26th September 2016
World's largest radio telescope is operational
The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) has become operational in Guizhou Province, southwest China.
Another entry on our timeline has become a reality, as a major new telescope has just been completed in China, following more than five years of construction and testing. The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) is located in Guizhou province, southwest China. Half a kilometre wide and with a collecting area of 2.1 million sq ft (196,000 sq m), it is now the largest single-aperture telescope in the world. It dwarfs the previous record holder, the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, which has a diameter of 305 metres.
FAST is able to gaze three times further into space and survey the skies ten times faster than Arecibo. Its primary roles will include mapping the neutral hydrogen within the Milky Way at very high resolution, tripling the number of known pulsars from 2,000 to 6,000, and listening for possible signals from alien civilisations at distances of up to 1,000 light years. Far more stars will be monitored than in previous surveys.
The dish itself sits within a natural depression and is unable to be moved, due to its enormous size. However, the surface shape is changeable and the feed cabin (where radio waves are focused) can be moved around. This provides a viewing angle of up to 40° from the vertical. The telescope became operational during a ceremony yesterday. In recent tests, the dish was able to detect radio waves from three pulsars, which are extremely dense and rapidly rotating stars. Over the next few years, astronomers from around the world will be invited to use the facility through a competitive review of observing proposals.
"By opening FAST to use by the broader international community, China is demonstrating its commitment to fostering astronomy as a global scientific enterprise," said Douglas Vakoch, the president of METI International. He told the Xinhua news agency that it may lead to "discoveries beyond our wildest imagination."
FAST will be used to look for the signatures of complex organic molecules in interstellar space, which will show how widely the basic building blocks of life are distributed throughout the cosmos.
"For over a half century, astronomers have been using radio telescopes to answer the haunting question, 'Are we alone?' But astronomers face a daunting challenge: the signals they seek are so weak that an incredibly sensitive telescope is needed to detect them," said Vakoch.
"FAST's innovative design and huge collecting area give it unsurpassed speed and sensitivity, making it vital to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in the coming decades. We can expect China to become a world leader in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence because of its demonstrated commitment in the building of FAST."
The telescope will also provide scientists with the ability to detect gravitational waves – or "ripples" in space-time – from pairs of massive black holes, since FAST has the potential to measure tiny changes in the pulsing rates of pulsars as the gravitational waves pass by.
Wang Qiming, chief technologist for the facility, said FAST would remain a world-leading project for the next 10 to 20 years. Meanwhile, Yan Jun, head of the National Astronomical Observation (NAO), said China will roll out more "world class" telescopes in the next five to 10 years.
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9th September 2016
NASA launches asteroid sample return mission
NASA has launched the seven-year OSIRIS-REx mission, which aims to reach a 500m-wide asteroid and return a sample to Earth in 2023.
NASA's first asteroid sampling probe was launched yesterday evening at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral in Florida, beginning a mission that could revolutionise our understanding of the early Solar System.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is designed to arrive at, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu. Objects like Bennu are remnants from the formation of our Solar System around 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists believe that asteroids may have been a source of the water and organic molecules for the young Earth and other planetary bodies. An uncontaminated asteroid sample from a known source would enable precise analyses – providing results far beyond what can be achieved by spacecraft-based instruments or by studying meteorites that fell to Earth.
OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu in August 2018, mapping the asteroid in 3-D, while studying its characteristics in preparation for the sample collection. Then in July 2020, the spacecraft will perform a daring manoeuvre in which its 11-foot arm will reach out and perform a five-second "high-five" to stir up surface material, collecting up to 2 kg (4.4 lb) of rocks and dust in a sample return container. It will bring the sample back to Earth in September 2023, when it will be transported to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for detailed examination.
OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. mission to bring samples of an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since Apollo 17. Following its launch into space, the probe separated from its Atlas V rocket at 8:04 p.m. The solar arrays were successfully deployed and are now powering the spacecraft.
"It's satisfying to see the culmination of years of effort from this outstanding team," said Mike Donnelly, project manager. "We were able to deliver OSIRIS-REx on time and under budget to the launch site, and will soon do something that no other NASA spacecraft has done – bring back a sample from an asteroid."
In addition to its robotic sampling arm, the probe features a camera suite that will obtain high-resolution imaging and records of the sample acquisition. "PolyCam", an 8-inch telescope, will take photos with increasingly high detail as the spacecraft approaches the asteroid. "MapCam" will search for any outgassing plumes or natural satellites, as well as fully mapping the asteroid in 3-D and in four different colours. A third and final camera, "SamCam" will continuously document the sample acquisitions.
A member of the Apollo group, Bennu is a potential Earth impactor that is listed on the Sentry Risk Table and has the third highest rating of any object on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale. There is a 1 in 2,700 chance of it colliding between the years 2169 and 2199. With a mean diameter of 492m (1,614 ft), and travelling at 63,000 mph, it is calculated that such an impact would have a kinetic energy of 1200 Megatons. This would be 24 times more powerful than the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, or about 80,000 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
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3rd September 2016
DNA is sequenced in outer space for the first time
DNA has been sequenced in space for the first time, with astronaut Kate Rubins using a MinION device aboard the International Space Station.
High above the Earth, at an altitude of 330 km (205 mi), NASA has conducted the first ever space-based genome sequencing. This was made possible by a handheld device called a MinION, used aboard the International Space Station (ISS) by astronaut Kate Rubins.
Genetics have come a long way since 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick published their famous discovery, which identified the double helical structure of DNA, the molecular instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms. By the 1970s, gene expression could be controlled and manipulated through genetic engineering, which led to the first genetically modified animals and plants. During the final decades of the 20th century, teams of biologists attempted large-scale genetics projects, sequencing entire genomes, which culminated in the Human Genome Project. The latter was a $2.7 billion endeavour that involved hundreds of scientists from laboratories around the world.
Today, in the 21st century, the costs of sequencing DNA and the time required to do so have fallen at unprecedented rates – thanks to exponential advances in technology progressing faster than Moore's Law. Hundreds of thousands of human genomes have now been sequenced, with a billion likely to be read by 2025, alongside those of many more animals, plants and other lifeforms. Given the increasing portability of the hardware and its relative ease of use, it was only a matter of time before this technology found its way into space. This follows a similar milestone in November 2014 when the first 3D printer was used on the ISS.
The MinION device used by Rubins is small and light enough to carry in your palm and is easily attached to a laptop with a USB port. It was tested by researchers last year who sequenced the full genome of the bacteria Escherichia Coli. Developed by UK-based company Oxford Nanopore Technologies, the MinION works by a system of tiny protein "nanopores" dotted across an electrically-resistant membrane. A current is applied and flows through the aperture of the nanopore only. Individual molecules are identified based on a distinctive signature they reveal as they pass by and disrupt the current. Intact strands of DNA can be processed in real time and catalogued according to each of the four nucleobases – guanine (G), adenine (A), thymine (T), and cytosine (C) – as explained in this video.
Credit: Oxford Nanopore Technologies Limited
Dr. Rubins, who has been aboard the ISS since 6th July, sequenced the DNA of bacteria, viruses and rodents. A team back on the ground then analysed the data and compared it to identical samples processed in their laboratory. The microgravity environment and other conditions on the space station appeared to have little or no effect in terms of harming the results.
"Until recently, technology for sequencing in space hasn't been available because sequencers are generally large bulky instruments," said Charles Chiu, director of the Abbott Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Centre at the University of California, who led the study. "It didn't turn out to be a huge problem. We essentially got equivalent data, and it's of very high quality, probably within the top 20% of nanopore runs that we do routinely here on Earth."
In future missions, the sequencing of DNA could enable crew members to rapidly diagnose an illness, or identify microbes growing aboard the station and what health threat is present. This would be particularly important to help protect astronauts on long-duration missions to Mars, for example.
"Onboard sequencing makes it possible for the crew to know what is in their environment at any time," said Sarah Castro-Wallace, NASA microbiologist and ISS project manager. "That allows us on the ground to take appropriate action – do we need to clean this up right away, or will taking antibiotics help or not? We can resupply the station with disinfectants and antibiotics now; but once crews move beyond the station's low Earth orbit, we need to know when to save those precious resources and when to use them."
In addition, the MinION and other sequencers can become a tool for more advanced science investigations in space. Researchers could use them to examine changes in genetic material or gene expression while in orbit, for example, rather than waiting for samples to be returned to Earth for testing. The ability to read genomes in space may also help in the detection of DNA-based life elsewhere in the universe. Maybe in the far future, similar devices will be routinely used on Earth-like planetary surfaces to catalogue alien species.
"Welcome to systems biology in space," said Rubins after sequencing the DNA samples, thanking the ground team for their efforts. "It is very exciting to be with you guys together at the dawn of genomics biology and systems biology in space."
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24th August 2016
Earth-mass world in habitable zone of nearest star
The Pale Red Dot campaign has revealed an Earth-mass world in orbit around Proxima Centauri – the nearest star to our own.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Astronomers have today announced the detection of Proxima b – an Earth-sized exoplanet that may be located in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun. Due to its relative closeness, Proxima b may be visited by a fleet of interstellar StarChip probes currently being developed by the Breakthrough Starshot project.
A team based at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other facilities found clear evidence of a planet with about 1.3 Earth masses orbiting its cool parent star every 11.2 days at a semi-major-axis distance of around 0.05 astronomical units. This makes it likely to have a temperature suitable for liquid water on its surface. The rocky world, depicted in the artist's impression above, is a little more massive than Earth and is also the closest exoplanet to us. A paper describing this milestone finding is published in the journal Nature.
Despite being only 4.24 light years away (extremely close in stellar terms), Proxima Centauri is too faint to be seen with the naked eye and lies near to the much brighter pair of stars known as Alpha Centauri AB. During the first half of 2016, Proxima Centauri was regularly observed with the HARPS spectrograph on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla in Chile, as well as simultaneously monitored by other telescopes around the globe. This was part of a campaign known as the Pale Red Dot, in which astronomers looked for the tiny back-and-forth "wobble" of the star that would be caused by the gravitational pull of an orbiting planet.
Because this was a topic with very wide public interest, the progress of the campaign between mid-January and April 2016 was shared publicly as it happened on the Pale Red Dot website and via social media. The reports were accompanied by numerous outreach articles written by specialists around the world.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/G. Coleman
Lead author Guillem Anglada-Escudé, from Queen Mary University of London, explains the background to this unique search: "The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing. Since then, we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from ESO and others. The recent Pale Red Dot campaign has been about two years in the planning."
The Pale Red Dot data, when combined with earlier observations, revealed the clear signal of a truly exciting result. At times, Proxima Centauri is approaching Earth at about 5 kilometres per hour – normal human walking pace – and at times receding at the same speed. This regular pattern of changing radial velocities repeats with a period of 11.2 days. The resulting tiny Doppler shifts, analysed with extreme precision, indicated the presence of a planet with 1.3 Earth masses, orbiting 7 million kilometres from Proxima Centauri: only 5% of the Earth-Sun distance.
"I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot campaign," said Anglada-Escudé. "The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!"
Credit: ESO/Pale Red Dot
Red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars and can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of a planet. To exclude this possibility, the team also monitored the changing brightness of the star extremely carefully, using the ASH2 telescope in Chile and the Las Cumbres Observatory network. Radial velocity data taken when the star was flaring were excluded from the final analysis.
Although Proxima b orbits much closer to its star than Mercury does to our Sun in the Solar System, the star itself is far fainter than the Sun. Proxima b therefore lies well within the habitable zone and has an estimated surface temperature that would allow the presence of liquid water. Despite the temperate orbit of Proxima b, conditions on the surface may be strongly affected by the ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star – far more intense than the Earth experiences. However, this would not necessarily preclude habitable conditions. If Proxima b has a strong enough magnetic field then it may be shielded from harm.
Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b and its climate. The planet is close enough to its star that it might be tidally locked; a state in which a planet's orbital period and rotational period fall into sync. If the orbital eccentricity is 0, this could result in synchronous rotation with one side permanently facing towards the star, while the opposite side is permanently dark. However, between these two extreme areas, there would be a region of habitability – called the terminator line, where temperatures may be suitable (above 0°C; 32°F) for liquid water to exist. Proxima Centauri b's orbital eccentricity is not known with certainty yet, only that it is below 0.35; potentially high enough to produce a 3:2 orbit resonance similar to that which Mercury has with the Sun. The ESO predicts a far more clement environment would result from such a configuration, with average temperatures similar to those on Earth. Additionally, a much larger portion of the planet may be habitable if it supports a thick enough atmosphere to transfer heat to the side facing away from the star.
Angular size comparison of how Proxima will appear in the sky seen from Proxima b, compared to how the Sun appears in our sky on Earth. Proxima is much smaller than the Sun, but Proxima b lies very close to its star. Credit: ESO/G. Coleman
The discovery of Proxima b will lead to extensive further observations, both with current instruments and with the next generation of giant telescopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Proxima b will be a prime target in the hunt for alien life. Indeed, the Alpha Centauri system is also the target of humankind's first attempt to explore another star system: Breakthrough StarShot.
Anglada-Escudé concludes: "Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analogue and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us. Many people's stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next..."
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10th August 2016
First commercial asteroid mining mission set to begin before 2020
Asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced the first commercial mission to a near-Earth asteroid, with launch planned by the end of the decade.
Deep Space Industries has announced its plans to fly the world's first commercial interplanetary mining mission. A spacecraft known as "Prospector-1" will fly to and rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, investigate the object and determine its value as a source of space resources. This mission will be an important step in the company's longer term plans to harvest and supply in-space resources to support the growing space economy.
"Deep Space Industries has worked diligently to get to this point, and now we can say with confidence that we have the right technology, the right team and the right plan to execute this historic mission," said Rick Tumlinson, chairman of the board and co-founder of Deep Space Industries. "Building on our Prospector-X mission, Prospector-1 will be the next step on our way to harvesting asteroid resources."
DSI and its partner, the government of Luxembourg, recently announced plans to build and fly Prospector-X, an experimental mission to low-Earth orbit that will test key technologies needed for low-cost exploration spacecraft. This precursor mission is scheduled to launch in 2017. Then, before the end of this decade, Prospector-1 will travel beyond Earth's orbit to begin the first space mining exploration mission.
"DSI's Prospector missions will usher in a new era of low cost space exploration" said Grant Bonin, chief engineer. "DSI is developing Prospector-1 both for its own asteroid mining ambitions, as well as to bring an extremely low-cost, yet high-performance exploration capability to the market. We hope to enable both existing and new public and private organisations to explore the inner Solar System using this affordable platform."
Prospector-1 is a small spacecraft (50 kg when fuelled) that strikes the ideal balance between cost and performance. In addition to radiation-tolerant payloads and avionics, all DSI spacecraft use the "Comet water propulsion system", which expels superheated water vapour to generate thrust. Water will be the first asteroid mining product, so the ability to use water as propellant will provide future DSI spacecraft with the ability to refuel in space.
"During the next decade, we will begin the harvest of space resources from asteroids," said Daniel Faber, CEO at Deep Space Industries. "We are changing the paradigm of business operations in space – from one where our customers carry everything with them, to one in which the supplies they need are waiting for them when they get there."
The destination asteroid will be chosen from a group of top candidates chosen by a world renowned team of asteroid experts at Deep Space Industries. When it arrives at the target, the Prospector-1 spacecraft will map the surface and subsurface of the asteroid, taking visual and infrared imagery and mapping the overall water content, down to approximately metre-level depth. When this initial science campaign is complete, Prospector-1 will use its water thrusters to attempt a touchdown on the asteroid, measuring the target's geophysical and geotechnical characteristics.
"The ability to locate, travel to, and analyse potentially rich supplies of space resources is critical to our plans," continued Faber. "This means not just looking at the target, but actually making contact."
Along with customer missions already in progress – such as the cluster of small satellites being built by DSI for HawkEye 360 – the Prospector missions will demonstrate the company's simple, low-cost, but high-performance approach to space exploration. The Prospector platform will soon be available to government and commercial explorers interested in developing sophisticated, yet low-cost missions of their own.
"Prospector-1 is not only the first commercial interplanetary mission, it is also an important milestone in our quest to open the frontier," said Tumlinson. "By learning to 'live off the land' in space, Deep Space Industries is ushering in a new era of unlimited economic expansion."
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31st July 2016
New TV series will follow Mars mission set in 2033
National Geographic has announced "MARS" – a six-part TV series debuting around the world this November that will follow the first human exploration of the Red Planet.
The first human astronauts on Mars. Credit: National Geographic
Of all the planets in our Solar System, none has captured our collective imagination like Mars: a mysterious, indelible part of the zeitgeist. Visible in the night sky for as long as humans have been around, its striking red colour has symbolised blood, passion, anger and love. The existence of Mars as a wandering object was noted by ancient Egyptian astronomers and by 1534 BCE they were familiar with its retrograde motion. In 1610, the Italian astronomer Galileo became the first person to see it via telescope. By the 19th century, the resolution of telescopes had reached a level sufficient for surface features to be identified and the first detailed map was produced in 1877. Seasonal changes, combined with observations of "canals", led to speculation about life on Mars, and it was a long-held belief that vast seas and vegetation were present.
When the first spacecraft began visiting the planet during the 1960s and 70s, Mars was revealed to be a dead and barren planet. However, the search for life would continue. Since then, various rovers have explored the surface, with ever larger science payloads and exponentially more detailed imagery. We now know that huge volumes of liquid water existed on Mars in the ancient past and that small amounts are still present under certain conditions.
Today, we stand on the cusp of the first human missions to Mars. In the near future, it will be technically and financially viable to send people there, beginning a whole new chapter in the history of our species. The Red Planet would offer a second home for humanity, safeguarding us from the various threats on Earth and greatly boosting our chances of survival into the far future. An independent, self-sustaining Mars could be used as a blank slate to forge a more rational, egalitarian and scientifically-minded world – much like the future depicted in Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy.
Size comparison of Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA
As the prospect of exploring and settling this far-away planet moves ever closer to becoming a reality, it has engaged the top minds in science in a modern-day space race, and infiltrated pop culture through blockbusters like Andy Weir's "The Martian" and through out-of-this-world tweets from astronaut Scott Kelly. Now, the National Geographic Channel (NGC), working with a team of award-winning producers, has announced the launch of a global event series later this year.
Premiering on the NGC in 171 countries and 45 languages, the TV show – "MARS" – will redefine storytelling by combining feature-film-quality scripted drama and visual effects with best-in-class documentary sequences, to drive forward a cohesive, edge-of-your seat story of mankind's thrilling quest to colonise Mars. This epic, six-part series, debuting in November, is filmed from the vantage point of a fictitious crewed mission in 2033.
"Brian [Grazer] and I, along with our friends at Radical, had this ambitious idea, which was to create a documentary about the quest to go to Mars but also bring it to life in a really dramatic and cinematic way," says the Executive Producer, Ron Howard. "The offer to the audience will be information meets vivid and experiential filmmaking. Nat Geo's ambition was high – and we are really honoured and thrilled to try and meet that challenge."
The starting point for this unique storytelling method is the year 2033. As dramatic scripted elements and feature film-calibre visual effects bring this future world to life, the modern-day quest to reach the Red Planet is told in a documentary style, and through interviews with present-day scientists and innovators who are researching and developing the space technology to make such a mission possible. Executive producers Howard and Grazer hand-selected visionary Mexican filmmaker Everardo Gout ("Days of Grace") to direct the scripted portions of the series, filmed in Budapest and Morocco.
Earth and the Moon, viewed from Mars. Features visible include the Pacific Ocean, clouds, much of South America, and part of North America. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems
MARS envisions the future of space travel funded through a corporate-public partnership of two fictional organisations: the Mars Mission Corporation (MMC), a consortium of aerospace corporations formed in 2022 that builds and manages the technological hardware, and the International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), created by a coalition of space-faring nations.
The scripted portion will focus on Earth's first crewed mission to Mars aboard the spacecraft Daedalus. Its maiden voyage is crewed by a carefully selected international crew of six uniquely qualified astronauts, including American mission commander Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), Korean American mission pilot Hana Seung (Jihae), Spanish hydrologist and geochemist Javier Delgado (Alberto Ammann), French mission physician and biochemist Amelie Durand (Clementine Poidatz), Nigerian mechanical engineer and roboticist Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi) and Russian exobiologist and geologist Marta Kamen (Anamaria Marinca). Back on Earth, the MMC control team, based in London, includes Hana Seung's twin sister, capsule communicator (CAPCOM) Joon Seung (also played by Jihae) and French CEO of the MMC Ed Grann (Olivier Martinez).
Once Daedalus successfully lands on Mars and establishes a preliminary base of operations, British nuclear physicist Leslie Richardson (Cosima Shaw) will lead a Phase 2 settlement team along with her husband, world-renowned experimental botanist Dr. Paul Richardson (John Light).
The production team took painstaking efforts to base the scripted narrative on real-world science. The writing team worked extensively with experts – both in the public and private sectors – to understand how the science could serve the story. Dr. Robert Braun, an aerospace engineer and professor of space technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, provided expert consultation on all scientific aspects of the fictional storyline. Dr. Mae Jemison, former NASA astronaut and the first woman of colour in space, acted as a space advisor on the series, working closely with the cast to help them hone their portrayals.
In terms of the visual look of the series, production designer Sophie Becher turned to NASA and SpaceX to craft her designs for the Daedalus spaceship and Olympus Town, the first human colony on Mars as portrayed by the series. Costume designer Daniela Ciancio extensively researched the types of fabrics being developed today to make spacesuits lighter, stronger, more flexible and radiation-resistant to protect the astronauts of the future. Framestore, the Academy Award-winning visual effects team behind "Gravity," will layer in the final external visuals to complete the look of the series.
MARS also showcases an unprecedented collection of interviews with top scientific minds currently working to overcome the many obstacles that stand in the way of an eventual maiden launch. National Geographic received exclusive access to record Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla and SpaceX) and his team at SpaceX mission control, as they successfully landed their Falcon 9 reusable rocket on a drone ship this past April.
"The future of humanity is fundamentally going to bifurcate along one of two directions," says Musk in the series. "Either we're going to become a multi-planet species and a spacefaring civilisation, or we're going to be stuck on one planet, until some eventual extinction event. In order for me to be excited and inspired about the future, it's got to be the first option."
Future water industry on Mars, with a giant pipeline and domed city. Credit: PLRANG ART
MARS truly brings together all of the world's leading minds in a way never before accomplished – think of the world's largest TED talk with the most fascinating people on Earth. Those interviewed for the series include:
• Charles Bolden, NASA administrator; former NASA astronaut
• Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman, X-Prize; co-founder and co-chairman, Planetary Resources
• Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director, Hayden Planetarium at The Rose Center for Earth and Space
• David Dinges, professor, department of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania
• Casey Dreier, director, space policy, Planetary Society
• Ann Druyan, executive producer and writer, Cosmos
• Charles Elachi, retired director, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL); professor emeritus, Caltech
• Jim Green, NASA planetary science division director
• John Grunsfeld, NASA associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate; former NASA astronaut
• Jennifer Heldmann, NASA planetary scientist
• Jedidah Isler, award-winning astrophysicist; emerging Explorer, National Geographic
• Thomas Kalil, deputy director, policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; senior advisor, science, technology and innovation, National Economic Council
• Roger Launius, associate director, collections and curatorial affairs, Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum
• John Logsdon, professor emeritus, political science and international affairs, George Washington University
• James Lovell, former NASA astronaut; commander, Apollo 13 mission
• Elon Musk, CEO and chief technology officer, SpaceX; CEO, Tesla Motors; chairman, SolarCity
• Stephen Petranek, author, "How We'll Live on Mars"
• Mary Roach, author, "Packing for Mars"
• Jennifer Trosper, Mars 2020 mission manager, JPL
• Andy Weir, author, "The Martian"
• Robert Zubrin, president, The Mars Society; president, Pioneer Astronautics
The desire not only to reach Mars but also to colonise it has stirred vigorous debate among the space community. The question is not only "could we?" but also "should we?" Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not convinced that we have to send humans to Mars; he bets it would take less effort and less money to figure out how to survive threats to Earth than to colonise another planet in order to maintain the species: "I think we should visit planets, as you'd visit any place you've never been before," he says. "But we evolved on Earth to live on Earth."
The consensus seems to be forming that humans will eventually make the trip to Mars, but the timetable for doing so also remains a point of debate. Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society and of Pioneer Astronautics, makes a bold assertion: "If the next President were to get up in the spring of 2017 and announce his or her commitment to send humans to Mars, we could be there by the end of that administration's second term."
National Geographic will extend the storytelling in an unprecedented, cross-platform effort that includes a six-part companion prequel. Virtual reality experiences will be available at MakeMarsHome.com. There will also be a MARS Experience installation in New York City this October. Further, MARS will be the November cover story of National Geographic magazine and will be featured in a standalone book, "MARS: Our Future on the Red Planet," on sale from 25th October. An NG Kids Book, "MARS: The Red Planet," will go on sale from 27th September and further educational materials will be released. NG Live speakers will also be touring. You can watch the official trailer below. Please subscribe to us at YouTube.com/futuretimelinedotnet.
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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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