January 27, 2023

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This Week in Space: You Wouldn’t Hack an Exoplanet…

Welcome back, everyone. This week, scientists announced two never-before-seen minerals found inside a 17-ton meteorite. We also found out that astronomers used the James Webb space telescope to watch clouds moving — on Titan. Meanwhile, Mauna Loa is erupting, and you can see it from space. We’ve also got updates from Tiangong, the International Space Station, and Orion. But let’s start with the European Space Agency, which has what we’ll call a unique proposal.

ESA Wants Kids to Help Hack an Exoplanet

Outreach and education are closely-held missions for the ESA. Just like our own space agency’s [email protected], the ESA frequently holds free events and contests aimed at involving the general public. Its recent Bake the Moon Challenge provided a banana bread recipe and offered prizes for photos of entrants’ craterous creations. Now, it’s inviting students of high school age to help hack an exoplanet. Wait, what?

The ESA’s Cheops (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite) will observe two exoplanets, KELT-3b and TOI-560c, in early 2023. So the agency is hosting online and physical “hackathons” in April and May 2023, to help scientists analyze the data. Students will “use real satellite data to investigate an alien planet and become an exoplanet detective.”

Teams who participate in the Hack an Exoplanet event can submit their projects until June 2023, for teacher-approved prizes including “ESA goodies, as well as the opportunity to participate in a webinar with Physics Nobel Laureate Didier Queloz, on 17 July 2023.”

Orion Is in the Home Stretch

Thursday afternoon, Orion performed a vital course correction burn, the first in its journey back toward Earth. Today (Friday) is flight day 17, of the capsule’s 26-day mission.

Things are going very well for Orion. So well, in fact, that the crew got to take a well-deserved Thanksgiving break. But one diligent member of the Orion team showed up anyway: Astronaut Snoopy still has perfect attendance.

Astronaut Snoopy, in the 2022 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls via NASA HQ Flickr

The inflatable Astronaut Snoopy is a beloved regular in the Macy’s parade. But as he floated over New York City, the “real” Astronaut Snoopy was keeping watch inside the Orion capsule. NASA sent a Snoopy plushie to space with Orion, where the multi-talented pup is serving as a “zero gravity indicator” for the Artemis 1 mission.

NASA Awards Texas Company $57M Toward 3D Printing Moon Base

It’s so expensive to get mass into space that instead of bringing a habitat to the Moon or Mars by rocket, we might build one from materials we find in situ. To that end, NASA just announced it’s funding Texas-based 3D-printing construction company ICON’s Project Olympus, to the tune of $57M. ICON will use lunar regolith samples to study the material’s behavior in lunar gravity, and it will also send its hardware and software into lunar gravity.

A new award from NASA will support ICON in developing construction technology that could be used on the Moon and Mars. Credits: ICON/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group

“The final deliverable of this contract will be humanity’s first construction on another world, and that is going to be a pretty special achievement,” said ICON co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard in a statement. While he didn’t go into further detail, NASA’s Artemis program is actively researching ways to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon.

The agency has also worked with ICON before, researching ways to build a structure out of regolith and other materials found off-world. Mars Dune Alpha, another ICON project, will use 3D-printed “lavacrete” in a year-long Martian habitat simulation at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. Among other perks, the habitat will feature fully customizable bedrooms, in order to alleviate boredom and “spatial monotony” during extended stays on Mars.

New Minerals Discovered Inside 17-Ton Meteorite

A 17-ton meteorite crashed down on a field in Somalia in 2020. Now, scientists report that they have identified two minerals from within the meteorite that were previously unknown to science.

Photo: Chris Herd, via University of Alberta

The scientists named the minerals elaliite after the meteor, and elkinstantonite after Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of NASA’s upcoming Psyche mission. Elkins-Tanton’s research showed that for its size, 16 Psyche had too little mass to be the exposed core of a failed planet. The Psyche mission will send a probe to its namesake asteroid, in search of information on how our planets formed.

“Whenever you find a new mineral, it means that the actual geological conditions, the chemistry of the rock, was different than what’s been found before,” said Chris Herd, a professor of Earth & atmospheric sciences and curator of the University of Alberta’s Meteorite Collection. “That’s what makes this exciting: In this particular meteorite you have two officially described minerals that are new to science.”

“Lindy has done a lot of work on how the cores of planets form, how these iron-nickel cores form,” added Herd, “and the closest analog we have are iron meteorites. So it made sense to name a mineral after her and recognize her contributions to science.”

JWST, Keck Team Up to Study Clouds on Titan

Saturn’s moon Titan is a fascinating, forbidding place. It’s the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere, and the only planetary body other than Earth that currently has rivers, lakes, and seas. Like Earth, Titan’s surface has mountains and craters, dunes, and deltas. But where Earth’s seas are full of water, Titan has frigid hydrocarbon oceans full of liquid methane. Where we have a water cycle, Titan has a hydrocarbon cycle, complete with winds and surface weather. A thick layer of opaque organo-nitrogen haze blankets the planet in volatiles like acetylene and propane, shot through with noxious gases like cyanide.

Astronomers waited for years to train the James Webb Space Telescope on Titan. Now, Webb’s infrared vision has allowed a group of astronomers to peer right through Titan’s choking orange haze and capture its surface features, including weather and terrain. Follow-up observations from the Keck Observatory provided detail so fine the group was able to track the motion of clouds on Titan’s surface.

Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, Webb Titan GTO Team. Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

The moon has “fascinating weather patterns and gaseous composition,” the group said in a statement. Using Webb’s NIRCam instrument, they were able to see through the haze to study albedo features (bright and dark patches) on the surface. Nixon and colleagues were “absolutely delighted” at the detail they captured. Standouts include the black sand dunes of equatorial Belet, and in the bitter reaches of the moon’s north pole, an ocean of liquid methane called Kraken Mare.

Mauna Loa Eruption Visible From Space

Mauna Loa is by far the largest of the five volcanoes on Hawaii’s Big Island. It lies to the southeast of Mauna Kea, whose summit hosts several observatories including Keck. Mauna Kea has been dormant for thousands of years, and we expect it’ll be dormant for many more. But Mauna Loa is giving the world a gentle reminder that it’s still very much an active volcano.

The European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite captured this image of Mauna Loa erupting on November 28. Image: ESA

The volcano began to erupt last Sunday, after weeks of not-so-subtle hinting. That is, if you consider swarms of earthquakes to be a hint.

Fissure 3 on Mauna Loa’s Northeast Rift Zone, shown here, is the dominant source of the largest lava flow in this eruption. Image: USGS/K. Mulliken

Lava flow fronts are moving to the east and northeast at around a hundred feet per hour. So far, it’s a gentle eruption, but a few lava fountains have reached up to 200 feet in the air. Light from the eruption was intense enough to briefly blind the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite, saturating its CCD despite cloud cover and a lot of ash. The plume of gas from the eruption is also visible from space, and it will waft its way to the East Coast by the end of this coming week.

The a’a lava from this eruption is rich in silica. As bubbles in the lava burst, strings of it fly free, forming needle-like filaments of volcanic glass called Pele’s hair. The eruption is also causing atmospheric phenomena, including this extremely rare “lava light pillar.” In this photo from the Gemini North Observatory on Mauna Kea, light from the eruption illuminates and reflects off ice crystals high in the sky.

Image: Gemini International Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

While the Mauna Kea observatories are in no danger, lava flows have blocked off several access roads, interrupting operations. However, the lava front is still three miles back from Saddle Road, the major thoroughfare connecting the two mountains.

For detailed updates on this evolving situation, check out the USGS Mauna Loa Eruption Page.

ISS Astronauts Grow Tomatoes in Low-Earth Orbit

Is there such a thing as tomato season in space? There’s always an experiment going on aboard the ISS to see how some earthly living thing fares in microgravity. Right now, NASA flight engineer and Expedition 68 mission commander Nicole Mann is setting up a study to see how dwarf tomatoes do in space. The study will explore different fertilizer techniques while evaluating the mini tomatoes for nutritional value and taste. If there’s a way to have terroir in orbit, we’ll find it.

Courtesy of SpaceX’s Dragon, there’s also a new experiment on bone and skin healing, which the astronauts just unpacked. Meanwhile, veteran astronaut Koichi Wakata of Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is tending to a microbial cell biology experiment designed to “provide insights into neuromuscular conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.”

Image: NASA/Johnson Space Center

Fellow Expedition 68 astronauts Josh Cassada and Frank Rubio will leave the station for a seven-hour spacewalk beginning at 7:25 Saturday morning, Eastern time. During the excursion, the two will install a roll-out solar array on the station’s starboard side.

Shenzhou 15 Expedition Launches to Tiangong

Three astronauts took off from the Gobi Desert on Tuesday morning, headed for China’s Tiangong space station atop a Long March 2F rocket. Six uneventful hours after liftoff, the rocket made berth with the station. For this expedition, Shenzhou 15, veteran Chinese astronaut Fei Junlong is accompanied by relative rookies Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu.

The astronauts will remain in orbit for six months. While on the station, the trio will work to transition Tiangong from construction mode into its fully operational state. It’s a science station, but the thing is so new they’re still practically peeling off the plastic.

Skywatchers Corner

Skywatching is fun just because there are so many beautiful things to look at. But if you look a little deeper, the skies are full of elegant physics demonstrations. For example, the Earth’s axial tilt gives us our seasons. On celestial holidays like the solstices and equinoxes, the sun is exactly overhead at different places on the globe. Ancient astronomers used these and other naked-eye observations to calculate the size and inclination of our planet. And as it happens, the longest night of the year comes in December, at the Winter Solstice.

Image: NASA

This month’s full moon is called the Cold Moon, which makes sense if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. And when the Cold Moon is in its full phase this coming Wednesday (Dec. 7), some northern skywatchers will get an extra neat little physics demo. As it does every so often, this month the Moon will pass directly between the Earth and Mars. In astronomy, this is called occlusion. As the Moon pulls up in front of Mars, the occlusion will be visible from much of Europe and Northern Africa. Viewers in the northeastern United States, however, will see the full moon just barely graze past the Red Planet.

Mars entered retrograde motion this autumn. After coming to an apparent halt in November, the planet will swerve toward the Pleiades. By the turn of the year, it will begin to creep forward in proper motion once again.

In the evenings throughout December, the constellation Pegasus will be a prominent feature high in the southwestern sky. Thanks to modern telescopes, we now know that Pegasus contains many remarkable deep-sky objects. This includes a tangled group of galaxies called Stefan’s Quintet, which Webb imaged earlier this year. But in Greek mythology, the winged horse Pegasus carried the thunderbolts of Zeus himself. Appropriately, this month, Jupiter is moving through Pegasus. To find the constellation, look to the south, where you’ll find Jupiter about halfway up the sky.

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