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Hubble's Back, but Only Using One Gyro

The Hubble Space Telescope has experienced ongoing problems with one of its three remaining gyroscopes, so NASA has decided to shift the telescope into single gyro mode. While the venerable space telescope has now returned to daily science operations, single gyro mode means Hubble will only use one gyro to maintain a lock on its target. This will slow its slew time and decrease some of its scientific output. But this plan increases the overall lifetime of the 34-year-old telescope, keeping one gyro in reserve. NASA is also troubleshooting the malfunctioning gyro, hoping to return it online.

Last week, NASA said that the telescope and its instruments are stable and functioning normally.

Gyroscopes help the telescope orient itself in space, keeping it stable to precisely point at astronomical targets in the distant Universe. Hubble went into safe mode back in November 2023, and then again in April and May 2024 due to the ongoing issue, where the one gyro had been increasingly returning faulty readings.

The end of a Hubble gyro reveals the hair-thin wires known as flex leads. They carry data and electricity inside the gyro. Credit: NASA

Going in to safe mode suspends science operations, and in the meantime, engineers tried to troubleshoot to figure out why the gyro experiencing the fault-producing issues and doing work-arounds to get the telescope up and running again. The most recent last safe-mode event in May led the Hubble team to transition from a three-gyro operating mode to observing with only one gyro. This enables more consistent science observations while keeping the other operational gyro available for future use.

Launched in 1990, Hubble has more than doubled its expected design lifetime, providing stunning images and scientific discoveries that have changed our understanding of the Universe and re-written astronomy textbooks.  



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Earth’s Atmosphere is Our Best Defence Against Nearby Supernovae

Earth’s protective atmosphere has sheltered life for billions of years, creating a haven where evolution produced complex lifeforms like us. The ozone layer plays a critical role in shielding the biosphere from deadly UV radiation. It blocks 99% of the Sun’s powerful UV output. Earth’s magnetosphere also shelters us.

But the Sun is relatively tame. How effective are the ozone and the magnetosphere at protecting us from powerful supernova explosions?

Every million years—a small fraction of Earth’s 4.5 billion-year lifetime—a massive star explodes within 100 parsecs (326 light-years) of Earth. We know this because our Solar System sits inside a massive bubble in space called the Local Bubble. It’s a cavernous region of space where hydrogen density is much lower than outside the bubble. A series of supernovae explosions in the previous 10 to 20 million years carved out the bubble.

Supernovae are dangerous, and the closer a planet is to one, the more deadly its effects. Scientists have speculated on the effects that supernova explosions have had on Earth, wondering if it triggered mass extinctions or at least partial extinctions. A supernova’s gamma-ray burst and cosmic rays can deplete Earth’s ozone and allow ionizing UV radiation to reach the planet’s surface. The effects can also create more aerosol particles in the atmosphere, increasing cloud coverage and causing global cooling.

A new research article in Nature Communications Earth and Environment examines supernova explosions and their effect on Earth. It is titled “Earth’s Atmosphere Protects the Biosphere from Nearby Supernovae.” The lead author is Theodoros Christoudias from the Climate and Atmosphere Research Center, Cyprus Institute, Nicosia, Cyprus.

These panels from the research letter show the ozone column percentage decrease from a 100-fold increase in GCR intensity over nominal. The left vertical axis represents Earth's latitude, and the x-axis shows the time of year. Ozone loss is more pronounced over the poles due to the effect of Earth's magnetosphere, where it's weaker. a is present-day Earth, while b represents an ancient Earth with only 2% oxygen during the pre-Cambrian. Image Credit: Christoudias et al. 2024
These two panels from the research help illustrate the global cooling effect from a nearby SN exposing Earth to 100 times more ionizing radiation. b shows the fractional change in CCN relative to the present day. d shows the fractional change in outgoing solar radiation relative to the present day due to increased cloud albedo. Image Credit: Christoudias et al. 2024
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There’s Chang’e-6 on the Far Side of the Moon

The newest phase of China’s lunar exploration project is soon coming to an end. On June 20th, the Chang’e 6 sample return mission starts its journey back to Earth from the far side of the Moon, having already collected samples and blasted itself back into lunar orbit. But since a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s look at some of the more memorable images that have come out of this mission so far.

China’s National Space Agency (CNSA) released up close and personal images of the Chang’e-6 landers/ascender system on June 14th. They were taken by a small, autonomous rover that descended from the lander, maneuvered to a suitable position, framed a photograph, and took one, all without input from its human overlords. 

Weighing in at only 5 kg, the rover showed what is possible for autonomous operation with relatively light hardware. It also shows an impressive amount of autonomy for a lunar rover, especially one operational only on the “far” side of the Moon.

Shot of the Chang’e-6 lander/ascender taken by its companion autonomous rover.
Credit – CNSA

It wasn’t the only observer that captured an interesting image of China’s sixth mission in a series named after Chang’e, the Chinese Moon goddess. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the orbiter from overhead space and showed a dramatic change in its surroundings. 

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A New Way to Survive the Harsh Lunar Night

The Moon is a tough place to survive, and not just for humans. The wild temperature extremes between day and night make it extremely difficult to build reliable machinery that will continue to operate. But an engineering team from Nagoya University in Japan have developed an energy-efficient new way to control Loop Heat Pipes (LHP) to safely cool lunar rovers. This will extend their lifespan, keeping them running for extended lunar exploration missions.

How do you keep a rover insulated well enough to survive the frozen lunar nights, without cooking it during the day? A team of engineers led by Dr Masahito Nishikawara of Nagoya University may have found an answer. By combining a loop heat pipe (LHP) with an electrohydrodynamic pump (EHP), they have created a mechanism to cool machinery efficiently in the vacuum of space, but in a form which can also be turned off at night. Crucially, it is so efficient that it uses practically no power at all.

The Moon is an extraordinarily harsh environment for machinery. Aside from the highly abrasive regolith, which sticks to everything and is found everywhere, the Moon has no atmosphere and a very slow rotational period. This means that days and nights on the moon last 14 Earth days each, and reach extreme temperatures. With no atmosphere to insulate and transport heat around the Moon, night-time temperatures can drop all the way down to -173º Celsius, while the unfiltered heat from the Sun causes daytime temperatures to climb as high as 127º Celsius.

It is very difficult to design complex machinery to work reliably under such conditions. The long nights mean that the energy harvested from solar panels needs to be stored in very large batteries, but batteries do not cope well with low temperatures. They can be electrically warmed, but heaters need a constant flow of electricity, draining the batteries. Alternatively, a machine can be heavily insulated to keep it functional when idle, but this leads to overheating when it is active, and when the Sun rises.

Overheating can damage batteries, but it’s equally bad for electronic components. Active cooling systems are the traditional answer. They work similarly to the radiator in a car by pumping coolant through a large radiator, but these require power to run. This is a problem when you need your batteries to last 14 days before the next recharge. Passive systems, such as LHPs, are effective and don’t require power, but they run continuously, even when you would prefer heating.

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The Great Red Spot Probably Formed in the Early 1800s

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (GRS) is one of the Solar System’s defining features. It’s a massive storm that astronomers have observed since the 1600s. However, its date of formation and longevity are up for debate. Have we been seeing the same phenomenon all this time?

The GRS is a gigantic anti-cyclonic (rotating counter-clockwise) storm that’s larger than Earth. Its wind speeds exceed 400 km/h (250 mp/h). It’s an icon that humans have been observing since at least the 1800s, possibly earlier. Its history, along with how it formed, is a mystery.

Its earliest observations may have been in 1632 when a German Abbott used his telescope to look at Jupiter. 32 years later, another observer reported seeing the GRS moving from east to west. Then, in 1665, Giovanni Cassini examined Jupiter with a telescope and noted the presence of a storm at the same latitude as the GRS. Cassini and other astronomers observed it continuously until 1713 and he named it the Permanent Spot.

Unfortunately, astronomers lost track of the spot. Nobody saw the GRS for 118 years until astronomer S. Schwabe observed a clear structure, roughly oval and at the same latitude as the GRS. Some think of that observation as the first observation of the current GRS and that the storm formed again at the same latitude. But the details fade the further back in time we look. There are also questions about the earlier storm and its relation to the current GRS.

New research in Geophysical Research Letters combined historical records with computer simulations of the GRS to try to understand this chimerical meteorological phenomenon. Its title is “The Origin of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” and the lead author is Agustín Sánchez-Lavega. Sánchez-Lavega is a Professor of Physics at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain. He’s also head of the Planetary Sciences Group and the Department of Applied Physics at the University.

Four views of Jupiter and its GRS. a is a drawing of the Permanent Spot by G. D. Cassini from 19 January 1672. b is a drawing by S. Swabe from 10 May 1851. It shows the GRS area as a clear oval with limits marked by its Hollow (drawn by a red dashed line). c is a Photograph by A. A. Common from 1879. d is a photograph from Observatory Lick with a yellow filter on 14 October 1890. Each image is an astronomical image of Jupiter with south up and east down. Image Credit: Sánchez-Lavega et al. 2024.
Jupiter Great Red Spot
A different take on Jupiter and its GRS. Image Credit: NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Navaneeth Krishnan S © CC BY
These images from the research show how the GRS formed. a is a drawing by T. E. R. Phillips in 1931–1932 of the STrD. The red arrows indicate the flow direction with the longitude scale indicated. b and c are maps drawn from images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. The yellow arrows mark position-velocity changes in the STrD. The STrD trapped winds and created a long cell that generated the Great Red Spot. Image Credit: Sánchez-Lavega et al. 2024.
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A New Way to Prove if Primordial Black Holes Contribute to Dark Matter

The early Universe was a strange place. Early in its history—in the first quintillionth of a second—the entire cosmos was nothing more than a stunningly hot plasma. And, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this soup of quarks and gluons was accompanied by the formation of weird little primordial black holes (PHBs). It’s entirely possible that these long-vanished PHBs could have been the root of dark matter.

MIT’s David Kaiser and graduate student Elba Alonso-Monsalve suggest that such early super-charged black holes were very likely a new state of matter that we don’t see in the modern cosmos. “Even though these short-lived, exotic creatures are not around today, they could have affected cosmic history in ways that could show up in subtle signals today,” Kaiser said. “Within the idea that all dark matter could be accounted for by black holes, this gives us new things to look for.” That means a new way to search for the origins of dark matter.

Dark matter is mysterious. No one has directly observed it yet. However, its influence on regular “baryonic” matter is detectable. Scientists have many suggestions for what dark matter could be, but until they can observe it, it’s tough to tell what the stuff is, exactly. Black holes could be likely candidates. But the mass of all the observable ones isn’t enough to account for the amount of dark matter in the cosmos. However, there may be a connection to black holes after all.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of at least two types of black holes: stellar-mass and supermassive. There is also a population of intermediate-mass black holes, which are rare. The stellar-mass objects form when massive stars explode as supernovae and collapse to form black holes. These exist throughout many galaxies. The supermassive ones aggregate many millions of solar masses together. They form “hierarchically” from smaller ones and exist in the hearts of galaxies. The intermediate-mass ones probably form hierarchically as well and could be a hidden link between the other two types.

An image based on a supercomputer simulation of the cosmological environment where primordial gas undergoes the direct collapse to create black holes. Credit: Aaron Smith/TACC/UT-Austin.

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Baby Stars are Swarming Around the Galactic Center

The vicinity of Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s center, is hyperactive. Stars, gas, and dust zip around the black hole’s gravitational well at thousands of kilometers per hour. Previously, astronomers thought that only mature stars had been pulled into such rapid orbits. However, a new paper from the University of Cologne and elsewhere in Europe found that some relatively young stars are making the rounds rather than older ones, which raises some questions about the models predicting how stars form in these hyperactive regions.

Astronomers have known about the highly mobile stars surrounding Sgr A* for over thirty years now. They even have their own categorization, known as S stars. However, researchers lacked the equipment to analyze the age of some of these stars, and theories pointed to older, dimmer stars being the most likely to survive near a black hole.

But then, as it does so often with science, evidence that challenged the old and dim star theory began to pile up. Twelve years ago, researchers found an object they believed was a cloud of gas that was in the process of being eaten by Sgr A*. More recently, evidence has begun to hint that that gas cloud might surround a newly born star, known as a “Young Stellar Object” (YSO) in astronomy jargon.

Video showing the motion of stars around Sgr A*, from the corresponding author of the new paper.
Credit – Florian Peißker YouTube Channel

As Sgr A* started to receive more observational time with more powerful telescopes over the years, researchers were able to focus in on other interesting objects, the paper describes dozens of potential YSOs in the vicinity of the previously known S stars. Interestingly, they also seem to follow similar orbits.

Those orbits have the new YSOs zipping in front of the black hole at thousands of kilometers per hour, much faster than typical star formation theories allow. Maybe some intricacy of the black hole’s gravitational field is causing this dramatic motion, or maybe there is some other unknown aspect of stellar formation that can account for these fast-moving young stars, but for now, how they are formed remains a mystery.

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Rotation Curves of Galaxies Stay Flat Indefinitely

In his classic book On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the philosopher Thomas Kuhn posited that, for a new scientific framework to take root, there has to be evidence that doesn’t sit well within the existing framework. For over a century now, Einstein’s theory of relativity and gravity has been the existing framework. However, cracks are starting to show, and a new paper from researchers at Case Western Reserve University added another one recently when they failed to find decreasing rotational energy in galaxies even millions of light years away from the galaxy’s center.

Galaxies are known to rotate – even our solar system travels in a circle around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at around 200 km per second, though we can’t perceive any motion on human time scales. According to Newtonian dynamics, this rotational speed should slow down the farther away a star is from the center of a galaxy. However, observations didn’t support this, showing that the speed kept up no matter how far away the star is.

That led scientists to create another force impacting the speed of rotation of the farthest-out stars. Today, we commonly call it dark matter. However, scientists have also spent decades trying to puzzle out what exactly dark matter is made of and have yet to come up with a coherent theory.

Anton dives into a weird quirk of galaxy rotation.
Credit – Anton Petrov YouTube Channel

But in some cases, even the existence of dark matter as we know it doesn’t match the observational data. Dr. Tobias Mistele, a post-doc at Case, found that the rotational speed of galaxies doesn’t drop off, no matter how far out they are and no matter how long they’ve been doing so. This data flies in the face of a traditional understanding of dark matter, where its gravitational influence is felt by a “halo” surrounding the dark matter itself. Even these dark matter halos have an effective area. Dr. Mistele and his co-authors found evidence of maintained rotational speed that should be well outside the sphere of influence of any dark matter halo existing in these galaxies.

To collect this data, the authors used a favorite tool of cosmologists – gravitational lensing. They collected data on galaxies that were far away and had their light amplified by a galaxy cluster or similarly massive object that was nearer. When collecting the data, Dr. Mistele analyzed the speed of rotation of the stars in a galaxy and plotted it against the distance of those stars from the galaxy’s center. This is known as a “Tully-Fisher” relation in cosmology.

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Almost a Third of Early Galaxies Were Already Spirals

In the years before the JWST’s launch, astronomers’ efforts to understand the early Universe were stymied by a stubborn obstacle: the light from the early Universe was red-shifted to an extreme degree. The JWST was built with extreme redshifts in mind, and one of its goals was to study Galaxy Assembly.

Once the JWST activated its segmented, beryllium eye, the Universe’s most ancient, red-shifted light became visible.

The light emitted by the first galaxies is not only faint but has been stretched by billions of years of cosmic expansion. The galaxies that emitted that light are called high-redshift galaxies, where redshift is indicated by the letter z. Since its shifted into the red, only infrared telescopes can see it. Telescopes like the Hubble and the Spitzer can see some redshifted light. But the JWST has far more power than its predecessors, allowing it to effectively see further back in time.

“Using advanced instruments such as JWST allows us to study more distant galaxies with greater detail than ever before.”

Yicheng Guo, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Missouri

Observations have shown that galaxies grow large through mergers and collisions and that up to 60% of all galaxies are spirals. But how did the process play out? When did the first spirals emerge? An answer to that question trickles down and affects other outstanding questions about galaxies.

This figure from the research shows some of the galaxies in the sample. Redshift increases from left to right, and the rows from top to bottom show the range of galaxies classified as spiral to nonspiral. "Spiral structure is easier to see at the lower redshift ranges and becomes less pronounced at higher redshifts." the authors write. The top three rows show galaxies identified as spirals with strong confidence, the middle three rows show galaxies identified as spirals with less confidence, and the bottom row shows non-spirals. Image Credit: Kuhn et al. 2024
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Which Stars are Lethal to their Planets?

Many years ago, there was a viral YouTube video called “History of the entire world, i guess,” which has been an endless source of internet memes since its release. One of the most prominent is also scientifically accurate—when describing why animals couldn’t start living on land, the video’s creator, Bill Wurtz, intones, “The Sun is a deadly laser.” 

Early in planetary development, the X-ray and ultraviolet radiation level of a planet’s host stars could sterilize the entire planet’s surface, even if it is in the so-called “habitable zone.” To narrow down the search for potentially habitable planets, the team at the Chandra X-ray Observatory and XMM-Newton telescopes took a look at stars that had planets in their habitable zone and analyzed them for whether the star’s radiation itself might preclude life as we know it from developing there.

Over ten observational days on Chandra and 26 on XMM-Newton, scientists observed 57 stars close enough to Earth to have their exoplanets explored by the next generation of exoplanet-hunting telescopes, such as the Habitable Worlds Observatory. While not all of them had known exoplanets, at least some did. 

YouTube Video detailing the research.
Credit – Chandra X-ray Observatory YouTube Channel

However, those exoplanets were typically much larger than Earth, even if they were in the habitable zone. It is much easier to detect giant planets orbiting close to their stars using modern date exoplanet detection techniques like transiting and astrometry. A press release from Chandra notes how many more rocky exoplanets the size of Earth are likely hiding around these stars, but our limited detection methods are not yet capable of finding them.

That isn’t to say we can’t learn much about their host stars, though, and that is where the data from the paper presented to the 244 meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin, comes in. Watching the X-ray emissions of these local stars allowed the team to narrow down what stars to look at for potentially habitable exoplanets, thereby allowing the future powerful planet hunters to focus their observational time on candidates that are more likely to produce results.

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Fish Could Turn Regolith into Fertile Soil on Mars

What a wonderful arguably simple solution. Here’s the problem, we travel to Mars but how do we feed ourselves? Sure we can take a load of food with us but for the return trip that’s a lot. If we plan to colonise the red planet we need even more. We have to grow or somehow create food while we are there. The solution is an already wonderfully simple ‘biosphere’ style system; a fish tank! New research suggests fish could be raised in an aquatic system and nutrient rich water can fertilise and grow plants in the regolith! A recent simulation showed vegetables could be grown in regolith fertilised by the fish tank water!

In the next few decades we may well see human beings colonise Mars. The red planet is 54.6 million km away which, even on board a rocket, takes about 7 months to get there! Future colonists could simply have supply ships drop all they need but that becomes ridiculously expensive to sustain and frankly, isn’t sustainable. The lucky people that colonise Mars will just have to find some way to grow what they need. 

If you have watched ‘The Martian’ movie with Matt Damon you will know how unforgiving the Martian environment is. Ok the film was a little out on scientific accuracy in places but it certainly showed how inhospitable it really is there. Matt managed to cultivate a decent crop of potatoes in Martian regolith fertilised in human faeces.This may not be quite so practical in real life and there may be alternative, less smelly – and dangerous – alternatives. 

NASA astronaut, Dr. Mark Watney played by Matt Damon, as he’s stranded on the Red Planet in ‘The Martian’. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Taking the assumption that colonists will have to grow fresh produce locally, a team of researchers decided to explore how feasible this might be. On first glance, it may seem not too great an idea after all, the atmosphere is toxic with 95% carbon dioxide (compared to just 0.04% on Earth). There is a similar length of day on Mars but being able to grow crops will require longer periods of lighting. It is possible at least water may be collected from the ice which forms on and in the Martian rocks.  The rocks most certainly have water stored away but organic compounds that we know of. 

The team wanted to see how fish could help and whether the water from the system could be used to impart nutrients into the Martian regolith. To test the idea, they setup an aquaponic system with fish in tanks to generate the nutrient rich liquid.

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New Simulation Explains how Supermassive Black Holes Grew so Quickly

One of the main scientific objectives of next-generation observatories (like the James Webb Space Telescope) has been to observe the first galaxies in the Universe – those that existed at Cosmic Dawn. This period is when the first stars, galaxies, and black holes in our Universe formed, roughly 50 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang. By examining how these galaxies formed and evolved during the earliest cosmological periods, astronomers will have a complete picture of how the Universe has changed with time.

As addressed in previous articles, the results of Webb‘s most distant observations have turned up a few surprises. In addition to revealing that galaxies formed rapidly in the early Universe, astronomers also noticed these galaxies had particularly massive supermassive black holes (SMBH) at their centers. This was particularly confounding since, according to conventional models, these galaxies and black holes didn’t have enough time to form. In a recent study, a team led by Penn State astronomers has developed a model that could explain how SMBHs grew so quickly in the early Universe.

The research team was led by W. Niel Brandt, the Eberly Family Chair Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State’s Eberly College of Science. Their research is described in two papers presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS224), which took place from June 9th to June 13th in Madison, Wisconsin. Their first paper, “Mapping the Growth of Supermassive Black Holes as a Function of Galaxy Stellar Mass and Redshift,” appeared on March 29th in The Astrophysical Journal, while the second is pending publication. Fan Zou, an Eberly College graduate student, was the lead author of both papers.

Illustration of an active quasar. New research shows that SMBHs eat rapidly enough to trigger them. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As they note in their papers, SMBHs grow through two main channels: by accreting cold gas from their host galaxy or merging with the SMBHs of other galaxies. When it comes to accretion, previous research has shown that a black hole’s accretion rate (BHAR) is strongly linked to its galaxy’s stellar mass and the redshift of its general stellar population. “Supermassive black holes in galaxy centers have millions-to-billions of times the mass of the Sun,” explained Zhou in a recent NASA press release. How do they become such monsters? This is a question that astronomers have been studying for decades, but it has been difficult to track all the ways black holes can grow reliably.”


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Don't Get Your Hopes Up for Finding Liquid Water on Mars

In the coming decades, NASA and China intend to send the first crewed missions to Mars. Given the distance involved and the time it takes to make a single transit (six to nine months), opportunities for resupply missions will be few and far between. As a result, astronauts and taikonauts will be forced to rely on local resources to meet their basic needs – a process known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). For this reason, NASA and other space agencies have spent decades scouting for accessible sources of liquid water.

Finding this water is essential for future missions and scientific efforts to learn more about Mars’s past, when the planet was covered by oceans, rivers, and lakes that may have supported life. In 2018, using ground-penetrating radar, the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter detected bright radar reflections beneath the southern polar ice cap that were interpreted as a lake. However, a team of Cornell researchers recently conducted a series of simulations that suggest there may be another reason for these bright patches that do not include the presence of water.

The research team was led by Daniel Lalich, a research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science (CCAPS). She was joined by Alexander G. Hayes, a Jennifer and Albert Sohn Professor, the Director of CCAPS, and the Principal Investigator of the Comparative Planetology & Solar System Exploration (COMPASSE), and Valerio Poggiali, a CCAPS Research Associate. Their paper that describes their findings, “Small Variations in Ice Composition and Layer Thickness Explain Bright Reflections Below Martian Polar Cap without Liquid Water,” appeared on June 7th in the journal Science Advances.

When the first robotic probes began making flybys of Mars in the 1960s, the images they acquired revealed surface features common on Earth. These included flow channels, river valleys, lakebeds, and sedimentary rock, all of which form in the presence of flowing water. For decades, orbiters, landers, and rovers have explored Mars’ surface, atmosphere, and climate to learn more about how and when much of this surface water was lost. In recent years, this has led to compelling evidence that what remains could be found beneath the polar ice caps today.

The most compelling evidence was obtained by the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument aboard the Mars Express orbiter. This instrument was designed by NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to search for water on the Martian surface and down to depths of about 5 km (3 mi). The radar returns indicated that the bright patches could be caused by layered deposits composed of water, dry ice, and dust. These South Polar Layered Deposits (SPLD) are thought to have formed over millions of years as Mars’ axial tilt changed.

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Webb is an Amazing Supernova Hunter

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has just increased the number of known distant supernovae by tenfold. This rapid expansion of astronomers’ catalog of supernovae is extremely valuable, not least because it improves the reliability of measurements for the expansion of the universe.

“Webb is a supernova discovery machine,” said Christa DeCoursey of the Steward Observatory and the University of Arizona at a press conference earlier this week. “The sheer number of detections plus the great distances to these supernovae are the two most exciting outcomes from our survey.”

JWST’s advantage over previous surveys is its specialty in infrared wavelengths. As the universe expands, the light coming from distant objects gets stretched, “redshifting” the light to longer wavelengths. Most of the light from the early universe, therefore, reaches us in infrared.

That has allowed the telescope to discover a host of new supernovae in distant galaxies, some of which are the furthest ever seen. Supernovas are transient objects – they’re exploding stars that change and fade over time – so catching them happening at such great distances is exciting.

Previously, the most distant supernova fell about the redshift 2 mark (3.3 billion years into the Universe’s life). The new record holder just discovered by JWST has a redshift of 3.6, meaning it exploded just 1.8 billion years after the Big Bang.

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Echoes of Flares from the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

The supermassive black hole at the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy is a quiet monster. However, Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A* for short) is not totally dormant. Occasionally it gobbles down a blob of molecular gas or even a star and then suffers a bit of indigestion. That emits x-ray flares to surrounding space.

Sgr A* is the closest supermassive black hole to Earth, at a distance of 26,000 light-years. Studying the nearby environment is tough due to the black hole’s intense gravitational pull. It distorts the view of nearby objects, making them difficult to observe. However, there are ways to do it by looking at the effect of its flares on nearby molecular clouds. Astronomers recently found the centuries-old echoes of previously unknown flares that occurred long before there were telescopes to observe them. Those echoes indicate that Sgr A* eats fairly often.

Two researchers from Michigan State University—Grace Sanger-Johnson and Jack Uteg—studied the flares and their light-echoes in detail. What they found shows activity at Sgr A* in the very distant past when Sgr A* ingested material. X-ray emissions from that activity traveled for hundreds of years from Sgr A* to bounce off of and brighten a nearby molecular cloud. That created a light echo that traveled another roughly 26,000 years before reaching Earth. So, when Uteg and Sanger studied these flares and light echoes, they were literally looking into the past.

Astronomers do know about outbursts from Sgr A* from other observations. Here’s a view from NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer and Chandra X-ray Observatory. The combination of IXPE and Chandra data helped researchers determine that the X-ray light identified in the molecular clouds originated from Sagittarius A* during an outburst approximately 200 years ago. Credits: IXPE: NASA/MSFC/F. Marin et al; Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO; Image Processing: L.Frattare, J.Major & K.Arcand

Sanger-Johnson analyzed ten years’ worth of data looking for X-ray flares generated by Sgr A*’s eating habits. During the search, she found evidence for nine more such outbursts.

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Warp Drives Could Generate Gravitational Waves

Will future humans use warp drives to explore the cosmos? We’re in no position to eliminate the possibility. But if our distant descendants ever do, it won’t involve dilithium crystals, and Scottish accents will have evaporated into history by then.

Warp drives have their roots in one of the most popular science fiction franchises ever, but they do have a scientific basis. A new paper examines the science behind them and asks if a warp drive containment failure would emit detectable gravitational waves.

The paper is titled “What no one has seen before: gravitational waveforms from warp drive collapse.” The authors are Katy Clough, Tim Dietrich, and Sebastian Khan, physicists from institutions in the UK and Germany.

There’s room for warp drives in General Relativity, and Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre described how they could theoretically work in 1994. He’s well-known in space and physics circles for his Alcubierre Drive.

Everyone knows that no object can travel faster than the speed of light. But warp drives may offer a workaround. By warping spacetime itself, a spacecraft with a warp drive wouldn’t be breaking the faster-than-light (FTL) rule.

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An Astronaut Might Need Kidney Dialysis on the Way Home from Mars

Long term space exploration comes with many challenges. Not least is how much toilet paper to take but more worryingly is the impact on human physiology. We have not evolved in a weightless environment, we are not used to floating around for months on end nor are we able to cope with increased levels of radiation. It is likely that organs like the kidneys will become damaged but it make take time for signs to appear. Researchers are developing ways to detect organ issues in the early stages and develop ways to protect them during long duration flights. 

We have known for some years that space flight causes health problems. Reduced muscle and bone density are the more well known but since the 1970’s we have also seen a weakening of the heart, eyesight issues and kidney stone development. The main cause of the problem is thought to be increased exposure to radiation from space. It’s not just the radiation from the Sun but Galactic Cosmic Radiation from deep space also plays a part. Fortunately for us here on Earth, the magnetic field protects us and those in low Earth orbit to a degree too. Those who travel further afield; to the Moon and other planets will be far more at risk. 

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED). Credit: NASA

To date, no-one has attempted to study what might be happening inside our organs as a result of long duration space flight, until now. A new study, published in Nature Communications, reports upon the analysis of kidney health in space flight. The study was funded by Wellcome, St Peters Trust and Kidney Research UK and was undertaken by a team of researchers from over 40 groups. 

The research team collected samples from over 40 low Earth orbit missions from humans and mice chiefly from the International Space Station. Using these samples they conducted biomolecular, physiological and anatomical assessments. Using mice, they were able to simulate Galactic Cosmic Radiation doses equivalent to a 1.5 year to 2.5 year Mars mission. 

NASA Image: ISS020E049908 – NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Expedition 20/21 flight engineer, is pictured near the Mice Drawer System (MDS) in the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station.

Indications from the study showed that the kidney from both animal and human experienced changes. Parts of the kidney, known as tubules, are responsible for tweaking the calcium and salt balances and these showed signs of shrinkage after less than a month in space. The researchers believe though that this is more likely the result of weightlessness rather than radiation doses. The team did suggest however that further research is appropriate to see if the combination of increased doses of radiation coupled with microgravity had an increasing effect. 


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Moon Lander Detects Technosignatures Coming from Earth

The search for life has to be one of the most talked about questions in science. The question is, what do you look for? The Odysseus lunar lander has recently detected signs of a technologically advanced civilisation…on Earth! The lander is equipped with an instrument called ROLSES which has probed the radio emissions from Earth as if it was an exoplanet to se if it could detect signs of life! 

Odysseus was launched on 15 February, it was the Intuitive Machines lunar lander and it touched down in the solar polar region of the Moon seven days later. Since then it has been collecting valuable data from the area as a prelude for future human exploration. It was part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program which have all been built by private companies. Despite the hiccup of a landing where Odysseus tipped onto its side it has still been performing well.

There have been other challenges along the way. The laser guided navigation system which was supposed to aid the landing over the rocky surface failed. In a nod to Armstrong landing Apollo 11 manually in the last few minutes, the ground crew had to land using the optical camera system alone.  Even the journey to the Moon was not without incident. One of the antennae of the ROLSES system overheated and became dislodged from its housing.  On landing, an image showed the antenna sticking out. 

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history 45 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA

On board Odysseus is the Radio wave Observations at the Lunar Surface of the photo Electron Sheath or ROLSES for short. It is a radio experiment designed to explore properties of the Earth’s atmosphere from the surface of the Moon. It was a unique opportunity to observe Earth in a completely different way and, to see if our approach for hunting for technologically capable alien civilisations are correct. 

The instrument was built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and included radio antennae and a device called a radio spectrometer. It’s purpose was to record a wide range of radio emissions from the ‘radio quiet’ locale of the Moon. It turned out to be a bit of a bonus though as the team were able to record radio waves coming from Earth for about an hour and a half. 


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NASA is Considering Other Ways of Getting its Mars Samples Home

In 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars. For the next three years, this astrobiology mission collected soil and rock samples from the crater floor for eventual return to Earth. The analysis of these samples is expected to reveal much about Mars’ past and how it transitioned from being a warmer, wetter place to the frigid and desiccated place we know today. Unfortunately, budget cuts have placed the future of the proposed NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission in doubt.

As a result, NASA recently announced that it was seeking proposals for more cost-effective and rapid methods of bringing the samples home. This will consist of three studies by NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL). In addition, NASA has selected seven commercial partners for firm-fixed-price contracts for up to $1.5 million to conduct their own 90-day studies. Once complete, NASA will consider which proposals to integrate into the MSR mission architecture.

As Administrator Bill Nelson stated in a NASA press release

“Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has undertaken, and it is critical that we carry it out more quickly, with less risk, and at a lower cost. I’m excited to see the vision that these companies, centers and partners present as we look for fresh, exciting, and innovative ideas to uncover great cosmic secrets from the Red Planet.”

The MSR mission represents the culmination of decades of efforts to learn more about the early history of Mars. NASA had originally hoped that the first crewed mission (planned for 2033) would retrieve the samples and transport them back to Earth. However, delays and budget concerns have led to growing concerns that a crewed mission will not reach Mars until 2040 (at the earliest). As a result, NASA and the European Space Agency adopted a joint mission architecture consisting of multiple robotic elements that would return the samples by 2031.

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Sulphur Makes A Surprise Appearance in this Exoplanet’s Atmosphere

At our current level of knowledge, many exoplanet findings take us by surprise. The only atmospheric chemistry we can see with clarity is Earth’s, and we still have many unanswered questions about how our planet and its atmosphere developed. With Earth as our primary reference point, many things about exoplanet atmospheres seem puzzling in comparison and generate excitement and deeper questions.

That’s what’s happened with GJ-3470 b, a Neptune-like exoplanet about 96 light-years away.

Astronomers discovered the planet during a 2012 High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) campaign. The campaign was searching for short-period planets orbiting M-dwarfs (red dwarfs). When it was discovered, it was called a hot Uranus. It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to figure out why that term has fallen out of favour, and now it’s called a sub-Neptune planet.

GJ-3470 b is about 14 times more massive than Earth, takes 3.3 days to complete one orbit, and is about 0.0355 AU from its star.

New research presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society and soon to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters shows that the planet’s atmosphere contains more sulphur dioxide than expected. The lead researcher is Thomas Beatty, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

This image shows what the powerful JWST found in WASP-39b's atmosphere. It was the first exoplanet where carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide were detected. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Olmsted (STScI)
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