Archive for June, 2014

Big eye on task to search for other star folk - the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST). An artist’s concept of the ATLAST telescope under construction in space. This design has a segmented mirror 20 metres across.  Credit: NASA/STScI.

Big eye on task to search for other star folk – the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST). An artist’s concept of the ATLAST telescope under construction in space. This design has a segmented mirror 20 metres across.
Credit: NASA/STScI.

Think big – that’s the astronomical and technical view of Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester in England.

Barstow is giving a talk at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) in Portsmouth, England on June 24, set to call for governments and space agencies around the world to back the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope, or ATLAST for short.

The Royal Astronomical Society’s NAM is being held at the University of Portsmouth – one of the largest professional astronomy conferences in Europe.

ATLAST is an instrument that would give scientists a good chance of detecting hints of life on planets around other stars.

The plan

Make note that ATLAST is currently a concept. It’s under development in the United States and Europe.

Here’s the plan: Scientists and engineers envisage a telescope with a mirror as large as 20 meters (65.6 feet) across that, like the Hubble Space Telescope, would detect visible light and also operate from the far-ultraviolet to the infrared parts of the spectrum.

ATLAST would be capable of analyzing the light from planets the size of the Earth in orbit around other nearby stars, searching for features in their spectra such as molecular oxygen, ozone, water and methane that could suggest the presence of life. It might also be able to see how the surfaces of planets change with the seasons.

Details! Challenges ahead

But way before ATLAST goes prime time, perhaps around 2030, there are details!

Before this can happen, there are technical challenges to overcome such as enhancing the sensitivities of detectors and increasing the efficiencies of the coatings on the mirror segments.

Such a large structure may also need to be assembled in space before deployment rather than launching on a single rocket. All of this means that a decision to construct the telescope needs to happen soon for it to proceed.

ATLAST advocate, Barstow, is the President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and is supportive of the project in a personal capacity.

Ambitious but extraordinary

Barstow sees ATLAST as an ambitious but extraordinary project.

He argues that, since antiquity human beings have wondered whether we really are alone in the universe or whether there are other oases of life. This question is one of the fundamental goals of modern science and ATLAST could finally allow us to answer it.

 “The time is right for scientific and space agencies around the world, including those in the United Kingdom, to take a bold step forward and to commit to this project,” Barstow said in a RAS press statement.

 

Real or imagined - satellite imagery of Noah's Ark? Credit: DigitalGlobe

Real or imagined – satellite imagery of Noah’s Ark?
Credit: DigitalGlobe

Here’s a new one from me on use of satellite imagery to look for Noah’s Ark – a lightning rod article given all the reader comments!

Noah’s Search: Probing Satellite Imagery for Lost Ark

http://www.space.com/26318-noah-ark-search-satellite-images.html

Integrated Space Plan - time for an update! Credit: ISP Kickstarter Team

Integrated Space Plan – time for an update!
Credit: ISP Kickstarter Team

It is called the Integrated Space Plan or ISP for short.

In the late 1980s, an ISP was drafted by Ron Jones, then at the aerospace giant, Rockwell International. The sweeping look into the future was developed to give a visual representation showing how the major space infrastructure elements fit together.

Fast forward to today. Things have changed!

In total, there are more than 50 national space programs. Now toss in more than 100 commercial space efforts while adding to the mix “big ideas” like asteroid mining, space elevators, space-based solar power, settlement of the Moon and Mars, and trekking outward to distant stars and their planetary systems.

Space visionaries

A quest to launch a new ISP is underway via Kickstarter, a way to fully update the plan and blueprint the extraordinary events likely to come over the next century.

“I was recently contacted by a group interested in reviving the ISP through a crowdfunding campaign,” said Jones, a member of a newly formed ISP Kickstarter Team of space visionaries.

Crowdfunding is a new way to raise funds and awareness for creative ventures, he said.

“The idea is, instead of going to one person — like a venture capitalist — to raise a lot of money, with today’s social media, you can reach out to a lot of people for a little financial support and this new ‘Kickstarter’ project is the result,” Jones said.

Integrated Space Plan - roadmap for humanity's space future. Credit: Ron Jones/ISP Kickstarter Team

Integrated Space Plan – roadmap for humanity’s space future.
Credit: Ron Jones/ISP Kickstarter Team

Future phase

The plan is to produce an updated version of the ISP that reflects the many changes in the space industry since the 1990’s.

Moreover, a future ISP phase is to create an interactive online version that will be regularly updated – taking advantage of modern advances in information technology and visualization. 

Once established, the online version will allow users increased research capabilities into ISP elements and give users around the world the ability to more directly contribute to the evolving vision of how humanity may logically expand into space.

Instructive guide

Joining Jones in the effort, Integrated Space Analytics will update the ISP with the latest developments in the space industry, including its increased internationalization and commercialization.

The ISP is seen as a valuable tool for understanding the desired space infrastructure, its influence on the global economy, and an instructive guide for gauging humanity’s future in space.

Giant sized Integrated Space Plan. Credit: ISP Kickstarter Team

Giant sized Integrated Space Plan.
Credit: ISP Kickstarter Team

For more information on this unique project, go to:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/486671231/integrated-space-plan-envisioning-humanitys-future

Titan's atmosphere makes Saturn's largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural-color view from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini captured this image in 2012. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Titan’s atmosphere makes Saturn’s largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural-color view from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini captured this image in 2012.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Forget the smell of team spirit. Try getting a tantalizing whiff of Titan.

Data from the Cassini spacecraft’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer has been used to simulate Titan’s chemistry. A research team has been able to classify a previously unidentified material discovered by the Cassini spacecraft in the moon’s smoggy haze.

Titan’s dirty orange color comes from a mixture of hydrocarbons (molecules that contain hydrogen and carbon) and nitrogen-carrying chemicals called nitriles.

Nosey scientists began with benzene, which has been identified in Titan’s atmosphere, followed by a series of closely related chemicals that are likely to be present there. All of these gases belong to the subfamily of hydrocarbons known as aromatics.

Basic recipe

The outcome is that scientists chose an aromatic that contained nitrogen. When team members analyzed those lab products, they detected spectral features that matched up well with the distinctive signature that had been extracted from the Cassini-collected Titan data.

In lab experiments NASA scientists matched the spectral signature of an unknown material the Cassini spacecraft detected in Titan's atmosphere at far-infrared wavelengths. The material contains aromatic hydrocarbons that include nitrogen, a subgroup called polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/JPL

In lab experiments NASA scientists matched the spectral signature of an unknown material the Cassini spacecraft detected in Titan’s atmosphere at far-infrared wavelengths. The material contains aromatic hydrocarbons that include nitrogen, a subgroup called polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles.
Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/JPL

“Now we can say that this material has a strong aromatic character, which helps us understand more about the complex mixture of molecules that makes up Titan’s haze,” said Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Carrie Anderson, a Cassini participating scientist at Goddard, was a co-author on the study, along with Trainer, Mark Loeffler and Joshua Sebreea, lead author of the study.

Now that the basic recipe has been demonstrated, future work will concentrate on tweaking the experimental conditions to perfect it.

The laboratory experiments were funded by NASA’s Planetary Atmospheres program.

The research is available online in Icarus at:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0019103514001651

China's Lunar Palace 1 - an experimental biosphere here on Earth. Credit: CMSE

China’s Lunar Palace 1 – an experimental biosphere here on Earth.
Credit: CMSE

New story from me up on SPACE.com:

China’s ‘Lunar Palace’ for Space Research Tested on Earth

http://www.space.com/26267-china-lunar-palace-space-research-mission.html

Draper Laboratory artist concept of the envisioned mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. Credit: Draper Laboratory

Draper Laboratory artist concept of the envisioned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Credit: Draper Laboratory

Jupiter’s moon Europa could fall under the intense scrutiny of tiny spacecraft making use of “cold atom sensing technology.”

That’s a new idea by Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass – a concept that won a $100,000 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program award earlier this month.

Draper Laboratory is developing the low-cost concept for NASA that could accelerate the space agency’s ability to explore other planets by combining initial orbiting survey missions and follow-on landing studies into a single mission.

The idea is to use a small cubesat to take gravity measurements over Jupiter’s moon Europa to spot areas of interest – like water – and then eject a batch of tiny ChipSats to land and take close observations and samples on the surface.

Lack of moving parts

A Draper press statement notes that gravity measurements today are generally taken by two spacecraft flying near a planetary body. As the body’s gravitational forces pull on them, the relative drift between the two spacecraft is measured.

Jupiter's Europa could be site for water...and life? Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Jupiter’s Europa could be site for water…and life?
Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

These measurements are then used to map the gravitational field of the planetary body’s surface, which can be used to look for water and other items of interest that inform planning for future missions that may take place years later.

ChipSats — which have not been used for planetary surface exploration — may be well suited for the task as their lack of moving parts may make them highly capable of surviving impact on a planetary surface.

The low cost of ChipSats could also enable NASA to use a large batch, reducing the consequences of losing some upon impact.

 

Sunspots vary in size and tend to range between 1.500 - 50,000 km, making some larger than Earth.  Observed with the Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope (SST). The SST is operated on the island of La Palma by the Institute for Solar Physics in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias.  Observations: Göran Scharmer and Kai Langhans, ISP.  Image processing: Mats Löfdahl, ISP

Sunspots vary in size and tend to range between 1.500 – 50,000 km, making some larger than Earth.
Observed with the Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope (SST). The SST is operated on the island of La Palma by the Institute for Solar Physics in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias.
Observations: Göran Scharmer and Kai Langhans, ISP.
Image processing: Mats Löfdahl, ISP

Yes, the Sun has its spots!

And now you can take part in research that can help with some of solar physics’ unanswered questions, such as:

Are sunspots born complex or do they evolve to become complex?

Do sunspot groups that are more complex produce more eruptions?

There’s a new Zooniverse project now online called “Sunspotter.”

The Zooniverse is a collection of web-based citizen science projects that use the efforts of volunteers to help researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them.

Sunspotter is essentially a game of hot-or-not for sunspot data.

A visitor of the site is shown two images of sunspot groups and asked which is more complex. All that boils down to information extremely useful in helping astronomers understand the physics of our star – the Sun.

A new batch of more than 200,000 images of the sun is now available on the site, with a request by Zooniverse officials to help rank them in order of complexity.

Science goal

According to the website, at the start of any research project, there’s a need to ask: What is the science goal?

The long term goal of the research is two-fold. In Sunspotter, the aim is to construct a reliable measure of sunspot group complexity. This means being able to take a picture of a sunspot group and say, from 1 to 10, how complex is this sunspot group?

“In the long term, we expect to develop a machine learning algorithm that will be able to determine the complexity of sunspot groups without the aid of humans,” explains the site.

Sunspotter volunteers will provide a dataset that will train the machine learning algorithm to do this.

“In the end, the volunteers will be the ones to thank for putting in the hard work and improving humanity’s ability to classify sunspots automatically!”

Put your shades on and eye this site:

http://www.sunspotter.org/

 

What is Virgin Galactic up to now?

Here’s a new story from me on SPACE.com:

GF01  Glide Flight- 1st test flight of SpaceShip2
 http://www.space.com/26237-virgin-galactic-commercial-spaceline-progress.html

Asteroid 2014 HQ124 appears to be an elongated, irregular object that is at least 1,200 feet (370 meters) wide on its long axis.  Image credits:  NASA/JPL-Caltech Arecibo Observatory USRA/NSF

Asteroid 2014 HQ124 appears to be an elongated, irregular object that is at least 1,200 feet (370 meters) wide on its long axis.
Image credits:
NASA/JPL-Caltech
Arecibo Observatory
USRA/NSF

In asteroid speak, it’s known as 2014 HQ124.

The space rock appears to be an elongated, irregular object that is at least 1,200 feet (370 meters) wide on its long axis.

This particular asteroid was only recently discovered by NASA’s NEOWISE mission, a space telescope adapted for scouting the skies for the infrared light emitted by asteroids and comets. That spacecraft first spotted the asteroid on April 23, 2014.

Now, thanks to paring the capabilities of the 230-foot (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California with two other radio telescopes, one at a time, new radar images of the object have been obtained.

And it’s quite the view!

Sharp viewing

The new imagery shows features as small as about 12 feet (3.75 meters) wide. This is the highest resolution currently possible using scientific radar antennas to produce images. Such sharp views for this asteroid were made possible by linking together giant radio telescopes to enhance their capabilities.

To image the asteroid, researchers first paired the large Goldstone antenna with the 1,000-foot (305-meter) Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. They later paired the large Goldstone dish with a smaller companion, a 112-foot (34-meter) antenna, located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away.

The result of combining all this technology is that there’s been a dramatic improvement in the amount of detail that can be seen in radar images.

An animation of the rotating asteroid and a collage of the images are available at:

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/video/index.php?id=1310

 

LDSD Test over Hawaii. Credit: NASA/JPL

LDSD Test over Hawaii.
Credit: NASA/JPL

UPDATE:

NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator will not launch Saturday, June 14, due to unfavorable weather conditions forecast for this last designated launch date in the current launch period.
 
NASA will research range availability for the coming weeks and the costs associated with extending the test flight period for launching LDSD’s high-altitude balloon and test vehicle, with programmatic decisions required to proceed.

Per a telecon on June 12th, the LDSD officials are looking at the prospect of possibly flying later this month – but the final go to attempt the flight is TBD.

First flight of NASA’s saucer-shaped experimental flight vehicle, the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, or LDSD, has been repeatedly delayed due to weather conditions at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kaua‘i, Hawaii.

LDSD TEST DIAGRAMTo duplicate many of the most important aspects of Mars’ thin atmosphere, NASA plans to use the very thin air found high in Earth’s stratosphere as a test bed for the LDSD mission.

LDSD will use a 20-foot diameter, solid rocket-powered balloon-like vessel called a Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (SIAD).

To reach the desired test altitude of 120,000 feet, the LDSD project will use a helium-filled scientific balloon provided by NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility.

When fully deployed, the balloon itself is over 34 million cubic feet. At that size alone, one could fit a professional football stadium inside it. The material that makes the balloon, a very thin film called polyethylene that is similar thickness to that of sandwich wrap, will lift the massive test article to 120,000 feet.

NASA is creating new technology for its flight to Mars by mimicking the behavior of Pufferfish. Pufferfish are poor swimmers, but can quickly ingest huge amounts of water to turn themselves into a virtually inedible ball several times their normal size. Image Credit: Chris Laughlin/Animals Animals-Earth Scenes

NASA is creating new technology for its flight to Mars by mimicking the behavior of Pufferfish. Pufferfish are poor swimmers, but can quickly ingest huge amounts of water to turn themselves into a virtually inedible ball several times their normal size.
Image Credit: Chris Laughlin/Animals Animals-Earth Scenes

Fish nor foul weather?

NASA scientists and engineers borrowed a technique used by the ‘o’opu hue, also known as the Hawaiian pufferfish.

The technique: Rapid inflation.

For the pufferfish, it is simply a defense mechanism. For NASA, it is potentially the element that links to the future of space exploration.

LDSD is testing Mars reentry technology that may well be used for landing larger and larger payloads on the Red Planet – including future habitats for the first human explorers to plant their footprints on Mars.

Griffith Observatory Event