Curiosity Rover captures a high-resolution panorama of the Martian landscape

Curiosity rover captures the highest resolution panorama of Mars’ rugged landscape.

The Curiosity Rover is NASA’s mission to Mars. It landed in August 2012 in the Gale Crater.  Its mission is to investigate if the Red Planet ever had the proper conditions for microbial (single-celled) life to survive.

This crater is special because it has a tall mountain in the middle. The mountain has many layers of rock. Each layer is made of different minerals from different time periods. These minerals could tell scientists about the history of water on Mars.

Why is the Rover in the news again?

Recently the spacecraft used its camera to create the largest and sharpest wide-angle photo of the Mars landscape.

What does this mean? The rover has taken approximately 1200 individual images over a period of 4 days. They have stitched the images into a composite final image. This image is so clear because it contains 1.8 billion pixels of the Martian landscape. You can zoom in and see details in the background like never before. One can see the rim of the Gale crater and the Slangpos Crater.



The European Space agency and NASA are ready to launch another mission to the Sun but this time to study its poles!

ESA Solar Orbiter
ESA BR-345 Solar Orbiter: Facing the Sun – CopyrightESA – European Space Agency-

Recently, there has been a lot of news around the Sun. NASA’s Solar Parker Probe is getting closer to the sun and sending unexpected data about it. A large Solar telescope in Hawai took a first ever close-up of the surface of the Sun that has intrigued most space lovers.

Today another Solar Orbiter will launch from Florida and start its mission to the source of all light on Earth, the Sun. The mission is a collaboration between ESA (the European Space Agency) and NASA and is scheduled to begin Feb. 9, 2020.

What is this mission all about?

The Orbiter is seeking close-up views of the Sun’s north and south poles. It is equipped with 6 instruments that can directly image the sun.

It also has another 4 instruments that operate like a mobile laboratory. They will measure the magnetic fields and solar eruptions in the polar regions. They will also track the progression of eruptions on the sun from the surface out into space, and all the way down to Earth.

Animation of a portion of Solar Orbiter’s highly inclined orbit. (Credits: ESA/ATG medialab)

How long will it take to get to the Sun?

It will take a period of 3 years to get to the Sun. First, it will sling past Earth and then repeatedly around Venus before it draws near the Sun. It will use gravitational assist maneuvers to plunge closer and closer to the Sun.

What is interesting is that it will travel out of the ecliptic plane – a belt of space, roughly aligned with the Sun’s equator, containing the Earth’s orbit around the sun. It will climb higher above the ecliptic plane until it has a bird’s eye view of the star’s poles. It will be circling the sun at an angle 24 degrees above its equator.

Unlike the Solar Parker Probe, it will keep its distance from the Sun and hang around Mercury’s Orbit.

What does it hope to answer?

What drives the solar wind, the gust of charged particles constantly blowing from the Sun? Or, what churning deep inside the Sun generates its magnetic field?

The data from this mission will expand Parker’s data. We can’t wait to here learn more about our star. Stay tuned for updates.


NASA’s Solar Parker Probe has sent back some unexpected findings about our star!

The energetic particle instruments on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe have measured several never-before-seen events so small that all trace of them is lost before they reach Earth. Video by NASA/GoddardCredit

Background: NASA’s Solar Parker Probe launched in Aug 2018 and has completed 3 of its scheduled 24 trips around the Sun. With each loop around the Sun, the craft is getting closer to the sun’s surface. The probe is carrying instruments to investigate the sun’s hot atmosphere – the corona and to understand the origin of the solar wind.

News: The probe has beamed back its first measurements from the sun’s fiery atmosphere.  It has measured several never-before-seen events so small that all trace of them is lost before they reach Earth. 

What do we know about the Sun?

The Sun is a ball of Helium and Hydrogen. The yellow disk or the surface of the sun that we see in the sky is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Wow, that is blazing hot, but cool compared with what lies above. The thin atmosphere of the Sun known as the corona is 300 times hotter.

Though the disc might look calm from millions of miles away it is extremely active. It constantly exhales streams of fast energetic particles and a magnetic field is known as the solar wind. The solar wind travels through space and impacts weather in space, satellites, astronauts, and electronics on Earth.

The first batch of data from the Solar Parker Probe has led to some unexpected findings. 

Space is full of cosmic dust. One can see the space dust on earth as it reflects sunlight. The Parker probe displayed evidence that the dust stops  3.5 million miles from the sun. The sun vapourises the dust generated by the residue of planets and asteroids and creates a dust-free zone surrounding the sun.

Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger

The probe also observed that the Sun lets out sudden, violent bursts of particles, unlike the uniformly streaming solar wind we see by the earth. The speed of the particles is so powerful that the magnetic field flowing out from the sun flips in a whip-like motion. These streams will sometimes do a 180-degree flip, only to flip back to their original direction anywhere from a few seconds to several hours later. These flips release lots of energy that acts upon the solar wind, expediting it out into the solar system.

Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

Scientists are not yet able to explain what’s causing these flips, although they may be related to the plasma spurts that sometimes erupt off the surface of the sun.

This accelerated release of energy from the sun’s center to its atmosphere could also help explain why the corona is hotter than the solar surface.

Scientists observed that the solar wind had two main parts: a “fast” one that comes from large coronal holes in the sun’s polar region; and a “slow” wind whose origin is unknown. Coronal holes are cooler, less dense regions, through which magnetic fields stream out into space, acting as channels for the charged particles to flow along.  The Parker probe traced the slow wind back to small coronal holes scattered around the sun’s equator – solar formations that weren’t known before.

NASA’s mission to the Sun is a daring mission and extraordinary engineering effort. As it continues its loop around the sun we hope the data will help us understand our star better and in the future help predict solar storms, which could affect artificial satellites and astronauts.


NASA’s scientists have found water vapour for the first time above the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa

On the left is a view of Europa taken from 2.9 million kilometers (1.8 million miles) away on March 2, 1979 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Next is a color image of Europa taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft during its close encounter on July 9, 1979. On the right is a view of Europa made from images taken by the Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Credits: NASA/JPL


NASA’s scientists have found water vapour for the first time above the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

The team measured the vapor by scrutinizing Europa through one of the world’s biggest telescopes in Hawaii.

Scientists have long suspected Europa may shelter a large liquid water ocean beneath its icy crust that may sometimes eject into space in huge geysers.  But no one has been able to confirm the presence of water in these plumes until now.

The NASA team detected water vapor only once over 17 nights of observations, but believe that even once was enough.

What does this mean?

  • There is a liquid water ocean, possibly twice as big as Earth’s under this moon’s thick icy crust.
  • Another source of water for the plumes could be shallow pools of melted water ice not far below Europa’s surface.

NASA is planning to launch its Europa Clipper mission in 2020, a spacecraft that will fly past Europa several times to gather more information.

Mock up image


Written by: Preetika Soni. Preetika is a full – time toddler mommy. In the time that is left, she enjoys writing, photography and crochet. She has worked with NDTV, Mumbai and has taught at SCMSophia. 

 

 


NASA maps the whole surface of Titan, the largest moon around Saturn

This near-infrared, color view from Cassini shows the sun glinting off of Titan’s north polar seas. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

NASA’s Cassini mission ended its study of Saturn in 2017, it also flew by Saturn’s moon, Titan.

It is the only known satellite in the solar system with clouds and an impenetrable atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, which gives it a hazy orange appearance.

The mission captured images and data that helped scientists put together a geological map of Titan’s surface.

They have found lakes of liquid methane, dunes of frozen organic material, craters, and even plains!

Just like Earth has a water cycle, Titan, has a methane cycle. Titan’s rivers, lakes, and seas are made of liquid ethane and methane. The methane cycle forms clouds and causes liquid gas to rain from the sky. 

Scientists have discovered that Titan’s sand is made up of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen that are critical to promoting life. Many scientists think these grew in the liquid water ocean below Titan’s icy crust.

NASA’s scientist, “Titan has an atmosphere like Earth. It has wind, it has rain, it has mountains,” Lopes said. “It’s a really very interesting world, and one of the best places in the solar system to look for life.”

NASA plans to launch its Dragonfly Mission which will explore Titan closely in 2034. Dragonfly is like the Mars rover – it will land on Titan and spend two and a half years collecting data on this moon to learn more about whether life can be supported here.


Written by: Preetika Soni. Preetika is a full – time toddler mommy. In the time that is left, she enjoys writing, photography and crochet. She has worked with NDTV, Mumbai and has taught at SCMSophia. 

 

 


Mercury Transit 2019

 

On Monday November 11 2019, the smallest planet, Mercury, passes directly in front of the Sun. This event is called Mercury transit. This event will last five and a half hours and will be visible through telescopes with solar filters as a small black spot crossing the sun’s surface.

On Earth people in North America, South America, Europe, Africa and even Antarctica can view the event. But those in Alaska, the Pacific and Asia won’t be able to because the sun will be below the horizon when Mercury passes in front of the Sun.

To catch the transit check NASA’s site.

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The First All-Women Spacewalk is a historic moment!

News: Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir created history when they stepped outside the International Space Station to do some repair work, it was the first all-women spacewalk ever.

NASA

What’s a spacewalk? When an astronaut steps out of a vehicle in space, it is known as a spacewalk; it’s less walking and more floating in space. During a spacewalk, astronauts can repair their spacecraft and equipment, test new equipment and even do science experiments!  Did you know that to train for a spacewalk astronauts practice walking underwater in a large swimming pool or using virtual reality helmets!

Do they need to wear those BIG spacesuits? Most definitely! Spacesuits keep astronauts safe in space – they have oxygen in them for breathing and water for drinking. Plus it helps the astronaut stay connected to the spacecraft using safety tethers (like ropes) where one end is hooked onto the astronaut’s spacesuit and the other to the spacecraft. Without this, the astronaut could float away into space as there is no gravity!

In fact, astronauts also need to secure their tools to their spacesuit to stop them from floating away!

Why was this spacewalk special? There have been more than 200 spacewalks along the outside of the ISS. Most of the spacewalks have been conducted by male astronauts or a combination of male and female astronauts. But none of them had only female walkers — until now!

Wondering what work they had?  The duo needed to replace a faulty battery charger that is crucial to the power supply onboard ISS. Their mission lasted for 7 hours and 17 minutes during which they even had a brief chat with President Donald Trump.

This video released by NASA shows the women at work.

 

NASA

Did you know?

This historic spacewalk was originally planned in March but had to be canceled as there was only one medium-sized suit available on the space station.

To ensure that this doesn’t happen again, NASA has designed new spacesuits that fit every human body. It has been made keeping in mind the 2024 Artemis mission when the first woman is supposed to walk on the moon.

Fun Fact: In 1984, cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya was the first woman to walk in space.

 


Written by: Preetika Soni. Preetika is a full – time toddler mommy. In the time that is left, she enjoys writing, photography and crochet. She has worked with NDTV, Mumbai and has taught at SCMSophia. 

 

 

 


The Spaceline: A shuttle to the moon!

A rendering of the Spaceline. Credit: techeblog.com

Willy Wonka had his great glass elevator, but soon, the rest of us may be able to take an out-of-this-world ride of our very own.

Launching rockets to the moon is a very expensive process, because the amount of fuel and power needed to break through the Earth’s gravitational force is huge, and for more than 100 years scientists have been debating the concept of a permanent elevator that travels between the Earth and the Moon. Can you imagine that?

Recently, two university students, Zephyr Penoyre from Cambridge University and Emily Sandford from Columbia University have proposed the idea of a Spaceline that seems more attainable and a lot cheaper than even a space elevator!

So just what is the Spaceline? Imagine a really (really, really) long cable, about as thin as the lead in your pencil extending all the way down from the Moon to several thousand feet above the surface of the Earth. This line, which will be made from Kevlar (the same, super tough, almost unbreakable material used to make bulletproof vests) will cover the 200,000 miles from the Moon to a point in the geosynchronous orbit above the Earth where the gravity of the Earth and the Moon balance each other out (think like a see-saw when both people on it weigh the exact same amount!). This will make sure that the cable remains stable enough to transport materials and even people between Earth and the Moon. The transport would be done via solar-powered capsules that would run along the length of the cable.

How the Spaceline could work. Credit: truemedian.com

Do we really need a Spaceline? What would it do? By constructing a Spaceline, the cost of sending materials into space, outside the gravitational pull of the Earth would become significantly cheaper. Rockets would only have to be launched up to the base of the SpaceLine, without the need to break through the Earth’s gravity at all.

From the base of the Spaceline, where in theory, a base could be built since the forces of gravity cancel each other out, creating a stable environment for construction, materials and people could be transferred to the solar-powered capsules that would carry them to the Moon.

Similarly, geological materials from the Moon could be shipped back down to Earth via the Spaceline and used in construction and other areas.

The base could serve as a centre where rockets for deeper space exploration could be built, and since they would also not have to think about overcoming the Earth’s gravity, the cost of space exploration and even space travel for humans would dramatically reduce.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Is it going to happen? In reality this idea is still a long way from coming to fruition, but this research paper is definitely a step in the right direction.

How much will it cost to make this Spaceline? What is particularly exciting is that the cost of this entire contraption would be about 1 billion dollars, which would be recovered by approximately 53 trips to the Moon.

Things to think about: What about space junk – could debris damage this Spaceline? And perhaps more importantly, how much more space junk will we be generating in space?

Do you fancy a trip to the Moon? It just might become possible!


Written by: Disha Mirchandani. Disha is a former lawyer turned freelance content writer. She is a fitness enthusiast and amateur aerialist with her own fitness photo-blog as well.


Astronomers find water vapour in the atmosphere of a potentially habitable world 100 light years away. Signs of life?

The news: Astronomers have found water vapor and helium in the surrounding atmosphere of an alien planet 100 light-years away.  These findings heat up our search for extra-terrestrial life outside the solar system.

Some vocabulary:

Planets outside the solar system that orbit around a host star are called exoplanets.

Super-Earths are exoplanets with a mass greater than that of Earth’s but not greater than Neptune’s.

One light-year is the distance light travels in a year i.e. approximately 10 trillion km.

EXOPLANET K2-18b WATER VAPOUR
Photo Credit: Alex Boersma

What do we know about exoplanet K2-18b?

It was discovered in 2015 by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. This Super-Earth is twice the size but more than 8 times the mass of Planet Earth. It’s about 100 light-years from our solar system. That’s very far!  It takes the sun’s rays 100 years to reach the planet!

This exoplanet is unique because it orbits a sweet spot around its dim star known as the habitable zone where temperatures are just right for liquid water to exist on a planet’s surface.

That means this planet checks some of the important criteria in an astronomer’s laundry list of what’s necessary to support life.

The context: Since the first discovery of exoplanets more than 20 years ago, astronomers have recorded more than 4,000 exoplanets of all types and sizes. Though researchers have found the water vapor molecule around some of these exoplanets before, none of them have been suitable places for life to exist. They have been large balls of gas, similar in size to Jupiter or Neptune, lacking any type of surface for life as we know to exist.

How did they discover it? The team used data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope from 2016-2017. They observed how starlight changed as the planet passed in front of it. When the starlight passes through gas molecules, it gets minutely distorted. The type of distortion shows the molecules that are present. Researchers have also run rough models on a limited data set that indicate that the exoplanet might enjoy similar temperatures to that of Earth.

The significance: Thus K2-18b is the only planet right now outside the solar system that has the correct temperature to support water, it has an atmosphere, and it has water in it.  The planet can possibly host life! But this data now raises more important questions.

What don’t we know? Still, there’s quite a lot we don’t know about this planet such as the other chemicals and molecules in the atmosphere and the composition of its surface. The atmosphere that surrounds the exoplanet can tell us a lot about what might be hiding on the surface of the alien world.

Some astronomers doubt there can be life. They believe the size and mass of the exoplanet suggest that the surface isn’t rocky. They believe it could have a rocky ice core and a thick gaseous atmosphere like Neptune.

The exoplanet lies too far away to send a spacecraft but there are many powerful telescopes set to launch in the years ahead that will help answer these questions. Especially, NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope which launches in 2021.

Next Steps:  So while today’s findings are big, the search is still on for the top prize of all: a rocky exoplanet with water in its atmosphere with habitable temperatures!


Note: Two separate research teams have announced the discovery of water vapour on the exoplanet K2-18b

  1. A study has been published  in Nature Astronomy by a group of researchers from University College London
  2. A Study has been submitted by Björn Benneke, a professor of astronomy at the University of Montreal and the lead author to the Astronomical Journal. It has yet to be reviewed.


India’s space agency has visually located the Vikram Lander but hasn’t been able to re-establish communication with it yet. Read on for an update.

The News: ISRO, India’s space agency has clarified that they lost contact with Chandrayaan-2’s lander, Vikram, far closer to the lunar surface than what was reported. Initially, it was reported that the Lander was 2.1 km above the lunar surface when it went quiet. However, the Lander was likely as close as 400 m to the lunar surface when ISRO lost contact.

Last Sunday, ISRO also announced that it had spotted the Vikram Lander on the lunar surface with the help of the onboard cameras on the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which continues to orbit around the Moon.

What next: ISRO continues to try and re-establish contact with the fallen Lander but time is running out. Vikram’s mission along with the six-wheeled Pragyaan Rover was set-up  for a period of 14 days. ISRO has until September 20-21 to reconnect with the Lander.

America’s space agency’s, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, is currently orbiting the moon and will be passing over the Vikram Lander’s suspected crash site on September 17. NASA’s orbiter will capture images of the site and share it with ISRO. We hope this will provide additional data to ISRO.

Stay Tuned for more space news!


In the early hours of Saturday morning (7 September 2019), millions of people tuned in to watch India attempt to land a robotic lander near the Moon’s South Pole. As planned at 1.40 am (Indian Standard Time), the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft deployed its Vikram Lander towards the lunar surface. The lander started its descent smoothly but disaster struck when ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) contact with it less than two km above the lunar surface. 

ISRO Chandrayaan-2

This was a nail-biting moment for India and all the scientists that have worked tirelessly behind this complex mission. Scientists are now examining the last communication they have received from the Vikram Lander before they lost all contact. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several other leaders and celebrities have posted messages on Twitter to encourage the scientists at ISRO.

This was an important mission for India as it was attempting to become the fourth country to successfully soft-land on the Moon and the first country to land a spacecraft on the Moon’s unexplored South Pole. The mission was also carried out at a cost of INR 978 crore (approximately US$141 million) which is much lower than what other countries have spent on lunar missions in the past. This is also the first ISRO mission to have been led by two women – project director Muthaya Vanitha and mission director Ritu Karidhal.

On a positive note, all is not lost. Chandrayaan-2’s orbiter is intact and is expected to circle the moon for another year to learn more about the lunar surface. The mission is still on!


To learn more about the Chandrayaan-2 mission read on.

Chandrayaan-2
Chandrayaan-2 journey

What is the Chandrayaan-2 mission?

On July 22 2019, ISRO, the Indian space agency, launched its most expensive and complex mission to the moon, the Chandrayaan-2 mission.

The Chandrayaan-2 mission is ISRO’s second mission to the moon. This time the mission planned to be the first spacecraft to ever soft-land on the Moon’s south pole. 

The spacecraft itself consists of an Orbiter, Lander and Rover, all equipped with scientific instruments and new technology to study the moon.

The Orbiter, which has a mission life of a year, will orbit the moon and take images of the lunar surface and help create 3D maps of it. The Lander was carrying a Rover in its belly and was meant to parachute onto the lunar surface. After a successful soft landing on the lunar surface, it was to send out a robotic rover to conduct experiments. The rover would have traveled up to a half a kilometer from the lander in search of water and minerals and measure moonquakes among other things. It would have sent data and images back to Earth for analysis.

Why has the moon’s south pole suddenly become a hot spot for exploration?

India isn’t the only one trying to land a spacecraft on the moon’s south pole. The American space agency, NASA and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin company are all planning missions to this new hot spot.

Data from the previous missions have indicated that the permanently shadowed places on the south pole could contain ice and other minerals, which would be vital for setting up a base on the moon. This ice could be a potential source of drinking water for astronauts visiting the moon, but also could be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen could be used to provide breathable air and oxygen and hydrogen could be used as rocket fuel. The mountain peaks near the pole are illuminated for large periods of time and could be used to provide solar energy to a moon base.

Thus, the moon could serve as a base for scientists can test technologies and spacecraft to refill their tanks before heading out into the solar system for future deep space exploration missions

What was the Chandrayaan-1 mission?
Yes, Chandrayaan-2 is a follow up the Chandrayaan-1 mission which was the first Indian lunar probe. It launched in October 2008 and conducted a detailed search for water on the Moon using radars. It helped confirm water molecules on the earth’s surface and operated until August 2009.