Space News Update – February 2018

Rhiannon Williams 2018-02-10

Technical difficulties may have pushed things back a week, but never fear, we’re still here and are able to include the Falcon Heavy launch while it’s still fresh, so every cloud etc.. So this time space fans we have some great stuff about that and an update on the TRAPPIST exoplanets and extra-galactic exoplanets!

SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH OF SPACEX  FALCON HEAVY ROCKET

Unless you were hiding under a rock this week, you know about the launch and hopefully watched it. I have to say it is definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever witnessed in my life and will I hope ushers in a new era of space exploration in a far cheaper, sustainable fashion than has been previously achieved. It also ushers in an era of private and public organizations working together, for example, SpaceX rockets have already been used to resupply the International Space Station and have signed a 20-year rental deal for the use of the Kennedy Space Centre’s launch pad.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot congratulated the entire SpaceX team on the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy.

“All of us in this business know the effort it takes to get to a first flight of any new vehicle and recognize the tremendous accomplishment we witnessed today,” he said. “I am really proud of the hard work of our NASA team, in particular at Kennedy, for the transformation into a multi-user spaceport. Watching the Falcon Heavy rise above the historic pad that has been the launch point for so many critical missions is a true testament to the hard work transitioning our nation’s launch infrastructure in support of the commercial launch industry.”

               

Although the core booster was lost when it was trying to land on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (That name is an homage to the late Ian M Banks and his Culture series of sci fi books incidentally), the other two boosters were landed safely almost simultaneously. Not all of the core’s engines fired on re-entry and it hit the water at nearly 500kph. Don’t forget this was their first try at this so it’s a stunning achievement! I have heard people muttering about ‘space junk’ with regard to the Tesla Roadster with its passenger setting off on it’s long Solar orbit, however, when testing rockets they usually use a large lump of concrete, so this payload is so much cooler. It has cameras you can watch it with and take loads of screenshots like I did. The car is headed for a heliocentric Earth/Mars orbit so it will be in our Solar system for the next billion years or so. It was originally planned to chase Mars, but the burn from the second stage rocket was stronger than expected, meaning it’s now headed for the asteroid belt. This is in fact a fortuitous accident in that it opens up possibilities for all that asteroid mining we all love so much!

It has a plaque with all of SpaceX’s employees on it, a data storage device with Isaac Asimov classics on it, a Don’t Panic didplayon the dashboard and is playing David Bowie..I can only hope there’s a towel in the glovebox. The passenger it’s carrying is not just a dummy, it’s wearing an official crew spacesuit designed to look good as well as functional.

 

“I mean, it’s a dangerous trip, you want to look good,” Elon Musk said. “It’s easy to make a spacesuit that looks good but doesn’t work; it’s really hard to make a spacesuit that works, and looks good. It definitely works, though,” he added. “You can just put it on and jump in a vacuum chamber.”

 

Here’s a link to the launch in case you missed it.

As for the future, the Falcon Heavy can carry larger payloads (64 metric tons) further and to higher orbits than previously possible and far cheaper at £90 million per launch. The plan is also to start manned flights with the Crew Dragon. Then we can’t forget the possibilities of the Big Falcon Rocket, or Big F***ing Rocket as Elon calls it for getting humanity to Mars at some point. There is also talk of ultra fast Earth transport using rockets as some of you may have read about in science fiction novels (Robert Heinlen springs immediately to mind). So the future looks so very exciting!

NEW INFORMATION ON TRAPPIST PLANETS

It’s only been a year since the discovery of this solar system, yet we now know more about it than any other sytem other than our own. At a mere 40 lightyears distance from us we can obtain data more easily and can include ground based telescopes. They are all rocky planets and some may be able to have up to 5% water which is 250 times what Earth can hold in its oceans. Naturally the planets respective distances to their star, as well as its heat output, will control what form their water will be, whether atmospheric, liquid water or ice. Their star is an ultra cool dwarf less than 10% the size of our Sun.

Video credit Nasa/JPL “Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have conducted the first spectroscopic survey of Earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system’s habitable zone. Hubble reveals that at least the inner five planets do not seem to contain puffy, hydrogen-rich atmospheres similar to gaseous planets such as Neptune. This means the atmospheres may be more shallow and rich in heavier gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and oxygen.”

“We now know more about TRAPPIST-1 than any other planetary system apart from our own,” said Sean Carey, manager of the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California, and co-author of the new study. “The improved densities in our study dramatically refine our understanding of the nature of these mysterious worlds.”

“Densities, while important clues to the planets’ compositions, do not say anything about habitability. However, our study is an important step forward as we continue to explore whether these planets could support life,” said Brice-Olivier Demory, co-author at the University of Bern.

This graph presents known properties of the seven TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets (labeled b thorugh h), showing how they stack up to the inner rocky worlds in our own solar system Credit: NASA/JPL

In order to find out even more about these exciting worlds we’ll have to wait until the launch of the more powerful James Webb Space telescope in irder to look more deeply into what, if any atmospheres these worlds may have.

“Our conceptions of what these planets look like today may change dramatically over time,” said Robert Hurt, senior visualization scientist at the Spitzer Science Center. “As we learn more about these planets, the pictures we make will evolve in response to our improved understanding.”

FIRST EXOPLANETS DISCOVERED OUTSIDE OUR GALAXY

If you think how hard it is to find exoplanets within our own galaxy, you can only imagine how difficult it is to find them in another galaxy, let alone 3.8 billion light years away! However that is exactly what a team at the University of Oklahoma has acheived using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Obsevatory, employing the tecnique of gravitational microlensing-essentially a natural magnifying glass predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

The microlensing process in stages, from right to left. The lensing star (white) moves in front of the source star (yellow) magnifying its image and creating a microlensing event. In the fourth image from the right the planet adds its own microlensing effect, creating the two characteristic spikes in the light curve. Credit: Planetary Society.

The science team led by Xinyu Dai has said, “We can estimate that the number of planets in this faraway galaxy is more than a trillion. Even in the Milky Way, exoplanets are difficult to detect, Galaxies are much farther away from us, so it will be orders of magnitude more difficult to detect planets in other galaxies.” 

Image supplied by University of Oklahoma of microlensed exoplanets.

The team has also suggested that there may be as many as 2000 free floating, starless exoplanets for every star in any given galaxy.

“Microlensing works like magnification, says co-author Eduardo Guerras. It’s a highly nuanced process that looks at frequencies emitted by moving celestial objects, meant to observe how they distort and magnify light that comes in from the objects near them. This light then illuminates things that aren’t otherwise visible.This microlensing is amplifying something that is very small and changing colors, which makes no sense,” Guerras says, “or it’s amplifying a small region of a bigger object and that object has different colors.”

They know they are looking at planets because they are moving too fast to be stars. “You can have this effect with stars, but it would be much, much less likely. It would be way less frequent,” Guerras says. “If you have only one planet, the chances of observing it twice is astronomically small.

“We hope other teams publish independent analyses to confirm our findings,” Dai says. “I think this is a case where scientific discoveries can be triggered by the spark of ideas.”

We certainly hope this is the case! That’s all for this time spacefans, see you next time.

 

 

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Comments

  • Daito Endashi

    Wow that Falcon Heavy video almost made me cry

    February 10, 2018 at 8:50 am
  • Alua Oresson

    Excellent write up. I hadn’t heard about the exoplanets yet, so that was particularly nice to read.

    February 11, 2018 at 9:54 am
  • Alot

    When I was looking at that Trappist solar system diagram the first thing that came to mid was: The correct answer is “d”.

    Really impressed by how good the spacesuit looks though. I missed the live launch and every time I saw that car and spacesuit I was assuming they were just superimposing a sci-fi suit onto a car.

    February 12, 2018 at 7:41 am