientists will have learned more about what keeps life from flourishing.

Astronomers always knew other stars must have planets, but until a couple of decades ago, they had not been able to spot them. Now they have confirmed more than 3,400, according to the Open Exoplanet Catalog. (An exoplanet is a planet around a star other than the sun.)

The authors of the Nature paper include Didier Queloz, one of the astronomers who discovered in 1995 the first known exoplanet around a sunlike star.

While the Trappist planets are about the size of Earth — give or take 25 percent in diameter — the star is very different from our sun.

Trappist-1, named after a robotic telescope in the Atacama Desert of Chile that the astronomers initially used to study the star, is what astronomers call an “ultracool dwarf,” with only one-twelfth the mass of the sun and a surface temperature of 4,150 degrees Fahrenheit, much cooler than the 10,000 degrees radiating from the sun. Trappist is a shortening of Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.

During the NASA news conference, Dr. Gillon gave a simple analogy: If our sun were the size of a basketball, Trappist-1 would be a golf ball.

Until the last few years, scientists looking for life elsewhere in the galaxy have focused on finding Earth-size planets around sun-like stars. But it is hard to pick out the light of a planet from the glare of a bright star. Small dim dwarfs are much easier to study.

Last year, astronomers announced the discovery of an Earth-size planet around Proxima Centauri, the closest star at 4.24 light-years away. That discovery was made using a different technique that does not allow for study of the atmosphere.

Trappist-1 is about 8 percent the size of the sun.
Trappist-1 is about 8 percent the size of the sun.Credit…ESO

Trappist-1 periodically dimmed noticeably, indicating that a planet might be passing in front of the star, blocking part of the light. From the shape of the dips, the astronomers calculate the size of the planet.

Trappist-1’s light dipped so many times that the astronomers concluded, in research reported last year, that there were at least three planets around the star. Telescopes from around the world then also observed Trappist-1, as did the Spitzer Space Telescope of NASA.

Spitzer observed Trappist-1 nearly around the clock for 20 days, capturing 34 transits. Together with the ground observations, it let the scientists calculate not three planets, but seven. The planets are too small and too close to the star to be photographed directly.

All seven are very close to the dwarf star, circling more quickly than the planets in our solar system. The innermost completes an orbit in just 1.5 days. The farthest one completes an orbit in about 20 days. That makes the planetary system more like the moons of Jupiter than a larger planetary system like our solar system.

“They form a very compact system,” Dr. Gillon said, “the planets being pulled close to each other and very close to the star.”

In addition, the orbital periods of the inner six suggest that the planets formed farther away from the star and then were all gradually pulled inward, Dr. Gillon said.

Because the planets are so close to a cool star, their surfaces could be at the right temperatures to have water flow, considered one of the essential ingredients for life.

The fourth, fifth and sixth planets orbit in the star’s “habitable zone,” where the planets could sport oceans. So far that is just speculation, but by measuring which wavelengths of light are blocked by the planet, scientists will be able to figure out what gases float in the atmospheres of the seven planets.

So far, they have confirmed for the two innermost planets that they are not enveloped in hydrogen. That means they are rocky like Earth, ruling out the possibility that they were mini-Neptune gas planets that are prevalent around many other stars.

Because the planets are so close to Trappist-1, they have quite likely become “gravitationally locked” to the star, always with one side of the planets facing the star, much as it is always the same side of Earth’s moon facing Earth. That would mean one side would be warmer, but an atmosphere would distribute heat, and the scientists said that would not be an insurmountable obstacle for life.

For a person standing on one of the planets, it would be a dim environment, with perhaps only about one two-hundredth the light that we see from the sun on Earth, Dr. Triaud said. (That would still be brighter than the moon at night.) The star would be far bigger. On Trappist-1f, the fifth planet, the star would be three times as wide as the sun seen from Earth.

As for the color of the star, “we had a debate about that,” Dr. Triaud said.

Some of the scientists expected a deep red, but with most of the star’s light emitted at infrared wavelengths and out of view of human eyes, perhaps a person would “see something more salmon-y,” Dr. Triaud said.

NASA released a poster illustrating what the sky of the fourth planet might look like.

If observations reveal oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere, that could point to photosynthesis of plants — although not conclusively. But oxygen together with methane, ozone and carbon dioxide, particularly in certain proportions, “would tell us that there is life with 99 percent confidence,” Dr. Gillon said.

Astronomers expect that a few decades of technological advances are needed before similar observations can be made of Earthlike planets around larger, brighter sunlike stars.

Dr. Triaud said that if there is life around Trappist-1, “then it’s good we didn’t wait too long.”

“If there isn’t, then we have learned something quite deep about where life can emerge,” he continued.

The discovery might also mean that scientists who have been searching for radio signals from alien civilizations might also have been searching in the wrong places if most habitable planets orbit dwarfs, which live far longer than larger stars like the sun.

The SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., is using the Allen Telescope Array, a group of 42 radio dishes in California, to scrutinize 20,000 red dwarfs. “This result is kind of a justification for that project,” said Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the institute.

“If you’re looking for complex biology — intelligent aliens that might take a long time to evolve from pond scum — older could be better,” Dr. Shostak said. “It seems a good bet that the majority of clever beings populating the universe look up to see a dim, reddish sun hanging in their sky. And at least they wouldn’t have to worry about sun block.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/science/trappist-1-exoplanets-nasa.html