Space News Update July 2019—Titan, Tess, and 50 Years

Rhiannon Williams 2019-07-20

Happy Anniversary, spacefans! This time, we have a new mission to Titan, Tess finds tiny exoplanet and NASA celebrates 50 years since we first went to the Moon,

DRAGONFLY MISSION TO TITAN ANNOUCED BY NASA TO SEARCH FOR LIFE

Called Dragonfly, the new mission announced by NASA and is part of the New Frontiers programme and will be taking advantage of the huge moon’s thick atmosphere to search for signs of past or present life by flying around to different sites to gain data and to compare and contrast that data from different locations. The craft will launch in 2026 and arrive in 2034. It looks much like a large drone.

Titan shares many similaities to the very early Earth, and can give insight as  to how life may have arisen on our planet. During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years. Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed. They also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs. Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.

“With the Dragonfly mission, NASA will once again do what no one else can do,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Visiting this mysterious ocean world could revolutionize what we know about life in the universe. This cutting-edge mission would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago, but we’re now ready for Dragonfly’s amazing flight.”

“Titan is unlike any other place in the solar system, and Dragonfly is like no other mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for Science at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “It’s remarkable to think of this rotorcraft flying miles and miles across the organic sand dunes of Saturn’s largest moon, exploring the processes that shape this extraordinary environment. Dragonfly will visit a world filled with a wide variety of organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life and could teach us about the origin of life itself.”

Titan has a nitrogen-based atmosphere like Earth. However, unlike Earth, Titan has clouds and rain of methane. Other organics are formed in the atmosphere and fall like light snow. The moon’s weather and surface processes have combined complex organics, energy, and water similar to those that may have sparked life on our planet. On Earth life uses water as a solvent, but it may be possible that any possible life in Titan could utilise huydrocarbons such as methane, which exists on the suface as lakes and seas.

Titan is larger than the planet Mercury and is the second largest moon in our solar system after Ganymede. As it orbits Saturn, it is about 1.4 billion kilometers away from the Sun, about 10 times farther than Earth. Because it is so far from the Sun, its surface temperature is around -179 degrees Celsius. Its surface pressure is also 50 percent higher than Earth’s. It has also been theorised that as the Sun heats up over time and becomes a red giant,  that it may become far more able to sustain life more as we know it.

TESS FINDS SMALLEST WORLD YET

In the continuing search to find small rocky planets like ours or possibly even exomoons, the new TESS instrument is proving invaluable. As to its potential habitability, well that would depend on what we can find out about its atmosphere. To do this we’d need to use other instruments to determine its composition, but finding targets is what TESS is about. However as these planets are not in the habitable zone, life is unlikely.

“The discovery is a great engineering and scientific accomplishment for TESS,” said Veselin Kostov, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. “For atmospheric studies of small planets, you need short orbits around bright stars, but such planets are difficult to detect. This system has the potential for fascinating future studies.”

“If you have more than one planet orbiting in a system, they can gravitationally interact with each other,” said Jonathan Brande, a co-author and astrophysicist at Goddard and the University of Maryland, College Park. “TESS will observe L 98-59 in enough sectors that it may be able to detect planets with orbits around 100 days. But if we get really lucky, we might see the gravitational effects of undiscovered planets on the ones we currently know.”

How does TESS works? Here’s a nifty video:

Credit : NASA

“TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is NASA’s newest exoplanet mission. Led by MIT, TESS will find thousands of new planets orbiting nearby stars. During its two year survey, TESS will watch a wide variety of stars, looking for signs of planets ranging from Earth-size to larger than Jupiter. Each of TESS’s cameras has a 16.8-megapixel sensor covering a square 24 degrees wide — large enough to contain an entire constellation. TESS has four of these cameras arranged to view a long strip of the sky called an observation sector. TESS will watch each observation sector for about 27 days before rotating to the next. It will cover the southern sky in its first year, and then begin scanning the north. TESS will study 85 percent of the sky — an area 350 times greater than what NASA’s Kepler mission first observed — making TESS the first exoplanet mission to survey nearly the entire sky. Because TESS’s observation sectors overlap, it will have an area near the pole under constant observation. This region is easily monitored by the James Webb Space Telescope, which allows the two missions to work together to first find, and then carefully study exoplanets. “

“If we viewed the Sun from L 98-59, transits by Earth and Venus would lead us to think the planets are almost identical, but we know they’re not,” said Joshua Schlieder, a co-author and an astrophysicist at Goddard. “We still have many questions about why Earth became habitable and Venus did not. If we can find and study similar examples around other stars, like L 98-59, we can potentially unlock some of those secrets.”

So although life in this system is unlikely, it is proving that TESS is up to the job of finding targets for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

50 YEARS SINCE THE FIRST MOON LANDING

Unsurprisingly, NASA is celebrating this milestone. If you can access the BBC, 8 Days Till The Moon and Back is currently available on the iPlayer and PBS as of the 17th of July for the US. Its amazing! Its made up from actual footage plus dramatization, watch it!

NASA of course has many things planned so do please go and have a look if you have a minute!

Do enjoy the celebrations and let’s hope we can go back soon!

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  • Hamzo Nerka

    TESS will observe L 98-59 in enough sectors that it may be able to detect planets with orbits around 100 days.

    That’s nice and all, but just a quick reminder: stay the fuck away from LV-426.

    August 16, 2019 at 5:58 am