samedi 16 janvier 2016

CERN - Winter therapy for the accelerators












CERN - European Organization for Nuclear Research logo.

Jan. 16, 2016

When the accelerators are asleep, the technical teams get to work. Since 14 December, no particles have circulated in any part of CERN's accelerator chain, from the particle source to the intermediate rings and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) itself. The annual year-end technical stop provides an opportunity to carry out maintenance work on equipment and repair any damage as well as to upgrade the machines for the upcoming runs. “We started planning this technical stop as early as June 2015,” says Marzia Bernardini, the leader of the team that organises and coordinates the work. “Hundreds of people from all the technical departments were involved over the course of the 12 weeks."

A long list of maintenance work had to be completed along with important upgrades on all the machines and infrastructures. In the Proton Synchrotron (PS), for example, the third link in the chain, two new items of beam instrumentation equipment have been installed. One ring further along, 16 of the 1818 magnets in the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) and its transfer lines to the LHC have been replaced. Since each magnet weighs 16 tonnes, it’s a big job, but one that is performed routinely. The SPS will be 40 this year, and its magnets wear out over time and need to be renovated.


Image above: On 12 January, members of the team working on CERN's year-end technical stop prepare to install one of the LHC’s new beam absorbers. The six-metre-long component will be lowered 100 metres into the LHC ring. Image Credit: CERN.

In the LHC, several major operations are under way. Two beam absorbers for injection have been replaced. These huge six-metre-long pieces of equipment are used when the beams are ejected from the SPS and into the LHC: they absorb the SPS beam if a problem occurs, providing vital protection for the LHC. The accelerator’s complex cryogenics system also needs regular maintenance. Two of the LHC’s eight sectors have been emptied of helium, the cooling fluid, to ensure that no losses occur while one of the coldboxes is being repaired. Twelve collimators, on either sides of ATLAS and CMS, have been dismantled ready to be upgraded. These devices protect the machine by absorbing particles that stray from the beam trajectory. Finally, cabling campaigns are continuing throughout the machine: four teams are working in parallel to install 25 km of signal cabling for new equipment and upgrades.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Image Credit: CERN

The work affects not only the accelerators but also the experiments, especially the LHC experiments. The collaborations are making the most of the stop to carry out maintenance and upgrades on their detectors, which are made up of millions of components.

The work on the injectors has to be completed by early February and on the LHC and its experiments by early March. The injectors will then be progressively restarted while the LHC magnets are tested, before the arrival of the first beams in the LHC scheduled for the end of March.

Note:

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature.

The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

Founded in 1954, the CERN Laboratory sits astride the Franco–Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 22 Member States.

Related links:

CERN's accelerator chain: http://home.cern/about/accelerators

Large Hadron Collider (LHC):  http://home.cern/topics/large-hadron-collider

Proton Synchrotron (PS):  http://home.cern/about/accelerators/proton-synchrotron

Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS): http://home.cern/about/accelerators/super-proton-synchrotron

For more information about European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), visit: http://home.cern/

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: CERN/Corinne Pralavorio.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

Long March 3B rocket carrying Belintersat-1 launch opens 2016 campaign












CASC - China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation logo.

Jan. 16, 2016

Long March 3B rocket carrying Belintersat-1 fairing

CASC have conducted their first orbital launch of 2016 with the lofting of a new communications satellite for Belarus. Belintersat-1 was launched at 16:57 UTC on Friday via a Long March 3B/G2 rocket. The launch was conducted from the Xichang’s Satellite Launch Center’s LC3 pad.

Long March 3B rocket carrying Belintersat-1 launches

Belintersat-1 is based on the Chinese DFH-4 bus, with the communications payload being supplied by Thales Alenia Space. The satellite is equipped with 20 C-band transponders (36 MHz), 18 Ku-band transponders (36MHz) and 4 enhanced Ku-band transponders (54 MHz). The satellite will be operational at the 51.5 degrees East longitude on the geostationary orbit. Operational lifetime is expected to be 15 years.

Some of the transponders on board Belintersat-1 have been sold to China Satcom, being marketed under the designation ZX-15 Zhongxing-15 (or ChinaSat-15). The creation of the National System of Satellite Communication and Broadcast of the Republic of Belarus is the largest project in the field of telecommunications, implemented by the Republic of Belarus.

video
China Launches Belarusian Telecom Satellite

The project is considered of high innovative, economic, social and political importance, providing a full range of advanced satellite services in Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as to ensure global coverage in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Belintersat 1 satellite

For the commercial and government institutions in the territory of the Republic of Belarus, the Belintersat project will be providing a number of widely demanded services that will include: satellite Internet; mobile satellite communication; solutions for mobile operators; corporate networks provisioning; and live TV broadcasting.

For more information about China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), visit: http://english.spacechina.com/n16421/index.html

Images, Video, Text, Credits: CASC/CCTV+/NEWS.CN/Günter Space Page/Orbiter.ch Aerospace.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

vendredi 15 janvier 2016

Possible Ice Volcano on Pluto Has the ‘Wright Stuff’












NASA - New Horizons Mission logo.

Jan. 15, 2016


Image above: Wright Mons in Color. This composite image of a possible ice volcano on Pluto includes pictures taken by the New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, from a range of about 30,000 miles (48,000 kilometers), showing features as small as 1,500 feet (450 meters) across. Sprinkled across the LORRI mosaic is enhanced color data from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), from a range of 21,000 miles (34,000 kilometers) and at a resolution of about 2,100 feet (650 meters) per pixel. The entire scene is 140 miles (230 kilometers) across. Image Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Scientists with NASA’s New Horizons mission have assembled this highest-resolution color view of one of two potential cryovolcanoes spotted on the surface of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015.

This feature, known as Wright Mons, was informally named by the New Horizons team in honor of the Wright brothers.  At about 90 miles (150 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) high, this feature is enormous. If it is in fact a volcano, as suspected, it would be the largest such feature discovered in the outer solar system.

Pluto area zoomed

Mission scientists are intrigued by the sparse distribution of red material in the image and wonder why it is not more widespread. Also perplexing is that there is only one identified impact crater on Wright Mons itself, telling scientists that the surface (as well as some of the crust underneath) was created relatively recently. This is turn may indicate that Wright Mons was volcanically active late in Pluto’s history.

For more information about New Horizons, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

Images, Text, Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Tricia Talbert.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

NASA's Stardust Sample Return was 10 Years Ago Today

NASA - StarDust Mission logo.

Jan. 15, 2016

It was less than an hour into the new day of January 15, 2006 (EST), when tens of thousands of miles above our planet, two cable cutters and two retention bolts fired, releasing a spring which pushed a 101-pound (46-kilogram) sample return capsule away from its mother ship. Later, during its final plunge Earthward, the capsule would become the fastest human-made object to enter our atmosphere, achieving a velocity of about 28,600 mph (12.8 kilometers per second).

Then, at 5:10 a.m. EST (3:10 a.m. MST), for the first time in seven years, the sample return capsule finally stopped moving. By the time it landed, under parachute in the desert salt flats of the U.S. Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range in Dugway, the capsule had travelled 2.88 billion miles (4.5 billion kilometers) -- a journey that carried it around the sun three times and as far out as halfway to Jupiter. Inside the Stardust mission's graphite-epoxy covered capsule was the objective of its prime mission -- humanity's first samples collected from a celestial body in deep space (beyond the Earth-moon system).


Image above: The sample return capsule from NASA's Stardust mission successfully landed at the U.S. Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range in Dugway, Utah, at 2:10 a.m. Pacific (3:10 a.m. Mountain) on January 15, 2006. The capsule carried cometary and interstellar samples gathered by the Stardust spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA.

"The Stardust sample return capsule carried inside cometary material it gathered from comet Wild-2 during a flyby in January of 2004," said Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator from the University of Washington, Seattle. "The spacecraft deployed a tennis racket-like, aerogel-lined collector, and we flew the spacecraft within 150 miles (241 kilometers), capturing particles from the coma as we went."

Two days after the return, the sample return capsule's science canister and its cargo of comet and interstellar dust particles was stowed inside a special aluminum carrying case and transported to a curatorial facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Eileen Stansbery -- now Chief Scientist at Johnson -- worked on Stardust as the deputy director of Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science at the time. "We were investigating big questions with the smallest samples -- how did our solar system form? What are we made of? This comet is representative of one of the most primitive bodies in the solar system, preserving the earliest record of material from the nebula during the 'planetesimal' forming stage in its evolution."

Brownlee notes, "The science team couldn't wait to get their hands on the samples. It had been 10 years of planning and then seven more years for the actual mission, so everyone was raring to go."

The Stardust mission's international team of scientists -- 200 strong -- helped re-write the book on comets and the evolution of the solar system. The Stardust mission samples indicated that some comets may have included materials ejected from the early sun and may have formed very differently than scientists had theorized.

"What we found was remarkable," said Brownlee. "Instead of rocky materials that formed around previous generations of stars, we found that most of the comet's rocky matter formed inside our solar system at extremely high temperature. In great contrast to its ice, our comet's rocky material had formed under white-hot conditions."

Comet ice formed in cold regions beyond the planet Neptune, but the rocks, probably the bulk of any comet's mass, formed much closer to the sun in regions hot enough to evaporate bricks. The materials that Stardust collected from comet Wild-2 contain pre-solar "stardust" grains, identified on the basis of their unusual isotopic composition, but these grains are very rare.

Stardust-NExT Spacecraft Artist rendering of Stardust-NExT spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

"Even though we confirmed comets are ancient bodies with an abundance of ice -- some which formed a few tens of degrees above absolute zero at the edge of the solar system -- we now know that comets are really a mix of materials made by conditions of both 'fire and ice,'" said Brownlee.

While Stardust was the first deep-space sample-return mission, it was by no means the last. The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA's) Hayabusa mission collected samples from an asteroid and returned them to Earth in 2010, and the Hayabusa 2 mission to return material from asteroid Ryugu is currently underway. Still to come is NASA's OSIRIS-Rex mission. Scheduled to launch in September of this year, OSIRIS-REx will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and retrieve at least 2.1 ounces (60 grams) of surface material and return it to Earth for study.

"The ways to explore space are probably as big as space itself," said Brownlee. "But for my money, you can't beat sample return. Having samples there in front of you, available for laboratory analysis when you want -- that's tough to beat."

Another thing about Stardust that was tough to beat was the spacecraft itself. Launched on Feb. 7, 1999, Stardust flew past an asteroid known as Annefrank, flew past and collected particle samples from comet Wild-2, and returned those particles to Earth in a sample return capsule in January 2006. As planned, the Stardust spacecraft did not re-enter Earth's atmosphere along with its sample return capsule. Instead, it went into a solar orbit. NASA then re-tasked the still-healthy spacecraft to perform a flyby of comet Tempel 1 on Feb. 14, 2011.

For more information on the prime mission of the Stardust spacecraft, please visit: http://stardust.jpl.nasa.gov

For more information on the Stardust-NExT mission, please visit: http://stardustnext.jpl.nasa.gov

For more information on the OSIRIS-REx mission, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/osiris-rex/index.html

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/JPL/DC Agle/Tony Greicius.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

NASA’s SDO Captures Cascading Magnetic Arches












NASA - Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) patch.

Jan. 15, 2016

SDO Captures Cascading Magnetic Arches. Image Credits: NASA/SDO

A dark solar filament above the sun's surface became unstable and erupted on Dec. 16-17, 2015, generating a cascade of magnetic arches. A small eruption to the upper right of the filament was likely related to its collapse.

video
NASA’s SDO Captures Cascading Magnetic Arches

Video Credits: NASA/SDO.

The arches of solar material appear to glow as they emit light in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, highlighting the charged particles spinning along the sun's magnetic field lines. This video was taken in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths of 193 angstroms, a type of light that is typically invisible to our eyes, but is colorized here in bronze.

For more information about Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sdo/main/index.html

Image (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Steele Hill/Sarah Frazier.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

Spacewalk Ends Early After Water Detected in Helmet














ISS - Expedition 46 Mission patch / NASA - Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA) patch.

January 15, 2016


Image above: NASA’s Timothy Kopra and ESA’s Timothy Peake will perform 6.5 hour spacewalk on January 15. Image Credit: NASA TV.

Astronauts Tim Kopra and Tim Peake ended their spacewalk at 12:31 p.m. EST with the repressurization of the U.S. Quest airlock following an early termination of the spacewalk after Kopra reported a small water bubble had formed inside his helmet.


Image above: Spacewalker Tim Kopra is seen outside the Quest airlock shortly after the beginning of this morning’s spacewalk. Image Credit: NASA TV.

Commander Scott Kelly will assist the crew members with an expedited removal of their spacesuits and helmets. Once they have removed the spacesuits and helmets, the astronauts will use a syringe to take a water sample and retrieve the helmet absorption pad to determine what may have prompted the water to form inside Kopra’s helmet.

video
 Space Station Crew Restores Full Power to the Complex During a Shortened Spacewalk

The crew was never in any danger and returned to the airlock in an orderly fashion. The astronauts replaced a failed voltage regulator that caused a loss of power to one of the station’s eight power channels last November, accomplishing the major objective for this spacewalk.


Image above: Spacewalker Tim Kopra is helped out of his spacesuit by Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Sergey Volkov. Image Credit: NASA TV.

The 4 hour and 43 minutes spacewalk was the third for Kopra and the first for Peake, who both arrived to the station Dec. 15. It was the 192 in support of assembly and maintenance of the orbiting laboratory.

Stay up-to-date on the latest ISS news at: http://www.nasa.gov/station

Images (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/NASA TV/Mark Garcia.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

The Turbulent Birth of a Quasar












ALMA - Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array logo.

15 January 2016

ALMA reveals secrets of most luminous known galaxy in Universe

Artist's impression of the galaxy W2246-0526

The most luminous galaxy known in the Universe — the quasar W2246-0526, seen when the Universe was less than 10% of its current age — is so turbulent that it is in the process of ejecting its entire supply of star-forming gas, according to new observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

Quasars are distant galaxies with very active supermassive black holes at their centres that spew out powerful jets of particles and radiation. Most quasars shine brightly, but a tiny fraction [1] of these energetic objects are of an unusual type known as Hot DOGs, or Hot, Dust-Obscured Galaxies, including the galaxy WISE J224607.57-052635.0 [2], the most luminous known galaxy in the Universe.

For the first time, a team of researchers led by Tanio Díaz-Santos of the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile, has used the unique capabilities of ALMA [3] to peer inside W2246-0526 and trace the motion of ionised carbon atoms between the galaxy’s stars.

“Large amounts of this interstellar material were found in an extremely turbulent and dynamic state, careening throughout the galaxy at around two million kilometres per hour,” explains lead author Tanio Díaz-Santos.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)

The astronomers believe that this turbulent behaviour could be linked to the galaxy’s extreme luminosity. W2246-0526 blasts out as much light as roughly 350 trillion Suns. This startling brightness is powered by a disc of gas that is superheated as it spirals in on the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core. The light from the blazingly bright accretion disc in the centre of this Hot DOG does not escape directly, it is absorbed by a surrounding thick blanket of dust, which re-emits the energy as infrared light [4].

This powerful infrared radiation has a direct and violent impact on the entire galaxy. The region around the black hole is at least 100 times more luminous than the rest of the galaxy combined, thus releasing intense yet localised radiation in W2246-0526 that is exerting tremendous pressure on the entire galaxy [5].

“We suspected that this galaxy was in a transformative stage of its life because of the enormous amount of infrared energy,” said co-author Peter Eisenhardt, Project Scientist for WISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“ALMA has now shown us that the raging furnace in this galaxy is making the pot boil over,” adds Roberto Assef, also from Universidad Diego Portales and leader of the ALMA observations.

If these turbulent conditions continue, the intense infrared radiation would boil away all of the galaxy’s interstellar gas. Models of galaxy evolution based on the new ALMA data indicate that the interstellar gas is already being ejected from the galaxy in all directions.

“If this pattern continues, it is possible that W2246 will eventually mature into a more traditional quasar,” concludes Manuel Aravena, also from the Universidad Diego Portales. “Only ALMA, with its unparalleled resolution, can allow us to see this object in high definition and fathom such an important episode in the life of this galaxy.”

Notes:

[1] Only one of every 3000 quasars observed are classified as Hot DOGs.

[2] The full name of this remarkable object is WISE J224607.57-052635.0, it was found by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft and the rest of the name gives the precise location of the quasar on the sky.

[3] ALMA is uniquely capable of detecting the faint, millimetre-wavelength light naturally emitted by atomic carbon.

[4] Because of the expansion of the Universe the infrared radiation from W2246-0526 is redshifted to longer millimetre wavelengths — where ALMA is very sensitive — when it is observed from Earth.

[5] In most other quasars this ratio is much more modest. This process of mutual interaction between the central black hole of a galaxy and the rest of its material is known to astronomers as feedback.

More information:

This research was presented in a paper "The Strikingly Uniform, Highly Turbulent Interstellar Medium of The Most Luminous Galaxy in the Universe”, by T. Díaz-Santos et al., and will be published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The team is composed of T. Díaz-Santos (Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile), R. J. Assef (Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile), A. W. Blain (University of Leicester, UK) , C.-W. Tsai (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA) , M. Aravena (Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile), P. Eisenhardt (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA), J. Wu (University of California Los Angeles, California, USA), D. Stern (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA) and C. Bridge (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA).

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 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. 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 a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Links:

Research paper: http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1602/eso1602a.pdf

Photos of ALMA: http://www.eso.org/public/images/archive/search/?adv=&subject_name=Atacama%20Large%20Millimeter/submillimeter%20Array

Related link:

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE): http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/WISE/main/

Images, Text, Credits: ESO/NRAO/AUI/NSF; Dana Berry / SkyWorks; ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO).

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

jeudi 14 janvier 2016

Pluto’s Haze in Bands of Blue












NASA - New Horizons Mission logo.

Jan. 14, 2016


This processed image is the highest-resolution color look yet at the haze layers in Pluto’s atmosphere. Shown in approximate true color, the picture is constructed from a mosaic of four panchromatic images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) splashed with Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) four-color filter data, all acquired by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. The resolution is 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) per pixel; the sun illuminates the scene from the right.

Scientists believe the haze is a photochemical smog resulting from the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere, producing a complex mixture of hydrocarbons such as acetylene and ethylene.  These hydrocarbons accumulate into small particles, a fraction of a micrometer in size, and scatter sunlight to make the bright blue haze seen in this image.

As they settle down through the atmosphere, the haze particles form numerous intricate, horizontal layers, some extending for hundreds of miles around Pluto. The haze layers extend to altitudes of over 120 miles (200 kilometers).

Adding to the stark beauty of this image are mountains on Pluto’s limb (on the right, near the 4 o’clock position), surface features just within the limb to the right, and crepuscular rays (dark finger-like shadows to the left) extending from Pluto’s topographic features.

For more information about New Horizons, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

Image, Text, Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Tricia Talbert.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

How Mold on Space Station Flowers is Helping Get Us to Mars












ISS - International Space Station logo.

Jan. 14, 2016

When Scott Kelly tweeted a picture of moldy leaves on the current crop of zinnia flowers aboard the International Space Station, it could have looked like the science was doomed. In fact, science was blooming stronger than ever. What may seem like a failure in systems is actually an exceptional opportunity for scientists back on Earth to better understand how plants grow in microgravity, and for astronauts to practice doing what they’ll be tasked with on a deep space mission: autonomous gardening.

“While the plants haven’t grown perfectly,” said Dr. Gioia Massa, NASA science team lead for Veggie, “I think we have gained a lot from this, and we are learning both more about plants and fluids and also how better to operate between ground and station. Regardless of final flowering outcome we will have gained a lot.”

From drought to flood: when problems are a learning opportunity

The Veggie plant growth facility was installed on the orbiting laboratory in early May of 2014, and the first crop – ‘Outredgrous’ red romaine lettuce – was activated for growth. The first growth cycle faced some issues.


Image above: NASA astronaut Steve Swanson of Expedition 39 activated the red, blue and green LED lights of the Veggie plant growth system on May 7, 2014. Image Credit: NASA.

“We lost two plants due to drought stress in the first grow out and thus were very vigilant with respect to the second crop,” said Trent Smith, Veggie project manager.

The second crop of the same lettuce was activated in early July by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, and thanks to lessons learned from the first run, adjustments to watering and collecting imagery of the plants were made. The leafy greens grew according to schedule, with only one plant pillow not producing. This time the crew was able to eat the lettuce when it was ready to be harvested a month later.


Image above: NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren take a bite of plants harvested for the VEG-01 investigation. Image Credit: NASA.

The next crop on the docket was a batch of zinnia flowers, but they weren’t selected for their beauty. They were chosen because they can help scientists understand how plants flower and grow in microgravity.

“The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce, said Trent Smith, Veggie project manager. “It is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics. It has a longer growth duration between 60 and 80 days. Thus, it is a more difficult plant to grow, and allowing it to flower, along with the longer growth duration, makes it a good precursor to a tomato plant.


Image above: The zinnia plants began to exhibit guttation and epinasty, both signs of plant stress. Image Credit: NASA.

Just more than two weeks into their growth period, though, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren noted that water was seeping out of some of the wicks – the white flaps that contain the seeds and stick out of the tops of the plant pillows. The water partially engulfed three of the plants. Within 10 days, scientists noted guttation on the leaves of some of the plants. Guttation is when internal pressure builds and forces excess water out of the tips of the leaves. It occurs when a plant is experiencing high humidity. Additionally, the zinnia leaves started to bend down and curl drastically. This condition, called epinasty, can indicate flooding in the roots. The anomalies all pointed to inhibited air flow in the plant growth facility that, when coupled with the excess water, could lead to big problems for the crop.

“After observing the guttation and more significant amounts of free water we decided to see about toggling the Veggie fan from low to high,” said Smith. “We had evidence indicating reduced air flow through the internal Veggie facility volume, and needed to toggle the fan to high to dry things out.”

The fix had to be postponed, though, due to an unplanned spacewalk in mid-December. By that time, tissue in the leaves of some of the plants began to die. On Dec. 22, Smith received a phone call at 3:45 in the morning. Trouble was brewing in the space garden.

“When you have high humidity and wet surfaces,” he said, “leaves start dying, and become prime real estate for mold to grow.”


Image above: Mold growth initially grew on the plant in pillow E in the bottom left corner of the plant mat. Image Credit: NASA.

The mold issue had Smith out of bed and the Veggie team on the phone by 4 a.m. Within four hours, new procedures were written and communicated to NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who took over care of the zinnias after Lindgren returned to Earth on Dec. 18. Kelly donned a dust mask as a safety measure, and cut away the affected, moldy plant tissue, which was then stowed in the minus eighty degree laboratory freezer (MELFI) so it could be returned to Earth and studied. The plant surfaces and plant pillow surfaces were sanitized with cleaning wipes, and the fans continued at a high speed in hopes of keeping the Veggie chamber dried out and mold growth abated.

By Christmas Eve, though, Kelly called down to the ground support team to report new problems with the plants. It seemed the high fan speed was drying out the crop too much, and Kelly said he thought they needed more water. He was told, though, that the next scheduled watering was not until Dec. 27.

“I think that would be too late,” Kelly told the ground team. “You know, I think if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water. Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should water the grass today.’ I think this is how this should be handled.”

News of the mold didn’t dampen Smith’s Christmas spirit, though.

“We’d been planning on figuring out how to garden autonomously and his request was just perfect,” Smith said. “Christmas Eve 2015 was our gift!”


Image above: NASA astronaut Scott Kelly took this selfie with the second crop of red romaine lettuce in August of 2015. Image Credit: NASA.

Taking on the role of autonomous gardener

And so, Kelly became an autonomous gardener aboard the space station.

“This is perfect – he has the helm,” Smith said. “We turned over care to Scott. He’s seen the lettuce, he’s got all the tools he needs, so we just provided him quick guidelines to understand the zinnias.”

What the Veggie team created was dubbed “The Zinnia Care Guide for the On-Orbit Gardener,” and gave basic guidelines for care while putting judgment capabilities into the hands of the astronaut who had the plants right in front of him. Rather than pages and pages of detailed procedures that most science operations follow, the care guide was a one-page, streamlined resource to support Kelly as an autonomous gardener. Kelly tweeted a picture of the flowers in distress, noting that he’d have to channel a character from the movie, “The Martian.”


Image above: Scott Kelly on Twitter. Image Credit: NASA/S. Kelly/Twitter.

Contrary to seeming like a dead end for the crop, the issues faced by the zinnias offered a multitude of learning opportunities for scientists back on Earth. In fact, Smith said, the experience drives home what science experiments are all about: finding out what doesn’t work, and figuring out how to solve it. For crews on the way to Mars, Smith said, scientists need to know what would happen if crops experienced drought, flooding, mold growth or other challenges. Would the practices of cutting away dead tissue and sanitizing plants work? How does changing the watering schedule affect the growth? How can crew members be given more opportunities to take charge in the gardening process?

“All these things are so rich in information, my head kind of spins to think about what to focus on,” Smith said. “This is perfect. This is really getting us down the road for other crops.”

Smith said the Veggie team had hoped to move toward autonomous gardening, and Kelly’s willingness to jump in and care for the plants independent of the ground support team was key.

Triumph, not trouble

Shortly after Kelly’s heroic holiday gardening efforts, two of the plants that displayed stress died off and were clipped and stowed in the freezer to be returned to Earth for studying. Not all hope was lost, though. The remaining two plants have continued to thrive, and have even had new offshoots of buds forming. 

“We see them growing out of their stressed states as seen by the new growth not showing leaf curling,” Smith said. “We see that we can use our fan to adjust the conditions. We don't see guttation or free water. So, lots of things and better understanding of our tools for the on-orbit autonomous gardener.”

On Jan. 8, Kelly tweeted a picture of the plants’ progress.


Image above: Image above: Scott Kelly on Twitter. Image Credit: NASA/S. Kelly/Twitter.

On Jan. 12, pictures from Kelly showed the first peeks of petals beginning to sprout on a few buds. The bud-to-petal-to-full-flower process can take about 7 to 10 days, Smith said, so flowers could be present by next week.

If the flowers do blossom, chances are it will be an exciting opportunity for the entire crew, and not just Kelly. Previous astronauts who have conducted plant experiments on orbit have noted that it is an experience that brings crew members together. When NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid grew wheat stalks on the Russian Mir space station in 1996, she called the entire crew over to inspect new seed heads on the tips of the stalks. When the first batch of lettuce was harvested in June of 2014 on the ISS, several crew members joined in the event. When the second batch of lettuce was harvested in August, and astronauts were allowed to eat the fruits of their labor, they gathered and shared the produce with international partners on the station.


Image above: NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid grew wheat stalks on her 1996 mission to the Russian Mir space station. Image Credit: NASA.

“Plants can indeed enhance long duration missions in isolated, confined and extreme environments – environments that are artificial and deprived of nature,” said Alexandra Whitmire, deputy element scientist for the Behavioral Health and Performance (BHP) element in the NASA Human Research Program (HRP). “While not all crew members may enjoy taking care of plants, for many, having this option is beneficial.”

Though most evidence of the psychological benefits of growing plants in space is anecdotal, Whitmire said efforts like Veggie will yield important information in preparation for a Mars mission. 

“In future missions, the importance of plants will likely increase given the crews' limited connection to Earth,” Whitmire said. “Studies from other isolated and confined environments, such as Antarctic stations, demonstrate the importance of plants in confinement, and how much more salient fresh food becomes psychologically, when there is little stimuli around.”

The implications of plant life for future spaceflight, Whitmire said, is very significant.

More crops for Veggie are heading to the orbiting laboratory aboard SpaceX-8. The Veg-03 run will include two sets of Chinese cabbage, and one set of red romaine lettuce. In 2018, there are plans to launch dwarf tomato seeds to the space station. Smith said the lessons learned from growing zinnia flowers will be critical in the process of growing tomatoes, a fellow flowering plant. Studies are also in progress to see how adjusting the lighting in the Veggie plant growth facility can affect plan mineral composition. There will be preflight testing to determine what “light recipe” to use aboard the station.


Image above: A picture from Jan. 12 shows new petals beginning to emerge from some of the buds on the remaining plants. Image Credit: NASA.

For now, scientists continue to closely monitor the zinnia crop and are following Kelly’s lead for care based on his observations. The unexpected turns experienced during this Veggie run have actually offered bountiful opportunities for new learning and better understanding of one of the critical components to future journeys to Mars.

Smith understands, though, that a space garden is like any other garden – sometimes, things just don’t grow. The Veggie team is hopeful that the newly-emerging petals will fully bloom soon.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” Smith said.

Related article:

veggie plant growth system activated on international space station:
http://orbiterchspacenews.blogspot.ch/2014/05/sciences-on-international-space-station.html

Related links:

International Space Station (ISS): http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html

Space Station Research and Technology: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/index.html

Vegetable Production System (Veggie): http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/383.html

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/JSC/Rachel Hobson/Kristine Rainey.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

Pluto’s Wright Mons in Color












NASA - New Horizons Mission logo.

Jan. 14, 2016


Scientists with NASA’s New Horizons mission have assembled this highest-resolution color view of one of two potential cryovolcanoes spotted on the surface of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft in July 2015.

This feature, known as Wright Mons, was informally named by the New Horizons team in honor of the Wright brothers. At about 90 miles (150 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) high, this feature is enormous. If it is in fact an ice volcano, as suspected, it would be the largest such feature discovered in the outer solar system.

Mission scientists are intrigued by the sparse distribution of red material in the image and wonder why it is not more widespread. Also perplexing is that there is only one identified impact crater on Wright Mons itself, telling scientists that the surface (as well as some of the crust underneath) was created relatively recently. This is turn may indicate that Wright Mons was volcanically active late in Pluto’s history.

This composite image includes pictures taken by the New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, from a range of about 30,000 miles (48,000 kilometers), showing features as small as 1,500 feet (450 meters) across. Sprinkled across the LORRI mosaic is enhanced color data from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) gathered about 20 minutes after the LORRI snapshots were taken, from a range of 21,000 miles (34,000 kilometers) and at a resolution of about 2,100 feet (650 meters) per pixel. The entire scene is 140 miles (230 kilometers) across.

For more information about New Horizons mission, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

Image, Text, Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Fox.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

A Milky Way twin swept by an ultra-fast X-ray wind












ESA - XMM-Newton Mission patch.

14 January 2016

ESA’s XMM-Newton has found a wind of high-speed gas streaming from the centre of a bright spiral galaxy like our own that may be reducing its ability to produce new stars.

It is not unusual to find hot winds blowing from the swirling discs of material around supermassive black holes at the centre of active galaxies.

Winds from a spiral galaxy

If powerful enough, these winds can influence their surroundings in various ways. Their primary effect is to sweep away reservoirs of gas that might otherwise have formed stars, but it is also possible that they might trigger the collapse of some clouds to form stars.

Such processes are thought to play a fundamental role in galaxies and black holes throughout the Universe’s 13.8 billion years.

But they were thought to affect only the largest objects, such as massive elliptical galaxies formed through the dramatic collision and merging of two or more galaxies, which sometimes trigger the winds powerful enough to influence star formation.

Now, for the first time, these winds have been seen in a more normal kind of active galaxy known as a Seyfert, which does not appear to have undergone any merging.

When observed in visible light, almost all Seyfert galaxies have a spiral shape similar to our own Milky Way. However, unlike the Milky Way, Seyferts have bright cores that shine across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, a sign that the supermassive black holes at their centres are not idle but are devouring their surroundings.

The supermassive black hole at the heart of this particular Seyfert, known as IRAS17020+4544 and located 800 million light-years from Earth, has a mass of nearly six million Suns, drawing in nearby gas and making it shine moderately.

XMM-Newton has found that the winds from around the black hole are moving at 23 000–33 000 km/s, about 10% the speed of light.

An important finding is that the wind from the centre is sufficiently energetic to heat the gas in the galaxy and suppress star formation – the first time it has been seen in a relatively normal spiral galaxy.

“It’s the first solid case of an ultra-fast X-ray outflow observed in a ‘normal’ Seyfert galaxy,” says Anna Lia Longinotti from the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica of Puebla, Mexico, lead author of the paper describing the results in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The peculiar wind of a spiral galaxy

The galaxy has another surprise: the X-ray emission from the fast winds from galactic cores are usually dominated by iron atoms with many of their electrons stripped off, but this galaxy’s winds turn out to be rather unusual, exhibiting lighter elements like oxygen, with no iron detected.

“I was actually very surprised to discover that this wind is made mostly of oxygen because nobody has seen a galaxy like this before,” says Anna Lia. 

Because the galaxy is broadly similar to our own, it raises questions about the history of the Milky Way and the role that our own central black hole may have played.

“We know, also thanks to recent results obtained by XMM-Newton, that the four-million-solar-mass black hole in our own galaxy has undergone phases of much stronger activities, even only a few hundred years ago,” says co-author Matteo Guainazzi, ESA astronomer currently at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

“Of course we cannot be sure, but our discovery implies that fast outflows like those found in IRAS17020+4544 may have once swept through our own Galaxy during one of these active phases.

“This possibility was not considered before, because this ‘feedback’ from X-ray winds was previously observed only in galaxies very different from the Milky Way.”

XMM-Newton

“XMM-Newton continues to make discoveries with the potential to question our understanding of how the stars in a galaxy and the supermassive black hole at its centre co-evolve throughout the history of the Universe,” says Norbert Schartel, ESA’s XMM-Newton project scientist.

Notes for Editors

“X-ray high-resolution spectroscopy reveals feedback in a Seyfert Galaxy from an ultra fast wind with complex ionization and velocity structure,” by A.L Longinotti et al is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2041-8205/813/2/L39/meta;jsessionid=1D4E1BACE8DCB430706EF3D27EDFE79A.c4.iopscience.cld.iop.org

The findings are based on measurements by XMM-Newton’s Reflection Grating Spectrometer and the European Photon Imaging Camera in 2004 and 2014.

For more information about XMM-Newton, visit: http://sci.esa.int/xmm-newton/

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/XMM-Newton_overview

http://sci.esa.int/xmm-newton/47370-fact-sheet/

XMM-Newton Science Archive (XSA):
http://xmm.esac.esa.int/xsa/

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/Sloan Digital Sky Survey; Spectrum: Longinotti et al (2015)/Norbert Schartel/Matteo Guainazzi/Anna Lia Longinotti/Markus Bauer.

Best regards, Orbiter.ch

mercredi 13 janvier 2016

NASA's Juno Spacecraft Breaks Solar Power Distance Record












NASA - JUNO Mission logo.

Jan. 13, 2016


Image above: Launching from Earth in 2011, the Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in 2016 to study the giant planet from an elliptical, polar orbit. Juno will repeatedly dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation, coming only 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles) from the cloud tops at closest approach. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter has broken the record to become humanity's most distant solar-powered emissary. The milestone occurred at 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST, 19:00 UTC) on Wednesday, Jan. 13, when Juno was about 493 million miles (793 million kilometers) from the sun.

The previous record-holder was the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, whose orbit peaked out at the 492-million-mile (792-million-kilometer) mark in October 2012, during its approach to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

"Juno is all about pushing the edge of technology to help us learn about our origins," said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "We use every known technique to see through Jupiter's clouds and reveal the secrets Jupiter holds of our solar system’s early history.  It just seems right that the sun is helping us learn about the origin of Jupiter and the other planets that orbit it."

Launched in 2011, Juno is the first solar-powered spacecraft designed to operate at such a great distance from the sun. That's why the surface area of solar panels required to generate adequate power is quite large. The four-ton Juno spacecraft carries three 30-foot-long (9-meter) solar arrays festooned with 18,698 individual solar cells. At Earth distance from the sun, the cells have the potential to generate approximately 14 kilowatts of electricity. But transport those same rectangles of silicon and gallium arsenide to a fifth rock from the sun distance, and it’s a powerfully different story.


Image above: This graphic shows how NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter became the most distant solar-powered explorer and influenced the future of space exploration powered by the sun. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

"Jupiter is five times farther from the sun than Earth, and the sunlight that reaches that far out packs 25 times less punch," said Rick Nybakken, Juno's project manager from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "While our massive solar arrays will be generating only 500 watts when we are at Jupiter, Juno is very efficiently designed, and it will be more than enough to get the job done."

Prior to Juno, eight spacecraft have navigated the cold, harsh underlit realities of deep space as far out as Jupiter. All have used nuclear power sources to get their job done. Solar power is possible on Juno due to improved solar-cell performance, energy-efficient instruments and spacecraft, a mission design that can avoid Jupiter’s shadow, and a polar orbit that minimizes the total radiation. Juno’s maximum distance from the sun during its 16-month science mission will be about 517 million miles (832 million kilometers), an almost five percent increase in the record for solar-powered space vehicles.

"It is cool we got the record and that our dedicated team of engineers and scientists can chalk up another first in space exploration," said Bolton. "But the best is yet to come. We are achieving these records and venturing so far out for a reason -- to better understand the biggest world in our solar system and thereby better understand where we came from."

Juno will arrive at Jupiter on July 4 of this year. Over the next year the spacecraft will orbit the Jovian world 33 times, skimming to within 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops every 14 days.  During the flybys, Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study Jupiter’s aurorae to learn more about the planet's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Juno visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/juno and http://missionjuno.swri.edu

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Martin Perez/JPL/DC Agle.

Best regards, orbiter.ch

Enceladus Dalmatian Terrain Close-up












NASA - Cassini Mission to Saturn patch.

Jan. 13, 2016


During its final close flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus, NASA's Cassini spacecraft revisited a landscape, and a mystery, that it had originally glimpsed more than 10 years earlier.

In views of this terrain captured during a 2005 flyby (see PIA06188), imaging scientists noticed small dark spots of an uncertain nature. Observing the same features in this false-color view, at higher resolution than before, provides some new insights. The spots are evidently large, relatively dark protrusions of solid "bedrock" ice and ice blocks scattered on and around the prominent ridge that runs across the scene from north to south (from top center toward lower left). The ice blocks range in size from dozens to hundreds of feet (tens to hundreds of meters).

The false-color view uses an ultraviolet filter centered at 338 nanometers for blue, a green filter centered at 568 nanometers for green and a near-infrared filter centered at 930 nanometers for red -- thus covering a wider spectrum region than the human eye.

As in earlier Cassini views of Enceladus using the same combination of color filters (see PIA06254), green-hued features represent coarse-grained or solid ice. Exposures of these kinds of ices are also found on the walls of cracks and troughs in this scene and elsewhere on Enceladus.

To an observer on the surface, the prominent north-south trending ridge might look superficially like icy flatirons (tilted, triangular outcroppings of rock), but probably more shallowly dipping than terrestrial examples. The exposed line of ice blocks along its ridge crest might make it look a bit like a hogback (a narrow ridge with steep sides, often with vertical rocky outcrops along the top).

On Enceladus, with no wind to scour loose particulate ice or "snow" off of them, the solid blocks are probably cleared by some combination of downslope movement of particulates, and perhaps sublimation.

This image has a spatial scale of about 220 feet (67 meters) per pixel at its center, which is nearly twice the resolution of the earlier view (PIA06188).

This terrain is on the moon's Saturn-facing side, a few degrees south of the equator. The view has been rotated so that north on Enceladus is up. The view was obtained by the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 19, 2015.

video
Cassini Spacecraft Animation

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Related images:

PIA06188: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA06188

PIA06254: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA06254

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org and ESA's website: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Cassini-Huygens

Image (mentioned), Video; Text, Credits: NASA/ESA/Martin Perez.

Greetings, Orbiter.ch

First Light For Future Black Hole Probe












ESO - European Southern Observatory logo.

13 January 2016

Successful commissioning of GRAVITY at the VLTI

GRAVITY discovers new double star in Orion Trapezium Cluster

Zooming in on black holes is the main mission for the newly installed instrument GRAVITY at ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. During its first observations, GRAVITY successfully combined starlight using all four Auxiliary Telescopes. The large team of European astronomers and engineers, led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, who designed and built GRAVITY, are thrilled with the performance. During these initial tests, the instrument has already achieved a number of notable firsts. This is the most powerful VLT Interferometer instrument yet installed.

The GRAVITY instrument combines the light from multiple telescopes to form a virtual telescope up to 200 metres across, using a technique called interferometry. This enables the astronomers to detect much finer detail in astronomical objects than is possible with a single telescope.

GRAVITY — future probe of black holes

Since the summer of 2015, an international team of astronomers and engineers led by Frank Eisenhauer (MPE, Garching, Germany) has been installing the instrument in specially adapted tunnels under the Very Large Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in northern Chile [1]. This is the first stage of commissioning GRAVITY within the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI). A crucial milestone has now been reached: for the first time, the instrument successfully combined starlight from the four VLT Auxiliary Telescopes [2].

“During its first light, and for the first time in the history of long baseline interferometry in optical astronomy, GRAVITY could make exposures of several minutes, more than a hundred times longer than previously possible,” commented Frank Eisenhauer. “GRAVITY will open optical interferometry to observations of much fainter objects, and push the sensitivity and accuracy of high angular resolution astronomy to new limits, far beyond what is currently possible.”

GRAVITY — future probe of black holes

As part of the first observations the team looked closely at the bright, young stars known as the Trapezium Cluster, located in the heart of the Orion star-forming region. Already, from these first commissioning data, GRAVITY made a small discovery: one of the components of the cluster was found to be a double star [3].

The key to this success was to stabilise the virtual telescope for long enough, using the light of a reference star, so that a deep exposure on a second, much fainter object becomes feasible. Furthermore, the astronomers also succeeded in stabilising the light from four telescopes simultaneously — a feat not achieved before.

 GRAVITY — future probe of black holes

GRAVITY can measure the positions of astronomical objects on the finest scales and can also perform interferometric imaging and spectroscopy [4]. If there were buildings on the moon, GRAVITY would be able to spot them. Such extremely high resolution imaging has many applications, but the main focus in the future will be studying the environments around black holes.

In particular, GRAVITY will probe what happens in the extremely strong gravitational field close to the event horizon of the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way — which explains the choice of the name of the instrument. This is a region where behaviour is dominated by Einstein's theory of general relativity. In addition, it will uncover the details of mass accretion and jets — processes that occur both around newborn stars (young stellar objects) and in the regions around the supermassive black holes at the centres of other galaxies. It will also excel at probing the motions of binary stars, exoplanets and young stellar discs, and in imaging the surfaces of stars.

GRAVITY — the instrument team during the first observations at Paranal

So far, GRAVITY has been tested with the four 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes. The first observations using GRAVITY with the four 8-metre VLT Unit Telescopes are planned for later in 2016.

GRAVITY discovers new double star in the Orion Trapezium Cluster (annotated)

The GRAVITY consortium is led by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, in Garching, Germany. The other partner institutes are:

- LESIA, Observatoire de Paris, PSL Research University, CNRS, Sorbonne Universités, UPMC Univ. Paris 06, Univ. Paris Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Meudon, France.

- Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany:

- 1. Physikalisches Institut, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany.
    IPAG, Université Grenoble Alpes/CNRS, Grenoble, France.


- Centro Multidisciplinar de Astrofísica, CENTRA (SIM), Lisbon and Oporto, Portugal.

- ESO, Garching, Germany.
 
video
GRAVITY discovers new double star in Orion Trapezium Cluster

Notes:

[1] The VLTI tunnels and beam-combining room have recently undergone significant construction work to accommodate GRAVITY as well as to prepare for other future instruments.

[2] It would be more accurate to call this step “first fringes” as the milestone was the first successful combination of light from the different telescopes so that the beams interfered and fringes were formed and recorded.

[3] The newly discovered double star is Theta1 Orionis F, and the observations were made using the nearby brighter star Theta1 Orionis C as the reference.

[4] GRAVITY aims to measure the positions of objects on scales of order ten microarcseconds, and perform imaging with four milliarcsecond resolution.

More information:

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 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. 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 a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Links:

Information about GRAVITY at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics: http://www.mpe.mpg.de/ir/gravity

ESOcast describing how the VLT Interferometer works: http://www.eso.org/public/videos/esocast13/

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

Photos of the VLT Interferometer: http://www.eso.org/public/images/list/2/?search=vlti

ESO/GRAVITY consortium/NASA/ESA/M. McCaughrean/Video: ESO/M. McCaughrean/GRAVITY consortium, Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org),
Music: Johan B. Monell (www.johanmonell.com).

Best regards, Orbiter.ch