vendredi 31 janvier 2014

Getting ready for asteroids











Asteroid & Comet Watch.

31 January 2014

With a mandate from the UN, ESA and other space agencies from around the world are about to establish a high-level group to help coordinate global response should a threatening asteroid ever be found heading towards Earth.

For the first time, national space agencies from North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa will establish an expert group aimed at getting the world’s space-faring nations on the ‘same page’ when it comes to reacting to asteroid threats.

Asteroids passing Earth

Its task is to coordinate expertise and capabilities for missions aimed at countering asteroids that might one day strike Earth.

Of the more than 600 000 known asteroids in our Solar System, more than 10 000 are classified as near-Earth objects, or NEOs, because their orbits bring them relatively close to our path.

Dramatic proof that any of these can strike Earth came on 15 February 2013, when an unknown object thought to be 17–20 m in diameter arrived at 66 000 km/h and exploded high above Chelyabinsk, Russia, with 20–30 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Asteroid trace over Chelyabinsk

The resulting shock wave caused widespread damage and injuries, making it the largest known natural object to have entered the atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska event, which destroyed a remote forest area of Siberia.

Coordinating global efforts

The Space Mission Planning and Advisory Group (SMPAG – pronounced ‘same page’) was established by Action Team 14, a technical forum with a mandate from the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) to develop a strategy on how to react on a possible asteroid impact threat.

It will coordinate the technological knowhow of agencies to recommend specific efforts related to asteroid threats, including basic research and development, impact mitigation measures and deflection missions.

“SMPAG will also develop and refine a set of reference missions that could be individually or cooperatively flown to intercept an asteroid,” says Detlef Koschny, Head of the NEO Segment in ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme office.

“These include precursor missions or test and evaluation missions, which we need to fly to prove technology before a real threat arises.”

The first-ever meeting will be hosted by ESA on 6–7 February at its operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Control room of ESA's observatory on Tenerife

The first-ever meeting will be hosted by ESA on 6–7 February at its operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Thirty-plus representatives from 13 agencies, seven government ministries and the UN will share knowledge and the latest research related to impact case studies, and will develop a work plan for the next two years.

“As a first step, the group will study each agency’s organisational and operational capabilities, specific technologies and scientific abilities, and propose options that make best use of who can do what, the best,” says Detlef.

The group will work in close cooperation with another Action Team 14-mandated committee: the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN).

ESA Space Situational Awareness: detecting space hazards

Each will study and recommend specific actions to deal with different aspects of the asteroid threat – IAWN to coordinate the global search for threatening NEOs, understand their effects in case of a collision, and interface with disaster preparation and civil response agencies; and SMPAG for the technology and space mission aspects.

Current threats, future scenarios

 The critical first step is to spot potential threats in the sky with as much advance warning as possible.

“ESA is already doing a great deal to support the global effort to address the asteroid threat,” says Nicolas Bobrinsky, ESA’s SSA Programme Manager.

The Agency is now developing the capability to integrate Europe’s current NEO tracking assets – as well as new technology such as automated, wide-field-of-view telescopes – into a coordinated and more efficient NEO system that can provide nightly sky surveys and advanced warnings.

Among other recent developments, starting in late 2013, ESA will make use of observing time at the European Southern Observatory in Chile to conduct quick and accurate confirmations of the most hazardous NEOs.

More about:

NEO activities at ESA: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Operations/Space_Situational_Awareness/Near-Earth_Objects_-_NEO_Segment

UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS): http://www.oosa.unvienna.org/oosa/COPUOS/copuos.html

Images, Text, Credits: ESA / P.Carril / Alex Alishevskikh.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

jeudi 30 janvier 2014

Where the Wild Stars Are










NASA - WISE Mission logo.

Jan. 29, 2014


Image above: Radiation and winds from massive stars have blown a cavity into the surrounding dust and gas, creating the Trifid nebula, as seen here in infrared light by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.

A storm of stars is brewing in the Trifid nebula, as seen in this view from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The stellar nursery, where baby stars are bursting into being, is the yellow-and-orange object dominating the picture. Yellow bars in the nebula appear to cut a cavity into three sections, hence the name Trifid nebula.

Colors in this image represent different wavelengths of infrared light detected by WISE. The main green cloud is made up of hydrogen gas. Within this cloud is the Trifid nebula, where radiation and winds from massive stars have blown a cavity into the surrounding dust and gas, and presumably triggered the birth of new generations of stars. Dust glows in infrared light, so the three lines that make up the Trifid, while appearing dark in visible-light views, are bright when seen by WISE.

The blue stars scattered around the picture are older, and they lie between Earth and the Trifid nebula. The baby stars in the Trifid will eventually look similar to those foreground stars. The red cloud at upper right is gas heated by a group of very young stars.

The Trifid nebula is located 5,400 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius.

Artist's view of WISE spacecraft in orbit. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Blue represents light emitted at 3.4-micron wavelengths, and cyan (blue-green) represents 4.6 microns, both of which come mainly from hot stars. Relatively cooler objects, such as the dust of the nebula, appear green and red. Green represents 12-micron light and red, 22-micron light.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages and operates the recently activated NEOWISE asteroid-hunting mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The results presented here are from the WISE all-sky survey mission, which operated before NEOWISE, using the same spacecraft, in 2010 and 2011. WISE was selected competitively under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about WISE & NEOWISE Mission, visit: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/programs/neowise.html

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA / JPL / Whitney Clavin.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

Curiosity Mars Rover Checking Possible Smoother Route

NASA - Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Patch.

Jan. 29, 2014

Curiosity Mars Rover Approaches 'Dingo Gap,' Mastcam View

Image above: This scene combines images taken by the left-eye camera of the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover during the midafternoon, local Mars solar time, of the mission's 526th Martian day, or sol (Jan. 28, 2014). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

Mission Status Report

The team operating NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is considering a path across a small sand dune to reach a favorable route to science destinations.

A favorable route would skirt some terrain with sharp rocks considered more likely to poke holes in the rover's aluminum wheels.

While the team has been assessing ways to reduce wear and tear to the wheels, Curiosity has made progress toward a next site for drilling a rock sample and also toward its long-term destination: geological layers exposed on slopes of Mount Sharp. The rover has driven into a mapping quadrant that includes a candidate site for drilling. Meanwhile, testing on Earth is validating capabilities for drilling into rocks on slopes the rover will likely encounter on Mount Sharp.

Curiosity has driven 865 feet (264.7 meters) since Jan. 1, for a total odometry of 3.04 miles (4.89 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing.

Full-Circle Vista During Curiosity's Approach to 'Dingo Gap' (Stereo)

Image above: This stereo mosaic of images from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows the terrain surrounding the rover's position on the 524th Martian day, or sol, of the mission (Jan. 26, 2014). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Accumulation of punctures and rips in the wheels accelerated in the fourth quarter of 2013. Among the responses to that development, the team now drives the rover with added precautions, thoroughly checks the condition of Curiosity's wheels frequently, and is evaluating routes and driving methods that could avoid some wheel damage.

A dune about 3 feet (1 meter) high spans the gap between two scarps that might be a gateway to a southwestward route over relatively smooth ground. Curiosity is approaching the site, "Dingo Gap," from the southeast. The team is using images from the rover to assess whether to cross the dune.

"The decision hasn't been made yet, but it is prudent to go check," said Jim Erickson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., project manager for Curiosity. "We'll take a peek over the dune into the valley immediately to the west to see whether the terrain looks as good as the analysis of orbital images implies." The orbital images come from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Traverse Map for Mars Rover Curiosity as of Jan. 26, 2014

Image above: This map shows the route that NASA's Curiosity Mars rover drove inside Gale Crater from its landing in August 2013 through the 524th Martian day, or sol, of the mission (Jan. 26, 2014). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona.

Other routes have also been evaluated for getting Curiosity from the rover's current location to a candidate drilling site called "KMS-9." That site lies about half a mile (800 meters) away by straight line, but considerably farther by any of the driving routes assessed. Characteristics seen in orbital imagery of the site appeal to Curiosity's science team. "At KMS-9, we see three terrain types exposed and a relatively dust-free surface," said science team collaborator Katie Stack of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

Before Curiosity's landing inside Gale Crater, the mission's science team used images from orbit to map terrain types in a grid of 140 square quadrants, each about 0.9 mile (1.5 kilometers) wide. Curiosity landed in the "Yellowknife" quadrant and subsequently crossed parts of quadrants called "Mawson" and "Coeymans." This month, it entered the "Kimberley" quadrant, home of KMS-9.

Stack said, "This area is appealing because we can see terrain units unlike any that Curiosity has visited so far. One unit has striations all oriented in a similar direction. Another is smooth, without striations. We don't know yet what they are. The big draw is exploration and seeing new things."

Crystal-Laden Martian Rock Examined by Curiosity's Laser Instrument

Image above: As NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is progressing toward Mount Sharp, researchers are using the rover's instruments to examine soils and rocks in Gale Crater. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS.

Science investigations have continued along with recent drives. One rock examined on Jan. 15, "Harrison," revealed linear crystals with feldspar-rich composition.

To prepare for destinations farther ahead, engineers are using a test rover at JPL to check the rover's ability to tolerate slight slippage on slopes while using its drill. With the drill bit in a rock, tests simulating slips of up to about 2 inches (5 centimeters) have not caused damage.

"These tests are building confidence for operations we are likely to use when Curiosity is on the slopes of Mount Sharp," said JPL's Daniel Limonadi, systems engineering leader for surface sampling with the rover's arm.

Other testing at JPL is evaluating possible driving techniques that might help reduce the rate of wheel punctures, such as driving backwards or using four-wheel drive instead of six-wheel drive. Some of the wheel damage may result from the force of rear wheels pushing middle or front wheels against sharp rocks, rather than simply the weight of the rover driving over the rocks.

"An analogy is when you are rolling your wheeled luggage over a curb, you can feel the difference between trying to push it over the curb or pull it over the curb," said JPL's Richard Rainen, mechanical engineering team leader for Curiosity.

While continuing to evaluate routes and driving techniques, Curiosity's team will add some weekend and evening shifts in February to enable planning more drives than would otherwise be possible.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions.  JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, built the rover and manages the project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.  For more information about Curiosity, visit http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/ . You can follow the mission on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits : NASA / JPL.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

NASA-Sponsored 'Disk Detective' Lets Public Search for New Planetary Nurseries









NASA - WISE Mission patch.

NASA-Sponsored 'Disk Detective' Lets Public Search for New Planetary Nurseries

Jan. 30, 2014

NASA is inviting the public to help astronomers discover embryonic planetary systems hidden among data from the agency's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission through a new website, DiskDetective.org.

Disk Detective is NASA's largest crowdsourcing project whose primary goal is to produce publishable scientific results. It exemplifies a new commitment to crowdsourcing and open data by the United States government.

video
Disk Detective: Search for Planetary Habitats

Video above: Take a tour of DiskDetective.org with Goddard astrophysicist Marc Kuchner, the project's principal investigator. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"Through Disk Detective, volunteers will help the astronomical community discover new planetary nurseries that will become future targets for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope," said James Garvin, the chief scientist for NASA Goddard's Sciences and Exploration Directorate.

WISE was designed to survey the entire sky at infrared wavelengths. From a perch in Earth orbit, the spacecraft completed two scans of the entire sky between 2010 and 2011. It took detailed measurements on more than 745 million objects, representing the most comprehensive survey of the sky at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available.

Astronomers have used computers to search this haystack of data for planet-forming environments and narrowed the field to about a half-million sources that shine brightly in the infrared, indicating they may be "needles": dust-rich disks that are absorbing their star's light and reradiating it as heat.


Image above: Herbig-Haro 30 is the prototype of a gas-rich young stellar object disk. The dark disk spans 40 billion miles in this image, cutting the bright nebula in two and blocking the central star from direct view. Volunteers can help astronomers find more disks like this through DiskDetective.org. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/C. Burrows (STScI).

"Planets form and grow within disks of gas, dust and icy grains that surround young stars, but many details about the process still elude us," said Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "We need more examples of planet-forming habitats to better understand how planets grow and mature."

But galaxies, interstellar dust clouds, and asteroids also glow in the infrared, which stymies automated efforts to identify planetary habitats. There may be thousands of nascent solar systems in the WISE data, but the only way to know for sure is to inspect each source by eye, which poses a monumental challenge.

Public participation in scientific research is a type of crowdsourcing known as citizen science. It allows the public to make critical contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics by collecting, analyzing and sharing a wide range of data. NASA uses citizen science to engage the public in problem-solving.


Image above: Debris disks, such as this one around the bright star Fomalhaut, tend to be older than 5 million years, possess little or no gas, and contain belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts found in our own solar system. The radial streaks are scattered starlight. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/UC Berkeley/Goddard/LLNL/JPL.

Kuchner recognized the spotting of planetary nurseries as a perfect opportunity for crowdsourcing. He arranged for NASA to team up with the Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the Internet. The result of their combined effort is Disk Detective.

Disk Detective incorporates images from WISE and other sky surveys in brief animations the website calls flip books. Volunteers view a flip book and classify the object based on simple criteria, such as whether the image is round or includes multiple objects. By collecting this information, astronomers will be able to assess which sources should be explored in greater detail, for example, to search for planets outside our solar system.

"Disk Detective's simple and engaging interface allows volunteers from all over the world to participate in cutting-edge astronomy research that wouldn't even be possible without their efforts," said Laura Whyte, director of citizen science at Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill., a founding partner of the Zooniverse collaboration.


Image above: Marc Kuchner, the principal investigator for DiskDetective.org (left) and James Garvin, the chief scientist for NASA Goddard's Sciences and Exploration Directorate, discuss the crowdsourcing project in front of the hyperwall at Goddard's Science Visualization Lab. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/David Friedlander.

The project aims to find two types of developing planetary environments. The first, known as a young stellar object disk, typically is less than 5 million years old, contains large quantities of gas, and often is found in or near young star clusters. For comparison, our own solar system is 4.6 billion years old. The second planetary environment, known as a debris disk, tends to be older than 5 million years, possesses little or no gas, and contains belts of rocky or icy debris that resemble the asteroid and Kuiper belts found in our own solar system. Vega and Fomalhaut, two of the brightest stars in the sky, host debris disks.

WISE was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed. But in September 2013, it was reactivated, renamed Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE), and given a new mission, which is to assist NASA's efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs). NEOWISE also can assist in characterizing previously detected asteroids that could be considered potential targets for future exploration missions.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., manages and operates WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA's Explorers Program managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Disk Detective, please visit: http://www.diskdetective.org

For more information about NASA's WISE mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/wise

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA / J. D. Harrington / Goddard Space Flight Center / Lynn Chandler.

Cheers, Orbiter.ch

NASA's SDO Sees Lunar Transit












NASA - Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) patch.

Jan. 30, 2014


Image above: A rainbow of lunar transits as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. The observatory watches the sun in many different wavelengths of light, which are each colorized in a different color. Image Credit: NASA/SDO.

On Jan 30, 2014, beginning at 8:31 a.m EST, the moon moved between NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, and the sun, giving the observatory a view of a partial solar eclipse from space. Such a lunar transit happens two to three times each year.  This one lasted two and one half hours, which is the longest ever recorded.  When the next one will occur is as of yet unknown due to planned adjustments in SDO's orbit.

Note in the picture how crisp the horizon is on the moon, a reflection of the fact that the moon has no atmosphere around it to distort the light from the sun.


Image above: NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of the moon crossing in front of its view of the sun on Jan. 30, 2014, at 9:00 a.m. EST. Image Credit: NASA/SDO.

video
SDO Sees Lunar Eclipse - January 2014

Video above: The moon passes in front of the sun in this movie captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The movie begins at 10:29 a.m. ET on Jan. 28, 2014, and ends at 10:59 a.m. on Jan. 30., 2014. Image Credit: NASA/SDO.

Related Links:

Download high resolution image and video files at: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/a010000/a011400/a011463/

Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Karen C. Fox.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

mercredi 29 janvier 2014

NASA's LRO Snaps a Picture of NASA's LADEE Spacecraft














NASA - Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) patch / NASA - LADEE Mission patch.

Jan. 29, 2014

With precise timing, the camera aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was able to take a picture of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft as it orbited our nearest celestial neighbor. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) operations team worked with its LADEE and LRO operations counterparts to make the imaging possible.


Image above: LRO imaged LADEE, about 5.6 miles beneath it, at 8:11 p.m. EST on Jan. 14, 2014. (LROC NAC image M1144387511LR. Image width is 821 meters, or about 898 yards.) Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.

LADEE is in an equatorial orbit (east-­to-­west) while LRO is in a polar orbit (south-­to-­north). The two spacecraft are occasionally very close and on Jan. 15, 2014, the two came within 5.6 miles (9 km) of each other. As LROC is a push-broom imager, it builds up an image one line at a time, so catching a target as small and fast as LADEE is tricky. Both spacecraft are orbiting the moon with velocities near 3,600 mph (1,600 meters per second), so timing and pointing of LRO must be nearly perfect to capture LADEE in an LROC image.

LADEE passed directly beneath the LRO orbit plane a few seconds before LRO crossed the LADEE orbit plane, meaning a straight down LROC image would have just missed LADEE. The LADEE and LRO teams worked out the solution: simply have LRO roll 34 degrees to the west so the LROC detector (one line) would be in the right place as LADEE passed beneath.

As planned at 8:11 p.m. EST on Jan. 14, 2014, LADEE entered LRO’s Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) field of view for 1.35 milliseconds and a smeared image of LADEE was snapped. LADEE appears in four lines of the LROC image, and is distorted right­to­left. What can be seen in the LADEE pixels in the NAC image?


Image above: This subsection of the LRO image, expanded four times, shows the smeared view of LADEE. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.

Step one is to minimize the geometric distortion in the smeared lines that show the spacecraft. However, in doing so the background lunar landscape becomes distorted and unrecognizable (see above). The scale (dimension) of the NAC pixels recording LADEE is 3.5 inches (9 cm), however, as the spacecraft were both moving about 3,600 mph (1,600 meters per second) the image is blurred in both directions by around 20 inches (50 cm). So the actual pixel scale lies somewhere between 3.5 inches and 20 inches. Despite the blur it is possible to find details of the spacecraft, which is about 4.7 feet (1.9 meters) wide and 7.7 feet (2.4 meters) long. The engine nozzle, bright solar panel and perhaps a star tracker camera can be seen (especially if you have a correctly oriented schematic diagram of LADEE for comparison).


Animation above: This animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) with a computer-generated image of LADEE. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University.

LADEE was launched Sept. 6, 2013. LADEE is gathering detailed information about the structure and composition of the thin lunar atmosphere and determining whether dust is being lofted into the lunar sky.

LRO launched Sept. 18, 2009. LRO continues to bring the world astounding views of the lunar surface and a treasure trove of lunar data.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the LRO mission. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the LADEE mission.

Related Links:

NASA's LRO website: http://www.nasa.gov/lro

NASA's LADEE website: http://www.nasa.gov/ladee

More on this story at ASU's LROC website: http://www.lroc.asu.edu/news/index.php?/archives/857-Close-Encounter!.html

Images (mentioned, Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Nancy Neal-Jones.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

Hubble Helps Solve Mystery of Ultra-Compact, Burned-Out Galaxies












NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Jan. 29, 2014

Astronomers combining the power of the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer and Herschel infrared space telescopes, and ground-based telescopes have assembled a coherent picture of the formation history of the most massive galaxies in the universe, from their initial burst of violent star formation through their appearance as high stellar-density galaxy cores and to their ultimate destiny as giant ellipticals.

This solves a decade-long mystery as to how compact elliptical-shaped galaxies that existed when the universe was only 3 billion years old, or one-quarter of its current age of 13.8 billion years, already had completed star formation. These compact ellipticals have now been definitively linked directly to an earlier population of dusty starburst galaxies that voraciously used up available gas for star formation very quickly. Then they grew slowly through merging as the star formation in them was quenched, and they eventually became giant elliptical galaxies.

"This is the first time anybody has put together a representative spectroscopic sample of ultra-compact, burned-out galaxies with the high quality of infrared imaging of Hubble," said Sune Toft of the Dark Cosmology Center at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.

"We at last show how these compact galaxies can form, how it happened, and when it happened," Toft added. "This basically is the missing piece in the understanding of how the most massive galaxies formed, and how they evolved into the giant ellipticals of today. This had been a great mystery for many years because just 3 billion years after the big bang we see that half of the most massive galaxies have already completed their star formation."

Development of Massive Elliptical Galaxies

Even more surprising, said Toft, is that these massive, burned-out galaxies were once extremely compact, compared to similar elliptical galaxies seen today in the nearby universe. This means that stars had to be crammed together 10 to 100 times more densely than seen in galaxies today. "It's comparable to the densities of stars in globular clusters, but on the larger scale of a galaxy," said Toft.

In tying together an evolutionary sequence for these compact massive galaxies, Toft identified their progenitors as highly dust-obscured galaxies undergoing rapid star formation at rates that are thousands of times faster than in our Milky Way galaxy. Starbursts in these galaxies are likely ignited when two gas-rich galaxies collided. These galaxies are so dusty that they are almost invisible at optical wavelengths, but are bright at submillimeter wavelengths, where they were first identified nearly two decades ago by the SCUBA (Submillimeter Common-User Bolometer Array) camera on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii.

Toft's team assembled, for the first time, representative samples of the two galaxy populations using the rich dataset in Hubble's COSMOS (Cosmic Evolution Survey) program.

They constructed the first representative sample of compact quiescent galaxies with accurate sizes and distances (spectroscopic redshifts) measured from the Hubble Space Telescope's CANDELS (Cosmic Assembly Near-Infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey) and 3D-HST programs. 3D-HST is a near-infrared Hubble spectroscopic survey to study the physical processes that shape galaxies in the distant universe. The astronomers combined these data with observations from the Subaru telescope in Hawaii and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. This allowed for accurate stellar age estimates, from which they concluded that galaxies formed in intense starbursts 1 billion to 2 billion years earlier, in the very early universe.

The team then made the first representative sample of the most distant submillimeter galaxies using the rich COSMOS data from the Hubble, Spitzer, and Herschel space telescopes, and ground-based telescopes such as Subaru, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, and the Submillimeter Array. This multi-spectral information, stretching from optical light through submillimeter wavelengths, yielded a full suite of information about the sizes, stellar masses, star-formation rates, dust content, and precise distances of the dust-enshrouded galaxies present early on in the universe.

When Toft's team compared the samples of these two galaxy populations, they discovered a link between the compact elliptical galaxies and the submillimeter galaxies observed 1 billion to 2 billion years earlier. The observations show that the violent starburst activity in the earlier galaxies had the same characteristics that would have been predicted for progenitors to the compact elliptical galaxies. The team also calculated that the intense starburst activity only lasted about 40 million years before the interstellar gas supply was exhausted.

Notes for editors:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

For more information about NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope: http://www.nasa.gov/hubble and http://www.spacetelescope.org/

Image, Text, Credits: NASA / ESA / Space Telescope Science Institute / Donna Weaver / Ray Villard / Dark Cosmology Center, Niels Bohr Institute / Sune Toft.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

First Weather Map of Brown Dwarf












ESO - European Southern Observatory logo.

29 January 2014

ESO’s VLT charts surface of nearest brown dwarf

Surface map of Luhman 16B recreated from VLT observations

ESO's Very Large Telescope has been used to create the first ever map of the weather on the surface of the nearest brown dwarf to Earth. An international team has made a chart of the dark and light features on WISE J104915.57-531906.1B, which is informally known as Luhman 16B and is one of two recently discovered brown dwarfs forming a pair only six light-years from the Sun. The new results are being published in the 30 January 2014 issue of the journal Nature.

Surface map of Luhman 16B recreated from VLT observations (annotated)

Brown dwarfs fill the gap between giant gas planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, and faint cool stars. They do not contain enough mass to initiate nuclear fusion in their cores and can only glow feebly at infrared wavelengths of light. The first confirmed brown dwarf was only found twenty years ago and only a few hundred of these elusive objects are known.

Artist's impression of Luhman 16B recreated from VLT observations

The closest brown dwarfs to the Solar System form a pair called Luhman 16AB [1] that lies just six light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This pair is the third closest system to the Earth, after Alpha Centauri and Barnard's Star, but it was only discovered in early 2013. The fainter component, Luhman 16B, had already been found to be changing slightly in brightness every few hours as it rotated — a clue that it might have marked surface features.

Surface map of Luhman 16B recreated from VLT observations

Now astronomers have used the power of ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) not just to image these brown dwarfs, but to map out dark and light features on the surface of Luhman 16B.

Surface map of Luhman 16B recreated from VLT observations

Ian Crossfield (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany), the lead author of the new paper, sums up the results: “Previous observations suggested that brown dwarfs might have mottled surfaces, but now we can actually map them. Soon, we will be able to watch cloud patterns form, evolve, and dissipate on this brown dwarf — eventually, exometeorologists may be able to predict whether a visitor to Luhman 16B could expect clear or cloudy skies.”

Wide-field view of the sky around the nearby brown dwarf pair Luhman 16AB

To map the surface the astronomers used a clever technique. They observed the brown dwarfs using the CRIRES instrument on the VLT. This allowed them not just to see the changing brightness as Luhman 16B rotated, but also to see whether dark and light features were moving away from, or towards the observer. By combining all this information they could recreate a map of the dark and light patches of the surface.

video
Artist's impression of Luhman 16B recreated from VLT observations

The atmospheres of brown dwarfs are very similar to those of hot gas giant exoplanets, so by studying comparatively easy-to-observe brown dwarfs [2] astronomers can also learn more about the atmospheres of young, giant planets — many of which will be found in the near future with the new SPHERE instrument that will be installed on the VLT in 2014.

video
Surface map of Luhman 16B recreated from VLT observations

Crossfield ends on a personal note: “Our brown dwarf map helps bring us one step closer to the goal of understanding weather patterns in other solar systems. From an early age I was brought up to appreciate the beauty and utility of maps. It's exciting that we're starting to map objects out beyond the Solar System!”

video
Zooming in on the nearby brown dwarf Luhman 16B

video
Flying among the closest stars to the Solar System

Notes:

[1] This pair was discovered by the American astronomer Kevin Luhman on images from the WISE infrared survey satellite. It is formally known as WISE J104915.57-531906.1, but a shorter form was suggested as being much more convenient. As Luhman had already discovered fifteen double stars the name Luhman 16 was adopted. Following the usual conventions for naming double stars, Luhman 16A is the brighter of the two components, the secondary is named Luhman 16B and the pair is referred to as Luhman 16AB.

[2] Hot Jupiter exoplanets lie very close to their parent stars, which are much brighter. This makes it almost impossible to observe the faint glow from the planet, which is swamped by starlight. But in the case of brown dwarfs there is nothing to overwhelm the dim glow from the object itself, so it is much easier to make sensitive measurements.

More information:

This research was presented in a paper, “A Global Cloud Map of the Nearest Known Brown Dwarf”, by Ian Crossfield et al. to appear in the journal Nature.

The team is composed of I. J. M. Crossfield (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy [MPIA], Heidelberg, Germany), B. Biller (MPIA; Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom), J. Schlieder (MPIA), N. R. Deacon (MPIA), M. Bonnefoy (MPIA; IPAG, Grenoble, France), D. Homeier (CRAL-ENS, Lyon, France), F. Allard (CRAL-ENS), E. Buenzli (MPIA), Th. Henning (MPIA), W. Brandner (MPIA), B. Goldman (MPIA) and T. Kopytova (MPIA; International Max-Planck Research School for Astronomy and Cosmic Physics at the University of Heidelberg, Germany).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world's biggest eye on the sky”.

Links:

Research paper in Nature: http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1404/eso1404a.pdf

MPIA press release: http://www.mpia.de/Public/menu_q2e.php?Aktuelles/PR/2014/PR_2014_02/PR_2014_02_en.html

Photos of the VLT: http://www.eso.org/public/images/archive/category/paranal/

The CRIRES instrument on the VLT: http://www.eso.org/sci/facilities/paranal/instruments/crires/

Images, Text, Credits: ESO/I. Crossfield/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Videos: ESO/I. Crossfield/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)//Digitized Sky Survey 2/Music: movetwo.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

mardi 28 janvier 2014

NASA Preparing for 2014 Comet Watch at Mars












NASA patch.

Jan. 28, 2014

This spring, NASA will be paying cautious attention to a comet that could put on a barnstorming show at Mars on Oct. 19, 2014.

On that date, comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring will buzz Mars about 10 times closer than any identified comet has ever flown past Earth.

Spacecraft at Mars might get a good look at the nucleus of comet Siding Spring as it heads toward the closest approach, roughly 86,000 miles (138,000 kilometers) from the planet, give or take a few percent. On the other hand, dust particles that the comet nucleus sheds this spring could threaten orbiting spacecraft at Mars in October.

The level of risk won’t be known for months, but NASA is already evaluating possible precautionary measures as it prepares for studying the comet.

"Our plans for using spacecraft at Mars to observe comet Siding Spring will be coordinated with plans for how the orbiters will duck and cover, if we need to do that," said Rich Zurek, Mars Exploration Program chief scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

NEOWISE Spies Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring

Image above: NASA's NEOWISE mission captured images of comet 2013 A1 Siding Spring, which is slated to make a close pass by Mars on Oct. 19, 2014. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Comet Siding Spring, formally named C/2013 A1, was discovered on Jan. 3, 2013, from Australia's Siding Spring Observatory. At the time, it was farther from the sun than Jupiter is. Subsequent observations enabled scientists at JPL and elsewhere to calculate the trajectory the comet will follow as it swings past Mars. Observations in 2014 will continue to refine knowledge of the comet's path, but in approximate terms, Siding Spring's nucleus will come about as close to Mars as one-third of the distance between Earth and the moon.

Comet Ready for Its Close-up

Observations of comet Siding Spring are planned using resources on Earth, orbiting Earth, on Mars and orbiting Mars, and some are already underway.  NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the NEOWISE mission have observed the comet this month both to characterize this first-time visitor from the Oort cloud and to study dust particle sizes and amounts produced by the comet for understanding potential risks to the Mars orbiters. Infrared imaging by NEOWISE reveals a comet that is active and dusty, even though still nearly three-fourths as far from the sun as Jupiter is. Ground-based observatories such as the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility are also expected to join in as the comet becomes favorably positioned for viewing.

As the comet nears Mars, NASA assets there will be used to study this visitor from distant reaches of the solar system.

"We could learn about the nucleus -- its shape, its rotation, whether some areas on its surface are darker than others," Zurek said.

Researchers using spacecraft at Mars gained experience at trying to observe a different comet in 2013, as comet ISON (formally C/2012 S1) approached Mars. That comet's Mars-flyby distance was about 80 times farther than Siding Spring's will be. Another difference is that ISON continued inward past Mars for nearly two months, briefly becoming visible to some unaided-eye skywatchers on Earth before flying very close to the sun and disintegrating. Siding Spring will reach its closest approach to the sun just six days after its Mars flyby. It won't put on a show for Earth, and it won't return to the inner solar system for about a million years.


Image above: Comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) will make a very close approach to Mars in October 2014. Photo-montage credit: Orbiter.ch Aerospace.

At comet Siding Spring's flyby distance, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter could provide imagery with resolution of dozens of pixels across the diameter of the nucleus. When HiRISE observed comet ISON, the nucleus was less than one pixel across. ISON did not get bright enough to make itself visible to other cameras at Mars that made attempted observations, but Siding Spring could provide a better observation opportunity.

Cameras on the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity might watch for meteors in the sky that would be an indication of the abundance of particles in the comet's tail, though the geometry of the flyby would put most of the meteors in daytime sky instead of dark sky.

"A third aspect for investigation could be what effect the infalling particles have on the upper atmosphere of Mars," Zurek said. "They might heat it and expand it, not unlike the effect of a global dust storm." Infrared-sensing instruments on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey might be used to watch for that effect.

Assessing Possible Hazards to Mars Orbiters

One trait Siding Spring shares with ISON is unpredictability about how much it will brighten in the months before passing Mars. The degree to which Siding Spring brightens this spring will be an indicator of how much hazard it will present to spacecraft at Mars.

"It's way too early for us to know how much of a threat Siding Spring will be to our orbiters," JPL's Soren Madsen, Mars Exploration Program chief engineer, said last week. "It could go either way. It could be a huge deal or it could be nothing -- or anything in between."

The path the nucleus will take is now known fairly well. The important unknowns are how much dust will come off the nucleus, when it will come off, and the geometry of the resulting coma and tail of the comet.

During April and May, the comet will cross the range of distances from the sun at which water ice on a comet's surface typically becomes active -- vaporizing and letting dust particles loose. Dust ejected then could get far enough from the nucleus by October to swarm around Mars.

"How active will Siding Spring be in April and May? We'll be watching that," Madsen said. "But if the red alarm starts sounding in May, it would be too late to start planning how to respond. That's why we're doing what we're doing right now."

Two key strategies to lessen risk are to get orbiters behind Mars during the minutes of highest risk and to orient orbiters so that the most vulnerable parts are not in the line of fire.

Many satellites and rovers will be involved. Image Credit: NASA

The Martian atmosphere, thin as it is, is dense enough to prevent dust from the comet from becoming a hazard to NASA's two Mars rovers active on the surface. Three orbiters are currently active at Mars:  NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey, and the European Space Agency's Mars Express. Two more departed Earth in late 2013 and are due to enter orbit around Mars about three weeks before the comet Siding Spring flyby: NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India's Mars Orbiter Mission.

Orbiters are designed with the risk of space-dust collisions in mind. Most such collisions do not damage a mission. Design factors such as blanketing and protected placement of vulnerable components help. Over a five-year span for a Mars orbiter, NASA figures on a few percent chance of significant damage to a spacecraft from the background level of impacts from such particles, called meteoroids. Whether the Siding Spring level will pack that much hazard -- or perhaps greater than 10 times more -- into a few hours will depend on how active it becomes.

This comet is orbiting the sun in almost the opposite direction as Mars and the other planets. The nucleus and the dust particles it sheds will be travelling at about 35 miles (56 kilometers) per second, relative to the Mars orbiters. That's about 50 times faster than a bullet from a high-powered rifle and double or triple the velocity of background meteoroid impacts.

Cautionary Preparations

If managers choose to position orbiters behind Mars during the peak risk, the further in advance any orbit-adjustment maneuvers can be made, the less fuel will be consumed. Advance work is also crucial for the other main option: reorienting a spacecraft to keep its least-vulnerable side facing the oncoming stream of comet particles. The safest orientation in terms of comet dust may be a poor one for maintaining power or communications.

"These changes would require a huge amount of testing," Madsen said. "There's a lot of preparation we need to do now, to prepare ourselves in case we learn in May that the flyby will be hazardous."

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, manages the NASA's Mars Exploration Program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. For more information about the flyby of Mars by comet Siding Spring, visit http://mars.nasa.gov/comets/sidingspring/ .

For more about the Mars Exploration Program, visit http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov

Related article:

Comet to Make Close Flyby of Red Planet in October 2014: http://orbiterchspacenews.blogspot.com/search?q=comet+at+mars

Images, Text, Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech /Orbiter.ch Aerospace.

Cheers, Orbiter.ch

Hubble's Double Take











NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

28 January 2014


In this new Hubble image two objects are clearly visible, shining brightly. When they were first discovered in 1979, they were thought to be separate objects — however, astronomers soon realized that these twins are a little too identical! They are close together, lie at the same distance from us, and have surprisingly similar properties. The reason they are so similar is not some bizarre coincidence; they are in fact the same object.

These cosmic doppelgangers make up a double quasar known as QSO 0957+561, also known as the "Twin Quasar," which lies just under 14 billion light-years from Earth. Quasars are the intensely powerful centers of distant galaxies. So, why are we seeing this quasar twice?

Some 4 billion light-years from Earth — and directly in our line of sight — is the huge galaxy YGKOW G1. This galaxy was the first ever observed gravitational lens, an object with a mass so great that it can bend the light from objects lying behind it. This phenomenon not only allows us to see objects that would otherwise be too remote, in cases like this it also allows us to see them twice over.

Along with the cluster of galaxies in which it resides, YGKOW G1 exerts an enormous gravitational force. This doesn't just affect the galaxy's shape, the stars that it forms, and the objects around it — it affects the very space it sits in, warping and bending the environment and producing bizarre effects, such as this quasar double image.

Hubble Space Telescope

The first detection of gravitational lensing meant more than just the discovery of an impressive optical illusion allowing telescopes like Hubble to effectively see behind an intervening galaxy. It was evidence for Einstein's theory of general relativity. This theory had identified gravitational lensing as one of its only observable effects, but until the observation of these quasar "twins,"  no such lensing had been observed since the idea was first mooted in 1936.

Notes for editors:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

For more information about NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope: http://www.nasa.gov/hubble and http://www.spacetelescope.org/

Images, Text, Credits: NASA / ESA.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

Tacking sails to a satellite












ESA - Clean Space logo.

28 January 2014

Satellites ending their working lifetimes could sprout sails in future to ensure they are dragged down into Earth’s atmosphere, keeping crucial low orbits free of space debris. ESA’s Clean Space initiative is looking to test how this promising concept might work in practice.

In 2008 ESA pledged to remove satellites from key orbits within 25 years after their missions have ended.

The most straightforward method of satellite disposal would be to reserve sufficient propellant to steer the satellite downwards – but this might seriously drive up the satellite mass while cutting the overall mission lifetime.

What are sometimes called ‘terminator’ or drag sails, deployed to increase the drag on low-orbiting satellites at the top of the atmosphere, are a low-cost, low-mass alternative.

ESA has researched various aspects of sail technology, including deployable booms and suitable ultra-light sail membranes.

Solar sail

Now ESA’s Clean Space initiative has issued a pair of research contracts: one to design a complete sail subsystem and another to select an optimal sail material, going on to produce testable ‘breadboard’ prototypes and devise plans for follow-on development.

The aim for the ‘Architectural Design and Testing of a De-orbiting subsystem’ tender is to consider the trade-offs of the various available technologies and design an overall subsystem that could easily be accommodated on a variety of satellites.

This subsystem is intended to be modular and scalable – its scale, and the area of its sail, could be varied based on the size and altitude of its satellite host: the higher the satellite, the greater the need to augment its atmospheric drag.

For the purpose of the study, the intention is to design a unit to serve a satellite compact enough to be launched by ESA’s Vega rocket, able to transport satellites of 150 kg or less into low-Earth orbit.

The challenge is to come up with a unit that can endure years of storage before it is finally put to use, before finally deploying flawlessly, with sails solidly attached to the booms to provide all the necessary strength and stiffness.

Potentially relevant technologies include deployable booms based on carbon-fibre reinforced polymer, developed by Germany’s DLR space agency, and inflatable booms incorporating a new resin material and LED-based curing developed by ESA together with Airbus Space and Defence. Ground-based deployment of 20 x 20 m sails have been tested on the ground, while a 5 x 5 m gossamer sail engineering model has also been demonstrated.

Solar sail towing a satellite in low orbit

Once the breadboard is complete it will undergo rigorous thermal vacuum testing to ensure it can withstand the space environment over many years.

Clean Space’s second ‘Deployable Membrane’ tender involves a review of all available membrane materials to select an optimal candidate for a drag sail.

This material would need to be compatible with parachute-style packaging, withstand years of ageing, be reliably unfurled, and – once deployed in open space – endure years of meteoroid and space debris damage, ultraviolet and particle radiation, thermal extremes and outgassing.

A prototype breadboard and test rig would then be produced for practical testing, with plans drawn up for future development.

For more information, check these two new invitation to tender packages, accessible via ESA’s Electronic Mailing Invitation to Tender System (EMITS).

About Clean Space:

What is Clean Space?: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering/Clean_Space/What_is_Clean_Space

Why is it needed?: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering/Clean_Space/Why_is_it_needed

What are its objectives?: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering/Clean_Space/What_are_its_objectives

Q & A on Clean Space: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering/Clean_Space/Q_A_on_Clean_Space

ESA’s Invitation to Tender System EMITS: h://ttpwww.esa.int/About_Us/Industry/Industry_how_to_do_business/ESA_s_Invitation_to_Tender_System_EMITS

EMITS: http://emits.esa.int/emits/owa/emits.main

Images, Text, Credits: ESA / NASA / Orbiter.ch Aerospace.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

lundi 27 janvier 2014

Space Station 2024 Extension Expands Economic and Research Horizons












ISS - International Space Station patch.

Jan. 27, 2014

When it comes to potential, sometimes a little space to grow can make a big difference. For the International Space Station, a little more time in space provides that room to flourish. The announcement by the Obama Administration to support the extension of the orbiting laboratory to at least 2024 gives the station a decade to continue its already fruitful microgravity research mission. This offers scientists and engineers the time they need to ensure the future of exploration, scientific discoveries and economic development.

The decision to extend the life of the space station was announced in a blog entry from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The [space station] is a unique facility that offers enormous scientific and societal benefits,” Bolden wrote. “The Obama Administration’s decision to extend its life until at least 2024 will allow us to maximize its potential, deliver critical benefits to our nation and the world, and maintain American leadership in space.”

This decision provides traction for space exploration by prolonging the testing timeframe for essential technologies related to long-duration journeys—such as to an asteroid or Mars. Optimizing systems like the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) aboard station refines designs for future spacecraft.


Image above: The International Space Station, seen here from the vantage point of the crew of the 2010 STS-130 space shuttle mission, completed more than 1,500 investigations during its first 15 years in orbit. Image Credit: NASA.

“I really see the space station as the first step in exploration,” said NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier. “It is gaining us operational experience in a distant location, well beyond the Earth, at 75,000 km off the surface of the moon. Those are the kind of experience, technology and hardware that we need to go to Mars, so all that feeds forward.”

Exploration is hardly limited to space travel, as investigators show with their pursuit of discoveries using microgravity research. In the decade ahead, scientists have the forward timeline necessary for research planning and to make the most of facilities being built today. With an already ready-to-use suite of facilities aboard station, opportunities to run studies will include a greater chance for follow-up investigations. This enables results from station science to cycle through follow-on studies and increase the collective knowledge in the various disciplines. Since the impact of science results emerges over a five to 10 year timescale, this is an attractive incentive for new researchers.

“For 14 years, the space station has had a continuous human presence, allowing breakthroughs in science and technology not possible on Earth,” said Sam Scimemi, NASA’s International Space Station director. “The ability to extend our window of discovery through at least 2024 presents important new opportunities to develop the tools we need for future missions to deep space while reaping large benefits for humanity.”

In the next 10 years a wide variety of investigations will begin, continue and complete experimentation in orbit. From developments in astrophysics from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and the Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) we learn more about our universe. Meanwhile, space station Earth remote sensing instruments keep watchful eyes open to help researchers study our climate, planet and can even assist with disaster recovery efforts.

Anticipated developments from the upcoming 1-year mission and biology studies such as T-Cell Act In Aging aid not only future explorers, but people with related health concerns on the Earth. Industries also benefit, with applications from fundamental physics investigations, such as microgravity fluid physics and combustion tests.

“Humankind has never had laboratory capabilities like these—where gravity can be controlled as a variable,” said International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. “The extension of the space station to at least 2024 gives scientists what we need: time to build the experiments and theories that could come from nowhere else.”

Now that commercial cargo vehicles are regularly serving the space station, this extension can help transition low Earth orbit from exclusive to accessible. Business opportunities and growth for companies that provide cargo to the space station helps them to expand and compete. This can drive down costs per visit, and eventually those costs will improve access to orbit without a NASA-maintained laboratory. The even more impressive aspect to this development is that as these international interests expand, they grow global economies. This means the potential for new jobs, technologies and the possible creation of untapped markets.


Image above: Aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Mike Hopkins works with a cell array for the Selectable Optics Diagnostic Instrument-Diffusion Coefficient in Mixtures 2 (SODI-DCMIX 2) investigation. Findings may help refine petroleum reservoir models for more efficient extraction of oil resources. Image Credit: NASA.

“Commercial use of the space station is growing for research and development each year. Other government agencies, such as NSF and NIH also are funding scientists to use the laboratory,” said Robinson. “Space agency funding is enabling a much larger set of innovative research ideas from the private sector that will transform the way we see orbit.”

This extension shows a belief in the continued potential and a recognition of the growing benefits of this singular laboratory. Even as the space community is abuzz about the decade ahead, NASA moves forward with the conversation, continuing with international partnership talks and the possibility for space station life beyond 2024.

“We’ve talked to our partners about this,” said Gerstenmaier. “They want to go forward with this. It’s just working through the government approval, through their individual groups to get to where they need to be.”

Ultimately, the space station provides the capability for us to perform microgravity research in important areas of study, understand our changing planet from climate and global perspectives, and figure out how to survive in the harsh, but necessary environment of space. The benefits from the station already enhance our lives and enrich our future as we continue with missions to low Earth orbit and beyond.

“If we as a species are going to get off the Earth…we are going to have to use this small foothold called the International Space Station to go do that,” said Gerstenmaier. “This is our only opportunity to really move forward in this manner. So that should be our focus going forward, is how can we optimize and maximize the use of what we’ve got from this facility.”

For more information about the Space Station (ISS), visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html

Images (mentioned), Texr, Credits: NASA / Jessica Nimon.

Cheers, Orbiter.ch