Hubble trouble: Deep space telescope in ‘safe mode’ after mechanical fail

It’s been used to date the galaxy and study black holes but now NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is taking a break from activities due to a mechanical fault.

Launched into deep space in 1990, the large, long orbit telescope is packed with instruments like cameras, spectrographs and interferometers to clear up mysteries of the universe. But now NASA has been forced to place one of it’s prize assets into ‘safe mode’ due to the malfunction of a gyroscope used to balance and navigate the $2.5 billion telescope.

In a statement NASA allayed fears by saying the telescope can still carry out scientific operations with one gyro but that activities onboard the orbiter had been suspended to give engineers a chance to fix the fault.

“Hubble entered safe mode after one of the three gyroscopes actively being used to point and steady the telescope failed. Safe mode puts the telescope into a stable configuration until ground control can correct the issue and return the mission to normal operation,” NASA said in a statement.

@NASAHubble

Built with multiple redundancies, Hubble had six new gyros installed during Servicing Mission-4 in 2009. Hubble usually uses three gyros at a time for maximum efficiency, but can continue to make scientific observations with even just one gyro.

NASA became aware of the issue last Friday when a gyro, already displaying ‘end of life’ behavior, went out of action. The 28-year-old Hubble Telescope has been key to NASA and independent research of space.

The instrument, named after astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble, has been celebrated for its involvement in tracking asteroids, analysing the Kuiper Belt and documenting the nebula of dying stars.

Amateur astronomers have also been given access to Hubble for research purposes. In a well known case back in 1993, 80 astronomers were allowed to use the telescope to study the transition of comets in to asteroids.

Russia Says Space Station Leak Could Be Deliberate Sabotage

Moscow, Russia: Russia launched checks Tuesday after its space chief said an air leak on the International Space Station last week could have been caused by deliberate sabotage.

Space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin said the hole detected Thursday in a Russian space craft docked at the orbiting station was caused by a drill and could have been done deliberately, either back on Earth or in space.

Astronauts used tape to seal the leak after it caused a small loss of pressure that was not life-threatening.

"There were several attempts at drilling," Rogozin said late Monday in televised comments.

He added that the drill appeared to have been held by a "wavering hand."

"What is this: a production defect or some premeditated actions?" he asked.

"We are checking the Earth version. But there is another version that we do not rule out: deliberate interference in space."

A commission will seek to identify the culprit by name, Rogozin said, calling this a "matter of honour" for Russia's Energiya space manufacturing company that made the Soyuz.

Previously Rogozin had said the hole in the side of the Soyuz ship used to ferry astronauts was most likely caused from outside by a tiny meteorite.

"We have already ruled out the meteorite version," Rogozin said late Monday.

The hole is in a section of the Soyuz ship that will not be used to carry astronauts back to Earth.

Energiya will check all its Soyuz and Progress cargo craft for possible defects, both at its production site outside Moscow and those awaiting launch at Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, RIA Novosti state news agency reported Tuesday, citing a source in the space industry.

The ISS is one of the few areas of Russia-US cooperation that remains unaffected by the slump in relations between the countries and Washington's sanctions.

Currently on the ISS are two cosmonauts from Russia and three NASA astronauts as well as one German astronaut from the European Space Agency.

  • Published in World

Water worlds can support life – we don’t need another ‘Earth,’ study finds

A world entirely covered in water could support life, according to a new study which challenges the prevailing scientific thought that living entities need a planet like Earth in order to survive.

After running more than 1,000 simulations, researchers at the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University found that ocean planets can stay in the “sweet spot” needed to support the cycling of minerals and gases that keep the climate stable on Earth, for much longer than previously assumed.

 

This really pushes back against the idea you need an Earth clone – that is, a planet with some land and a shallow ocean,” said Edwin Kite, assistant professor of geophysical sciences at UChicago and lead author of the study. The team’s findings are published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Astronomers have been scoping the solar system for Earth-like planets that could one day support life for decades – resulting in the relatively recent discovery of several exoplanets that appear to be humankind’s best shot at an alternative to their home planet.

However, some of the exoplanet options have been deemed less viable because they’re completely covered in an ocean hundreds of miles deep, covering all rock and suppressing volcanoes.

Through a simulation of thousands of randomly-generated planets which tracked their climate evolution over billions of years, the team found that many sitting in just the right location around their stars stayed stable for longer than expected.

READ MORE: Kepler-90: NASA announces discovery of solar system similar to ours

The surprise was that many of them stay stable for more than a billion years, just by luck of the draw,” Kite said. “Our best guess is that it’s on the order of 10 percent of them.”

Kite says the scientific community has been too quick to disregard the ocean planets because they can’t regulate their temperature in the way Earth does – by drawing down greenhouse gases into minerals and warming the planet by releasing them via volcanoes.

The team found that any planet with the right amount of carbon and the ability to cycle it between the atmosphere and ocean is enough to maintain the planet’s balance.

Russia to stop ferrying US astronauts to ISS from April 2019

Russia’s contract with NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) will expire in April next year, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov has said.

Under the current contract, American astronauts avail of seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft in order to reach the ISS and return home. The US lost its capacity for manned space missions after the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, and is about to finalize a replacement in the form of a manned SpaceX Dragon capsule.

The cost of the ISS ferry service has varied over the years, with NASA paying about $81 million per seat in 2018, up from the cheapest price of $21.8 million in 2007 and 2008.

 
© Shamil Zhumatov

Reporting on the state of the Russian space industry on Friday, Yury Borisov, who is responsible for overseeing military and space matters in the Russian cabinet, said that the landing of a Soyuz-MS spaceship in April next year “will finalize the fulfillment of our obligation under a contract with NASA.”

The discontinuation of the Space Shuttle program seemed like a minor inconvenience in 2011, when the US and Russia were on relatively good terms. Today, however – amid a bitter political stand-off between the two nations – the fact that the US has to rely on Russia in some aspects of its space exploration is considered humiliating by some people in America.

The late Senator John McCain was among the most vocal critics of the situation, in which the US pays Russia millions of dollars each year in return for space engines and rides to the ISS. Vice-President Mike Pence last week pledged that the US will “very soon” be able to take people into space without Russia’s help and will return to the moon by 2024.

  • Published in World

NASA Unveils Program Aimed At Preventing An Asteroid Apocalypse

Among Earth's natural disasters-hurricanes, floods, earthquakes-the one humans probably ponder least is asteroids, huge objects zipping through our solar system at ludicrous speeds.

Federal officials call an asteroid or comet collision "low probability but high consequence," NASA-speak for it will probably never happen, but if it does we're toast. With that in mind, the U.S. and other nations have long sought to track such "near-Earth objects," or NEOs, coordinating efforts through the International Asteroid Warning Network and the United Nations.

The Trump administration now wants to enhance those efforts to detect and track potential planet killers, and to develop more capable means to deflect any that appear to be on a collision course.

"Fortunately, this type of destructive event is extremely rare," said Aaron Miles, an official with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But just to be safe, the government unveiled new goals this week for NASA's work on countering NEOs over the next decade. If you're envisioning Bruce Willis or humming an Aerosmith song, please stop. This is serious.

More than 300,000 objects larger than 40 meters (131 feet) wide orbit the sun as NEOs, according to NASA estimates, with many being difficult to detect more than a few days in advance. Forty meters is about the average size an object must be to make it through the atmosphere without burning up; thousands of much-smaller meteors disintegrate harmlessly each day far above the planet. The meteor that injured more than 1,000 people in Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013, mainly by glass shattered from the shock wave of its explosion, was believed to be about 20 meters wide (65 feet).

The most recent encounter with an asteroid was on June 2, when a 2-meter boulder dubbed 2018 LA entered the atmosphere at 10 miles per second (38,000 mph) and exploded over Botswana.

OK, now here's the good news: NASA has documented roughly 96 percent of the objects large enough to cause a global catastrophe since work began in 1998, said Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office. On Thursday alone, five massive asteroids zipped within 4.6 million miles of Earth-which is pretty close in space-including one called 2017 YE5, a 1,600-foot wide behemoth that, if it paid us a visit, would ruin everyone's day. But NASA has its number.

Also good news: This growing catalog of potentially Armageddon-causing (don't do it-the movie was terrible) objects offers the world years of notice about when an orbit would intercept Earth, given the immense distances asteroids and comets travel through space. For example, 101955 Bennu, a 1,600-foot wide carbon asteroid found in 1999 and which figures prominently in NASA's current deep-space research, has only a 1-in-24,000 chance of hitting Earth-and that's 157 years from now.

Today, NASA's catalog contains 18,310 NEOs, with about 8,000 of them classified as 140 meters wide and larger. That's the size at which enormous regional impacts and mass casualties would occur if one hit. How government agencies would prepare for such a calamity is a novelty to most.

"One of the key things we're finding is that, for emergency managers, this is so different we have to first educate them," said Leviticus Lewis, a response coordinator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Now, more bad news: A chance remains that large comets from the outer solar system could suddenly appear and hit Earth with only a few months' warning. There's also the potential for a surprise from deep space-an object whose orbit isn't bound by the sun-like the kind that showed up last October. That's when Oumuamua, a 400-meter, cigar-shaped oddity, whizzed past the sun at almost 200,000 mph. The intriguing object was the first known to have come from interstellar space, to which it is now returning.

So can we do anything? NASA has devised three strategies for potentially sparing Earth annihilation by asteroid, with each method's effectiveness determined by the size and composition of an asteroid and how much warning there is.

Kinetic impact: A direct hit with a spacecraft to produce even a miniscule nudge may be sufficient if the asteroid has millions of miles yet to travel before it strikes the planet. Gravity: Attaching a spacecraft to an asteroid-what NASA dubs a "gravity tractor"-would alter its path because of the enlarged mass. And landing on a NEO is well within science's current toolbox: The European Space Agency landed on a comet four years ago, and Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is nearing an asteroid called Ryuga this month. NASA plans a similar rendezvous in December with Bennu. The downside-an asteroid can't be larger than 100 meters wide or this technique won't work. Nuke it: No, not like the movie. A nuclear explosion on a massive asteroid would superheat the surface and cause some of the mass to slough off, Johnson said on a call June 20 with reporters. A rocket could then theoretically push the asteroid to a different trajectory. This option, however, works only for a large body of which scientists have at least a decade's notice.

The Obama and Trump administrations have both sought more funds for asteroid research, with the annual budget jumping from $12 million to $150 million in this administration's most recent request.

Most of that funding is for NASA to complete its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission in 2021-22. The goal is to impact the smaller "moonlet" of a binary asteroid called Didymos, to learn how well we may be able to alter the course of a future killer rock.

If successful, then mankind will know it has a viable option, if someday we see something headed our way.

The true power of the solar wind

The planets and moons of our solar system are continuously being bombarded by particles hurled away from the sun. On Earth this has hardly any effect, apart from the fascinating northern lights, because the dense atmosphere and the magnetic field of the Earth protect us from these solar wind particles. But on the Moon or on Mercury things are different: There, the uppermost layer of rock is gradually eroded by the impact of sun particles.

New results of the TU Wien now show that previous models of this process are incomplete. The effects of solar wind bombardment are in some cases much more drastic than previously thought. These findings are important for the ESA mission BepiColombo, Europe's first Mercury mission. The results have now been published in the planetology journal Icarus.

An Exosphere of Shattered Rock

"The solar wind consists of charged particles - mainly hydrogen and helium ions, but heavier atoms up to iron also play a role," explains Prof. Friedrich Aumayr from the Institute of Applied Physics at TU Wien. These particles hit the surface rocks at a speed of 400 to 800 km per second and the impact can eject numerous other atoms. These particles can rise high before they fall back to the surface, creating an "exosphere" around the Moon or Mercury - an extremely thin atmosphere of atoms sputtered from the surface rocks by solar wind bombardment.

This exosphere is of great interest for space research because its composition allows scientists to deduce the chemical composition of the rock surface - and it is much easier to analyse the exosphere than to land a spacecraft on the surface. In October 2018, ESA will send the BepiColombo probe to Mercury, which is to obtain information about the geological and chemical properties of Mercury from the composition of the exosphere.

Charge matters

However, this requires a precise understanding of the effects of the solar wind on the rock surfaces, and this is precisely where decisive gaps in knowledge still exist. Therefore, the TU Wien investigated the effect of ion bombardment on wollastonite, a typical moon rock. "Up to now it was assumed that the kinetic energy of the fast particles is primarily responsible for atomization of the rock surface," says Paul Szabo, PhD student in Friedrich Aumayr's team and first author of the current publication. "But this is only half the truth: we were able to show that the high electrical charge of the particles plays a decisive role. It is the reason that the particles on the surface can do much more damage than previously thought."

When the particles of the solar wind are multiply charged, i.e. when they lack several electrons, they carry a large amount of energy which is released in a flash on impact. "If this is not taken into account, the effects of the solar wind on various rocks are misjudged," says Paul Szabo. Therefore, it is not possible to draw exact conclusions about the surface rocks with an incorrect model from the composition of the exosphere.

Protons make up by far the largest part of the solar wind, and so it was previously thought that they had the strongest influence on the rock. But as it turns out, helium actually plays the main role because, unlike protons, it can be charged twice as positively. And the contribution of heavier ions with an even greater electrical charge must not be neglected either. A cooperation of different research groups was necessary for these findings: High-precision measurements were carried out with a specifically developed microbalance at the Institute of Applied Physics. At the Vienna Scientific Cluster VSC-3 complex computer simulations with codes developed for nuclear fusion research were carried out in order to be able to interpret the results correctly. The Analytical Instrumentation Center and the Institute for Chemical Technologies and Analytics of the TU Vienna also made important contributions.

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Cooperation partners of the research project were also the Physics Institute of the University of Bern and the Space Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Graz, which will now help contributing the new findings to the analysis of the forthcoming ESA space mission.

Under pressure: Extreme atmosphere stripping may limit exoplanets' habitability

New models of massive stellar eruptions hint at an extra layer of complexity when considering whether an exoplanet may be habitable or not. Models developed for our own Sun have now been applied to cool stars favoured by exoplanet hunters, in research presented by Dr Christina Kay, of the NASA Goddard Flight Center, on Monday 3rd July at the National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Hull.

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are huge explosions of plasma and magnetic field that routinely erupt from the Sun and other stars. They are a fundamental factor in so called "space weather," and are already known to potentially disrupt satellites and other electronic equipment on Earth. However, scientists have shown that the effects of space weather may also have a significant impact on the potential habitability of planets around cool, low mass stars -- a popular target in the search for Earth-like exoplanets.

Traditionally an exoplanet is considered "habitable" if its orbit corresponds to a temperature where liquid water can exist. Low mass stars are cooler, and therefore should have habitable zones much closer in to the star than in our own solar system, but their CMEs should be much stronger due to their enhanced magnetic fields.

When a CME impacts a planet, it compresses the planet's magnetosphere, a protective magnetic bubble shielding the planet. Extreme CMEs can exert enough pressure to shrink a magnetosphere so much that it exposes a planet's atmosphere, which can then be swept away from the planet. This could in turn leave the planetary surface and any potential developing lifeforms exposed to harmful X-rays from the nearby host star.

The team built on recent work done at Boston University, taking information about CMEs in our own solar system and applying it to a cool star system.

"We figured that the CMEs would be more powerful and more frequent than solar CMEs, but what was unexpected was where the CMEs ended up" said Christina Kay, who led the research during her PhD work.

The team modelled the trajectory of theoretical CMEs from the cool star V374 Pegasi and found that the strong magnetic fields of the star push most CMEs down to the Astrophysical Current Sheet (ACS), the surface corresponding to the minimum magnetic field strength at each distance, where they remain trapped.

"While these cool stars may be the most abundant, and seem to offer the best prospects for finding life elsewhere, we find that they can be a lot more dangerous to live around due to their CMEs" said Marc Kornbleuth, a graduate student involved in the project.

The results suggest that an exoplanet would need a magnetic field ten to several thousand times that of Earth's to shield their atmosphere from the cool star's CMEs. As many as five impacts a day could occur for planets near the ACS, but the rate decreases to one every other day for planets with an inclined orbit.

Merav Opher, who advised the work, commented, "This work is pioneering in the sense that we are just now starting to explore space weather effects on exoplanets, which will have to be taken into account when discussing the habitability of planets near very active stars."

NASA's Cassini Spacecraft Captures Stunning Photos of Saturn's Changing Seasons

NASA's Cassini spacecraft made new pictures of Saturn and the famous storm at its north pole on the second day of the planet's solstice, NASA reported.

Cassini observed how a huge storm has appeared and encircled Saturn over the last seven years of its mission. Scientists believe that such storms are influenced by seasonal effects of sunlight on Saturn's atmosphere.

"Reaching the solstice, and observing seasonal changes in the Saturn system along the way was a primary goal of Cassini's Solstice Mission," NASA's website reported.

Saturn's north-polar region in June 2013 and April 2017
Saturn's north-polar region in June 2013 and April 2017 / © Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Hampton University

Basically, the spacecraft was able to follow the complete change of all seasons on Saturn, with the whole planet's system dramatically changing with the start of summer and the end of winter.

"The Saturn system undergoes dramatic transitions from winter to summer, and thanks to Cassini, we had a ringside seat," Dr. Linda Spilker, the scientific leader of the mission, was quoted as saying.

NASA: Cassini's First Fantastic Dive Past Saturn
 
Many of the things, which scientists know now, could have never been registered by Cassini if NASA had not decided to extend the mission. For example, five years ago, Cassini first "saw" how Saturn's atmosphere was covered with a giant hurricane at the beginning of autumn and how a haze of hydrocarbons appeared in the planet's atmosphere.

The main achievement of the Cassini mission was the discovery that geysers located on Saturn's sixth moon — Enceladus — can ejecthot water that is generally suitable for the birth and maintenance of life. This discovery urged NASA to consider sending another mission to Saturn and Enceladus in the future.

The Cassini space mission was launched in October 1997 and arrived at Saturn in July 2004. The mission has seen two extensions and is set to end on September 15, 2017. Its observations have generated hundreds of scientific articles.

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