Hubble spots liquid water on a ‘super-Earth’ 110 light-years away – gpgmail


Water is not uncommon to find in our galaxy in ice or gaseous form, but liquid water is quite rare — and liquid and gaseous water on an Earth-like exoplanet? That’s never been observed… until now. Astronomers spotted this celestial unicorn, called K2-18 b, using the venerable Hubble space telescope.

K2-18 b is a “super-Earth,” a planet with a mass and size approximately like our own. Not only that, it exists in its solar system’s “habitable zone,” meaning a range of temperatures where liquid water can continuously exist. It’s about 110 light-years away in the constellation Leo.

Of course there are many super-Earths, and many planets in habitable zones, and many planets with water — but they’re never one and the same. This is the first time we’ve found the trifecta.

Researchers used past Hubble data to examine the spectral signature of light shining from K2-18 b’s sun through its atmosphere. They found evidence of both liquid and gaseous water, suggesting a water cycle like our own: evaporation, condensation, and all that.

To be clear, this is not an indication of little green men or anything like that; K2-18 b’s red dwarf sun is absolutely bombarding it with radiation. “It is highly unlikely that this world is habitable in any way that we understand based on life as we know it,” the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Hannah Wakeford told Nature.

Too bad — but that wasn’t what scientists were hoping to find. The discovery of an Earth-like planet with an Earth-like water cycle in the habitable zone is amazing, especially considering the relatively small number of exoplanets that have been examined this way. The galaxy is full of them, after all, so finding one with these qualities suggests there are plenty more where K2-18 b came from.

This discovery is an interesting one in another fashion: It was done, like lots of others are these days, by performing after-the-fact analysis on publicly available data (from 2016 and 2017), and the analysis used open-source algorithms. Essentially both the data and the methods were out there in the open — though naturally it takes serious scientific effort to actually put them together.

Two papers were published on K2-18 b, one from the University of Montreal and one from University College London. The former appeared on preprint site Arxiv yesterday, and the other was published in the journal Nature Astronomy today.


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NASA Tests Space Concrete for Future Mars Habitats


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NASA is looking toward a future when humans could visit Mars for an extended period, and Elon Musk is promising to send people there in the next decade. Whenever humans do set foot on Mars, they’re going to need someplace to hang their hat (or spacesuit helmet). Concrete could potentially allow explorers to build structures quickly and easily, assuming it sets correctly without Earth gravity. NASA has conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to assess the strength of concrete mixed in space. 

Scientists believe concrete could be an ideal material for building on other worlds because it’s durable, offers protection from radiation, and it may be possible to make it using materials present on the moon and Mars. Being able to manufacture building materials at your destination (known as in-situ resources) makes missions cheaper and easier to design because you don’t have to launch as much mass from Earth. 

However, there’s a lot we still don’t know about the molecular structure of concrete here on Earth. Concrete is a mixture of sand and gravel with lime or silicate (cement powder). As the cement dissolves in water, it forms crystal complexes that link together the aggregate to make a solid structure. The process of mixing and building with concrete is well established on Earth, but we don’t know how microgravity could affect it. Do we need to modify the ratios? Add additional materials? That’s what the ISS experiment aims to find out. 

ISS concrete above and Earth concrete below.

The experiment, known as Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS), is the first time concrete has been mixed outside of Earth’s gravity. Astronauts aboard the ISS mixed tricalcium silicate and water in varying amounts to create a concrete paste. The astronauts added alcohol to some of the packets to stop the hydration process at set intervals as well. A separate experiment used a centrifuge simulated lunar and Martian gravity on the samples as they mixed. 

The experiment confirms that concrete can harden in microgravity, which is a good thing. That means we can build structures with concrete outside of Earth’s gravity. The primary difference is an increase in pores compared with concrete mixed on Earth, and that could reduce the material’s strength. However, lower gravity on the moon or Mars would also put it under less strain. It may be possible to develop different binders that improve the strength of lunar or Martian concrete, and that may even lead to better concrete here on Earth.

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Engineers Connect Two Halves of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope for First Time


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Development of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) stretches all the way back to the mid-90s. No one at the time could have anticipated how long it would take to get the monstrously complex instrument built, but we’re in the home stretch now. Engineers at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Redondo Beach, California have assembled the two halves of the telescope for the first time. It’s not quite ready for launch yet, but it’s finally starting to look like the renders we’ve seen for years. 

The James Webb Space Telescope is NASA’s successor to Hubble, which is still working after more than a quarter-century. However, that telescope hasn’t had a service mission since the Space Shuttle was retired, and some of its components are starting to fail. The JWST won’t just replace Hubble; it will massively expand our ability to observe distant objects. It’s also a much more complex piece of technology. It uses a larger multi-segment beryllium mirror, and the high infrared sensitivity means it needs a deployable sunshield to protect the instruments. 

Engineers constructed the telescope in two halves out of necessity. There’s the Webb telescope itself with the mirrors and scientific instruments, and then the spacecraft frame with the sunshield and communication equipment. Northrop Grumman temporarily connected the two halves last year to make sure they could communicate with each other, but now they’re physically connected in their final conformation. The team carefully moved the telescope over top of the spacecraft with a crane, and then lowered it into place, allowing engineers could link it with the frame. Northrop is now working to connect the electronics to get the two halves fully integrated. 

JWST-Feature

What the JWST will look like in space.

The next step is for engineers to test the five-layer sunshield. After launch, the JWST will head near the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point almost a million miles away (1.5 million kilometers). If the sunshield doesn’t deploy properly, the telescope could be inoperative with no way to fix it. So, it’s absolutely vital the team makes sure it works before packing it up in the Ariane 5 rocket. 

The current timeline, which has been delayed repeatedly, calls for the James Webb Space Telescope to launch in March 2021. It’s designed to operate for at least five years, but the team hopes for 10 or more. We can only hope it’s as successful as Hubble, which is nearing its thirtieth anniversary.

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NASA Attaches Helicopter Drone to Mars 2020 Rover


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NASA is still busy integrating the systems that will let the new Mars 2020 rover explore the red planet, but engineers took time to hook up the rover’s sole passenger this week: the Mars Helicopter. The small experimental aircraft is now installed on the belly of the rover, ready to ride the larger robot down to the surface of Mars. Once there, it will, hopefully, make history as the first-ever aircraft to fly on another planet.

 NASA began developing the Mars Helicopter Scout concept several years before rover assembly. After testing showed the design was viable, the agency secured $23 million in funding to make it a reality in time for the summer 2020 rover launch. The Mars Helicopter won’t include any scientific instruments because it’s considered a technology demonstration. NASA doesn’t want to trust any vital tasks to the first aircraft to ever fly on Mars. The solar-powered helicopter will have a camera, which could help the rover navigate around rough terrain and obstacles. 

To install the helicopter and its deployment system, engineers at NASA JPL had to flip Mars 2020 on its back. The rover is upside-down in the image above, giving the team access to the bottom surface for helicopter mounting. The rover will drop the Mars Helicopter Scout on the surface after its landing at Jezero Crater in 2021. In the meantime, a cover shield will remain in place to protect the helicopter during launch and landing. 

NASA has tested the helicopter in a vacuum chamber here on Earth. The chamber dropped to Mars-like atmospheric pressure, which makes it harder to generate lift. However, the Mars Helicopter Scout is just 4 pounds (1.8 kg). While we can’t change gravity, NASA used a “gravity offload system” that tugs upward on the rover to make it behave as if it were lighter. The helicopter successfully hovered in the chamber, so the team thinks it will be able to fly on Mars. 

After deployment on the surface, the Mars Helicopter Scout will fly up to five times over a month. Although, NASA has a habit of designing robots that far outlive their original mission parameters. The helicopter might take more flights than anyone is expecting. A successful test of the helicopter on Mars could mean much more ambitious flying robots will head to the red planet in the future. A flying probe could reach perilous cliffs, deep craters, and other locations inaccessible to a wheeled rover.

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NASA Chief and Jerry Agree: ‘Pluto is a Planet’


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Pluto is still a planet, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. The announcement puts him in good company with noted human astronomer Jerry Smith (above right) who staked out a similar position on our solar system’s smallest and most distant dwarf planet. Smith was unavailable for comment, but Bridenstine was willing to speak out on the controversial topic anyway. While attending a FIRST robotics event in Colorado, Bridenstine stuck up for the diminutive orb.

“Just so you know, in my view, Pluto is a planet. And you can write that the NASA Administrator declared Pluto a planet once again. I’m sticking by that, it’s the way I learned it, and I’m committed to it,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine is, of course, wrong. Bridenstine is, of course, right. How you read the situation depends on which sources of authority you credit and how much you care about things like being aligned with the opinions of scientists and astronomers. But before we discuss that epistemological point, let’s talk about planets. Why isn’t Pluto a planet any longer?

The Problem With Planets

Once upon a time, the number of planets considered to be part of the solar system was far higher than it is today. Improvements to telescope design throughout the 1800s soon meant that astronomers were swimming in “planets,” including objects like Vesta, Ceres, and Juno. At the time of their discoveries, all of these asteroids were considered to be planets. The discovery of 10 Hygea was hailed in the 1850 Annual of Scientific Discovery, which declares that the solar system is now comprised of 18 planets — more than double the number we recognize today.

1850 Annual of Scientific Discovery

As for Pluto, it has a Kuiper Belt problem. In 1992, scientists discovered 15760 Albion and with it, confirmed the existence of the Kuiper Belt. It was the first trans-Neptunian object (TNO) to be discovered after Pluto and Charon, but it was far from the last. There are now more than 2,000 TNOs known to exist, and while Pluto bears little resemblance to any of the inner planets, its erratic orbit and general characteristics fit the template of a TNO perfectly. (Fun fact: Neptune’s moon Triton is a very similar world to Pluto, as far as its composition and geology and is regarded as a captured TNO that likely wreaked havoc on whatever moon system Neptune possessed before it was captured by the gas giant).

Pluto

Pluto, as imaged by New Horizons.

Many of these TNOs are close to Pluto in size and shape. To take them into account, we either needed to once again drastically expand the number of planets in the solar system or define the word in a way that would exclude objects like Sedna, Qaoar, Eris, Makemake, and Haumea. In 2006, the International Astronomers’ Union decided to formalize the definition of a planet. It considered a number of proposals, including some that would have recognized the dwarf planet Ceres and even potentially 4 Vesta as a planet.

Ultimately, the IAU decided that a planet had three distinguishing characteristics:

1. It is in orbit around the Sun.
2. It has sufficient mass to be in hydrostatic equilibrium (it must be rounded by the effects of its own gravity).
3. It must have “cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit.

Clearing the neighborhood means that the planet is gravitationally dominant in its own local system. The Moon is much larger than a typical satellite for a planet Earth’s size should be — that’s one of the reasons we think it formed in an unusual way — but Earth still completely dominates the Earth-Moon gravitational system.

Point #2 disqualifies an object like 4 Vesta from being a planet because Vesta is not (quite) in hydrostatic equilibrium. Point #3 knocks out objects like Ceres and Pluto. Ceres is in the midst of the asteroid belt, while Pluto’s barycenter with its moon, Charon, is outside of Pluto itself. Charon does not orbit Pluto — Charon and Pluto orbit a common point in space, above both of their surfaces.

Therefore, according to the IAU, Pluto is not a planet because it does not meet the third qualification.

But Bridenstine’s declaration that Pluto is a planet because that’s what he was taught is a common way for people to understand this situation as well. One common cognitive fallacy that humans fall prey to is anchoring bias. It’s our tendency to recall the first piece of information we learned about a thing, whether that information is true or not, and it “anchors” our perceptions of later information that we are presented with. Just because we don’t classify Pluto as a planet any longer doesn’t mean Pluto doesn’t “feel” like a planet, for lack of a better phrase.

I sometimes wonder if the entire issue would have been less controversial if scientists had communicated that the number of planets was going to have to be changed, no matter what. People who get unhappy about Pluto not being a planet often fixate on the number of planets in Earth’s solar system, as though nine were a better number than eight. One wonders how they would have reacted to discovering that instead of nine, the new appropriate number was well over 20. If Pluto and the TNOs are planets, then objects like Ceres would also have a strong claim to the title as well. One suspects the defenders of Nine Planet Theory would be just as unhappy with that world as they are today, with one critical difference: By declaring there are just 8 planets, astronomers avoided asking everyone to memorize a dozen new names.

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NASA Has Fired Up the Deep Space Atomic Clock


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NASA has to rethink some tried-and-true approaches to spacecraft navigation as it eyes more distant targets. Spacecraft need extremely accurate location measurements to plan maneuvers, but the way we’ve been doing that can be painfully slow. That’s why NASA launched a new prototype atomic clock into orbit recently. This device could revolutionize space exploration, and the team just turned it on for the first time. 

The so-called Deep Space Atomic Clock went into space on a Falcon Heavy rocket earlier this year along with two dozen other payloads. Like ground-based atomic clocks, this device measures the passage of time with extraordinary accuracy, and that’s a must-have for space travel. 

Current spacecraft determine their position through a convoluted and time-consuming method relying on ground-based atomic clocks. These missions have to beam signals back to Earth, allowing a clock to calculate how long it took for the signal to reach us. Then, the result goes back out to the spacecraft. This test, if successful, could lead to a new generation of spacecraft that have an atomic clock on-board rather than relying on ground-based clocks. 

The Deep Space Clock is about the size of a toaster, mounted to the General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Orbital Test Bed satellite. That’s tiny for an atomic clock, most of which are the size of a refrigerator. With an atomic clock like this one on a spacecraft, the location calculation would be one-way. Signals from Earth would allow the computer to instantly calculate a position based on how long it took for those signals to reach the spacecraft. 

NASA even has free poster designs commemorating the Deep Space Atomic Clock.

NASA created this compact atomic clock using a mercury ion design. It uses the oscillations of mercury ions at low temperatures to measure the passage of time. Now that the clock is online, NASA will be able to track its performance to ensure it’s accurate, and it has to be almost unbelievably so. Even a few lost nanoseconds here and there could lead to disaster as a vessel aims for precise maneuvers. 

If the Deep Space Atomic Clock lives up to expectations, it should only lose one second in 10 million years. NASA will measure the clock’s performance down to the nanosecond over the coming months. Success could mean similar devices will show up on future deep-space missions to Mars, Europa, and beyond.

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NASA Astronaut Accused of World’s First ‘Space Crime’ Denies Allegations


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Decorated US astronaut Anne McClain had been accused of committing the first crimes in space. McClain is going through an acrimonious divorce and her spouse, Summer Worden, has alleged that McClain committed financial improprieties by accessing financial records while serving aboard the ISS (International Space Station) and has filed a complaint with the FTC and NASA’s Office of Inspector General, accusing McClain of identity theft and improperly accessing records.

The claims of financial harm are now being investigated by NASA, but McClain is strongly denying any intent or wrongdoing:

The question of jurisdiction in space is a complex one. The five space agencies that operate the space station — US, Russia, Japan, China, and Europe — have agreements in place to hammer out issues that might occur while aboard, but to the best of anyone’s knowledge, this is the first time there have been allegations of any kind of illegal activity occurring in space (at least, as far as something an astronaut might personally do). The New York Times points out that with the advent of space tourism, these kinds of questions are going to be raised on a more regular basis. What does legal discovery look like, for example, when it impacts a NASA network? In any kind of scenario in which individuals from more than one nation are involved in a dispute, how should said dispute be adjudicated, and under what auspices?

These sorts of questions are esoteric at the moment because we have no serious space-tourism industry. At present, seven space tourists have made eight spaceflights. From 2001-2009, the Russian Space Agency provided space flights, but they ceased doing so after 2009 because the expanded crew capabilities of the ISS require the Soyuz to carry more passengers to and from the station. On June 7, 2019, NASA announced that it would allow private astronauts to return to the ISS using either SpaceX’s Dragon2 module or Boeing’s Starliner. Bigelow Aerospace wants to launch an inflatable space habitat, the BA 330, into LEO by 2022.

McClain was scheduled to take part in the first all-female spacewalk earlier this year, but she had to back out due to a spacesuit sizing issue (NASA has two medium-size spacesuit available on the ISS, but only one was properly outfitted for spacewalking and it was already scheduled to be in-use by her astronaut partner). NASA opted to change the spacewalk roster rather than spend hours fitting the other suit for simultaneous operation. The complaint filed against McClain accuses her of identity theft but acknowledges that funds had not been moved out of the account.

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Experimental U.S. Air Force space plane breaks previous record for orbital spaceflight – gpgmail


The Boeing-built X-37B space plane commissioned and operated by the U.S. Air Force has now broken its own record for time spent in space. Its latest mission has lasted 719 days as of today, which is one day longer than its last mission which ended in 2017, as noted by Space.com. It’s not an overall record, since geocommunications satellites typically have life spans of five years or more, but it’s nonetheless an impressive milestone for this secretive Air Force vehicle, which is all about testing and developing U.S. technologies related to reusable spaceflight and more.

The X-37B began its current mission in September 2018, when it launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The specific details of the spacecraft’s missions are classified, but in addition to apparently spending ever increasing amounts of time up in space (each successive mission of the space plane has lasted longer), it’s also “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” These tests involve tech related to guidance, navigation, thermal protection, high-temperature materials and durability, flight and propulsion systems and more, which is basically not saying much since that’s just everything involved in space flight.

There’s no crew on board operating X-37-B, but the vehicle can autonomously descend back through Earth’s atmosphere and land horizontally on a runway, just like the NASA Space Shuttle used to do when it was in operation.

The X-37 program got kicked off in 1997, originally began by NASA, and it was then transferred to DARPA and the U.S. Air Force after that. The X-37B has flown four times, and in total, the first four missions added up to 2,085 days spent in space.


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Japan’s ispace now aims for a lunar landing in 2021, and a Moon rover deployment in 2023 – gpgmail


One of the private companies aiming to deliver a commercial lunar lander to the Moon has adjusted the timing for its planned mission, which isn’t all that surprising given the enormity of the task. Japanese startup ispace is now targeting 2021 for their first lunar landing, and 2023 for a second lunar mission that will also include deploying a rover on the Moon’s surface.

The company’s ‘HAKUTO-R’ program was originally planned to to include a mission in 2020 that would involve sending a lunar orbital vehicle for demonstration purposes without any payloads, but that part of the plan has been scrapped in favor of focusing all efforts on delivering actual payloads for commercial customers by 2021 instead.

This updated focus, the company says, is due mostly to the speeding up of the global market for private launch services and payload delivery, including for things like NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, wherein the agency is looking for a growing number of private contractors to support its own needs in terms of getting stuff to the Moon.

ispace itself isn’t on the list of 9 companies selected in round one of NASA’s program, but the Japanese company is supporting American non-profit Draper in its efforts, which was one fo the chosen. The Draper/ispace team-up happened after ispace’s initial commitment to its 2020 orbital demo, so its change in priorities makes sense given the new tie-up.

HAKUTO-R will use SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for its first missions, and the company has also signed partnerships with JAXA, Japan’s space agency, as well as new corporate partners including Suzuki, Sumitomo Corporation, Shogakukan, and Citizen Watch.


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Aerospace Firm Shows Off Giant Inflatable Space Habitat


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Most of the spacecraft in science fiction are ridiculously spacious, but real life is much less luxurious. The International Space Station (ISS) has just 388 cubic meters of habitable space, and future deep-space assignments could have astronauts serving much longer tours of duty. NASA has partnered with Sierra Nevada Corporation to explore ways to make spacecraft a bit less cramped, and the company has now completed a prototype inflatable habitat module with almost as much living space as the entire ISS. 

NASA originally funded the NextSTEP-2 program to develop technologies for long-term missions like the Lunar Gateway station and a journey to Mars. The current plan is to make the Lunar Gateway a smaller modular station that will initially have just a small life support area and docking for lunar landers. The inflatable habitat shown off at Johnson Space Center this week could eventually add a lot more living areas to the Gateway and other missions. 

This isn’t NASA’s first look at inflatable habitats. The agency partnered with Bigelow Aerospace to deploy a small inflatable prototype module to the ISS called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). The 16 cubic meter volume of BEAM is a far cry from the Sierra Nevada mockup, though. 

The habitat measures approximately 26 by 26 feet (8 by 8 meters) with a total internal volume of 984 cubic feet (300 cubic meters). That’s a third of the total pressurized volume of the ISS, and more than three-quarters of its habitable space. The multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, allowing NASA to send the entire module to space in a standard rocket like the Falcon Heavy, ULA’s upcoming Vulcan booster, or NASA’s own Space Launch System. 

Once in space, the module can expand into a three-level habitat with room for any necessary activities — Sierra Nevada Corporation doesn’t have a specific purpose in mind, but the prototype is outfitted with a greenhouse, scientific facilities, a gym, and more.  

Sierra Nevada hopes to impress NASA and other potential partners with its initial design, but a space-ready habitat could be altered as needed. With all the changes to the proposed Lunar Gateway, the company isn’t sure when or if NASA will want a large inflatable habitat module. The timeline for sending humans to Mars is still very preliminary as well. Sierra Nevada isn’t building Mars-specific habitats until NASA defines mission parameters. However, an inflatable habitat like this could make a months-long trip to Mars much less stressful for the crew. 

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