This Week in Space

Rhiannon Williams 2016-09-05

Greetings, spacefans! Its been the UK ‘silly season’ and holiday time, so I hope you’re all have a relaxing summer for all you Northern Hemisphere folks, and are wrapped up warm if you’re not. I for one have spent many a night admiring the best Perseid meteor shower in a long time. This week though? Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’d have heard about Proxima b, our newest, closest, intriguing exoplanet, so let’s have a closer look!

CLOSEST PLANETARY NEIGHBOUR DISCOVERED NEXT DOOR

After a false alarm back in 2012 over Alpha Centauri Bb, a planet which was found to be an illusion last year, this new discovery seems to be the real deal. its 4.25 light years away and could be as little as 30% larger than the Earth. Its star is a red dwarf which loosely orbits the binary Alpha Centauri system, and was discovered via the radial velocity or Doppler method, which looks for tiny wobbles in a star’s movements that indicates that its not alone.

“We’ve been excited for a long time,” says Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University of London, who led the discovery as part of a project called Pale Red Dot. “We’ve been hunting for this signal and confirmation of the planet for almost four years.”

Now for all you budding astronauts out there, I wouldn’t be packing my bags just yet as its doubtful the place is liveable. It orbits a mere 7.5 million kilometers from its star, and has a year of 11 days which means its likely tidally locked like the Moon is to the Earth which would make life very interesting. On the upside, because its star is a red dwarf, its tight obit actually puts it in its star’s habitable zone where liquid water can exist. If you looked up at the sky on the planet’s dayside, you would see a dim red orb three times bigger than the Sun, all the time in perpetual daylight

Credit: New Scientist

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) made the discovery through their Pale Red Dot campaign to see what wonders our nearest stellar neighbours may be hiding. Plus they made an informative video I know you’ll love.

Credit:ESO

Another factor that impacts on its habitability is that Proxima Centauri is a flare star, which are abusive sods that love a regular coronal mass ejection and don’t care who they spray with their highly charged particles. These stars are very common, making up to 80% of the stars in our galaxy and rocky planets orbiting them is also very common, so how could life survive on a planet orbiting one of these stellar meanies? As we know from our own planet, life exists everywhere it can, underwater, underground etc. which could protect it from these harmful rays. Another very intriguing idea is that biofluorescence may hold the key in how life can endure flares. This is a phenomenon that happens here on earth in fish, reptiles, flowers and corals. On Earth, some corals absorb and transform UV radiation into less energetic wavelengths of light. They do this with the help of specialized fluorescing proteins that absorb incoming UV or blue light and then re-emit it as a different, longer wavelength. This means that if a coral is illuminated by the right kind of light, these pigments will glow in a characteristic shade of red, green, or orange. Some are thought to shield themselves from radiation in this manner, so if it can happen here? Why not elsewhere?

Credit: Visions in Blue

“It is an absolutely brilliant idea to employ biofluorescence in the search for life on planets orbiting stars in our galaxy,” says the City University of New York’s David Gruber, who studies fluorescing marine organisms. “The field of biofluorescence is still a relatively new field of biology. And the premise that biofluorescence could be used as a tool to aid in the search of extraterrestrial life is very exciting.”

“We would see a detectable, temporary change in the color of light reaching us on Earth as we observed it,” Jack O’Malley-James from Cornell says. “By looking at the ratio of, say, green relative to red and blue light intensities in the spectrum, we would be able to tell that the color of the planet is changing.”

Life has already evolved other methods of UV protecion, such as suntans, which would not be detectable from Earth, or simply stays underwater or underground, but I love the idea of funky, glowy aliens.

SAD DAY FOR SPACEX

During a static test firing on September 1, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded dramatically causing buildings several miles away to feel the full force of the blastwave. A Boeing employee at their Orbital Processing Facility said that the entire building he was in distorted. The rocket contained a satellite due to be launched Saturday 3rd of September.

Credit: Google

Facebook, in partnership with Eutelsat Communications, had been due to use the Amos-6 satellite to deliver broadband internet coverage for swathes of sub-Saharan Africa as part of its Internet.org initiative.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is currently visiting Africa, said he was “deeply disappointed” to hear that the satellite had been destroyed.

“We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided,” he wrote on his Facebook account.

Credit: US Launch Report

“Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation. Originated around upper-stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said yesterday via his Twitter account, @elonmusk.

“We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause. Additional updates will be provided as they become available,” SpaceX representatives added in a statement the company posted on Twitter.

This is, however rocket science. SpaceX along with anyone in the history of spaceflight, has had their share of mishaps and disasters. It will no doubt take a while to determine the exact cause of the explosion, plus, it will inevitably cause delays in launch programmes. Its hoped that the cause is to do with the launch pad itself, rather than the rocket, which may have been working properly, however, due to the extensive damage, the launch pad may remain unusable for months. I for one have my fingers crossed that will not cause SpaceX too many delays and setbacks.

JUPITER’S NORTH POLE UNIQUE IN SOLAR SYSTEM

Juno has sent back the first images of its first flyby and show storm systems and weather patterns like no others yet seen in the Solar system.

“First glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole, and it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “It’s bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms. There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to — this image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter. We’re seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features.”

One of the most notable findings of these first-ever pictures of Jupiter’s north and south poles is something that the JunoCam imager did not see.

“Saturn has a hexagon at the north pole,” said Bolton. “There is nothing on Jupiter that anywhere near resembles that. The largest planet in our solar system is truly unique. We have 36 more flybys to study just how unique it really is.”

Image Credit: NASA

Along with JunoCam snapping pictures during the flyby, all eight of Juno’s science instruments were energized and collecting data. The Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM), supplied by the Italian Space Agency, acquired some remarkable images of Jupiter at its north and south polar regions in infrared wavelengths.

“JIRAM is getting under Jupiter’s skin, giving us our first infrared close-ups of the planet,” said Alberto Adriani, JIRAM co-investigator from Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Rome. “These first infrared views of Jupiter’s north and south poles are revealing warm and hot spots that have never been seen before. And while we knew that the first-ever infrared views of Jupiter’s south pole could reveal the planet’s southern aurora, we were amazed to see it for the first time. No other instruments, both from Earth or space, have been able to see the southern aurora. Now, with JIRAM, we see that it appears to be very bright and well-structured. The high level of detail in the images will tell us more about the aurora’s morphology and dynamics.”

Among the more unique data sets collected by Juno during its first scientific sweep by Jupiter was that acquired by the mission’s Radio/Plasma Wave Experiment (Waves), which recorded ghostly-sounding transmissions emanating from above the planet. These radio emissions from Jupiter have been known about since the 1950s but had never been analyzed from such a close vantage point.

“Jupiter is talking to us in a way only gas-giant worlds can,” said Bill Kurth, co-investigator for the Waves instrument from the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “Waves detected the signature emissions of the energetic particles that generate the massive auroras which encircle Jupiter’s north pole. These emissions are the strongest in the solar system. Now we are going to try to figure out where the electrons come from that are generating them.”

I’m certainly looking forward to what other marvels Juno will show us.

CRYOVOLCANO DISCOVERED ON CERES

An isolated mountain near the equator of the dwarf planet Ceres resembles a volcanic dome, according to new observations from NASA’s Dawn mission. Like the “Lonely Mountain” Erebor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology, Ahuna Mons on Ceres was once occupied by a dragon, but one that “breathed” ice, not fire. The mountain likely formed as a salty-mud volcano. Instead of molten rock, salty-mud volcanoes, or “cryovolcanoes,” release frigid, salty water sometimes mixed with mud.

“Ahuna Mons is evidence of an unusual type of volcanism, involving salty water and mud, at work on Ceres,” said Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland and the Universities Space Research Association. “Geologic activity was discussed and debated among scientists: now we finally have observations testifying to its occurrence.”

Credit: NASA Goddard

The volcano is not currently active, but it has been recently in geological terms. To find such recent activity on a dwarf planet like Ceres is unexpected as up to now, its only been found on rocky planets and moons, or icy bodies like Enceladus. As far we we know Ceres is made up of salts, muddy rocks and ice, so finding this volcano is a surprise! The mountain itself is 5km high and about 20km across with little erosion from asteroid impacts which indicates its youth.

“The Ahuna Mons cryovolcano allows us to see inside Ceres,” said Ruesch. “The same process might happen on other dwarf planets like Pluto.” Ruesch is lead author of a paper on this research appearing September 2 in the journal Science.

“We’re confident that Ahuna Mons formed within the last billion years, and possibly within a few hundred million years,” said Ruesch. This is relatively new geologically, given that our solar system is about 4.5 billion years old. A young volcano on Ceres is surprising because Ceres is a small world, with a diameter about the width of Texas, and small bodies like this should quickly lose the heat from their formation. “Ahuna Mons is telling us that Ceres still had enough heat to produce a relatively recent cryovolcano,” Ruesch said

The mountain’s appearance also indicates it is young on a geological timescale. Surface features on planets with little or no atmosphere like Ceres get eroded by asteroid and meteoroid impacts, and take on a soft, rounded appearance. However, Ahuna Mons is sharp, with fine features like the debris from rockfalls that should fade with time. Also, older surfaces have a heavily pockmarked appearance from the accumulation of many impacts, but Ahuna Mons has few craters. Furthermore, mountains tend to get broader as they erode and slump under gravity, but Ahuna Mons is narrow with steep slopes. Finally, surfaces tend to darken as they are exposed to radiation and meteoroid impacts in the space environment, but Ahuna Mons is brighter than its surroundings.

Activity of ice volcanoes is found elsewhere in our solar system. For example, Saturn’s moon Enceladus has fountains of water-ice particles streaming from cracks in the icy crust at its south pole. Enceladus is even smaller than Ceres; heat is generated inside it from flexing due to the gravitational pull of neighboring moons and Saturn. Ceres is an isolated world; there’s no neighbor nearby to give it a significant gravitational tug.

“There is nothing quite like Ahuna Mons in the solar system,” said Lucy McFadden of NASA Goddard, a co-author on the paper. “It’s the first cryovolcano we’ve seen that was produced by a brine and clay mix.” The solid worlds in our solar system form a continuum from heavier, denser materials closer to the sun, such as the rocky terrestrial planets, to less dense, more volatile materials farther out, such as the icy moons of the giant planets and the Kuiper Belt objects. “Ceres, which orbits between Mars and the gas giant Jupiter, is interesting because it appears to be a transition object – it’s not completely rocky, but it’s not an ice world either,” said McFadden.

The Dawn team are planning on more research to determine its surface composition.

That’s all for now spacefans, see you next time!

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