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18th June 2017

New moons found orbiting Jupiter

Two new moons – S/2016 J1 and S/2017 J1 – are reported to be orbiting Jupiter, bringing the gas giant's total number of known natural satellites to 69.

They were found by astronomers including Scott Sheppard from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC – who is credited with dozens of previous moon discoveries in the outer Solar System – along with minor planet specialists David Tholen and Chadwick Trujillo. The team had been conducting a survey of much more distant objects in the Kuiper Belt, when they happened to spot these points of light moving near Jupiter, which was conveniently close in the sky at the time.


  jupiter moon 1
S/2016 J1 (Jupiter LIV)
  jupiter moon 2
S/2017 J1 (Jupiter LIX)


The first of these (since renamed Jupiter LIV) is only about 1 km (0.6 miles) in diameter, making it very tiny indeed when compared to the likes of Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa, which are thousands of times bigger. The second moon (renamed Jupiter LIX) is larger at 2 km (1.2 miles). Both are members of the widely dispersed Pasiphae group – a family of retrograde satellites with similar orbits and a common origin: they are believed to have formed when Jupiter captured a 60 km asteroid, which subsequently broke up after a collision.

Jupiter LIV and Jupiter LIX are located about 20.5 million km and 23.5 million km from Jupiter, respectively.


Click to enlarge

jupiter moon distances


In addition to these new discoveries, the team also rediscovered a number of "lost" moons from earlier years: "There are several lost moons of Jupiter that were discovered in 2003," they write on their website. "They are known moons, but their orbits are not well enough known to accurately predict where they are now, so they are considered lost. There were 14 of these lost moons at the beginning of 2016. We have for sure recovered five."

More discoveries are likely to be on the way, as Sheppard writes: "There are likely a few more new moons as well in our 2017 observations, but we need to reobserve them in 2018 to determine which of the discoveries are new and which are lost 2003 moons. Stay tuned."


number of known jupiter moons over time



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2nd June 2017

Construction begins on the European Extremely Large Telescope

The largest optical and infrared telescope ever to be built is on track for operation in 2024. It will feature 256 times the light gathering area of the Hubble Space Telescope and provide images 16 times sharper.


European Extremely Large Telescope
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada


A ceremony marking the first stone of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) has been attended by President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet Jeria. The event was held at the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Paranal Observatory in northern Chile, close to the site of the future telescope. This milestone marked the beginning of construction of the dome and main structure of the world's biggest optical telescope, ushering in a new era in astronomy.

In her speech, the President emphasised: "With the symbolic start of this construction work, we are building more than a telescope here: it is one of the greatest expressions of scientific and technological capabilities and of the extraordinary potential of international cooperation."

Tim de Zeeuw, Director General of ESO, thanked the President and her Government for their continuing support of ESO in Chile and their protection of the country's unequalled skies: "The ELT will produce discoveries that we simply cannot imagine today, and it will surely inspire numerous people around the world to think about science, technology and our place in the Universe," he said. "This will bring great benefit to ESO Member States, to Chile, and the rest of the world."


ELT comparison
Dome of the ELT compared with existing major ground-based telescopes. Credit: ESO


With a main mirror 39 m (128 ft) in diameter, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will be the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world and will take telescope engineering into new territory. It will be housed in a gigantic rotating dome 85 m (279 ft) in diameter – comparable in area to a football pitch. This will provide 256 times the light gathering area of the Hubble Space Telescope and generate images 16 times sharper.

The ELT site was donated by the Government of Chile, and is surrounded by a further large concession of land, protecting the future operations of the telescope from interference of all kinds – and helping to retain Chile's status as the astronomy capital of the world.

The ELT will be the biggest "eye" ever pointed towards the sky and may revolutionise our perception of the Universe. It will study the atmospheres of extrasolar planets and look for signs of alien life, study the nature of dark energy and dark matter, and observe the Universe's early stages to explore our origins. Its suite of instruments will allow astronomers to probe the earliest stages of the formation of planetary systems and to detect water and organic molecules within protoplanetary discs around stars in the making. Thus, the ELT will answer fundamental questions regarding the formation and evolution of planets. By probing the most distant bodies, the telescope will provide clues to understanding the formation and relationship of the first objects that appeared in the universe: primordial stars, primordial galaxies and black holes.

One of the more ambitious goals of the ELT is the possibility of making a direct measurement of the acceleration of the Universe's expansion. This could have a major impact on our understanding of the Universe. It will also look for variations in fundamental physical constants. An unambiguous detection of such variations would have far-reaching consequences for our comprehension of the general laws of physics.

The ELT could raise entirely new questions that we cannot conceive of today – as well as improving life here on Earth through new technology and engineering breakthroughs. First light is planned for 2024.


ELT diagram
Credit: ESO



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22nd May 2017

Moon found orbiting third largest dwarf planet

Astronomers have identified a moon orbiting 2007 OR10 – the third largest dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the largest without a name.


2007 OR10
Credits: NASA, ESA, C. Kiss (Konkoly Observatory), and J. Stansberry (STScI)


The combined power of three space observatories, including NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, has helped astronomers uncover a moon orbiting the third largest dwarf planet, catalogued as 2007 OR10. The pair resides in the frigid outskirts of our Solar System called the Kuiper Belt, a realm of icy debris left over from our Solar System's formation 4.6 billion years ago.

With this discovery, most of the known dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt larger than 600 miles across are now known to have companions. These bodies provide insight into how moons formed in the young Solar System.

"The discovery of satellites around all of the known large dwarf planets – except for Sedna – means that, at the time these bodies formed, billions of years ago, collisions must have been more frequent, and that's a constraint on the formation models," explains Csaba Kiss of the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary. He is the lead author of a science paper confirming the moon's discovery. "If there were frequent collisions, then it was quite easy to form these satellites."


dwarf planets
By Lexicon [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


The objects most likely slammed into each other more often because they inhabited a crowded region. "There must have been a fairly high density of objects, and some of them were massive bodies that were perturbing the orbits of smaller bodies," said team member John Stansberry of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. "This gravitational stirring may have nudged the bodies out of their orbits and increased their relative velocities, which may have resulted in collisions."

But the speed of the colliding objects could not have been too fast or too slow, according to the astronomers. If the impact velocity was too fast, the smash-up would have created lots of debris that could have escaped from the system; too slow and the collision would have produced only an impact crater.

Collisions in the main asteroid belt, for example, are destructive because objects are travelling fast when they smash together. The asteroid belt is a region of rocky debris between the orbits of Mars and the gas giant Jupiter. Jupiter's powerful gravity speeds up the orbits of asteroids, generating violent impacts.


asteroid collisions
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


The team uncovered the moon in archival images of 2007 OR10 taken by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Observations taken of the dwarf planet by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope first tipped off the astronomers of the possibility of a moon circling it. Kepler revealed that 2007 OR10 has a slow rotation period of 45 hours. "Typical rotation periods for Kuiper Belt Objects are under 24 hours," Kiss said. "We looked in the Hubble archive because the slower rotation period could have been caused by the gravitational tug of a moon. The initial investigator missed the moon in the Hubble images because it is very faint."

The astronomers spotted the moon in two separate Hubble observations spaced a year apart. The images show that the moon is gravitationally bound to 2007 OR10 because it moves with the dwarf planet, as seen against a background of stars. However, the two observations did not provide enough information for the astronomers to determine an orbit.

"Ironically, because we don't know the orbit, the link between the satellite and the slow rotation rate is unclear," Stansberry said.

The astronomers calculated the diameters of both objects based on observations in far-infrared light by the Herschel Space Observatory, which measured thermal emissions of the distant worlds. The dwarf planet is 950 miles across, while its moon is estimated to be about 200 miles in diameter. 2007 OR10, like Pluto, follows an eccentric orbit, but is currently three times farther than Pluto is from the Sun.

2007 OR10 is a member of an exclusive club of nine dwarf planets. Of those, only Pluto and Eris are larger than 2007 OR10. It was discovered in 2007 by astronomers Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown, and David Rabinowitz as part of a survey to search for distant Solar System bodies using the Samuel Oschin Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. It is currently the largest known object in our Solar System without an official name. The team has yet to propose a name, but from November 2019 anyone will be able to make a proposal. 2007 OR10 will be farther than both Sedna and Eris by 2045, and will reach aphelion in 2130.


2007 or10 solar system map diagram
Credit: Outer Solar System Origins Survey team (OSSOS)



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9th May 2017

Growing food in space: no longer a pipe dream

A review of the progress made in space farming shows that food production on the Moon and Mars is likely to become a reality in the not-too-distant future.


growing food in space on mars future timeline
Credit: NASA


Following a recent NASA bill passed by the US Congress, which authorises $19.5 billion spending for space exploration in 2017, manned missions to Mars are closer to reality than ever before.

As both public and private enterprises gear up towards a return to the Moon and the first human footsteps on the Red Planet, there is a renewed focus on keeping people alive and productive in these extreme environments. Plants, and specifically crop plants, will be a major component of proposed regenerative life-support systems as they provide food, oxygen, scrub carbon dioxide, and aid in water recycling – all in a self-regenerating or 'bioregenerative' fashion. Without a doubt, plants are a requirement for any sufficiently long duration (time and distance wise) human space exploration. There has been a great deal of research in this area – research that has not only made progress towards agriculture in space, but has resulted in many Earth-based advances as well (e.g. LED lighting for greenhouse and vertical farm applications; new seed potato propagation techniques, etc.)

A recent article by Dr. Raymond Wheeler from NASA's Kennedy Space Center provides an informative and comprehensive account of the various international historical and current contributions to bioregenerative life-support and the use of controlled environment agriculture for human space exploration. Covering all of the major developments of international teams, it relates some of this work to technology transfer which proves valuable here on Earth.

Research in the area started during the 1950s and 60s, through the works of Jack Myers and others, who studied algae for oxygen production and carbon dioxide removal for the US Air Force and NASA. Studies on algal production and controlled environment agriculture were also carried out by Russian researchers in Siberia, beginning in the 1960s including tests with human crews whose air, water, and much of their food were provided by wheat and other crops.

In the early 1980s, NASA initiated its Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS) program with testing focused on controlled environment production of wheat, soybean, potato, lettuce and sweet potato. Findings from these studies paved the way to conduct tests in a 20 square metre, atmospherically closed chamber at Kennedy Space Center.

At about the same time, Japanese researchers developed a Closed Ecological Experiment Facility (CEEF) in Aomori Prefecture to conduct closed system studies with plants, humans, animals and waste recycling systems. CEEF was much bigger than the NASA program, with 150 m2 of plant growth area, which provided a near-complete diet along with air and water regeneration for two humans and two goats.

In the late 1980s, the European Space Agency MELiSSA Project began and pursued ecological approaches for providing gas, water and materials recycling for space life support, later expanding to include plant testing.


Credit: NASA


NASA's Biomass Production Chamber (pictured above) operated for 12 years, from 1988 to 2000, at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The crops tested included wheat, potato, lettuce, soybean, tomato, rice and radish. All crops were grown using hydroponics (nutrient film technique) with higher pressure sodium and/or metal halide lamps. NASA's BPC was one of the first working examples of a vertical agriculture system.

A Canadian research team at the University of Guelph started a research facility for space crop research in 1994. Only a few years later, they went on to develop sophisticated canopy-scale hypobaric plant production chambers for testing crops for space, and have since expanded their testing for a wide range of controlled environment agriculture topics.

More recently, a group at Beihang University in Beijing designed, built and tested a closed life support facility called Lunar Palace 1 (pictured below), which included a 69 m2 agricultural module for air, water and food production for three humans.

Then, in 2015, NASA astronauts harvested a crop of "Outredgeous" red romaine lettuce from the Veggie plant growth system, developed by Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) for use aboard the International Space Station (see video at the end of this blog). Once again, this featured LEDs for plant growth.


growing food in space on mars future timeline
Lunar Palace 1, China. LEDs grew crops that supported three crew members for 105 days. Credit: Prof. Hong Liu, Beihang University.


As a result of these international studies in space agriculture, novel technologies and findings have been produced. This includes the first use of light emitting diodes for growing crops, the first demonstrations of vertical agriculture, use of hydroponic approaches for subterranean crops like potato and sweet potato, crop yields that surpassed record field yields, the ability to quantify volatile organic compound production (e.g. ethylene) from whole crop stands, innovative approaches for controlling water delivery, approaches for processing and recycling wastes back to crop production systems, and more. The theme of agriculture for space has contributed to, and benefited from terrestrial, controlled environment agriculture and will continue to do so into the future. There are still numerous technical challenges – but plants and associated biological systems can and will be a major component of the systems that keep humans alive when we establish ourselves on the Moon, Mars and beyond, says Dr. Wheeler.

The idea of using plants to keep people alive and productive in space is not new, both in concept and in scientific inquiry. Wheeler's article covers a large portion of the historical international research effort that will be the foundation for many of the trade studies and mission design plans for use of bioregenerative life support systems in space.

According to Dr. Gary Sutter, NASA's principal investigator for several spaceflight experiments designed to grow plants in microgravity: "Dr. Ray Wheeler has written a compelling and complete history of the people that have committed their careers to enabling the colonisation of space. Drawing upon his deep understanding of the programs developed, people involved, and progress achieved to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of scientists and engineers around the world to bring the vision of space exploration to fruition, he details the problems, challenges, results and contributions from the programs, and reveals how they benefited Earth, as well as space. The review underscores that the answers will be achieved not through proclamation, but through collaboration between nations, cooperation between people, and sustained commitment by institutions. His article should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in space agriculture."

Agriculture for Space: People and Places Paving the Way is available as an open access paper in the journal Open Agriculture.





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25th April 2017

Asteroid mining is "more realistic than perceived"

Goldman Sachs has advised its clients that asteroid mining for platinum may be financially viable in the not-too-distant future, with potentially massive rewards.


goldman sachs asteroid mining platform


Mining for resources in space was once considered to be science fiction; the kind of venture that lay centuries away. In recent years, however, it has begun to be taken more seriously. Two companies – Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries – have sprung up, with teams working to design and build spacecraft capable of locating, prospecting and eventually landing on near-Earth objects to extract materials.

Last year, the Luxembourg government partnered with Planetary Resources to develop the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission, which is now planned to take place by 2020. Meanwhile, in anticipation of this nascent industry, the U.S. government has introduced legislation to encourage the commercial exploration and recovery of materials from asteroids, recognising the right of citizens to own space resources they obtain as property.

Financial services giant, Goldman Sachs, has now acknowledged these emerging opportunities. In a 98-page report to their clients, Noah Poponak and his team of analysts write: "While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower. Prospecting probes can likely be built for tens of millions of dollars each and Caltech has suggested an asteroid-grabbing spacecraft could cost $2.6bn."

For comparison, the total cost for setting up a rare earth metal mine on the ground is typically around $1 billion. However, the cost of getting into orbit has fallen dramatically in recent years and is likely to continue falling in the near future, thanks to a new generation of reusable rockets from the likes of Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, as well as other companies focused on the "ultralight" class.


goldman sachs asteroid mining platinum


Longer term, the demand for precious metals is also likely to increase as these resources become ever scarcer here on Earth. Furthermore, the rewards for successfully extracting materials from asteroids will be colossal, providing a great incentive for venture capitalists.

"Space mining could be more realistic than perceived," the Goldman Sachs report continues. "Water and platinum group metals that are abundant on asteroids are highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint. Water is easily converted into rocket fuel, and can even be used unaltered as a propellant. Ultimately being able to stockpile the fuel in LEO [low earth orbit] would be a game changer for how we access space. And platinum is platinum. [...] A single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25bn- $50bn worth of platinum."

Asteroid mining firms could even be victims of their own success, with previously rare commodities suddenly becoming abundant and cheap – similar to what happened with aluminium during the 19th century after the invention of electrolysis: "Successful asteroid mining would likely crater the global price of platinum, with a single 500-meter-wide asteroid containing nearly 175X the global output."


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21st April 2017

Newly discovered "super-Earth" may be best candidate yet for life

Astronomers have reported the discovery of LHS 1140b, a rocky "super-Earth" in the habitable zone of a red dwarf star, which they say is among the best ever candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life.


Super Earth LHS1140b future timeline exoplanet discovery
Credit: ESO/SpaceEngine


An exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf star, 40 light years from Earth, may be the new holder of the title "best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System". Using the European Southern Observatory (ESO)'s HARPS instrument in Chile, and other telescopes around the world, an international team of astronomers discovered a "super-Earth" orbiting in the habitable zone around the faint star LHS 1140. This world is a little larger and much more massive than the Earth and has likely retained most of its atmosphere. This, along with the fact that it passes in front of its parent star as it orbits, makes it one of the most exciting future targets for atmospheric studies. The study results appeared yesterday in the journal Nature.

The planet is named LHS 1140b and its star is located in the constellation of Cetus (the sea monster). Red dwarfs are much smaller and cooler than our own Sun and, although LHS 1140b is ten times closer to its star than the Earth is to our Sun, it only receives half as much light from its star as the Earth and lies in the middle of the habitable zone. The orbit is seen almost edge-on when viewed from Earth and as the exoplanet passes in front of the star once per orbit, it blocks a little of its light every 25 days.

"This is the most exciting exoplanet I've seen in the past decade," says the study's lead author, Jason Dittmann, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science – searching for evidence of life beyond Earth."

"The present conditions of the red dwarf are particularly favourable," explains team member Nicola Astudillo-Defru from the Geneva Observatory, Switzerland. "LHS 1140 spins more slowly and emits less high-energy radiation than other similar low-mass stars."


Super Earth LHS1140b future timeline exoplanet discovery
Credit: M. Weiss/CfA


For life as we know it to exist, a planet must have liquid surface water and retain an atmosphere. When red dwarf stars are young, they are known to emit radiation that can be damaging for the atmospheres of the planets that orbit them. In this case, the planet's large size means that a magma ocean could have existed on its surface for millions of years. This seething ocean of lava could feed steam into the atmosphere long after the star has calmed to its current, steady glow, replenishing the planet with water.

The discovery was initially made with the MEarth facility, which detected the first tell-tale, characteristic dips in light as the exoplanet passed in front of the star. ESO's HARPS instrument, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, then made crucial follow-up observations, which confirmed the presence of the super-Earth. HARPS also helped pin down the orbital period and allowed the exoplanet's mass and density to be calculated.

The astronomers estimate the age of the planet to be at least five billion years. They also deduced that it has a diameter 1.4 times larger than the Earth – almost 18,000 kilometres. But with a mass around seven times greater than the Earth, and hence a much higher density, it implies that the exoplanet is probably made of rock with a dense iron core.

This super-Earth may be the best candidate yet for future observations to study and characterise its atmosphere, if one exists, say the researchers. Xavier Delfosse and Xavier Bonfils, both at the CNRS and IPAG in Grenoble, France, conclude: "The LHS 1140 system might prove to be an even more important target for the future characterisation of planets in the habitable zone than Proxima b or TRAPPIST-1. This has been a remarkable year for exoplanet discoveries."

In particular, observations coming up soon with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope will be able to assess exactly how much high-energy radiation is showered upon LHS 1140b, so that its capacity to support life can be further constrained.

Further into the future – when new telescopes like ESO's Extremely Large Telescope are operating – it is likely that we will be able to make detailed observations of the atmospheres of exoplanets, and LHS 1140b is an exceptional candidate for such studies.


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31st March 2017

World's first reflight of an orbital class rocket

In a major milestone for the space industry, SpaceX has conducted a historic first reflight of an orbital class rocket.




SpaceX has made history by sending a "recycled" rocket into orbit and then returning it safely to ground level – an achievement that could bring down the cost of space launches by nearly one-third. In other words, a $60 million launch could be done for just $40 million, meaning a raft of businesses and countries that never had access to space before will suddenly be able to afford it.

The Falcon 9 rocket seen in this video was previously used to carry an unmanned Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station during April 2016. Yesterday in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 6:27 pm (2227 GMT), it blasted off again, delivering a communications satellite for Luxembourg-based firm SES into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), flying 22,000 miles (35,000 km) above Earth.

After this deployment, the Falcon 9's first stage then attempted to land on a droneship, "Of Course I Still Love You" (a reference to Iain M. Banks' Culture series of sci-fi novels), stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. About 10 minutes after launch, the re-used rocket powered its engines and landed upright on the ocean platform. This marked the ninth successful touchdown of a first stage rocket for SpaceX – six on sea and three on land. More importantly, it was the first time that SpaceX, or any other rocket company, has both reused and landed the first stage of a launch vehicle.

"This is going to be ultimately a huge revolution in spaceflight," said Elon Musk, whose California-based company has spent 15 years developing the technology to get boosters back down to Earth for re-use. "It is an amazing day, I think, for space (and) for the whole of the space industry. It's the difference between if you had airplanes where you threw away an airplane after every flight, versus you could re-use them multiple times."




The SES-10 was deployed 32 minutes after launch. With 55 Ku-band transponder equivalents, it is one of the biggest satellites to cover Latin America and will provide a significant expansion in broadband capacity for the region.

During the post-launch press conference, a few other details emerged from SpaceX:

• They aim to achieve 24 hour reusability by next year.
• Fairing recovery took place, which could save $6 million if re-used. The plan is to land them on a giant airbag system after they have parachuted back.
• The Falcon Heavy (see diagram below) is planned to have its first test flight in late summer. Both strap-on boosters will be "flight proven".
• New grid fins are being planned that won't set on fire.


rockets size comparison future timeline



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