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

February 10th

Venera 1 (Russian: Венера-1 meaning Venus 1), also known as Venera-1VA No.2 and occasionally in the West as Sputnik 8 was the first spacecraft to fly past Venus, as part of the Soviet Union’s Venera programme. Launched in February 1961, it flew past Venus on 19 May of the same year; however, radio contact with the probe was lost before the flyby, resulting in it returning no data.

Spacecraft

Venera 1 was a 643.5-kilogram (1,419 lb) probe consisting of a cylindrical body 1.05 metres (3 ft 5 in) in diameter topped by a dome, totalling 2.035 metres (6 ft 8.1 in) in height. This was pressurized to 1.2 standard atmospheres (120 kPa) with dry nitrogen, with internal fans to maintain even distribution of heat. Two solar panels extended from the cylinder, charging a bank of silver-zinc batteries. A 2-metre parabolic wire-mesh antenna was designed to send data from Venus to Earth on a frequency of 922.8 MHz. A 2.4-metre antenna boom was used to transmit short-wave signals during the near-Earth phase of the mission. Semidirectional quadrupole antennas mounted on the solar panels provided routine telemetry and telecommand contact with Earth during the mission, on a circularly-polarized decimetre radio band.

The probe was equipped with scientific instruments including a flux-gate magnetometer attached to the antenna boom, two ion traps to measure solar wind, micrometeorite detectors, and Geiger counter tubes and a sodium iodide scintillator for measurement of cosmic radiation. An experiment attached to one solar panel measured temperatures of experimental coatings. Infrared and/or ultraviolet radiometers may have been included. The dome contained a KDU-414 engine used for mid-course corrections. Temperature control was achieved by motorized thermal shutters.

During most of its flight, Venera 1 was spin stabilized. It was the first spacecraft designed to perform mid-course corrections, by entering a mode of 3-axis stabilization, fixing on the Sun and the star Canopus. Had it reached Venus, it would have entered another mode of 3-axis stabilization, fixing on the Sun and Earth, and using for the first time a parabolic antenna to relay data.

Launch

Venera 1 was the second of two attempts to launch a probe to Venus in February 1961, immediately following the launch of its sister ship Venera-1VA No.1, which failed to leave Earth orbit. Soviet experts launched Venera-1 using a Molniya carrier rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The launch took place at 00:34:36 UTC on 12 February 1961.

The spacecraft, along with the rocket’s Blok-L upper stage, were initially placed into a 229 × 282 km low Earth orbit, before the upper stage fired to place Venera 1 into a heliocentric orbit, directed towards Venus. The 11D33 engine was the world’s first staged-combustion-cycle rocket engine, and also the first use of an ullage engine to allow a liquid-fuel rocket engine to start in space.

Failure

Three successful telemetry sessions were conducted, gathering solar-wind and cosmic-ray data near Earth, at the Earth’s Magnetopause, and on February 19 at a distance of 1,900,000 km (1,200,000 mi). After discovering the solar wind with Luna 2, Venera 1 provided the first verification that this plasma was uniformly present in deep space. Seven days later, the next scheduled telemetry session failed to occur. On May 19, 1961, Venera 1 passed within 100,000 km (62,000 mi) of Venus. With the help of the British radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, some weak signals from Venera 1 may have been detected in June. Soviet engineers believed that Venera 1 failed due to the overheating of a solar-direction sensor.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venera_1

February 4th 2020

Tyazhely Sputnik

Tyazhely Sputnik, (Russian: Тяжелый Спутник meaning Heavy Satellite), also known by its development name as Venera 1VA No.1, and in the West as Sputnik 7, was a Soviet spacecraft, which was intended to be the first spacecraft to explore Venus. Due to a problem with its upper stage it failed to leave low Earth orbit. In order to avoid acknowledging the failure, the Soviet government instead announced that the entire spacecraft, including the upper stage, was a test of a “Heavy Satellite” which would serve as a launch platform for future missions. This resulted in the upper stage being considered a separate spacecraft, from which the probe was “launched”, on several subsequent missions.

Tyazhely Sputnik was launched at 01:18:03 UTC on 4 February 1961, atop a Molniya 8K78 carrier rocket flying from Site 1/5 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. When the upper stage ignited, cavitation in the liquid oxygen flowing through the oxidiser pump caused the pump to fail, resulting in an engine failure eight-tenths of a second after ignition. It reentered the atmosphere over Siberia on 26 February 1961.

According to the memoirs of Boris Chertok, “…A pendant shaped like a small globe with the continents etched on it was placed on the 1VA. Inside this small sphere was a medal depicting the Earth-to-Venus flight path. On the other side of the medal was the emblem of the Soviet Union. The pendant was placed in a spherical capsule with thermal shielding to protect it during entry into Venus’ atmosphere at reentry velocity.” In what he refers to as a “Strange but True [incident]…in the history of cosmonautics,” while the spacecraft was originally thought to have re-entered over the Pacific Ocean, it was subsequently (in 1963) found to have re-entered over Siberia, when this medal made its way back to Chertok by way of his boss, Chief Rocket Designer Sergei Korolev. He relates that, “while swimming in a river – a tributary of the Biryusa River in eastern Siberia – a local boy hurt his foot on some sort of piece of iron. When he retrieved it from the water, rather than throw it into deeper water, he brought it home and showed it to his father. The boy’s father, curious as to what the dented metal sphere contained, opened it up and discovered this medal inside… The boy’s father brought his find to the police. The local police delivered the remains of the pendant to the regional department of the KGB, which in turn forwarded it to Moscow. In Moscow the appropriate KGB directorate… after notifying Keldysh as president of the Academy of Sciences,” delivered the pendant to Korolev. “Thus, [Chertok] was awarded the medal that had been certified for the flight to Venus by the protocol that [he and Korolev] signed in January 1961. After the launch we were all certain that the Tyazhelyy sputnik and the pendant had sunk in the ocean. Now it turned out that it had burned up over Siberia. The pendant had been designed to withstand Venus’ atmosphere and therefore it reached the Earth’s surface.”

The sister probe, Venera 1, successfully launched and was injected into a heliocentric orbit toward Venus one week later, although telemetry on the mission failed a week into flight.

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

January 27th

At 11:38 a.m. EST, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Christa McAuliffe is on her way to becoming the first ordinary U.S. civilian to travel into space. McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire, won a competition that earned her a place among the seven-member crew of the Challenger. She underwent months of shuttle training but then, beginning January 23, was forced to wait six long days as the Challenger‘s launch countdown was repeatedly delayed because of weather and technical problems. Finally, on January 28, the shuttle lifted off.

Seventy-three seconds later, hundreds on the ground, including Christa’s family, stared in disbelief as the shuttle broke up in a forking plume of smoke and fire. Millions more watched the wrenching tragedy unfold on live television. There were no survivors.

In 1976, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) unveiled the world’s first reusable manned spacecraft, the Enterprise. Five years later, space flights of the shuttle began when Columbia traveled into space on a 54-hour mission. Launched by two solid-rocket boosters and an external tank, only the aircraft-like shuttle entered into orbit around Earth. When the mission was completed, the shuttle fired engines to reduce speed and, after descending through the atmosphere, landed like a glider. Early shuttles took satellite equipment into space and carried out various scientific experiments. The Challenger disaster was the first major shuttle accident.

In the aftermath of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission to determine what went wrong with Challenger and to develop future corrective measures. The presidential commission was headed by former secretary of state William Rogers, and included former astronaut Neil Armstrong and former test pilot Chuck Yeager. The investigation determined that the disaster was caused by the failure of an “O-ring” seal in one of the two solid-fuel rockets. The elastic O-ring did not respond as expected because of the cold temperature at launch time, which began a chain of events that resulted in the massive loss. As a result, NASA did not send astronauts into space for more than two years as it redesigned a number of features of the space shuttle.

In September 1988, space shuttle flights resumed with the successful launching of the Discovery. Since then, the space shuttle has carried out numerous important missions, such as the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station.

On February 1, 2003, a second space-shuttle disaster rocked the United States when Columbia disintegrated upon reentry of the Earth’s atmosphere. All aboard were killed. Despite fears that the problems that downed Columbia had not been satisfactorily addressed, space-shuttle flights resumed on July 26, 2005, when Discovery was again put into orbit.

Source: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/challenger-explodes

January 20th

SpaceX plans to launch its next group of Starlink broadband satellites aboard a Falcon 9 rocket as soon as Tuesday, Jan. 21, from Cape Canaveral, two days after the company is scheduled to launch a modified Falcon 9 booster from a separate facility at the Florida spaceport to test the Crew Dragon spaceship’s emergency escape system.

SpaceX’s ability to achieve back-to-back launch schedule hinges on several factors, including an expected test-firing in the coming days of the Falcon 9 booster slated to fly on the next Starlink launch.

But assuming everything goes according to plan, SpaceX aims to perform launches from two pads on Florida’s Space Coast as soon as Sunday and Tuesday.

The Starlink mission — SpaceX’s fourth launch dedicated to the broadband network — was previously scheduled for Monday, Jan. 20. But sources said Friday the launch was pushed back to Tuesday.

And the abort test was originally set for Saturday, but rough seas in the Crew Dragon splashdown zone east of Florida’s coast forced SpaceX to delay the flight to Sunday.

SpaceX has already test-fired the Falcon 9 booster assigned to the Crew Dragon capsule abort test at launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Technicians inside a hangar near pad 39A attached the Crew Dragon spaceship to the Falcon 9 rocket this week, in advance of its return to the launch complex before a countdown rehearsal Friday, during which two NASA astronauts will practice launch day procedures before climbing aboard the next Crew Dragon spaceship for a flight to the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9 is scheduled to lift off from pad 39A — without astronauts on-board — during a six-hour window opening at 8 a.m. EST (1300 GMT) Sunday. About a minute-and-a-half after launch, the first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines will be programmed to switch off, and SuperDraco thrusters on the Crew Dragon capsule mounted atop the rocket will ignite to propel the human-rated ship away from the Falcon 9.

The maneuver will demonstrate the Crew Dragon’s ability to carry astronauts away from a launch emergency, and builds on a pad abort test in 2015 to simulate the Crew Dragon’s abort system performance during an emergency before liftoff.

SpaceX will recover the Crew Dragon capsule from the Atlantic Ocean after it splashes down under parachutes around 20 miles (32 kilometers) offshore. The Falcon 9 rocket, flying with a previously-used first stage booster, is expected to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, teams at pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — located a few miles to the south of pad 39A — are preparing a separate Falcon 9 rocket for liftoff as soon as Tuesday, Jan. 21.

The Jan. 21 launch will haul the next batch of approximately 60 Starlink satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s global broadband Internet network. Assuming the mission remains on schedule, liftoff time Jan. 21 is expected at 11:59 a.m. EST (1659 GMT).

The two upcoming launches from Florida’s Space Coast will mark the second and third missions of the year for SpaceX, which says it could perform 35 or more launches in 2020, including flights carrying new Starlink broadband satellite into orbit as often as every two weeks.

SpaceX conducted 21 launches in 2018, the most missions in a single year in the company’s history. The company launched 13 missions last year.

The dual launches planned by SpaceX in the next week are not the only major activities scheduled at Cape Canaveral.

United Launch Alliance plans to roll an Atlas 5 rocket out of its vertical hangar at pad 41 — located between SpaceX facilities at pad 39A and pad 40 — as soon as Monday for a practice countdown Tuesday, Jan. 21, ahead of the launcher’s scheduled liftoff Feb. 5 with the joint NASA-European Space Agency Solar Orbiter mission, a robotic science probe designed to observe the sun.

Source: https://spaceflightnow.com/2020/01/14/spacexs-brisk-starlink-launch-cadence-to-continue-next-week/

January 13th

Cassini–Huygens

Cassini–Huygens was a spacecraft, sent to study the planet Saturn, its rings, and its moons.

The mission was made by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and Italian Space Agency (ASI). The spacecraft had two main parts: the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens probe. It was launched on October 15, 1997 and entered into orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004. It was the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and the fourth one to visit Saturn (the others were fly-by’s and did not enter orbit). The mission ended September 2017.

Cassini orbiter

The orbiter was named after the Italian-French astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered some moons of Saturn. Most of the orbiter was designed and built by NASA, although ASI built and programmed some parts that talked to the Huygens probe. The spacecraft spent 13 years in orbit, sending back data. It visited many parts of the Saturn system until it was short of fuel. The Cassini-Huygens ended with a controlled crash into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, 2017.[5]

Huygens probe

ESA (European Space Agency) made the Huygens probe, named after the Dutch astronomer, mathematician, and physicist Christiaan Huygens who discovered Titan. On December 25 2004, the Huygens probe left the orbiter. A couple weeks later, the probe parachuted onto Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Astronomers have wondered what the surface of Titan was like, since it was hidden under thick clouds. It is the only moon in our solar system with a thick atmosphere. The probe descended and sent pictures and other data back for scientists to study. After 90 minutes on the moon, the spacecraft stopped working, as expected. It is the farthest place we have ever landed a spacecraft. The pictures sent while parachuting showed rivers, probably of liquid methane. The surface is much too cold for water.

Source: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassini%E2%80%93Huygens

January 6th

On the 10th of January keen observers in Asia, Australia, Europe, and Africa may see the Moon turn a shade darker during the maximum phase of a penumbral lunar eclipse. Most penumbral lunar eclipses cannot be easily distinguished from a usual Full Moon.

Source: https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/lunar/2020-january-10

December 30th

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft hurtled past Ultima Thule, the most distant space rock we have ever visited.

Ultima Thule is located in the Kuiper belt, some 6.6 billion kilometres from Earth. Though low in resolution, the images sent back by the probe suggest that it is shaped like a bowling pin with two unequally sized bulbous ends.

The object is around 32 kilometres long and at most 16 kilometres wide. It appears to be spinning like a propeller, with its axis pointing towards New Horizons. However, we can’t yet rule out the possibility that it is actually two objects orbiting each other.

New Horizons began its long journey in 2006, reaching its primary destination, Pluto, in 2015 before changing course for Ultima Thule. It will send back more images from the rock in the coming months, along with data on its surface composition and temperature.

The Kuiper belt is made up of remnants from when the solar system formed, so this information may teach us something about the origin of planets including Earth. New Horizons will continue to explore the Kuiper belt until at least 2021.

Source: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2189436-distant-space-rock-ultima-thule-looks-like-a-spinning-bowling-pin/

December 16th

On Dec. 16, 1962, NASA launched the Explorer 16 spacecraft to study micrometeoroids near Earth. 

The mission would determine how likely it would be for spacecraft to get damaged by the small space rocks and dust particles around the Earth. The cylindrical spacecraft measured about 6 feet long and 2 feet in diameter. It carried instruments that could detect when meteoroids hit the spacecraft and assess the resulting damage. 

Data from this mission helped scientists determine the size, number, distribution, and momentum of dust particles in the near-earth environment.

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

November 18th

On Nov. 18, 2013, NASA launched the MAVEN spacecraft to Mars. 

The name MAVEN stands for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN. The spacecraft is an orbiter designed to help scientists figure out what happened to Mars’ water and its atmosphere. Mars is dry today, but data from several Mars missions suggest that it was a much wetter environment a long time ago. MAVEN is tracking the rate of atmospheric loss from Mars. 

The planet has a super thin atmosphere that has been leaking into space for a few billion years. Scientists think that when Mars lost its atmosphere, water dried up on the surface as a result. Solar storms that blast radiation into the solar system appear to have blasted away some of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere once kept Mars warm enough to sustain water, and losing that greenhouse gas turned Mars into a cold and dry place. 

MAVEN’s science mission ended in 2016, but the spacecraft is still used to relay communications with other missions on Mars. 

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