22nd July 2016
First atmospheric study of Earth-sized exoplanets
Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have performed the first spectroscopy of the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets.
Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have conducted the first search for atmospheres around temperate, Earth-sized planets beyond our Solar System and found indications that increase the chances of habitability on two exoplanets.
Specifically, they discovered that the exoplanets TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, approximately 40 light-years away, are unlikely to have puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres usually found on gaseous worlds.
"The lack of a smothering hydrogen-helium envelope increases the chances for habitability on these planets," said team member Nikole Lewis of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. "If they had a significant hydrogen-helium envelope, there is no chance that either one of them could potentially support life, because the dense atmosphere would act like a greenhouse."
Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led a team of scientists to observe the planets in near-infrared light using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. They used spectroscopy to decode the light and reveal clues to the chemical makeup of an atmosphere. While the content of the atmospheres is unknown and will have to await further observations, the low concentration of hydrogen and helium has scientists excited about the implications.
"These initial Hubble observations are a promising first step in learning more about these nearby worlds, whether they could be rocky like Earth, and whether they could sustain life," says Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is an exciting time for NASA and exoplanet research."
The planets orbit a red dwarf star at least 500 million years old, in the constellation of Aquarius. They were discovered in late 2015 through a series of observations by the TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), a Belgian robotic telescope located at ESA's (European Space Agency's) La Silla Observatory in Chile.
TRAPPIST-1b completes a circuit around its red dwarf star in 1.5 days and TRAPPIST-1c in 2.4 days. The planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth is to the Sun. However, because their star is so much fainter than our Sun, researchers believe at least one of the planets, TRAPPIST-1c, may be within the star's habitable zone, where moderate temperatures could allow for liquid water to pool.
Astronomers took advantage of a rare simultaneous transit, when both planets crossed the face of their star within minutes of each other, to measure starlight as it filtered through any existing atmosphere. This double-transit, which occurs only every two years, provided a combined signal that offered simultaneous indicators of the atmospheric characters of the planets.
The researchers hope to use Hubble to conduct follow-up observations to search for thinner atmospheres, composed of elements heavier than hydrogen, like those of Earth and Venus.
"With more data, we could perhaps detect methane, or see water features in the atmospheres, which would give us estimates of the depth of the atmospheres," said Hannah Wakeford, the paper's second author, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Observations from future telescopes, including NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, will help determine the full composition of these atmospheres and hunt for potential biosignatures, such as carbon dioxide and ozone, in addition to water vapour and methane. Webb also will analyse a planet's temperature and surface pressure – key factors in assessing habitability.
"These Earth-sized planets are the first worlds that astronomers can study in detail with current and planned telescopes to determine whether they are suitable for life," said de Wit. "Hubble has the facility to play the central atmospheric pre-screening role to tell astronomers which of these Earth-sized planets are prime candidates for more detailed study with the Webb telescope."
The results of the study appear in the 20th July issue of the journal Nature.
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18th July 2016
New dwarf planet found beyond Neptune
Astronomers have announced the discovery of 2015 RR245, a dwarf planet candidate in the Kuiper Belt with a highly elliptical orbit.
An international team of astronomers including researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) has discovered a new dwarf planet orbiting in the disk of small icy worlds beyond Neptune.
The new object is about 700 km (435 miles) in diameter – slightly larger than Pluto's moon Charon – and has one of the largest orbits for a dwarf planet. Designated 2015 RR245 by the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Centre, it was found using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Maunakea, Hawaii, as part of the ongoing Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS).
"Finding a new dwarf planet beyond Neptune sheds light on the early phases of planet formation," said Brett Gladman, the Canada Research Chair in planetary astronomy at UBC. "Since most of these icy worlds are incredibly small and faint, it's exciting to find a bright one that is easier to study, and which is on an interesting orbit."
RR245 was first spotted in February 2016 by astronomer JJ Kavelaars of the National Research Council of Canada. The OSSOS project uses powerful computers to hunt the images, and Kavelaars was presented with a bright object moving at such a slow rate that it was clearly at least twice as far from Earth as Neptune and 120 times further from the Sun than Earth.
The vast majority of dwarf planets like RR245 were destroyed or thrown from the Solar System as the giant planets moved out to their present positions. RR245 is one of the few dwarf planets that survived to the present day, along with Pluto and Eris, the largest known dwarf planets. RR245 now circles the Sun among the remnant population of tens of thousands of much smaller trans-Neptunian worlds, most of which orbit unseen.
Worlds that journey far from the Sun have exotic geology with landscapes of many different frozen materials, as the flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft has shown. RR245 has been on a highly elliptical orbit for at least the last 100 million years, the researchers have calculated. After spending the last few centuries further than 12 billion km (80 astronomical units, or AU) from the Sun, it is now travelling towards its perihelion (closest approach) at five billion km (34 AU), which it will reach in the year 2096.
Since 2015 RR245 has only been observed for one of the 733 years it takes to orbit the Sun, its origin is still unknown, as is the gradual evolution of its orbit in the far future. Its precise characteristics will be refined over the coming years, after which RR245 will be given a proper name. As its discoverers, the OSSOS team can submit their preferred name to the International Astronomical Union for consideration.
RR245 is their largest discovery so far, and the only dwarf planet found by OSSOS, which has identified over 500 trans-Neptunian objects. This new find was only possible due to the exceptional observing capabilities of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.
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14th July 2016
Robots could build giant telescopes in space
Researchers have published a new concept for space telescope design that uses a modular structure and robot to build an extremely large telescope in space, faster and more efficiently than human astronauts.
Enhancing astronomers' ability to peer ever more deeply into the cosmos may hinge on developing larger space-based telescopes. A new concept in space telescope design makes use of a modular structure and an assembly robot to build an extremely large telescope in space, performing tasks that would be too difficult, expensive, or time-consuming for human astronauts.
The Robotically Assembled Modular Space Telescope (RAMST) is described by Nicolas Lee and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an article published this week by the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems (JATIS).
Ground-based telescopes, while very large and powerful, are limited by atmospheric effects and their fixed location on Earth. Space-based telescopes do not have those problems – but have other limits, such as launch vehicle volume and mass capacity. A new modular space telescope that overcomes restrictions on volume and mass could allow telescope components to be launched incrementally, enabling the design and deployment of truly enormous space telescopes.
The Hubble Space Telescope features a mirror diameter of 2.4 m (7.8 ft). Its successor, the James Webb Telescope – due for launch in 2018 – will be nearly triple this size at 6.5 m (23 ft). A longer-term proposal known as the Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST) would be even larger, with a mirror up to 16 m (52 ft) in width. The future concept by Lee and his colleagues, however, would dwarf all of these, spanning 100 m (328 ft). This would be powerful enough to obtain detailed views of exoplanets in other star systems, as well as images from the deep universe with phenomenal clarity.
The team's paper, "Architecture for in-space robotic assembly of a modular space telescope," focuses primarily on a robotic system to perform tasks in which astronaut fatigue would be a problem. The observatory would be constructed in Earth orbit and operated at the Sun–Earth Lagrange Point 2.
"Our goal is to address the principal technical challenges associated with such an architecture, so that future concept studies addressing a particular science driver can consider robotically assembled telescopes in their trade space," the authors write.
The main features of their proposed architecture include a mirror built with a modular structure, a general-purpose robot to put the telescope together and provide ongoing servicing, and advanced metrology technologies to support the assembly and operation of the telescope. An optional feature is the potential ability to fly the unassembled components of the telescope in formation. The system architecture is scalable to a variety of telescope sizes and would not be limited to particular optical designs.
"The capability to assemble a modular space telescope has other potential applications," says Harley Thronson, a senior scientist for Advanced Astrophysics Concepts at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. "For example, astronomers using major ground-based telescopes are accustomed to many decades of operation, and the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated that this is possible in space if astronauts are available. A robotic system of assembly, upgrade, repair, and resupply offers the possibility of very long useful lifetimes of space telescopes of all kinds."
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5th July 2016
NASA's Juno spacecraft enters orbit around Jupiter
After a five-year journey to the Solar System's largest planet, NASA's Juno probe has successfully entered Jupiter's orbit during a 35-minute engine burn. Confirmation that the burn had completed was received on Earth at 8:53 p.m. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) on Monday 4th July.
"Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America's birthday another reason to cheer – Juno is at Jupiter," said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. "And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter's massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet's interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire Solar System evolved."
Confirmation of a successful orbit insertion was received from Juno tracking data monitored at the navigation facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as well as at the Lockheed Martin Juno operations centre in Littleton, Colorado. The telemetry and tracking data were received by NASA's Deep Space Network antennas in Goldstone, California, and Canberra, Australia.
"This is the one time I don't mind being stuck in a windowless room on the night of the 4th of July," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It's a great day."
Preplanned events leading up to the orbital insertion engine burn included changing the spacecraft's attitude to point the main engine in the desired direction and then increasing the spacecraft's rotation rate from two to five revolutions per minute (RPM) to help stabilise it.
The burn of Juno's 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine began on schedule at 8:18 p.m. PDT (11:18 p.m. EDT), decreasing the spacecraft's velocity by 1,212 mph (542 metres per second) and allowing Juno to be captured in orbit around the gas giant. Soon after the burn was completed, Juno turned so that the Sun's rays could once again reach the 18,698 individual solar cells that give Juno its energy.
"The spacecraft worked perfectly, which is always nice when you're driving a vehicle with 1.7 billion miles on the odometer," said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL. "Jupiter orbit insertion was a big step and the most challenging remaining in our mission plan, but there are others that have to occur before we can give the science team the mission they are looking for."
Over the next few months, Juno's mission and science teams will perform final testing on the spacecraft's subsystems, final calibration of science instruments and some science collection.
"Our official science collection phase begins in October, but we've figured out a way to collect data a lot earlier than that," said Bolton. "Which when you're talking about the single biggest planetary body in the Solar System is a really good thing. There is a lot to see and do here."
Juno's principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter's intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet's auroras. At its closest approach, it will come within 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometres) of the cloud tops. The mission will take a major step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the Solar System. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.
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29th June 2016
Crops grown in Mars-like soil are safe to eat
Dutch scientists have announced that crops of four vegetables and cereals grown in soil similar to that on Mars are safe to eat.
Credit: Joep Frissel, University of Wageningen
Scientists at Wageningen University & Research Centre in the Netherlands are working on growing crops in Mars and Moon soil simulants. Just like the real Mars and Moon soil, these contain heavy metals in the same quantities. Four of the crops grown were tested for heavy metal content, and none were found to have concentrations that would be dangerous for human health. The plants are therefore safe to eat and, for some heavy metals, the concentrations were even lower than in crops grown in normal potting soil.
Earlier research by the Wageningen scientists had already demonstrated that crops are able to grow quite well on Mars and Moon soil simulants if organic matter is added to the soils. Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and copper are known to be present in the soils. If they are taken up in the parts of the crops that may be eaten, they can make the vegetables inedible for humans.
"For radish, pea, rye and tomato we did a preliminary analysis and the results are very promising," says ecologist Wieger Wamelink. "We can eat them and I am very curious as to how the tomatoes will taste. Unfortunately, we have not been able to test all ten crops yet, which is why we set up a crowdfunding campaign through which people can feel a genuine participation in this research. Donors will receive a variety of potential gifts of which my personal favourite is a dinner based on the harvest that will include potatoes grown on Mars soil simulant."
Nearly €13,000 has been raised so far. A total of €25,000 is needed to test the remaining six crops, including potatoes. With additional funding, the team will not only look at heavy metals, but also vitamins, flavonoids (they play a big role in determining the taste) and alkaloids that may be poisonous.
"It's important to test as many crops as possible, to make sure that settlers on Mars have access to a broad variety of different food sources," adds Wamelink.
In these latest experiments, the radishes had the highest amount of metals overall, with a relatively high amount of aluminium, iron and nickel. It is still unknown if the contamination only comes from the outside of the plant or also from the inside. If the radishes were properly washed, the content would probably be lower. It was very odd that the crops grown in Earth potting soil had higher contents of lead, arsenic and copper than the Martian soil simulant in particular.
It is still unknown if the take up of heavy metals is the same on Earth as it would be under the lower gravity conditions found on Mars and the Moon. Only research 'on site' is likely to solve that question. NASA is planning to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, while billionaire Elon Musk hopes to achieve that during the 2020s.
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12th May 2016
NASA confirms largest ever haul of exoplanets
NASA's Kepler space telescope has verified 1,284 new exoplanets – the single largest finding of planets to date.
NASA's Kepler mission has verified 1,284 new planets – the single largest finding of planets to date.
"This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler," said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth."
Analysis was performed on Kepler's July 2015 planet candidate catalogue, which identified 4,302 potential planets. For 1,284 of the candidates the probability of being a planet is greater than 99 percent – the minimum required to earn the status of "planet." An additional 1,327 candidates are more likely than not to be actual planets, but they do not meet the 99 percent threshold and will require additional study. The remaining 707 are more likely to be some other astrophysical phenomena. This analysis also validated 984 candidates previously verified by other techniques.
"Before the Kepler space telescope launched, we did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars," said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director. "This knowledge informs the future missions that are needed to take us ever-closer to finding out whether we are alone in the universe."
Kepler captures the discrete signals of distant planets – decreases in brightness that occur when planets pass in front of, or transit, their parent stars – much like the recent Mercury transit of our Sun. Since the discovery of the first planets outside our Solar System over two decades ago, researchers have resorted to a laborious, one-by-one process of verifying suspected planets.
This latest announcement, however, is based on a statistical analysis method that can be applied to many planet candidates simultaneously. Timothy Morton, associate research scholar at Princeton University in New Jersey and lead author of the scientific paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, used a method to assign each Kepler candidate a planet-hood probability percentage – the first such automated computation on this scale, as previous statistical techniques focused only on sub-groups within the greater list of planet candidates identified by Kepler.
"Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs," said Morton. "If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you're going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom."
In the newly-validated list of planets, nearly 550 could be rocky planets like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these orbit in their sun's habitable zone, which is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. With the addition of these nine, 21 exoplanets are now known to be members of this exclusive group.
"They say not to count our chickens before they're hatched, but that's exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet)," said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper and a Kepler mission scientist. "This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbour potentially habitable, Earth-size planets, a number that's needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds."
Of the nearly 5,000 total planet candidates found to date, more than 3,200 have now been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler. Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-sized planets. It has monitored 150,000 stars over a range of 3,000 light years, measuring the tiny, telltale dip in the brightness of a star that can be produced by a transiting planet.
In 2018, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will use the same method to monitor 200,000 bright nearby stars and search for planets, focusing on Earth-sized and Super-Earth-sized.
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3rd May 2016
Are we alone? Setting some limits to our uniqueness
A new paper suggests a way to simplify the famous Drake equation, based on observations of exoplanets discovered in the past two decades.
Are humans unique and alone in the vast universe? This question – summed up in the famous Drake equation – has for a half-century been one of the most intractable and uncertain in science. A new paper, however, shows that the recent discoveries of exoplanets combined with a broader approach to the question makes it possible to assign a new empirically valid probability to whether any other advanced technological civilisations have ever existed.
The authors show that, unless the odds of advanced life evolving on a habitable planet are astonishingly low, then humankind is not the universe's first technological, or advanced, civilisation. The paper, published in Astrobiology, also shows for the first time just what "pessimism" or "optimism" mean when it comes to estimating the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.
"The question of whether advanced civilisations exist elsewhere in the universe has always been vexed with three large uncertainties in the Drake equation," said Adam Frank, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study. "We've known for a long time approximately how many stars exist. We didn't know how many of those stars had planets that could potentially harbour life, how often life might evolve and lead to intelligent beings, and how long any civilisations might last before becoming extinct."
"Thanks to NASA's Kepler satellite and other searches, we now know that roughly one-fifth of stars have planets in habitable zones where temperatures could support life as we know it. So one of the three big uncertainties has now been constrained."
The third big question – how long civilisations might survive – is still completely unknown. "The fact that humans have had rudimentary technology for roughly ten thousand years doesn't really tell us if other societies would last that long, or perhaps much longer," he said. But Frank and co-author, Woodruff Sullivan at the University of Washington, found they could eliminate that term altogether by simply expanding the question.
"Rather than asking how many civilisations may exist now, we ask 'Are we the only technological species that has ever arisen? This shifted focus eliminates the uncertainty of the civilisation lifetime question and allows us to address what we call the 'cosmic archaeological question' – how often in the history of the universe has life evolved to an advanced state?" explained Sullivan.
That still leaves huge uncertainties in calculating the probability for advanced life to evolve on habitable planets. It's here that Frank and Sullivan flip the question around. Rather than guessing at the odds of advanced life developing, they calculate the odds against it occurring in order for humanity to be the only advanced civilisation in the entire history of the observable universe. From that, Frank and Sullivan then calculated the line between a universe where humanity has been the sole experiment in civilisation and one where others have come before us.
"Of course, we have no idea how likely it is that an intelligent technological species will evolve on a given habitable planet," says Frank. "But using our method we can tell exactly how low that probability would have to be for us to be the ONLY civilisation the universe has produced. We call that the pessimism line. If the actual probability is greater than the pessimism line, then a technological species and civilisation has likely happened before."
By using this approach, Frank and Sullivan calculated how unlikely advanced life would have to be if there has never been another example among the universe's ten billion trillion stars, or even among our own Milky Way galaxy's hundred billion. The result? Applying the latest exoplanet data to the universe's 2 x 10 to the 22nd power stars, Frank and Sullivan found that human civilisation is likely to be unique in the cosmos only if the odds of a civilisation developing on a habitable planet are less than about one in 10 billion trillion, or one part in 10 to the 22nd power.
"One in 10 billion trillion is incredibly small," says Professor Frank. "To me, this implies that other intelligent, technology producing species very likely evolved before us. Think of it this way. Before our result you'd be considered a pessimist if you imagined the probability of evolving a civilisation on a habitable planet were, say, one in a trillion. But even that guess – one chance in a trillion – implies that what has happened here on Earth with humanity has in fact happened about 10 billion other times over cosmic history!"
For smaller volumes the numbers are less extreme. For example, an alien civilisation has likely evolved in our own Milky Way galaxy if the odds against it evolving on any one habitable planet are better than one chance in 60 billion.
But if those numbers seem to give ammunition to the "optimists" about the existence of intelligent aliens, Sullivan points out that the full Drake equation – which calculates the odds that other civilisations are still around today – may give solace to the pessimists.
In 1961, astrophysicist Frank Drake wrote an equation to estimate the number of civilisations likely to be present in our galaxy. His formula (top row) has proven to be a durable framework for research, and space technology has advanced scientists' knowledge of several variables. But it is impossible to do anything more than guess at variables such as L, the probable longevity of other advanced civilisations.
Click to enlarge
In their new research, Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan offer a new equation (bottom row) to address a slightly different question: What is the number of advanced civilisations likely to have developed over the history of the observable universe? Frank and Sullivan's equation draws on Drake's, but it eliminates the need for L.
Their argument hinges upon the recent discovery of how many planets exist and how many lie in the "habitable zone" – regions around a star that are just the right temperature for water to be present in liquid form and where life could therefore exist. This allows Frank and Sullivan to define a number they call Nast, which is the product of N*, the total number of stars; fp, the fraction of those stars that form planets; and np, the average number of those planets in the habitable zones of their stars.
They set out what they call the "Archaeological-form" of the Drake equation, which defines A as the "number of technological species that have ever formed over the history of the observable universe."
Their equation, A=Nast*fbt, describes A as the product of Nast – the number of habitable planets in a given volume of the universe – multiplied by fbt – the likelihood of a technological species arising on one of these planets. The volume considered could be, for example, the entire universe, or just our galaxy.
"The universe is more than 13 billion years old," said Sullivan. "That means that even if there have been a thousand civilisations in our own galaxy, if they live only as long as we have been around – roughly ten thousand years – then all of them are likely already extinct. And others won't evolve until we are long gone. For us to have much chance of success in finding another "contemporary" active technological civilisation, on average they must last much longer than our present lifetime."
"Given the vast distances between stars and the fixed speed of light, we might never really be able to have a conversation with another civilisation anyway," explains Frank. "If they were 20,000 light years away, then every exchange would take 40,000 years to go back and forth."
But, as Frank points out – even if there aren't other civilisations in our galaxy to communicate with now, the new result still has a profound scientific and philosophical importance: "From a fundamental perspective, the question is 'has it ever happened anywhere before?' Our result is the first time anyone has been able to set any empirical answer for that question and it is astonishingly likely that we are not the only time and place that an advanced civilisation has evolved."
According to Frank and Sullivan, their result has a practical application as well. As humanity faces its crisis in sustainability and climate change we can wonder if other civilisation-building species went through a similar bottleneck and made it to the other side. As Frank puts it: "We don't even know if it's possible to have a high-tech civilisation that lasts more than a few centuries." With Frank and Sullivan's new result, scientists can begin using everything they know about planets and climate to begin modelling the interactions of an energy-intensive species with their home world, knowing that a large sample of such cases has already existed in the cosmos.
"Our results imply that our evolution has not been unique and has probably happened many times before," says Frank. "The other cases are likely to include many energy-intensive civilisations dealing with their feedbacks onto their planets as their civilisations grow. That means we can begin exploring the problem using simulations to get a sense of what leads to long-lived civilisations and what doesn't."
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3rd May 2016
Three potentially habitable worlds just 40 light years from Earth
Astronomers have discovered three potentially habitable planets orbiting an ultracool brown dwarf star just 40 light years away from Earth.
Artist's impression of the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 from the surface of one of its planets. All images credit: ESO
Astronomers using the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory have today announced the discovery of three planets orbiting an ultracool brown dwarf star just 40 light years from Earth. These worlds are reportedly "the best targets so far" in the search for life beyond our Solar System. These are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star. The new results are published today in the journal Nature.
A team led by Michaël Gillon, of the Institut d'Astrophysique et Géophysique at the University of Liège in Belgium, used the Belgian TRAPPIST telescope to observe the star 2MASS J23062928-0502285, now also known as TRAPPIST-1. They found that this dim and cool star faded slightly at regular intervals, indicating that several objects were passing between the star and the Earth. Detailed analysis showed that three planets with similar sizes to Earth were present.
TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star – it is much cooler and redder than the Sun and barely larger than Jupiter. Such stars are both very common in the Milky Way and very long-lived, but this is the first time that planets have been found around one of them. Despite being so close to the Earth, this star is too dim and too red to be seen with the naked eye or even visually with a large amateur telescope. It lies in the constellation of Aquarius.
Emmanuël Jehin, a co-author of the new study, is excited: "This really is a paradigm shift with regards to the planet population and the path towards finding life in the Universe. So far, the existence of such 'red worlds' orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets!"
Michaël Gillon, lead author of the paper, explains the significance of the new findings: "Why are we trying to detect Earth-like planets around the smallest and coolest stars in the solar neighbourhood? The reason is simple: systems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology. So if we want to find life elsewhere in the Universe, this is where we should start to look."
Astronomers will search for signs of life by studying the effect that the atmosphere of a transiting planet has on the light reaching Earth. For Earth-sized planets orbiting most stars, this tiny effect is swamped by the brilliance of the starlight. Only at faint, ultra-cool dwarf stars – like TRAPPIST-1 – is this effect big enough to be detected.
Follow-up observations with larger telescopes, including the HAWK-I instrument on ESO's 8-metre Very Large Telescope in Chile, have shown that the planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 have sizes very similar to that of Earth. Two of the planets have orbital periods of about 1.5 days and 2.4 days respectively, and the third planet has a less well determined period in the range of 4.5 to 73 days.
"With such short orbital periods, the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth to the Sun. The structure of this planetary system is much more similar in scale to the system of Jupiter's moons than to that of the Solar System," explains Michaël Gillon.
Although they orbit very close to their parent star, the inner two planets only receive four times and twice, respectively, the radiation received by Earth, because their star is much fainter than our Sun. That puts them closer to the star than the habitable zone for this system – but it is still possible that they possess habitable regions on their surfaces. The third, outer, planet's orbit is not yet well known – but it probably receives less radiation than the Earth does and may lie within the habitable zone.
"Thanks to several giant telescopes currently under construction – including ESO's E-ELT and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope – due to launch for 2018, we will soon be able to study the atmospheric composition of these planets and to explore them first for water, then for traces of biological activity. That's a giant step in the search for life in the Universe," concludes Julien de Wit, a co-author from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA.
This work opens up a new direction for exoplanet hunting, as around 15% of the stars near to the Sun are ultra-cool dwarf stars, and it also serves to highlight that the search for exoplanets has now entered the realm of potentially habitable cousins of the Earth. The TRAPPIST survey is a prototype for a more ambitious project called SPECULOOS that will be installed at ESO's Paranal Observatory.
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26th April 2016
New dwarf galaxy found orbiting the Milky Way
Astronomers at the University of Cambridge have announced the discovery of "Crater 2" – a new member of the Local Group.
Original image by Andrew Z. Colvin [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Adapted version by Gabriel Torrealba and Will Fox.
A never-before-seen galaxy has been spotted orbiting the Milky Way. With a diameter of around 7,000 light years, it becomes the fourth largest known satellite of the Milky Way, surpassed only by the Large Magellanic Cloud, Small Magellanic Cloud and the Sagittarius Dwarf. Known as "Crater 2", it was discovered by the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy.
Crater 2 is extremely faint compared to other members of the Local Group. Its diffuseness allowed it to remain hidden, but it was identified in recent data from the VST ATLAS survey. A computer algorithm processed images taken by the Very Large Telescope in Chile, pinpointing regions that might have unusual clustering of stars. This revealed an entire new satellite galaxy, located 380,000 light years away.
"This is indeed a very rare discovery. A galaxy like Crater 2 is a sort of invisible object," says Dr. Vasily Belokurov. "We have found many similar objects in the last 10 years, but never such a large beast. It is orders of magnitude less luminous compared to most objects of similar size. It is extremely diffuse. We believe it was born that fluffy. But why, we do not yet know."
If the brightness of Crater 2 were increased by 1,000 times, its angular diameter would be twice that of the full Moon, as shown in the illustration below. This suggests there might be other dark neighbours lurking nearby. Indeed, Dr. Belokurov and his team are now using their technique to hunt for additional objects that might have been missed. It is hoped these discoveries could lead to a better understanding of the origin and evolution of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
"In the last two years alone, the number of known Milky Way satellite galaxies has doubled, largely thanks to the Dark Energy Camera on the Blanco 4m telescope in Chile," Dr. Evan Kirby, assistant professor at Caltech, who was not involved in the research, told the Huffington Post. "These galaxies are intense concentrations of dark matter," he added. "If there's a place in the universe where we can look to learn about dark matter, it's dwarf galaxies. How is it distributed? What is it made of? Future observations, especially spectroscopy, will help answer those questions."
Crater 2 seems to be aligned in 3-D with the globular cluster Crater, the pair of dwarfs Leo IV and Leo V and the classical dwarf Leo II. The researchers argue that such arrangement "is probably not accidental and, in fact, can be viewed as evidence for the accretion of the Crater-Leo group." Their study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Credit: Vasily Belokurov, et al.
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21st April 2016
NASA seeks proposals for deep space habitation prototypes
NASA is inviting proposals for the development of prototype space habitats that will give astronauts a place to call home during long-duration missions supporting the agency's Journey to Mars program.
NASA's solicitation – Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) – is a follow-on to the NextSTEP Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) released in October 2014, requesting proposals for concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of human habitation, advanced propulsion and small satellites.
NASA's Orion crew spacecraft and Space Launch System are the agency's first major components for establishing a human presence in deep space. With these transportation systems progressing toward their maiden flight in 2018, the agency is now looking toward investments in deep space habitation, the next major component of human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
NextSTEP is a public-private partnership model that seeks commercial development of deep space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human spaceflight missions in the proving ground of space around the Moon, known as cislunar space, and to enable transit to Mars. This partnership model enables NASA to obtain innovative concepts and support private industry commercialisation plans for low-Earth orbit.
"NASA is increasingly embracing public-private partnerships to expand capabilities and opportunities in space," said Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division. "Our NextSTEP partners commit their own corporate resources toward the development – making them a true partner in the spaceflight economy."
Under Appendix A of the NextSTEP-2 Ominbus BAA, the agency is providing the opportunity for additional contractors to join those already under contract through the previous NextSTEP BAA. Proposals will include plans for an evolvable approach to long-duration deep space habitation and the development of full-size, ground prototype habitat units, no later than 2018.
There will be a chance to ask questions about this program during an industry forum on 25th April 2016. Eligible applicants from U.S. companies, universities and non-profit organisations must submit proposals electronically by 15th June 2016.
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16th April 2016
High-speed probes could travel to Alpha Centauri within 20 years
A group of scientists has announced "Breakthrough Starshot" – a program to develop a fleet of nanocraft probes able to reach the nearest star within 20 years and return images to Earth.
Science philanthropist Yuri Milner has announced a space research and engineering program called "Breakthrough Starshot". This aims to demonstrate a proof of concept for using light beams to push "nanocraft" probes to 20 percent of light speed. A possible fly-by mission could reach Alpha Centauri within 20 years of being launched, beaming back images and data four years after that.
Pete Worden – the former director of NASA's AMES Research Center – will lead the program, with advice being provided from a committee of world-class scientists and engineers. The board will consist of Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg.
The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. With today's fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there. Breakthrough Starshot would aim to develop solar sails pushed by light beams, allowing tiny probes to fly over 1,000 times faster – taking advantage of exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century.
"If we are to survive as a species, we must ultimately spread out to the stars," Professor Hawking said in a BBC interview. "Astronomers believe that there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet orbiting one of the stars [in] the Alpha Centauri system. But we will know more in the next two decades from ground-based and space-based telescopes. Technological developments in the last two decades and the future make it possible in principle within a generation."
If an Earth-size planet is lurking in the Alpha Centauri system, Breakthrough Starshot will try to aim its probes within 1 Astronomical Unit (150 million kilometres or 93 million miles) of it. From this distance, its cameras could potentially capture an image of high enough quality to resolve surface features. The spacecraft fleet would consist of 1,000 probes, and each craft, called a "StarChip", would be a very small, centimetre-sized device weighing only several grams. They would be propelled by arrays of ground-based lasers of up to 100 gigawatts. Each tiny spacecraft would transmit data back to Earth using a compact on-board laser communications system.
Each probe would comprise two main parts:
StarChip: Moore's law has allowed a dramatic reduction in the size of microelectronic components. This creates the possibility of a gram-scale wafer, cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment, constituting a fully functional space probe.
Lightsail: Advances in nanotechnology are producing thinner and lighter metamaterials, promising to enable the fabrication of metre-scale sails no more than a few hundred atoms thick. These could be folded prior to launch, then unfurled once in orbit.
The rising power and falling cost of lasers, consistent with Moore's law, will lead to significant advances in light beaming technology in the coming years. Breakthrough Starshot aims to leverage this trend, bringing economies of scale to the astronomical scale. A StarChip could be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone and be sent on missions in large numbers to provide redundancy and coverage. The light beamer would be modular and scalable. Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.
The research and engineering phase is expected to last about two decades. Following that, development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri would require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments, and would involve:
• Building a ground-based, kilometre-scale light beamer at high altitude in dry conditions
• Generating and storing a few gigawatt hours of energy per launch
• Launching a "mothership" carrying thousands of nanocrafts to a high-altitude orbit
• Taking advantage of adaptive optics technology in real time, to compensate for atmospheric effects
• Focusing the light beam on the lightsail to accelerate individual nanocrafts to the target speed within minutes
• Accounting for interstellar dust collisions en route to the target
• Capturing images of a planet, and other scientific data, and transmitting them back to Earth using a compact on-board laser communications system
• Using the same light beamer that launched the nanocrafts to receive data from them four years later.
These and other system requirements represent significant engineering challenges. However, the key elements of the proposed system design are based on technology either already available or likely to be attainable in the near future under reasonable assumptions. As with previous major projects – such as the International Space Station (ISS) and Large Hadron Collider – global co-operation and support would be needed.
As the technology required for interstellar travel matures, additional opportunities could emerge, including the following:
• Contribution to Solar System exploration
• Using the light beamer as a kilometre-scale telescope for astronomical observations
• Detection of Earth-crossing asteroids at large distances.
Astronomers believe there is a reasonable chance of an Earth-like planet existing in the habitable zones of Alpha Centauri's three-star system. A number of scientific instruments – both ground-based and space-based – are being developed and enhanced, which will soon identify and characterise planets around the nearest stars. A separate initiative will support some of these projects.
Breakthrough Starshot is a long-term project that could run until the 2050s or later. It aims to foster an open and collaborative environment that is:
• Based entirely on research that is in the public domain
• Committed to publishing new results
• Dedicated to full transparency and open access
• Open to experts in all relevant fields, as well as the public, to contribute ideas.
During its announcement, Milner's team outlined the biggest challenges facing the mission. These include: developing a two megapixel camera able to be miniaturised to the sub-gram scale; a tiny plutonium-238 or Americanium-241 battery; a thin and strong lightsail able to survive extreme acceleration; and a laser array with sufficient focus to bypass atmospheric turbulence.
It is hoped that a large swarm of 1,000 spacecraft will have "safety in numbers" and will compensate for any losses caused by interstellar dust collisions en route to their target. The team estimates that each square centimetre of frontal cross-section will impact at high speed with about a thousand particles of 0.1 microns or larger. New materials will be needed for the sails and other components to withstand these bombardments, in addition to coping with decades of cold vacuum.
As well as these technical hurdles, Breakthrough Starshot will need substantial amounts of funding – between $5 and $10 billion. Milner himself has donated $100 million for the initial research. If successful, the first craft could launch about 20 years from now.
"The human story is one of great leaps," said Milner in the press conference. "Today, we are preparing for the next great leap... to the stars."
"We take inspiration from Vostok, Voyager, Apollo and the other great missions," said Pete Worden. "It's time to open the era of interstellar flight."
"Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever," said Professor Hawking. "Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey."
Yuri Milner (3rd from left), Pete Worden (3rd from right), Prof. Stephen Hawking and other members of Breakthrough Starshot.
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10th April 2016
New search for signals from 20,000 star systems begins
The SETI Institute has inaugurated a greatly expanded hunt for deliberately produced radio signals that would indicate the presence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Over the next two years, it will scrutinise the vicinities of 20,000 red dwarf stars.
"Red dwarfs – the dim bulbs of the cosmos – have received scant attention by SETI scientists in the past," says Institute engineer Jon Richards. "That's because researchers made the seemingly reasonable assumption that other intelligent species would be on planets orbiting stars similar to the Sun."
This conservative assessment was bolstered by the argument that few planets were likely to be found in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star, simply because that zone is far narrower than for brighter stars like our Sun. Additionally, any worlds that were in this zone would be orbiting so close to their suns that they would quickly become tidally locked – with one hemisphere perpetually facing the star. It was assumed that this would produce a planet that was intolerably hot on one side, and brutally cold on the other, ruling it out as an abode for life.
However, more recent research has indicated that, if these worlds have oceans and atmospheres, heat would be transported from the lit side to the dark, and a significant fraction of the planet would be habitable. In addition, exoplanet data have suggested that somewhere between one sixth and one half of red dwarf stars have planets in their habitable zones, a percentage comparable to, and possibly greater than, that of Sun-like stars.
Credit: D. Aguilar/Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.
"Significantly, three-fourths of all stars are red dwarfs," explains SETI astronomer Seth Shostak. "That means that if you observe a finite set of them – say the nearest twenty thousand – then on average they will be at only half the distance of the nearest twenty thousand Sun-like stars."
Closer stars mean that any signals would be stronger. Also, red dwarfs burn for a period of time that's greater than the current age of the universe: every red dwarf ever born is still shining today. They are, on average, billions of years older than Sun-like stars.
"This may be one instance in which older is better," Shostak says. "Older solar systems have had more time to produce intelligent species."
The search is being conducted on the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array, located in the Cascade Mountains of northern California. This grouping of 42 antennas can observe three stars simultaneously.
"We'll scrutinise targeted systems over several frequency bands, between 1 and 10 GHz," says Institute scientist Gerry Harp. "Roughly half of those bands will be at so-called 'magic frequencies' – places on the radio dial that are directly related to basic mathematical constants. It's reasonable to speculate that extraterrestrials trying to attract attention might generate signals at such special frequencies."
The new red dwarf survey is planned to take two years. Targets are being chosen from a list of about 70,000 red dwarfs compiled by Boston University astronomer Andrew West. The search will also incorporate relevant new data generated by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Due for launch in August 2017, TESS will examine nearby stars, including red dwarfs, for planets.
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9th April 2016
SpaceX lands Falcon 9 rocket on a floating drone ship
In a historic achievement, private U.S. aerospace company SpaceX has successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket – part of the CRS-8 mission – on a floating drone ship for the first time. This follows their earlier milestone in December 2015 when a similar attempt resulted in a landing on solid ground.
CRS-8 is a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. It was the tenth flight for SpaceX's uncrewed Dragon cargo spacecraft and the eighth operational mission contracted to NASA under a Commercial Resupply Services contract, which followed the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet back in 2011. Several previous attempts to land at sea have all resulted in failure. On this occasion, however, the first stage successfully landed on the floating platform named Of Course I Still Love You, 300 km from the Florida coastline, as seen in this video.
Propellant costs for a rocket are much lower than the costs of hardware. The ability to re-use rockets – instead of them being discarded and burning up on reentry – could therefore slash the cost of spaceflight. An ocean landing requires less fuel than a ground landing, due to flight paths being more direct and less curved, which provides yet another efficiency improvement and makes this latest achievement even more notable.
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15th March 2016
ExoMars mission lifts off
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter has been successfully launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan. It will study methane on Mars, which could reveal whether life currently exists on the planet.
Credit: ESA–Stephane Corvaja, 2016
The first of two joint ESA–Roscosmos missions to Mars has begun a seven-month journey to the Red Planet, where it will address unsolved mysteries of the planet’s atmosphere that could indicate present-day geological – or even biological – activity.
The Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator lifted off on a Proton-M rocket operated by Russia’s Roscosmos at 09:31 GMT yesterday morning from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Following separation of the Proton’s first and second stages, the payload fairing was released. The third stage separated nearly 10 minutes after liftoff. The Breeze-M upper stage, with ExoMars attached, then completed a series of four burns before the spacecraft was released at 20:13 GMT (21:13 CET). Signals from the craft, received at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, confirmed that the launch was successful and the spacecraft is in good health. The orbiter’s solar wings have also now unfolded and the craft is on its way to Mars.
“It’s been a long journey getting the first ExoMars mission to the launch pad, but thanks to the hard work and dedication of our international teams, a new era of Mars exploration is now within our reach,” said Johann-Dietrich Woerner, the Director General of ESA. “I am grateful to our Russian partner, who have given this mission the best possible start today. Now we will explore Mars together.”
“Only the process of collaboration produces the best technical solutions for great research results,” said Igor Komarov, General Director of the Roscosmos State Space Corporation. “Roscosmos and ESA are confident of the mission’s success.”
“We’re not only looking forward to the world-class science data that this mission will return, but it is also significant in paving the way for the second ExoMars mission, which will move our expertise from in-orbit observations to surface and subsurface exploration of Mars,” said Alvaro Giménez, ESA Director of Science.
The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli will travel to Mars together, before separating on 16th October at distance of 900,000 km (560,000 miles) from the Red Planet. Then, on 19th October, Schiaparelli will enter the Martian atmosphere, descending to the surface in just under six minutes. Schiaparelli will demonstrate key entry, descent and landing technologies for future missions, and will conduct a number of environmental studies during its short mission on the surface. For example, it will obtain the first measurements of electric fields on the surface of Mars that, combined with measurements of atmospheric dust, will provide new insights into the role of electric forces on dust lifting – the trigger for dust storms.
Meanwhile, on the same day, TGO will enter an elliptical four-day orbit, taking it from 300 km at its closest to 96,000 km at its furthest point. After a year of complex ‘aerobraking’, during which the spacecraft will use the planet’s atmosphere to lower its orbit slowly to a circular 400 km, its scientific mission to analyse rare gases in the atmosphere will begin.
Of particular interest is methane, which on Earth, points to active geological or biological processes. One of the mission’s key goals is to follow up on the methane detection made by ESA’s Mars Express in 2004 to understand the processes causing its generation and destruction, with an improved accuracy of three orders of magnitude over previous measurements.
TGO will also image features on the surface that may be related to trace-gas sources, such as volcanoes. In addition, it will be able to detect buried water-ice deposits, which, along with locations identified as trace gas sources, may influence the choice of landing sites of future missions. The orbiter will also act as a data relay for the second ExoMars mission – comprising a rover and stationary surface science platform, which is scheduled for launch in May 2018, arriving in 2019.
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19th February 2016
First detection of super-Earth atmosphere
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has detected hydrogen and helium, but no water vapour, in the atmosphere of 55 Cancri e – the first time the atmosphere of a "super-Earth" has been analysed successfully.
For the first time, astronomers were able to analyse the atmosphere of an exoplanet in the class known as super-Earths. Using data gathered with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and new analysis techniques, the exoplanet 55 Cancri e is revealed to have a dry atmosphere without any indications of water vapour. The results, to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, indicate that the atmosphere consists mainly of hydrogen and helium.
The international team, led by scientists from University College London (UCL), took measurements of the nearby exoplanet 55 Cancri e, a super-Earth with a mass of eight Earths. It is located in the planetary system of 55 Cancri, a star about 40 light-years from Earth. Using observations made by the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on board the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the scientists were able to analyse the atmosphere in detail. The results were only made possible by exploiting a newly-developed processing technique.
"This is a very exciting result, because it's the first time that we have been able to find the spectral fingerprints that show the gases present in the atmosphere of a super-Earth," explains Angelos Tsiaras, a PhD student at UCL, who developed the analysing technique, along with his colleagues Ingo Waldmann and Marco Rocchetto. "The observations of 55 Cancri e's atmosphere suggest that the planet has managed to cling on to a significant amount of hydrogen and helium from the nebula from which it originally formed."
Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser
Super-Earths like 55 Cancri e are thought to be the most common type of planet in our galaxy. They acquired the name 'super-Earth' because they have a mass larger than that of the Earth, but are still much smaller than the gas giants in the Solar System. The WFC3 instrument on Hubble has already been used to probe the atmospheres of two other super-Earths, but no spectral features were found in those previous studies.
55 Cancri e, however, is an unusual super-Earth, as it orbits very close to its parent star. A year on the exoplanet lasts for only 18 hours and temperatures on the surface are thought to reach around 2000 degrees Celsius. Because the planet orbits its bright parent star at such a small distance, the team was able to use their new technique to extract key information about the planet, during its transits in front of the host star.
Observations were made by scanning the WFC3 very quickly across the star to create a number of spectra. By combining these observations and processing them through analytic software, the researchers were able to retrieve the spectrum of 55 Cancri e embedded in the light of its parent star.
"This result gives a first insight into the atmosphere of a super-Earth. We now have clues as to what the planet is currently like and how it might have formed and evolved, and this has important implications for 55 Cancri e and other super-Earths," said Giovanna Tinetti, also from UCL.
Intriguingly, the data also contain hints of the presence of hydrogen cyanide, a marker for carbon-rich atmospheres.
"Such an amount of hydrogen cyanide would indicate an atmosphere with a very high ratio of carbon to oxygen," said Olivia Venot, KU Leuven, who developed an atmospheric chemical model of 55 Cancri e that supported the analysis of the observations.
"If the presence of hydrogen cyanide and other molecules is confirmed in a few years time by the next generation of infrared telescopes, it would support the theory that this planet is indeed carbon rich and a very exotic place," concludes Jonathan Tennyson, UCL. "Although hydrogen cyanide, or prussic acid, is highly poisonous, so it is perhaps not a planet I would like to live on!"
Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser
12th February 2016
Gravitational waves detected for the first time
In a historical scientific landmark, researchers have announced the first detection of gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity 100 years ago. This major discovery opens a new era of astronomy.
Credits: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL
For the first time, scientists have directly observed "ripples" in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.
The observation was made at 09:50:45 GMT on 14th September 2015, when two black holes collided. However, given the enormous distance involved and the time required for light to reach us, this event actually occurred some 1.3 billion years ago, during the mid-Proterozoic Eon. For context, this is so far back that multicellular life here on Earth was only just beginning to spread. The signal came from the Southern Celestial Hemisphere, in the rough direction of (but much further away than) the Magellanic Clouds.
The two black holes were spinning together as a binary pair, turning around each other several tens of times a second, until they eventually collided at half the speed of light. These objects were 36 and 29 times the mass of our Sun. As their event horizons merged, they became one – like two soap bubbles in a bath. During the fraction of a second that this happened, three solar masses were converted to gravitational waves, and for a brief instant the event hit a peak power output 50 times that of the entire visible universe.
The gravitational waves were detected by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA. The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and MIT. The discovery was published yesterday in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Prof. Stephen Hawking told BBC News: "Gravitational waves provide a completely new way of looking at the Universe. The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionise astronomy. This discovery is the first detection of a black hole binary system and the first observation of black holes merging. Apart from testing General Relativity, we could hope to see black holes through the history of the Universe. We may even see relics of the very early Universe during the Big Bang at some of the most extreme energies possible."
"There is a Nobel Prize in it – there is no doubt," said Prof. Karsten Danzmann, from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics and Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, who collaborated on the study. In an interview with the BBC, he claimed the significance of this discovery is on a par with the determination of the structure of DNA.
"It is the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves; it's the first ever direct detection of black holes and it is a confirmation of General Relativity because the property of these black holes agrees exactly with what Einstein predicted almost exactly 100 years ago."
"We found a beautiful signature of the merger of two black holes and it agrees exactly – fantastically – with the numerical solutions to Einstein equations ... it looked too beautiful to be true."
LIGO measurement of gravitational waves at the Hanford (left) and Livingston (right) detectors, compared to the theoretical predicted values.
By Abbott et al. [CC BY 3.0]
"Scientists have been looking for gravitational waves for decades – but we’ve only now been able to achieve the incredibly precise technologies needed to pick up these very, very faint echoes from across the universe," said Danzmann. "This discovery would not have been possible without the efforts and the technologies developed by the Max Planck, Leibniz Universität, and UK scientists working in the GEO collaboration."
Researchers at the LIGO Observatories were able to measure tiny and subtle disturbances the waves made to space and time as they passed through the Earth, with machines detecting changes just fractions of the width of an atom. At each observatory, the two-and-a-half-mile (4-km) long L-shaped LIGO interferometer uses laser light split into two beams that travel back and forth along tubes kept at a near-perfect vacuum. The beams are used to monitor the distance between mirrors precisely positioned at the ends of the arms. According to Einstein’s theory, the distance between the mirrors will change by an infinitesimal amount when gravitational waves pass by the detector. A change in the lengths of the arms smaller than one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton can be detected; equivalent to a human hair's diameter over three light years from Earth.
"The Advanced LIGO detectors are a tour de force of science and technology, made possible by a truly exceptional international team of technicians, engineers, and scientists," says David Shoemaker of MIT. "We are very proud that we finished this NSF-funded project on time and on budget."
"We spent years modelling the gravitational-wave emission from one of the most extreme events in the universe: pairs of massive black holes orbiting with each other and then merging. And that’s exactly the kind of signal we detected!" says Prof. Alessandra Buonanno, director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam.
"With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvellous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe – objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime," says Kip Thorne, Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. "Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples."
Advanced LIGO is among the most sensitive instruments ever built. During its next observing stage, it is expected to detect five more black hole mergers and to detect around 40 binary star mergers each year, in addition to an unknown number of more exotic gravitational wave sources, some of which may not be anticipated by current theory.
4th February 2016
Asteroid mining initiative announced by Luxembourg
The Luxembourg government yesterday announced a series of measures to position the country as a European hub in the exploration and use of space resources. Amongst the key steps undertaken will be the development of a legal and regulatory framework that provides certainty about the future ownership of minerals extracted from Near Earth Objects (NEO's), such as asteroids.
Luxembourg has become the first European country to announce its intention to establish a formal legal framework ensuring that private operators working in outer space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract, i.e. rare minerals from asteroids. This legal framework will be designed in full consideration of international law. Luxembourg is eager to engage with other countries on this matter within a multilateral framework. Luxembourg will also invest in relevant R&D projects and consider direct capital investment in companies active in this field.
This initiative will nurture an exciting and entirely new space industry – offering unprecedented access to vast metal and mineral resources, for use in Earth orbit and beyond, stimulating economic growth and encouraging new horizons in space exploration.
Luxembourg already has a strong track record in related sectors, with satellite operator SES, established in Luxembourg 30 years ago and now a major global player in its field. The budget allocated to the space resources initiative will be part of the national space budget and will be defined in terms of Luxembourg's contribution to the next European Space Agency (ESA) multiannual budget, to be decided in December 2016.
Luxembourg's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy, Étienne Schneider, commented: "Our aim is to open access to a wealth of previously unexplored mineral resources on lifeless rocks hurling through space, without damaging natural habitats. We will support the long-term economic development of new, innovative activities in the space and satellite industries as a key high-tech sector for Luxembourg. At first, our aim is to carry out research in this area, which at a later stage can lead to more concrete activities in space."
Former ESA boss, Jean-Jacques Dordain, will be an adviser. In a press conference, he said that asteroid mining was no longer science fiction; the basic technologies of landing and returning materials from space had essentially been proven: "Things are moving in the United States and it was high time there was an initiative in Europe, and I am glad the first initiative is coming from Luxembourg," he said. "It will give no excuse for European investors to go to California."
Press conference by Étienne Schneider and Jean-Jacques Dordain.
Yves Elsen, Chairperson of the Luxembourg Space Cluster stated: "Over the past three decades, Luxembourg has built up extensive know-how in world-class space related activities. Luxembourg can write history once again by further sustaining the attractiveness of the country for a host of next generation space activities."
Simon P. Worden, Chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation said: "Humanity is on the verge of expansion into the solar system – and then beyond. Using the resources we find there is essential – not only for our expansion into space, but also to ensure continued prosperity here on Earth."
Chris Lewicki, President and CEO of Planetary Resources, commented: "We commend the Government of Luxembourg in leading the world by establishing this new resource industry, thereby enabling the economic development of near-Earth asteroid resources. Planetary Resources looks forward to working with Luxembourg."
Rick Tumlinson, Co-founder and Chair of the Board of Deep Space Industries, stated: "By opening up the resources of space, Luxembourg will help take the pressure off the Earth."
30th January 2016
Giant cloud heading for Milky Way originated from within our galaxy
New observations of Smith's Cloud, which is predicted to collide and merge with our galaxy in 27 million AD, reveal that it originated from within the Milky Way. Like a boomerang effect, it now appears to be heading back to its galactic home.
Smith's Cloud – a vast cloud of hydrogen gas that is speeding towards the Milky Way – did not originate from intergalactic space, but was actually launched out of our own galaxy around 70 million years ago. That's according to a new study by astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, who used the Hubble Space Telescope to determine its location and trajectory with more precision.
It was previously believed that Smith's Cloud, which is 11,000 light years in length, crossed the immense void of intergalactic space on its long journey and was possibly a failed, starless dwarf galaxy. For either of these speculations to be true, it would need to contain mostly hydrogen and helium gas – not the heavier elements made by stars.
These new observations, however, looked at ultraviolet light from the bright cores of three distant galaxies, using Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph to see how this light was filtered through the cloud. The data revealed its chemical composition for the first time, confirming it to be as sulphur-rich as the Milky Way's outer disk.
"By measuring sulphur, you can learn how enriched in sulphur atoms the cloud is compared to the Sun," explained team leader Andrew Fox. Sulphur is a good gauge of how many heavier elements reside in the cloud.
This means that the Smith Cloud was enriched by material from stars, which could not happen if it were pristine hydrogen from outside the galaxy, or if it were the remnant of a failed galaxy devoid of stars. Instead, the cloud appears to have been ejected from within the Milky Way and is now returning back towards the galactic plane in a kind of boomerang effect.
"The cloud is an example of how the galaxy is changing with time," said Fox. "It's telling us that the Milky Way is a bubbling, very active place, where gas can be thrown out of one part of the disk and then return back down into another."
"Our galaxy is recycling its gas through clouds, the Smith Cloud being one example, and will form stars in different places than before. Hubble's measurements of the Smith Cloud are helping us to visualise how active the disks of galaxies are."
While this settles the mystery of the Smith Cloud's origin, it raises new questions: How did the cloud get to where it is now? What calamitous event could have catapulted it from the Milky Way, and how did it remain intact? Could it be a region of dark matter – an invisible form of matter – that passed through the disk and captured Milky Way gas? Answers to these questions may be found in future research.
Smith Cloud's is moving at nearly 200 miles per second (or about 700,000 mph) and is predicted to collide into the Perseus Arm by 27 million AD. This will trigger an intense burst of star formation where it hits, giving birth to as many as two million additional new stars. Fox and his team have published their study in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The entry on our timeline has been updated to reflect their new findings.
23rd January 2016
Strong evidence of a ninth planet in our Solar System
Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology have found the strongest evidence yet that a ninth planet – or "Planet X" – is present in our Solar System, orbiting the Sun every 20,000 years.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have found evidence of a giant planet tracing a highly elongated orbit in the far distant reaches of our Solar System. The object, which has been nicknamed "Planet Nine", has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the Sun on average than does Neptune (which orbits the Sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles). With a semi-major axis of 300,000 light seconds, or about 0.01 light years, it would take this new planet an estimated 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the Sun.
The researchers, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, discovered the planet's existence through mathematical modelling and computer simulations but have not yet observed the object directly.
"This would be a real ninth planet," says Brown. "There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It's a pretty substantial chunk of our Solar System that's still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting."
Brown notes that Planet Nine, at 5,000 times the mass of Pluto, is sufficiently large that there should be no debate about whether it is a true planet. Unlike the class of smaller objects now known as dwarf planets, it gravitationally dominates its neighbourhood. In fact, it dominates a region larger than any of the other known planets, a fact that Brown says makes it "the most planet-y of the planets in the whole Solar System."
Batygin and Brown describe their work in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal and show how Planet Nine helps explain a number of mysterious features of the Kuiper Belt. The orbital correlations of six distant trans-Neptunian objects, pictured below, were key to their model. After they plotted the orbits of these and various other objects, they matched their simulations perfectly: "When we found that, my jaw sort of hit the floor," says Brown.
Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science, comments: "Although we were initially quite sceptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit – and what it would mean for the outer Solar System – we became increasingly convinced it is out there. For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the Solar System's planetary census is incomplete."
In a couple of ways, this ninth planet – which seems like an oddball to us – would actually make our Solar System more similar to systems that astronomers are finding around other stars. Firstly, most of the planets around other Sun-like stars have no single orbital range – that is, some orbit at extremely close range to their host stars, while others follow exceptionally distant orbits. Secondly, the most common planets around other stars vary between one and 10 Earth-masses.
"One of the most startling discoveries about other planetary systems has been that the most common type of planet out there has a mass between that of Earth and that of Neptune," explains Batygin. "Until now, we have thought that the Solar System was lacking in this most common type of planet. Maybe we're more normal after all."
The team continue to refine their simulations and learn more about the planet's orbit and its gravitational influence on the Solar System. They believe their study will trigger a worldwide hunt by astronomers – both amateur and professional – to obtain the first direct visual images of Planet Nine. A new generation of observatories such as the James Webb Telescope may do just that. It might also be spotted in old images captured by previous surveys. Given its high mass, it is possible that various moons are there too.
"I would love to find it," says Brown. "But I'd also be perfectly happy if someone else found it. That is why we're publishing this paper. We hope that other people are going to get inspired and start searching."
Brown, well known for the significant role he played in the demotion of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet adds, "All those people who are mad that Pluto is no longer a planet can be thrilled to know that there is a real planet out there still to be found. Now we can go and find this planet and make the Solar System have nine planets once again."
12th January 2016
World's first virtual reality rollercoaster
In a groundbreaking move that could revolutionise the world of theme parks, the UK's Alton Towers Resort announces today it is launching a rollercoaster entirely dedicated to virtual reality.
Set to open in April, Galactica is the world's first rollercoaster entirely customised for the full virtual reality experience, transforming riders into astronauts and plunging them into outer space with a G force of 3.5, which is more powerful than the 3G of a real rocket launch.
The exhilarating new ride will combine the physical exertion and adrenaline rush of Alton Towers' iconic flying rollercoaster, with the breathtaking sensation of travelling through space. Cutting edge technology launches riders into a different world, complete with virtual space suits, stunning visuals and an exciting adventure. The visuals have been perfectly synchronised to the thrilling twists, turns and loops of the rollercoaster to recreate the sensation of hurtling through space. Visitors will ride in a prone position along the 840-metre long (2,760 ft) track, to recreate the feeling of flying.
Galactica's epic space theme is set to be hugely popular following Tim Peake's maiden voyage into space in December 2015. Stunning, high-quality visuals deliver an immersive experience that its designers claim is breathtakingly realistic. Each rider wears a modified Samsung Gear VR headset. Through this, an on-board artificial intelligence guides them from the launch pad up into space – flying and looping beyond the stars, banking through wormholes and speeding across distant galaxies, revealing the wonders of the cosmos in stunning clarity.
Commenting on the new attraction, Marketing Director Gill Riley says: "Galactica uses groundbreaking technology to give riders a breathtaking and completely unique rollercoaster experience. Tim Peake captured the imagination of millions of Brits last year when he set off on his mission to the International Space Station – and now our visitors can become astronauts too.
"There is nowhere else in the world that people can experience the feeling of a flying rollercoaster combined with soaring through the universe. For two minutes, our guests will be transported into space and we believe Galactica showcases the future for theme parks around the world – it's a complete game changer!"
31st December 2015
James Webb Space Telescope mirror halfway complete
Inside a massive clean room in Greenbelt, Maryland, the ninth of 18 flight mirrors was installed onto the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) this week using a robotic arm. This marks the halfway completion point for the segmented primary mirror.
In recent weeks, a team of engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre have been working tirelessly to install the JWST's mirror segments onto the telescope structure. The first piece was fitted on 25th November, and this week it was announced that the ninth piece is now in place.
"The years of planning and practicing are really paying dividends and the progress is really rewarding for everyone to see," said Lee Feinberg, NASA's Optical Telescope Element Manager.
In these NASA images, a robotic arm can be seen lifting and lowering the hexagonal-shaped segments that each measure 4.2 feet (1.3 metres) across and weigh 88 pounds (40 kilograms). After being pieced together, these 18 primary mirror segments will combine to function as a single large 21.3-foot (6.5-metre) mirror. The full installation is expected to be complete in early 2016, with deployment scheduled for 2018.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the scientific successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope that was launched in 1990. It will be the most powerful space telescope ever built – using near-infrared wavelengths to see the very first generation of stars that ignited after the Big Bang. The JWST is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
By Bobarino [CC BY-SA 3.0]
28th December 2015
InSight mission to Mars postponed until at least 2018
NASA has postponed its launch of the InSight Mars mission in March 2016, due to an air leak in one of the primary scientific instruments. It is currently unclear if the mission will be cancelled entirely or delayed until 2018.
After thorough examination, NASA managers have decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission. This follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in part of the prime instrument in the science payload.
"Learning about the interior structure of Mars has been a high priority objective for planetary scientists since the Viking era," said John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA's HQ in Washington, D.C. "We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science, but space exploration is unforgiving, and the bottom line is that we're not ready to launch in the 2016 window."
The instrument involved is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer provided by France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES). Designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of a single atom, it could detect signals from marsquakes, meteorite impacts, local events like dustdevils or landslides, and even the tiny tidal deformation of Mars induced by its moon Phobos. The SEIS requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.
"InSight's investigation of the Red Planet's interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved," explains Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. "Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets' early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks. Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this."
A leak earlier this year that had previously prevented the seismometer from retaining vacuum conditions was repaired, and the mission team was hopeful the most recent fix would be successful. However, during testing last week in extreme cold temperature (-49°F/-45°C) the instrument again failed to hold a vacuum. NASA officials have now determined that there is insufficient time to resolve another leak, and complete the work and thorough testing required to ensure a successful mission.
"It's the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built," said Marc Pircher, CNES Director. "We were very close to succeeding – but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation. Our teams will find a solution to fix it, but it won't be solved in time for a launch in 2016."
The relative positions of Earth and Mars mean the best launch opportunities occur for only a few weeks every 26 months. The current launch window for InSight runs from 4th–30th March 2016.
"When you know you’re going to miss the window, it’s essentially game over, at least for this opportunity," said Grunsfeld. "This is a case where the alignment of the planets matters, and to get from Earth to Mars in the most efficient manner, they’re aligned about every 26 months. So we’re looking at some time in the May 2018 timeframe for the next opportunity."
The mission could even be cancelled altogether: "That is a question that's on the table," according to Grunsfeld. NASA has already spent $525 million on research and development of the spacecraft; a launch delay from 2016 to 2018 automatically triggers a review on its future. NASA is unsure how much the delay and repairs will cost, or whether it will exceed the mission's budget cap. "A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months," Grunsfeld says.
"The JPL and CNES teams, and their partners, have made a heroic effort to prepare the InSight instrument, but have run out of time given the celestial mechanics of a launch to Mars," said JPL Director Charles Elachi. "It is more important to do it right than take an unacceptable risk."
"In 2008, we made a difficult, but correct decision to postpone the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission for two years to better ensure mission success," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington. "The successes of that mission's rover, Curiosity, have vastly outweighed any disappointment about that delay."
Since there is still a chance it will go ahead, we have moved the InSight mission from 2016 to 2018 on our timeline.
22nd December 2015
SpaceX rocket achieves historic vertical landing
Following previous failed attempts, U.S. company SpaceX headed by Elon Musk has achieved a historic milestone in space flight by landing an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket vertically. This achievement paves the way to a new generation of reusable rockets – greatly reducing the cost of access to space.
The rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, delivering 11 communications satellites into low Earth orbit for the Orbcomm-2 mission before returning 10 minutes later about 9.65km (6 miles) south of its launch pad, where it landed in an upright position at 8:39 pm EST.
12th November 2015
The U.S. government has passed historic legislation for asteroid mining
The U.S. government has passed historic legislation for asteroid mining, which allows citizens to own, transport and sell "any asteroid resource or space resource" obtained during commercial operations in space.
Credit: Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries (DSI)
The U.S. Congress has just passed historic legislation (H.R. 2262), recognising the right of U.S. citizens to own space resources they obtain as property and encouraging the commercial exploration and recovery of materials from asteroids, free from harmful interference.
This legislation creates a pro-growth environment for the development of the commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment and ensuring a more stable and predictable regulatory regime. The law is important for the industry and will be integral to supporting U.S. interests as the commercial space sector continues to expand.
“We are proud to have the support of Congress,” said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources. “Throughout history, governments have spurred growth in new frontiers by instituting sensible legislation. Long ago, the Homestead Act of 1862 advocated for the search for gold and timber, and today, H.R. 2262 fuels a new economy that will open many avenues for the continual growth and prosperity of humanity. This off-planet economy will forever change our lives for the better here on Earth.”
Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources, said: “Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species. This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”
Daniel Faber, the CEO of rival firm Deep Space Industries (DSI), also commented: “This is a very thoughtfully worded piece of legislation that is sensitive to the existing Outer Space Treaty, and yet moves the ball far forward in terms of giving companies like DSI the legal certainty we need to invest in capitally intensive missions and equipment.”
Previously confined to the realm of science fiction, asteroid mining has begun to seem like a serious possibility in recent years. Thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of Planetary Resources, DSI and other firms, new technologies are being developed that could soon unlock the vast untapped metal and mineral wealth buried throughout the Solar System. In July of this year, Planetary Resources successfully deployed its Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft from the Kibo airlock of the International Space Station (ISS). This test featured a number of core technologies that will be incorporated into future spacecraft. A larger and more advanced demonstration craft, the Arkyd-6 (A6), is now planned.
Eventually, these prototypes will be followed by probes capable of rendezvousing with Near-Earth objects (NEOs) identified as being rich in resources. They will deploy machines able to drill into rocks and extract their contents for in-situ utilisation (e.g. construction materials and rocket propellant) or return to Earth. Planetary Resources is confident it will begin commercial operations in the 2020s.
With sufficient commitment and long-term investment, asteroid mining could solve the looming resource shortage here on Earth. A single 500-metre asteroid could contain more platinum group metals than have ever been mined in human history. Establishing a solid legal foundation for the development of space resources is a necessary first step in opening the frontier. The new legal framework passed this week is essential for serious investment to occur in what may become one of the biggest industries of all time.
2nd November 2015
BAE Systems and Reaction Engines to develop a groundbreaking new aerospace engine
BAE Systems and Reaction Engines Ltd. today announced a strategic investment by BAE Systems and a working collaboration to accelerate the development of SABRE – a new class of aerospace engine that combines both jet and rocket technologies and could potentially revolutionise hypersonic flight and the economics of space access.
Under the terms of the agreement, BAE Systems will invest £20.6 million in Reaction Engines to acquire 20 per cent of its share capital and also enter into a working partner relationship. The working partnership will draw on BAE Systems' extensive aerospace technology development and project management expertise and will provide Reaction Engines with access to critical industrial, technical and capital resources to progress towards the demonstration of a ground-based engine – a key milestone in the development of the technology. Under the agreement, BAE Systems will enter into a preferred supplier relationship with Reaction Engines in certain agreed areas and will have representation on the board of Reaction Engines.
Reaction Engines is a privately held company based in the United Kingdom developing the technologies needed for an advanced combined cycle air-breathing rocket engine called SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine). This new class of aerospace engine is designed to enable aircraft to operate from standstill on the runway to speeds of over five times the speed of sound in the atmosphere. SABRE can then "transition" to a rocket mode of operation, allowing spaceflight at speeds up to orbital velocity, equivalent to 25 times the speed of sound. Reaction Engines' technology has undergone extensive independent technical assessments which have confirmed its viability and potential applications.
A key element of the SABRE engine is a breakthrough in aerospace engine technology of ultra-lightweight heat exchangers that allow the cooling of very hot airstreams from over 1,000 °C to minus 150 °C in less than 1/100th of a second, whilst preventing the formation of ice at sub-zero temperatures.
The UK Government is expected to confirm grant funding of £60 million for Reaction Engines to further SABRE's development towards a ground-based test engine and to investigate its applications for space access vehicles. Together with BAE Systems' investment, this injection of capital will support the transition from a research phase into development and testing of the engine. The ground-based test engine is expected to be ready by 2020 and the first unmanned test flights could happen by 2025.
Mark Thomas, Managing Director of Reaction Engines: "Today's announcement represents an important landmark in the transition of Reaction Engines – from a company that has been focused on the research and testing of enabling technologies for the SABRE engine, to one that is now focused on the development and testing of the world's first SABRE engine. BAE Systems brings industry-leading capabilities in programme delivery and wider engineering systems integration that will accelerate the development of SABRE as a new engine class and its vehicle applications. This partnership builds on the outstanding technical breakthroughs that Reaction Engines has made and the positive assessments received on the potential of the technology from experts at the European Space Agency and the United States' Air Force Research Laboratory."
Nigel Whitehead, Group Managing Director, Programmes & Support, BAE Systems: "Reaction Engines is a highly innovative UK company and our collaboration gives BAE Systems a strategic interest in a breakthrough air and space technology with significant future potential. Our partnership with Reaction Engines is part of our sustained commitment to investing in and developing prospective emerging technologies. BAE Systems' considerable engineering and development expertise will help support the delivery of the first demonstrator for the SABRE engine."
Jo Johnson MP, UK Minister for Universities and Science said: "This investment by BAE Systems reflects the strength of British engineering and technology and our ambitions as a leading space nation. I am sure that this partnership will strengthen both organisations – helping to create more jobs in the UK's growing space sector and ultimately to make the SABRE engine a reality."