The International Space Station plants a garden
On the 18th of April 2014, a Dragon capsule was launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket towards the International Space Station. Launched by the private company SpaceX, this capsule carried, among other things, a new gardening experiment aimed at determining the best way to grow plants in space for consumption. The experiment is called the Veggie Hardware Validation tet (Veg-01) or ‘Veggie’ for short and will be testing a new set of hardware called ‘Plant Pillows’ designed to distribute water and hold soil. The first crop (a mix of lettuces called outredgeous) is expected to be ready in late May, but the astronauts won’t be allowed to test the food. It will be sent home for analysis. Suggested Reading: Science @ NASA, Press Release, Veggie mission page.
The ESO has measured the length of an exoplanet’s day
Using the Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers from the Netherlands have measured the rotation rate of an exoplanet. The exoplanet in question is Beta Pictoris b, which has a day that lasts 8 hours; for reference, the shortest day in our Solar System is Jupiter’s at 9.9 hours to complete a rotation. Coupled with the fact that Beta Pictoris b is a larger planet than Jupiter, this short day indicates the equator of the planet is rotating at 100 000 km/h (much faster than Jupiter’s 47 000 km/h, and Earth’s 1700 km/h). The astronomers were able to measure this using a very high resolution spectrograph to detect absorption features in the atmosphere of the planet. Then using the principles of Doppler shift, were able to measure the rotation speed.
Nearby brown dwarf discovered at 7.2 light-years
The closest system to the Sun is the Alpha Centauri system at 4.4 light-years away; the next closest system is Barnard’s Star at 6.0 light-years away. After that is a binary Brown Dwarf duo called Luhman 16, at 5.69 light-years. Those two were discovered in 2013 using data from WISE and are the closest Brown Dwarfs ever discovered. Now, using data from the the same telescope, astronomer Kevin Luhman (of the aforementioned discovery) announced the fourth closest system to the Sun: WISE 0855-0714, at 7.2 light-years away.
Not only is this new Brown Dwarf very close to the Sun (relative to the size of the Milky Way, that is), it is also very very cold: the surface temperature is -48 < T < -13 degrees Celsius, or as cold as the North Pole on Earth. The Brown Dwarf was found as a result of its high proper motion, which is the motion of the object relative to the Sun. Objects that are far from the Sun (like distant stars) will move relatively slowly across the sky; objects that are very close will move much faster. By taking multiple images of the same location on the sky and then comparing them, its possible to locate an object that is moving, and measure its velocity and distance. As Brown Dwarfs do not shine like stars, these discoveries require the use of an infrared telescope; hence WISE.
How exactly to categorize Brown Dwarfs is a topic of much debate in the community. They are definitely not stars, because they haven’t ignited fusion of hydrogen in their core. Fusion is started when enough mass has accreted onto an object such that the pressure and temperature at the core of the object reaches levels high enough to overcome the Coulomb barrier, and fuse two protons together. Brown Dwarfs simply aren’t massive enough to sustain this reaction. However, classifying them as giant planets is also up for debate. They are much bigger than most of the planets we have discovered in other star systems, and they also occur on their own (i.e., not orbiting a star). What’s interesting is WISE 0855-0714 has a mass between 3 and 10 times that of Jupiter, making it more likely to be a gas giant planet that was (most likely) ejected from its own star system.
Hansen’s role with the most recent space walk
Jeremy Hansen is one of Canada’s two active astronauts (the other is David Saint-Jacques). Although neither has flown in space yet (they were only hired in 2009), they are knee deep in training and preparation. But that doesn’t mean that can’t contribute to current missions via Ground Control. On 23 April 2014, two astronauts (Steve Swanson and Rich Mastracchio) aboard the International Space Station stepped out of the airlock to perform a space walk. Their goal: to replace a backup computer that had failed on 11 April 2014. From the ground, Canada’s very own Jeremy Hansen acted as ‘Ground IV,’ a crucial team member of the space walk. As activities such as space walks are highly complicated, they require the work of a large team both on-orbit and on the ground. Hansen’s duties as Ground IV was to assist and choreograph the on-orbit astronauts duties to ensure the project was completed. This required Hansen to have an inside-out knowledge of the entire operation, seeing it as a whole, and able to direct the astronauts to stay on time. Canada’s contributions to the International Space Station are wide and varied, this is just another example of our work.
Suggested Reading: NASA article on space walk, Sun News Network article
Canada contributing to Japan’s new orbiting X-ray observatory
Japan is currently putting together a new orbiting X-ray telescope called ASTRO-H, which will observed some of the more energetic processes in the universe. Canada has officially partnered with the project (along with the United States and Europe) and will be contributing a stabilization and vibration characterization system to reduce the noise in the observations. The design of the telescope includes a very long boom (or mast) that directs incoming X-rays; since it is long it is more easily susceptible to vibrations and distortions. Canada is at the forefront of space robotics and on-orbit systems, so Japan approached Canada to help solve the issues involved with the long boom. The CSA awarded a contract to Neptic Design Group to contribute this hardware/software. As a result, Canadian astronomers will have access to observing time on the new X-ray telescope. Slated to launch in 2015.
Suggested Reading: CSA press release, CSA ASTRO-H page
First confirmed Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of its parent star
On 17 April 2014, the Kepler Space Telescope team, located out of NASA/Ames, announced the discovery of the first Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone of its parent star. Previously, the Kepler team has announced the discovery of small planets, and even planets in the habitable zone, but this is the first time both requirements have been met. The planet is called Kepler-186f, and it orbits a M dwarf star, which is a star smaller and colder than our own Sun (a G-type star). As a result the M dwarf’s habitable zone is closer to the star than the habitable zone of the Sun. The Kepler-186 star is located about 500 lightyears from Earth; the planet Kepler-186f is about 1.1x the size of Earth and orbits the M dwarf once every 130 days. The orbital distance is roughly the Sun-Mercury distance, but because the M dwarf is cooler, the habitable zone is also closer.
Suggested Reading: NASA Press Release, Comparison of Planets, wikipedia entry
Watching a new moon form around Saturn?
The Cassini Mission has been an unbelievable success in its research of the planet Saturn. Since its arrival at Saturn and orbital insertion on 1 July 2004, Cassini has made countless discoveries about the massive ringed Gas Giant planet. It appears Cassini has added another discovery to the list, with observations that may indicate a new moon is forming in the rings. Informally nicknamed ‘Peggy,’ the strange object/disturbance in the rings of Saturn may in fact be a new moon forming. Astronomers think the disturbance is a result of the gravitational field of some small object. The object itself is too small to be seen, but its affects on the rings of Saturn betray its existence. It is tough to tell if this is, in fact, a new Moon forming, but it is one of the more likely explanations. The rings of Saturn are made up of mostly icy chunks ranging in size from dust grain size to a few meters.
Suggested Reading: Science @ NASA, Cassini Mission homepage, wikipedia entry
1. A Shiny Object. In one of the many pictures sent back by the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) currently trekking around Mars cause a mini uproar the other day, as the image appeared to have a ‘shiny’ object in it. Much speculation was made, however, the likely explanation is that it was a cosmic ray hit. Note the image was taken with the NavCam, which is two cameras in stereo. The ‘shiny’ object was only seen in the right-NavCam, and not seen in the left NavCam. Since the images are taken simultaneously, it is likely not to be anything physical on the surface of Mars. Suggested Reading: Universe Today article, JPL Eyes and Other Senses, Bad Astronomy article, The Perils of the Skeptic Journalist (BA)
2. Opposition and Closest Approach. Mars reached opposition on Monday April 7, 2014, the point at which it is exactly opposite the Sun in the sky. Thus at opposition, as soon as the Sun sets, Mars rises. Opposition is typically the time it is best to observe any planet in the outer Solar System, as that usually means we’re closer to the planet, and we can observe it the entire night. Opposition isn’t necessarily the time when the planet will look biggest and brightest. Since planetary orbits are ellipses not circles, we won’t make our closest approach to Mars until Monday April 14, 2014: a full 7 days later. Nevertheless, over the next couple of weeks Mars is prime for observing. Suggested Reading: Universe Today article, Sky and Telescope article,
Total Lunar Eclipse
The Moon will be silently sliding into the shadow Earth casts into space in the wee morning ours of April 15th, 2014. Beginning at 2am (roughly) the Moon will begin to darken, and over the next couple hours will be cast with a deep reddish-purple colour (a result of our atmosphere). Totalality will last about an hour or so around 4:00am, and then slowly but surely will begin its trek out of the shadow of Earth. It’s a beautiful sight, and we’re going to get 4 of them over the next year! Suggested Reading: Universe Today article, wiki article, NASA Eclipses During 2014
Celebrating 50 years of the Deep Space Network
NASA celebrated a big anniversary in style. It has been 50 years since the development of the Deep Space Network, an international array of giant radio telescopes used to communicate with all interplanetary missions (from Curiosity to New Horizons). It also supports Earth orbiting missions and does some of it’s own astrophysical research. To celebrate the 50 year anniversary, NASA held a social event known as a NASA Social. The agency invited down a handful of the most avid social media users Suggested Reading: NASA’s DSN, Universe Today article, NASA Social
Evidence for Liquid Subsurface Ocean on Enceladus
Cassini’s 2005 imaging of Enceladus’ geysers have been the subject of ongoing analysis. The geysers could simply have been caused by water being squeezed out from the moon as different ice layers move past one another. But while direct evidence of subsurface oceans remains elusive, the gravitational field reveals that the material below the ice where those geysers appeared is more dense than ice. This suggests a large body of water, and the possible source of the geysers. Suggested Reading: APOD, Interior Cross Setion [PICTURE], Science @ NASA, NASA Press Release
UrtheCast Sees First Light for new Space Station Cameras
The forward thinking start-up company UrtheCast launched two cameras to the International Space Station in November 2013. The goal was to fix them to the side of the ISS and continue image the surface of Earth as it scrolled by. The data would then be made publicly available, allowing us to observe the Earth in real-time (and HiDef). There were some issues getting everything installed, however, on 27 January 2014 those issues were resolved and the first images were taken. Suggested Reading: UrtheCast Press Release
NASA Cuts Communication with Russian Government
While NASA will continue work with Roscosmos uninterrupted, NASA has been issued an order banning any non-essential communication with the Russian government. This is in response to the tensions growing after Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. There is no immediate danger to the space partnership. Suggested Reading: NASAWatch
The 2nd HI-SEAS Mars Analog Mission has Begun
How do you prepare for a human mission to Mars? There are so many unknowns: how to keep food/water, how to manage physical health, how to mitigate radiation exposure. The list goes on. One part of that list is the pyschological effects of extended space flight. Imagine being on a small spaceship/lander with the same 5 people for months on end. How do you support a healthy work environment that is challenging, but not overwhelming; friendly but serious; safe and supportive? These last questions are the ones the Hi-SEAS (Hawaiian Space Exploration and Analog Simulation) project is attempting to answer, and they’re doing it by simulating a long duration trip in space. On the mountain of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, 6 astronauts have (voluntarily) trapped themselves in a simulated space station where they will be treated astronauts in space. Researchers will monitor the astronaut’s psychological state as they are challenged and pushed. The research will help answer questions and develop strategies that will be used on real long duration flight. Suggested Reading: D-brief article, HI-SEAS homepage