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22nd June 2017

Gravitational wave observatory to launch in 2034

The European Space Agency (ESA) has confirmed the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) as the third large-class mission in its future science programme, with launch planned for 2034.


laser interferometer space antenna lisa 2034 future timeline


A trio of satellites to detect gravitational waves has been selected as the third large-class (L3) mission in ESA's Science programme. In terms of its area and dimensions covered, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) will be the largest man-made structure ever put into space – with each "side" of its triangle stretching across millions of kilometres – forming a giant observatory to probe the Dark Side of the Universe.

In 2013, the "gravitational universe" was chosen as the theme for a future ESA mission. This would be designed to search for ripples in the fabric of space-time created by celestial objects with extremely strong gravity, such as pairs of merging black holes.

Gravitational waves were predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, but remained elusive until very recently, when the first direct detection was made by the ground-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). That signal, announced in February 2016, was triggered by the merging of two black holes some 1.3 billion light-years away.



Since then, two more events have been detected and a follow-up study, LISA Pathfinder, has demonstrated that observations can be made in space – not just with ground-based instruments. This precursor mission will conclude on 30th June, after sixteen months of science operations, which have tested key technologies needed for the more advanced LISA in the 2030s.

Space-based operations will provide major advantages:

• no need to create an artificial vacuum, since the vacuum of space is free and better than anything that can be simulated in a lab;
• no interference from seismic noise, such as earthquakes or plate tectonics, passing vehicles and other human activity;
• no limitations in size for the observatory arms, which would otherwise be restricted by the curvature of the Earth.

To detect and measure gravitational waves from distant astronomical sources, a phenomenal level of sensitivity is required. Using laser interferometry over its trio of 2.5 million kilometre arms, LISA will track relative displacements with a resolution of 20 picometres – 1/50 billionth of a metre – less than the width of a helium atom. It will look for ripples in space-time with periods ranging from a few minutes to a few hours. Several thousand objects are expected to be resolved within the first year of operation.

In addition to studying black holes and compact binaries, LISA will probe the expansion of the universe and the gravitational wave background created during the early universe. It will also look for currently unknown (and unmodelled) sources of gravitational waves. History in astrophysics has shown that whenever a new frequency range/medium of detection is available, new and unexpected sources show up. This may, for example, include kinks and cusps in cosmic strings.

Following its selection, LISA will now enter a more detailed phase of design and costing, before construction begins. Its launch is expected during 2034 and the mission lifetime is four years – but the spacecraft will have enough power and orbital stability to potentially last until 2044.




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21st June 2017

Entangled photons sent between suborbital space and Earth

Chinese scientists report the transmission of entangled photons between suborbital space and Earth, using the satellite Micius. More satellites could follow in the near future, with plans for a European–Asian quantum-encrypted network by 2020, and a global network by 2030.



In a landmark study, Chinese scientists report the successful transmission of entangled photons between suborbital space and Earth. Furthermore, whereas the previous record for entanglement distance was 100 km (62 miles), here, transmission over more than 1,200 km (746 miles) was achieved.

The distribution of quantum entanglement, especially across vast distances, holds major implications for quantum teleportation and encryption networks. Yet, efforts to entangle quantum particles – essentially "linking" them together over long distances – have been limited to 100 km or less, mainly because the entanglement is lost as they are transmitted along optical fibres, or through open space on land.

One way to overcome this issue is to break the line of transmission into smaller segments and repeatedly swap, purify and store quantum information along the optical fibre. Another approach to achieving global quantum networks is by making use of lasers and satellite technologies. Using a Chinese satellite called Micius, launched last year and equipped with specialised quantum tools, Juan Yin et al. demonstrated the latter feat. The Micius satellite was used to communicate with three ground stations across China, each up to 1,200 km apart.

The separation between the orbiting satellite and these ground stations varied from 500 to 2,000 km. A laser beam on the satellite was subjected to a beam splitter, which gave the beam two distinct polarised states. One of the spilt beams was used for transmission of entangled photons, while the other was used for photon receipt. In this way, entangled photons were received at the separate ground stations.

"It's a huge, major achievement," Thomas Jennewein, physicist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, told Science. "They started with this bold idea and managed to do it."

"The Chinese experiment is quite a remarkable technological achievement," said Artur Ekert, a professor of quantum physics at the University of Oxford, in an interview with Live Science. "When I proposed the entangled-based quantum key distribution back in 1991 when I was a student in Oxford, I did not expect it to be elevated to such heights."

One of the many challenges faced by the team was keeping the beams of photons focused precisely on the ground stations as the satellite hurtled through space at nearly 8 kilometres per second.

Quantum encryption, if successfully developed, could revolutionise communications. Information sent via this method would, in theory, be absolutely secure and practically impossible for hackers to intercept. If two people shared an encrypted quantum message, a third person would be unable to access it without changing the information in an unpredictable way. Further satellite tests are planned by China in the near future, with potential for a European–Asian quantum-encrypted network by 2020, and a global network by 2030.


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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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21st March 2017

Could fast radio bursts be powering alien probes?

A speculative hypothesis by Harvard physicists argues that fast radio bursts from distant galaxies could be artificial in origin.


fast radio bursts aliens
Artist's illustration of a light-sail powered by radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. The leakage from such beams as they sweep across the sky would appear as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs), similar to the new population of sources that was discovered recently at cosmological distances. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA


The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has looked for many different signs of alien life, from radio broadcasts to laser flashes, without success. However, newly published research suggests that mysterious phenomena called fast radio bursts could be evidence of advanced alien technology. Specifically, these bursts might be leakage from planet-sized transmitters powering interstellar probes in distant galaxies.

"Fast radio bursts are exceedingly bright given their short duration and origin at great distances, and we haven't identified a possible natural source with any confidence," said theorist Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. "An artificial origin is worth contemplating and checking."

As the name implies, fast radio bursts are millisecond-long flashes of radio emission. First discovered in 2007, fewer than two dozen have been detected by gigantic radio telescopes like the Parkes Observatory in Australia or the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. They are inferred to originate from distant galaxies, billions of light-years away.


fast radio burst 2007 lorimer

Credit: Duncan Lorimer/West Virginia University


Loeb and his co-author Manasvi Lingam (Harvard University) examined the feasibility of creating a radio transmitter strong enough for it to be detectable across such immense distances. They found that, if the transmitter were solar powered, the sunlight falling on an area of a planet twice the size of the Earth would be enough to generate the needed energy. Such a vast construction project is well beyond our current technology – but within the realm of possibility according to the laws of physics.

Lingam and Loeb also considered whether such a transmitter would be viable from an engineering perspective, or whether the tremendous energies involved would melt any underlying structure. Again, they found that a water-cooled device twice the size of Earth could withstand the heat.

They then asked, why build such an instrument in the first place? They argue that the most plausible use of such power is driving interstellar light sails. The amount of power involved would be sufficient to push a payload of a million tons, or about 20 times the largest cruise ships on Earth.

"That's big enough to carry living passengers across interstellar or even intergalactic distances," added Lingam.

To power a light sail, the transmitter would need to focus a beam on it continuously. Observers on Earth would see a brief flash because the sail and its host planet, star and galaxy are all moving relative to us. As a result, the beam sweeps across the sky and only points in our direction for a moment. Repeated appearances of the beam, which were observed but cannot be explained by cataclysmic astrophysical events, might provide clues about its artificial origin.

Loeb admits that this work is speculative. When asked whether he really believes that any fast radio bursts are due to aliens, he replied, "Science isn't a matter of belief, it's a matter of evidence. Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities. It's worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge."

A paper reporting this work is published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.


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21st March 2017

Canada to get its first spaceport in 2020

Maritime Launch Services, a Canadian space transport services company founded last year, has announced that it will establish a launch site in Nova Scotia by 2020. This will be Canada's first spaceport, with up to eight launches occurring each year from 2022 onwards.


canada first spaceport 2020 future timeline
Credit: Maritime Launch Services


Maritime Launch Services (MLS), established in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a joint venture of three U.S. firms managed by a group of aerospace experts with decades of combined experience in the space industry, including time spent working at NASA. With global demand for space launch services set to grow rapidly in the coming years, MLS sees potential for Canada to enter the race.

Following a study of candidate sites across North America, the company has now chosen a site for operations in the Guysborough Municipality near Canso and Hazel Hill in Nova Scotia, Canada. An exhaustive review was carried out during the last year, which assessed 14 potential locations – evaluating criteria such as access to polar/Sun synchronous orbit, very low population density, proximity to multimodal transportation, and level of interest from the community, province and government.

In cooperation with Ukrainian firms Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, MLS aims to develop a commercial launch complex for the Cyclone 4M orbital launch vehicle, pictured above. This will bring the long established and mature space technology of Ukraine to Canada, and it is hoped will form a highly competitive launch services company. The new facility will begin construction in 2018, with first launches planned for 2020. If all goes according to plan, up to eight rockets could be launched annually from 2022 onwards. MLS is seeking a 20-year lease for the site from the Canadian government. The US$110m facility will include a launch pad and a processing building, as well as a control centre positioned three kilometres away.

The rockets will have two launch options. Option 1 is a Sun-synchronous orbit launch between 600-800 km, for smaller satellites with a payload of up to 3350 kg for US$45 million. Option 2 is a Low Earth Orbit launch, below 600 km in altitude that will allow a payload up to 5000 kg, also for US$45 million. Providers of the launch vehicle, Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, have been in operation for 62 years and launched 875 rockets.

"While we have a number of challenges ahead to work through the regulatory processes, approvals and site planning, we are optimistic that we can break ground on the launch complex within a year and meet market demands with our first launch in 2020," said John Isella, CEO of MLS. "The timing is perfect for this venture. Ukraine's independent space industry, and the solid market for these launch services all add to our confidence in this program. The Cyclone 4M rocket will become the standard of the medium-class space launch industry."

"We are pleased that Maritime Launch Services has chosen to invest in our community and we look forward to continued dialogue," said Vernon Pitts, Warden of the Municipality of Guysborough. "Since we were first introduced to this development a few months ago, we have been impressed with the proponents' approach and we will continue to work collaboratively with MLS as the project evolves. It's going to be a great tourist draw."





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28th February 2017

SpaceX will send tourists around the Moon in 2018

U.S. rocket company SpaceX has announced that two private citizens have paid to be sent around the Moon.


spacex moon tourists 2018
Credit: ESA/NASA


SpaceX, the U.S. rocket company headed by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, has announced that two private citizens have already paid a "significant deposit" for a trip around the Moon, to take place in late 2018. Musk did not disclose the exact amount paid, but said it was "comparable" to that of sending astronauts to the International Space Station. This would likely put it somewhere in the region of $70 million per person. Musk also declined to reveal their identities, except to say that they knew each other and that "it's nobody from Hollywood".

"Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow," the company said in a statement. "Additional information will be released about the flight teams, contingent upon their approval and confirmation of the health and fitness test results."

The mission will be launched using the Falcon Heavy, which has yet to be tested, but will likely have its first flight this summer. The astronauts will occupy a Dragon 2 capsule as they orbit the Moon, which has much larger windows than the original version and will offer stunning views of the lunar surface. Musk said that the capsule had a "quite high" success rate for missions so far.

Assuming this goes ahead as planned, it would be the first time that humans have explored beyond Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972. Lift-off will be from the Kennedy Space Center's historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral – the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions.


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23rd February 2017

NASA discovers an entire solar system of seven Earth-sized planets

NASA astronomers have announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting TRAPPIST-1, a dwarf star 39 light years from Earth – all of which may have the potential to support liquid water.


future timeline exoplanet discoveries
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

"This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Answering the question 'are we alone' is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal."


future timeline exoplanet discoveries
Credit: ESO/O. Furtak


At 39 light-years (229 trillion miles) from Earth, the system is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. It is called TRAPPIST-1, named for the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

The new results were published yesterday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Using data from Spitzer, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated. Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated – scientists believe it could be an icy, "snowball-like" world, but further observations are needed.

"The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star," said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium. "It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds."


future timeline exoplanet discoveries
Artist's impression of the surface environment on TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


In contrast to our Sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star – classified as an ultra-cool dwarf – is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets are also very close to each other. If a person was standing on one of the planet's surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighbouring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the Moon in Earth's sky [see interactive 360° video here].

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star; therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing – transits – of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system. Engineers optimised Spitzer's ability to observe transiting planets during its "warm mission," which began after the spacecraft's coolant ran out as planned after the first five years of operations.

"This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations," said Sean Carey, manager of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. "Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets."

Following up on the Spitzer discovery, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has initiated the screening of four of the planets, including the three inside the habitable zone. These observations aim at assessing the presence of puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres, typical for gaseous worlds like Neptune, around these planets.


future timeline exoplanet discoveries
Credit: ESO/O. Furtak


In May 2016, the Hubble team observed the two innermost planets, and found no evidence for such puffy atmospheres. This strengthened the case that the planets closest to the star are rocky in nature.

"The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets," said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. NASA's planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope also is studying the TRAPPIST-1 system, making measurements of the star's minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft's observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system. The K2 observations conclude in early March and will be made available on the public archive.

Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet's atmosphere. Webb will also analyse planets' temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.





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17th February 2017

Organic material identified on Ceres

NASA's Dawn mission has found evidence of organic material on Ceres – the first clear detection of organic molecules from orbit on a main asteroid belt object.


organic material ceres


Dawn has detected organic-rich areas on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid field between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Scientists evaluating the geology of the regions conclude that the organics are most likely native to the dwarf planet. Data from the spacecraft suggest that the interior of Ceres is the source of these organic materials, as opposed to arriving via impacting asteroids or comets, according to a paper published today in Science.

"This discovery of a locally high concentration of organics is intriguing, with broad implications for the astrobiology community," says Dr. Simone Marchi, senior research scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Texas and co-author of the paper. "Ceres has evidence of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and now organic materials. With this new finding, Dawn has shown that Ceres contains key ingredients for life."

Ceres is believed to have originated about 4.5 billion years ago, when planets and moons were forming. Studying it can help to explain the origin, evolution and distribution of organics across the Solar System. Data from Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer show an unusually high concentration of organic matter close to the 50-km diameter Ernutet crater in the northern hemisphere of Ceres. The distribution and characteristics of the organics seem to preclude association with any single crater. The largest concentration appears to drape discontinuously across the southwest floor and rim of Ernutet and onto an older, highly degraded crater. Other organic-rich areas are scattered to the northwest. While other scientists looked at the distribution and spectra of the materials, Marchi focused on the geological settings.


ceres moon earth size comparison future timeline
Size comparison of Ceres, the Moon and Earth.


"The overall region is heavily cratered and appears to be ancient; however, the rims of Ernutet crater appear to be relatively fresh," Marchi said. "The organic-rich areas include carbonate and ammoniated species, which are clearly Ceres' endogenous material, making it unlikely that the organics arrived via an external impactor."

Ceres shows clear signatures of pervasive hydrothermal activity, aqueous alteration and fluid mobility, so the organic-rich areas may be the result of internal processes. Dawn scientists will continue to study the dwarf planet to identify a viable method for transporting such material from the interior to the surface in the pattern observed.


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15th February 2017

Dubai unveils "Mars 2117 Project"

The United Arab Emirates has announced an ambitious long-term project that aims to build the first city on Mars by 2117.


dubai mars 2117 project future timeline
Credit: Dubai Media Office


At the 5th World Government Summit yesterday, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced the "Mars 2117 Project" which aims to build a miniature city on the Red Planet within 100 years.

“This new project is a seed that we plant today, and we expect future generations to reap the benefits – driven by a passion to learn, to unveil new knowledge,” said Sheikh Mohammed. “The landing of people on other planets has been a long-time dream for humans. Our aim is that the UAE will spearhead international efforts to make this dream a reality.”

In the near term, the UAE will focus on developing its education system, he said, to equip its people with the science and technical skills required for leading research across various sectors. The knowledge that flows from the project will be made available to research institutions around the world to foster collaborations and partnerships in the fields of energy, food, housing, mobility, space travel and transportation. These efforts will not only go towards advancing the Mars project, but will also help to improve people's lives here on Earth.

The UAE is becoming "part of a global scientific drive to explore space, and we hope to serve humanity through this project," said the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who also attended the event.


dubai mars 2117 project future timeline
Credit: Dubai Media Office


During the summit, an Emirati team of engineers and scientists presented a concept for the first city on Mars, which they said would be built by robots. Their plan highlighted the expected lifestyle on Mars in terms of transport, energy and food production, as well as materials needed for construction. Developing faster means of travel between Earth and Mars will be a key objective, according to the researchers.

Working on a project with such a lengthy timescale may seem misguided. Who knows what the world might look like in 100 years? However, the UAE seems more and more determined to prove itself as a major player in the space industry. In 2015, the government reaffirmed its commitment to sending an unmanned probe to Mars in 2021, which will become the first Arabian mission to Mars and is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the country's establishment. Sheikh Mohammed is renowned for embracing technology and innovation – transforming Dubai into a global city; launching a number of major enterprises; and driving development of numerous mega-projects like the Palm Islands and Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world.


dubai mars 2117 project future timeline
Credit: Dubai Media Office



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13th February 2017

NASA reveals plan for Europa surface lander in 2031

NASA has published a report outlining the mission goals of an unmanned Europa surface lander and which instruments the probe may need.


nasa europa surface lander mission 2031
Credit: NASA


Europa is one of the four Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter, and is the sixth-largest moon in the Solar System. It has the smoothest surface of any known solid object in our Solar System. The apparent youth and smoothness of the surface have led to the hypothesis that a water ocean exists beneath it, which could conceivably harbour extraterrestrial life.

In addition to telescopes, Europa has been imaged by a succession of space probe flybys, the first occurring in the early 1970s. More missions will be conducted in the future including the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), a mission to Ganymede that will include two flybys of Europa. NASA's planned Europa Clipper will also be launched in the next several years.

No spacecraft has ever landed, or is scheduled to land, on the surface of Europa. It has been estimated that doing so could add as much as $1 billion to a mission's total cost. However, there are signs that such an expedition may be starting to move forward, as NASA has just released a highly detailed 264-page report, outlining the potential goals and scientific instruments the agency may want to have.


nasa europa surface lander mission 2031
Credit: NASA


If approved, this mission would be launched in 2024 aboard the next-generation Space Launch System, arriving in 2031. It would perform the first in situ search for evidence of life on another world since the Viking spacecraft on Mars in the 1970s. The lander would dig down at least 10 cm (4 inches) below the surface and obtain five or more samples, analysing the material's organic and inorganic contents. Each sample would be studied under a microscope "capable of distinguishing microbial cells as small as 0.2 microns in diameter, and as dilute as 100 cells per cubic centimeter" according to the report.

In addition to its suite of instruments for analysing the samples, the lander would be equipped with a pair of colour stereo imagers, for examining the landing site in 3-D (including capabilities for characterising the surface composition), and a seismic package for determining Europa’s ice and ocean thickness via acoustic monitoring of cracking events in the ice shell. The lander's proximity to liquid water would be determined, as well as the composition of recently erupted materials from ice plumes. The mission would also look for the most promising places to explore in the future.

Due to the extreme radiation of nearby Jupiter, it's unlikely that any life (as we know it) could survive for very long above ground. The spacecraft, too, would have only a short lifespan of about 20 days on the surface, before its electronics were destroyed. Those 20 days could prove to be invaluable for astrobiologists and may revolutionise our understanding of one of the most fascinating places in the Solar System.


europa surface layers
Credit: K.P. Hand et al / NASA



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27th January 2017

Metallic hydrogen created for the first time

Scientists at Harvard have created a small amount of metallic hydrogen for the first time, a century after it was theorised. This material is thought to be present in the depths of gas giants like Jupiter.


  metallic hydrogen
Photographs of hydrogen at different stages of compression: Transparent molecular hydrogen (left) at about 200 GPa, which is converted into black molecular hydrogen at 415 GPa (middle), and finally reflective atomic metallic hydrogen at 495 GPa (right).
Credit: Isaac Silvera / Harvard


Nearly a century after it was theorised, Harvard scientists claim to have succeeded in creating the rarest – and potentially one of the most valuable – materials on the planet.

The material – atomic metallic hydrogen – was created by Professor of Natural Sciences, Isaac Silvera; and his colleague, post-doctoral fellow Ranga Dias. As well as helping scientists answer fundamental questions about the nature of matter, this material is theorised to have a wide range of applications, including as a room-temperature superconductor. The breakthrough is described in a paper published yesterday by the journal Science.

"This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics," Silvera said. "It's the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you're looking at it, you're looking at something that's never existed before."

To create it, Silvera and Dias squeezed a tiny hydrogen sample at 495 gigapascal (GPa), or more than 71 million pounds-per-square inch – greater than the pressure at the centre of the Earth. At those extreme pressures, Silvera explained, solid molecular hydrogen – which consists of molecules on the lattice sites of the solid – breaks down, and the tightly bound molecules dissociate to transforms into atomic hydrogen, which is a metal.


liquid metallic hydrogen pressure temperature graph

Comparison of this study with other studies. Solid metallic hydrogen was achieved at 495 GPa.


While the work offers an important new window into understanding the general properties of hydrogen, it also offers tantalising hints at potentially revolutionary new materials.

"One prediction that's very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable," Silvera said. "That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to how diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remain diamond when pressure and heat is removed."

Understanding whether the material is stable is important, Silvera said, because predictions suggest metallic hydrogen could act as a superconductor at room temperatures.

"That would be revolutionary," he said. "As much as 15 percent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story."

Among the holy grails of physics, a room temperature superconductor, Dias said, could radically change our transportation system, making magnetic levitation of high-speed trains possible, as well as ultra-efficient electric cars and improving the performance of many electronic devices. It could also provide major improvements in energy production and storage, because superconductors have zero resistance energy that could be stored by maintaining currents in superconducting coils, and then used when needed.

In addition to transforming life on Earth, metallic hydrogen could also play a key role in helping humans explore the far reaches of space, as the most powerful rocket propellant yet discovered.


manned exploration of saturn via metallic hydrogen fuel


"It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen," Silvera explained. "And if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all that stored energy is released, so it would make it the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionise rocketry."

The most powerful fuels in use today have a "specific impulse" of 450 seconds – a measure, in seconds, of how fast a propellant is fired from the back of a rocket. In other words, a typical chemical rocket engine can produce one pound of thrust from one pound of fuel for 450 seconds. By comparison, the specific impulse for metallic hydrogen is theorised to be 1,700 seconds.

"That would easily allow you to explore the outer planets," Silvera said. "We would be able to put rockets into orbit with only one stage, versus two, and could send up larger payloads. So it could be very important."

To create the new material, Silvera and Dias turned to one of the hardest materials on Earth – diamond. But rather than natural diamond, Silvera and Dias used two small pieces of carefully polished synthetic diamond which were then treated to make them even tougher and then mounted opposite each other in a device known as a diamond anvil cell.


diamond anvil cell liquid metallic hydrogen


"Diamonds are polished with diamond powder, and that can gouge out carbon from the surface," Silvera said. "When we looked at the diamond using atomic force microscopy, we found defects, which could cause it to weaken and break."

The solution, he said, was to use a reactive ion etching process to shave a tiny layer – just five microns thick, or about one-tenth of a human hair – from the diamond's surface. The diamonds were then coated with a thin layer of alumina to prevent the hydrogen from diffusing into their crystal structure and embrittling them.

After more than four decades of work on metallic hydrogen, and nearly a century after it was first theorised, seeing the material for the first time, Silvera said, was thrilling.

"It was really exciting," he said. "Ranga was running the experiment, and we thought we might get there, but when he called me and said, 'The sample is shining,' I went running down there, and it was metallic hydrogen. I immediately said we have to make the measurements to confirm it, so we rearranged the lab... and that's what we did. It's a tremendous achievement – and even if it only exists in this diamond anvil cell at high pressure, it's a very fundamental and transformative discovery."





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10th January 2017

Hubble provides interstellar road map for Voyager probes

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have measured the material along the Voyager 1 and 2 probes' trajectories as they move through space. Hubble data, combined with the Voyagers, have also provided new insights into how our Sun travels through interstellar space.


voyager probe
Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); and G. Bacon (STScI)


NASA's two Voyager spacecraft are hurtling through unexplored territory on their road trip beyond our Solar System. Along the way, they are measuring the interstellar medium, the mysterious environment between stars. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is providing the road map – by measuring the material along the probes' trajectories as they move through space. Even after the Voyagers run out of electrical power and are unable to send back new data, which may happen in the mid-2020s, astronomers can use Hubble observations to characterise the environment through which these silent ambassadors will glide.

A preliminary analysis from Hubble reveals a rich and complex interstellar ecology, containing multiple clouds of hydrogen laced with other elements. Hubble data – combined with the Voyagers' – have also provided new insights into how our Sun travels through interstellar space.

"This is a great opportunity to compare data from in situ measurements of the space environment by the Voyager spacecraft and telescopic measurements by Hubble," said study leader Seth Redfield of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. "The Voyagers are sampling tiny regions as they plough through space at 38,000 miles per hour. But we have no idea if these small areas are typical or rare. The Hubble observations give us a broader view, because the telescope is looking along a longer and wider path. So Hubble gives context to what each Voyager is passing through."

It is hoped that Hubble will help characterise the physical properties of the local interstellar medium. "Synthesising these insights with in situ measurements from Voyager would provide an unprecedented overview of the local interstellar environment," said Hubble team member Julia Zachary, also of Wesleyan University.

NASA launched the twin Voyager 1 and 2 probes in 1977. Both explored the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, with Voyager 2 going on to visit the outer planets Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 is now zooming through interstellar space, the region between star systems that contains gas, dust, and material recycled from dying stars. At 13 billion miles from Earth, Voyager 1 is the farthest human-made object ever built. In about 40,000 years, it will pass within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445. Its twin, Voyager 2, currently 10.5 billion miles away, will reach Sirius in approximately 298,000 AD.

For the next decade or so, until they lose electrical power, the Voyagers will take measurements of interstellar material, magnetic fields and cosmic rays along their trajectories. As shown on the diagram below (click to enlarge), Hubble complements the Voyagers' observations by gazing at two sightlines along each spacecraft's path to map the interstellar structure along their star-bound routes. Each sightline stretches several light-years to nearby stars. Sampling the light from those stars, Hubble's imaging spectrograph can measure how interstellar material absorbs some of the starlight, leaving tell-tale spectral fingerprints.


Click to enlarge

hubble voyager probes stars future
Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI)


Based on the Hubble data gathered so far, the astronomers predict that Voyager 2 will move out of the interstellar cloud surrounding our Solar System in a couple of thousand years. It will spend another 90,000 years in a second cloud, before passing into a third.

An inventory of the clouds' composition reveals slight variations in the abundances of chemical elements contained in the structures. "These variations could mean the clouds formed in different ways, or from different areas, and then came together," Redfield said.

Early analysis of the Hubble data also suggests that the Sun is passing through clumpier material in nearby space, which might affect the heliosphere – the large "bubble" containing our Solar System that is produced by our Sun's powerful solar wind. At its boundary, called the heliopause, the solar wind pushes outward against the interstellar medium. Hubble and Voyager 1 made measurements of the interstellar environment beyond this boundary, where the wind comes from stars other than our Sun.

"I'm really intrigued by the interaction between stars and the interstellar environment," Redfield said. "These kinds of interactions are happening around most stars, and it is a dynamic process."

The heliosphere is compressed when the Sun moves through dense material, but it expands back out when the star passes through low-density matter. This expansion and contraction is caused by the interaction between the outward pressure of the stellar wind, composed of a stream of charged particles, and the pressure of the interstellar material surrounding the star.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C. The Voyagers were built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which continues to operate both spacecraft.


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8th January 2017

NASA announces new space probes for the 2020s

NASA has announced its choices for the next Discovery Program missions – Lucy, a probe that will visit several asteroids including the Trojans, and Psyche, to study the large metallic asteroid 16 Psyche.


lucy psyche missions future timeline
Credits: SwRI and SSL/Peter Rubin


NASA has selected two missions that have the potential to open new windows on one of the earliest eras in the history of our Solar System – a time less than 10 million years after the birth of our Sun. The missions, known as Lucy and Psyche, were chosen from 27 candidates that were narrowed down to five finalists in October 2015. They will now proceed to mission formulation, with the goal of launching in 2021 and 2023, respectively.

"Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter's mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that's never been visited before," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we've never been to enable groundbreaking science."

Lucy is scheduled to launch in 2021 and expected to arrive at its first destination, a main belt asteroid, in 2025. From 2027 to 2033, Lucy will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids. These asteroids are trapped by Jupiter's gravity in two swarms that share the planet's orbit, one leading and one trailing Jupiter in its 12-year circuit around the Sun. The Trojans are thought to be relics of a much earlier era in the history of the Solar System, and may have formed far beyond Jupiter's current orbit.


trojan asteroid orbits jupiter lucy future timeline


"This is a unique opportunity," said Harold Levison, lead investigator for the Lucy mission. "Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the Solar System. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionise the understanding of our origins."

Lucy will build on the success of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt – using more advanced versions of the scientific instruments that have enabled that probe's achievements. Several members of the Lucy mission team are also veterans of the New Horizons mission. Lucy will also build on the success of the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu, with the OTES instrument and several members of the OSIRIS-REx team.

Meanwhile, the Psyche mission will explore one of the most intriguing targets in the main asteroid belt – a giant metal asteroid, known as 16 Psyche, about three times farther away from the Sun than is the Earth. This asteroid measures about 130 miles (210 km) in diameter and, unlike most other asteroids that are rocky or icy bodies, is thought to be composed primarily of metallic iron and nickel, similar to Earth's core. Astronomers wonder whether 16 Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet that could have been as large as Mars, but which lost its rocky outer layers due to violent collisions billions of years ago. The mission will help scientists understand how planets and other bodies were separated into their layers – including cores, mantles and crusts – early in their histories.

"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal," said Psyche's principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe. "16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the Solar System, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space."

Psyche, also a robotic mission, is targeted to launch in October of 2023, arriving at the asteroid in 2030, following an Earth gravity assist spacecraft manoeuvre in 2024 and a Mars flyby in 2025.




In addition to selecting Lucy and Psyche for mission formulation, the agency will extend funding for the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) project for an additional year. The NEOCam space telescope is designed to survey regions of space closest to Earth's orbit, where potentially hazardous asteroids may be found.

"These are true missions of discovery that integrate into NASA's larger strategy of investigating how the Solar System formed and evolved," said NASA's Planetary Science Director Jim Green. "We've explored terrestrial planets, gas giants, and a range of other bodies orbiting the Sun. Lucy will observe primitive remnants from farther out in the Solar System, while Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body. These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the Sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold."

Discovery-class missions like these are relatively low-cost, with development capped at $450 million. The Discovery Program portfolio includes 12 prior selections such as the MESSENGER mission to study Mercury, the Dawn mission to explore asteroids Vesta and Ceres, and the InSight Mars lander, scheduled to launch in May 2018.


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29th November 2016

The speed of light could be variable, say researchers

Scientists behind a theory that the speed of light is variable – and not constant as Einstein suggested – have produced a model with an exact figure on the spectral index, which they say is testable.


speed of light future timeline


Scientists behind a theory that the speed of light is variable – and not constant as Einstein suggested – have made a prediction that could be tested.

Einstein observed that the speed of light remains the same in any situation, and this meant that space and time could be different in different situations.

The assumption that the speed of light is fixed, and always has been, underpins many theories in physics, such as Einstein's theory of general relativity. It plays an especially important role in models of what happened during the very early universe, seconds after the Big Bang.

But some researchers have suggested that the speed of light could have been much higher in this early universe. Now, one of this theory's originators, Professor João Magueijo from Imperial College London, working with Dr Niayesh Afshordi at the Perimeter Institute in Canada, has made a prediction that could be used to test the theory's validity.

Large structures, such as galaxies, all formed from fluctuations in the early universe – tiny differences in density from one region to another. A record of these early fluctuations is imprinted on the cosmic microwave background – a map of the oldest light in the universe – in the form of a 'spectral index'.


cosmic microwave background future timeline


Working with their theory that the fluctuations were influenced by a varying speed of light in the early universe, Professor Magueijo and Dr Afshordi have now used a model to put an exact figure on the spectral index. The predicted figure and model it is based on are published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Physical Review D.

Cosmologists have been getting ever more precise readings of this figure, so the prediction could soon be tested – either confirming or ruling out the team's model of the early universe. Their figure is a very precise 0.96478. This is close to the current estimate of readings of the cosmic microwave background, which puts it around 0.968, with some margin of error.

"The theory, which we first proposed in the late-1990s, has now reached a maturity point – it has produced a testable prediction. If observations in the near future do find this number to be accurate, it could lead to a modification of Einstein's theory of gravity," explains Professor Magueijo. "The idea that the speed of light could be variable was radical when first proposed – but with a numerical prediction, it becomes something physicists can actually test. If true, it would mean that the laws of nature were not always the same as they are today."

The testability of the varying speed of light theory sets it apart from the more mainstream rival theory: inflation. Inflation says that the early universe went through an extremely rapid expansion phase, much faster than the current rate of expansion of the universe.


big bang universe future timeline
Credit: By Yinweichen, [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


These theories are necessary to overcome what physicists call the 'horizon problem'. The universe as we see it today appears to be everywhere broadly the same. For example, it has a relatively homogenous density.

This could only be true if all regions of the universe were able to influence each other. However, if the speed of light has always been the same, then not enough time has passed for light to have travelled to the edge of the universe, and 'even out' the energy.

As an analogy, to heat up a room evenly, the warm air from radiators at either end has to travel across the room and mix fully. The problem for the universe is that the 'room' – the observed size of the universe – appears to be too large for this to have happened in the time since it was formed.

The varying speed of light theory suggests that the speed of light was much higher in the early universe, allowing the distant edges to be connected as the universe expanded. The speed of light would have then dropped in a predictable way as the density of the universe changed. This variability led the team to their prediction published this month.

The alternative theory is inflation, which attempts to solve this problem by saying that the very early universe "evened out" while incredibly small, and then suddenly expanded, with the uniformity already imprinted on it. While this means the speed of light and the other laws of physics as we know them are preserved, it requires the invention of an 'inflation field' – a set of conditions that only existed at the time.


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24th November 2016

Huge deposit of water ice found below surface of Mars

NASA reports that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found a huge deposit of water ice just under the surface of the planet Mars, in the region known as Utopia Planitia.


utopia planitia mars future timeline
Utopia Planitia on Mars. Credit: NASA


Frozen beneath a region of cracked and pitted plains on Mars lies a volume of water equivalent to Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, researchers using NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have determined.

Scientists examined part of Mars' Utopia Planitia region, in the mid-northern latitudes, which forms part of the largest recognised impact basin on Mars and in the Solar System with an estimated diameter of 3300 km. It is also where the Viking 2 lander made its historic touchdown in September 1976.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's ground-penetrating Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument was used to record data from over 600 overhead passes, revealing a deposit more extensive in area than the state of New Mexico. The water ice ranges in thickness from about 80 metres (260 feet) to about 170 metres (560 feet) with a composition that is 50 to 85 percent water ice, mixed with dust or larger rocky particles.

At the latitude of this deposit, halfway from the equator to the pole, water ice cannot persist on the surface today. It sublimes into water vapour in the planet's thin, dry atmosphere. The Utopia deposit is shielded from the atmosphere by a soil covering estimated to be 1 to 10 metres (3 to 33 feet) thick.


Click to enlarge

mars map


"This deposit probably formed as snowfall accumulating into an ice sheet mixed with dust, during a period in Mars history when the planet's axis was more tilted than it is today," said Cassie Stuurman of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the lead author of a report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The name Utopia Planitia translates as the "plains of paradise." The newly surveyed ice deposit represents less than one percent of all known water ice on Mars – but it more than doubles the volume of thick, buried ice sheets known in the northern plains. Ice deposits close to the surface are being considered as a resource for astronauts.

"This deposit is probably more accessible than most water ice on Mars, because it is at a relatively low latitude and it lies in a flat, smooth area where landing a spacecraft would be easier than at some of the other areas with buried ice," said Jack Holt of the University of Texas, co-author of the paper.


mars water ice deposit map
Location and distribution of the water ice. Credit: NASA


"It's important to expand what we know about the distribution and quantity of Martian water," said Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We know early Mars had enough liquid water on the surface for rivers and lakes. Where did it go? Much of it left the planet from the top of the atmosphere. Other missions have been examining that process. But there's also a large quantity that is now underground ice, and we want to keep learning more about that."

"The ice deposits in Utopia Planitia aren't just an exploration resource, they're also one of the most accessible climate change records on Mars," explains Joe Levy of the University of Texas, a co-author of the new study. "We don't understand fully why ice has built up in some areas of the Martian surface and not in others. Sampling and using this ice with a future mission could help keep astronauts alive, while also helping them unlock the secrets of Martian ice ages."

Evidence of a recent, extreme ice age on Mars was published by the journal Science earlier this year. Just 370,000 years ago, the planet would have appeared more white than red.


mars viking 2



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5th November 2016

Construction of the James Webb Space Telescope mirror is completed

After 20 years of development, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope has reached a major milestone, with its primary mirror now complete and ready for testing prior to a 2018 launch.


james webb space telescope future timeline
Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn


In the massive clean room of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, assembly was finished this week on the James Webb Space Telescope's (JWST) primary mirror. Thousands of people have been involved in its design and construction, including a member of the FutureTimeline forum.

The JWST will replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope (launched in 1990) and provide a fresh pair of eyes on the universe. It will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from long-wavelength visible light, through near-infrared to the mid-infrared. While Hubble has a 2.4 m (7.9 ft) primary mirror, the JWST features a much larger 6.5 m (21.3 ft) mirror, composed of 18 hexagonal segments each measuring 1.3 m (4.2 ft). When combined, these will offer seven times the light collecting area of Hubble, alongside instruments that are 100 times more sensitive.

Located near Sun–Earth Lagrange point 2, about 1.5 million km (930,000 miles) from Earth, a large sunshield will keep its mirror and science instruments below 50 K (−223°C; −370°F). This will minimise interference from external sources of light and heat (like the Sun, Earth, and Moon) as well as from heat emitted by the observatory itself.

When fully operational, the JWST will be the most powerful space telescope ever built, capable of seeing the very first generation of stars which ignited less than 200 million years after the Big Bang – a time when the universe was about 1.4% of its current age.


hubble james webb space telescope comparison
Credit: NASA


"Today, we're celebrating the fact that our telescope is finished, and we're about to prove that it works," said John Mather, senior project scientist, at the press conference in Maryland. "We've done two decades of innovation and hard work, and this is the result – we're opening up a whole new territory of astronomy."

The telescope would be powerful enough to spot a bumblebee on the Moon's surface, explained Mather – both in its reflected light, and from body heat emitted by the insect. Its mirrors are so smooth that if you scaled the array to the size of the U.S., the hills and valleys of irregularity would be only a few inches high.

After launch phase environment testing at Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, more cryogenic tests will be performed at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. The mirror will then be transported to Northrup Grumman in Los Angeles for the final phase of construction that will connect it to the sunshield and spacecraft bus. If all goes according to plan, the mission will be launched in October 2018.

There are four primary scientific objectives:

• to search for light from the first stars and galaxies that formed in the Universe after the Big Bang;
• to study the formation and evolution of galaxies;
• to understand the formation of stars and planetary systems;
• to study planetary systems and the origins of life.


james webb space telescope galaxies universe future timeline


These goals can be achieved more effectively by observation in near-infrared light, rather than light in the visible part of the spectrum. For this reason, the JWST's instruments will have a much greater capacity for infrared astronomy than Hubble – allowing the study of far more objects and regions obscured by gas and dust; such as molecular clouds where stars are born, circumstellar disks that give rise to planets, and the cores of active galaxies. One of the early goals of the JWST will be to gather enough data to answer which theory is correct about the phenomenon of the dimming light around the mysterious star KIC 8462852.

With a history of major cost overruns and delays, the JWST almost didn't happen. The first realistic budget estimates were around $1.6 billion with a planned launch date of 2011. In that year, however, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to terminate funding, after $3 billion had been spent and 75% of its hardware was in production. Funding was later restored, but capped at $8 billion, with a revised launch date of 2018. The costs have now exceeded $8.7 billion, according to mission director Bill Ochs at this week's news conference.

The JWST is being launched by an Ariane 5 rocket supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA). An adapter ring will be included, in the unlikely event that a major deployment problem occurs. This could be used by a future spacecraft to grapple the observatory. Because of its remote distance, however, the telescope itself will not be serviceable – astronauts will be unable to reach it to fix instruments, unlike the much closer Hubble.

"It's critically important to get it right here on the ground, and that's the purpose for the tests that we're doing here and, most importantly, for the tests when we get it down to Johnson [Space Centre] in Chamber A, the big vacuum chamber," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The JWST is designed to have a minimum lifetime of 5.5 years after launch, but NASA hopes it can remain in operation for 10 years or more. A number of other, even larger observatories have been proposed for the 2030s and beyond. These include the 11.7 m (38.3 ft) High-Definition Space Telescope and a longer-term concept for a robotically assembled telescope reaching 100 metres in size.

Given these trends in observational capability, combined with exponential growth in the number of exoplanets being found, it seems likely that alien life signatures will be detected in the not-too-distant future.





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4th November 2016

First commercial asteroid prospecting mission to launch by 2020

Planetary Resources, Inc., the asteroid mining company, announced yesterday that it has finalised a 25 million euro agreement that includes direct capital investment of 12 million euros and grants of 13 million euros from the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the banking institution Société Nationale de Crédit et d'Investissement (SNCI). This funding will accelerate the company's technical advancements with the aim of launching the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission by 2020. The milestone fulfilled the intent of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Grand Duchy and its SpaceResources.lu initiative that was agreed upon earlier this year.

"We are excited in welcoming the Grand Duchy as a partner and an investor," said Chris Lewicki, President and CEO of Planetary Resources. "Just as the country's vision and initiative propelled the satellite communications industry through its public-private partnerships, this funding and support will fast-track our business – advancing and building upon our substantial accomplishments. We plan to launch the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission by 2020 and look forward to collaborating with our European partner in this pivotal new industry."


asteroid mining 2020 future timeline


Étienne Schneider, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy, Government of Luxembourg, said: "The Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg becoming a shareholder in Planetary Resources seals our partnership and lays the ground of the principles of our cooperation in the years to come, while demonstrating the Government's strong commitment to support the national space sector by attracting innovative activities in space resource utilisation and other related areas. The Grand Duchy has a renowned history in public-private partnerships. In 1985, Luxembourg became one of the founding shareholders of SES, a landmark for satellite telecommunications and now a world leader in this sector."

Planetary Resources is establishing a European headquarters in Luxembourg that will conduct key research and development activities in support of its commercial asteroid prospecting capabilities, as well as support international business activities.

Core hardware and software technologies developed at Planetary Resources were tested in orbit last year. The company's next mission, now undergoing final testing, will validate a thermographic sensor that will precisely measure temperature differences of objects on Earth. When deployed on future commercial asteroid prospecting missions, the sensor will acquire key data related to the presence of water and water-bearing minerals on asteroids. Obtaining and using these key resources in space promises to fast-track the development of off-planet economic activities as the commercial industry continues to accelerate.

Planetary Resources was founded in 2009 by Eric Anderson, Peter Diamandis and Chris Lewicki. The company's vision is to establish a new paradigm for resource utilisation that will bring the Solar System within humanity's economic sphere of influence. The pathway to identifying the most commercially viable near-Earth water-rich asteroids has led to the development of multiple transformative technologies that are applicable to global markets, including the agriculture, energy, mining and insurance industries. Planetary Resources is financed by industry-launching visionaries who are committed to expanding the world's resource base so humanity can continue to grow and prosper for centuries to come.





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16th October 2016

The world's first nation state in space

At a press conference in Paris this week, plans were announced for the creation of 'Asgardia' – the first nation state in outer space.


asgardia space station future
Credit: Asgardia


Named after the city of the skies in Norse mythology, Asgardia is a space-based nation proposed by Dr Igor Ashurbeyli, founder of the Aerospace International Research Centre (Vienna), and Chairman of UNESCO's Science of Space committee. The concept is aimed at creating a new framework for how space activities are regulated and owned, ensuring that "the future of space is peaceful and done for the benefit of humankind."

Dr Ashurbeyli, one of the Russian Federation's most distinguished scientists, has consulted globally renowned scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and legal experts on the development of the concept. The project's official website is currently requesting people to register for "citizenship" with the aim of applying to the United Nations for official recognition as a nation state. Already, hundreds of thousands have signed up.

As a first step, the organisation plans to crowd-source a satellite for launch in 2017, sixty years after Sputnik 1, the first ever satellite. This will mark a new era in the space age, the organisation claims, as the satellite will be independent of any current nation state on Earth: the satellite will comprise the nation itself – creating its own legal system, flag and other symbols of nationhood.

"The project's concept comprises three parts – philosophical, legal and scientific/technological," Dr Ashburbeyli explained. "Asgardia is a fully-fledged and independent nation, and a future member of the United Nations – with all the attributes this status entails. The essence of Asgardia is 'Peace in Space', and the prevention of Earth's conflicts being transferred into space.

"Asgardia is also unique from a philosophical aspect: to serve entire humanity and each and everyone, regardless of his or her personal welfare and the prosperity of the country where they happened to be born. The scientific and technological component of the project can be explained in just three words – peace, access and protection. The scientific and technological envelope of Asgardia is a space arena for the scientific creativity of its citizens and companies in developing a broad range of future space technologies, products and services for humanity on Earth and humanity in space."


asgardia space future timeline


In recent years, access to space has been opening up, but the process remains slow and is tightly controlled by states on Earth, restricting commerce and scientific developments by private enterprise. Of the 196 nation states, just thirteen (China, France, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Russia/former USSR, South Korea, UK, Ukraine, USA) and one regional organisation (the European Space Agency, ESA) have independently launched satellites on their own indigenously developed launch vehicles.

Professor David Alexander, Director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University in Texas: "As low-Earth orbit becomes more accessible, what's often called the 'democratisation' of space, a pathway is opening up to new ideas and approaches from a rich diversity of participants. The mission of Asgardia to create opportunities for broader access to space, enabling non-traditional space nations to realise their scientific aspirations is exciting."

Under current international space law, including the widely adopted Outer Space Treaty, states are required to authorise and supervise national space activities, including the activities of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. Objects launched into space are subject to their nation of belonging and if a nation launches an object into space, that nation is responsible for any damage that occurs internationally and in outer space.

Asgardia aims to create a new framework for ownership and nationhood in space, adapting current laws governing responsibility, private ownership and enterprise so they are fit for purpose in the new era of space exploration. By creating a new "space nation", private enterprise, innovation and the further development of space technology to support humanity could flourish, free from the tight restrictions of state control that currently exist.

Professor Ram Jakhu, Director, Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University, Montreal, Canada: "An appropriate and unique global space legal regime is indispensable for governing outer space in order to ensure it is explored on a sustainable basis, for exclusively peaceful purposes and to the benefit of all humanity – including future generations living on planet Earth and in outer space. The development of foundational principles of such a legal regime ought to take place at the same time as technological progress is being made."


asgardia space future timeline


One of the early developments planned by Asgardia's team will be the creation of a state-of-the-art protective shield for all humankind from cosmic manmade and natural threats to life on Earth such as space debris, coronal mass ejections and asteroid collisions.

There are estimated to be more than 20,000 traceable objects of man-made space debris (MSD) including non-active spacecraft, upper-stage rockets and final stage vehicles, as well as fragments of craft that potentially pose a danger in near-Earth orbits. The impact of the Chelyabinsk meteorite which crashed over a Russian town as recently as 2013, injuring 1,100 people and damaging 4,000 buildings, is a reminder of the threat that natural objects pose to life on our planet.

Whilst steps have already been taken by the UN and the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) to identify potentially hazardous scenarios, Asgardia will build on these developments to offer a more comprehensive mechanism.

Dr. Joseph N. Pelton, former Dean of the International Space University in Strasbourg, France: "The Asgardia project, among other things, may help prepare better answers to the future governance of outer space – a topic of major concern to the United Nations. The exciting aspect of this initiative is its three phase approach to providing broader access to space; promoting peace in outer space; and addressing cosmic hazards and planetary defence."

The Asgardia Project Team will comprise a collaborative, multi-disciplinary effort from leading experts around the globe which it is envisaged will grow over time as the project evolves. But as well as expert involvement in the project, Asgardia is looking to capture the wider public imagination by crowd-sourcing key aspects of the missions and involving members of the public in competitions – for example, to help design the nation's flag, insignia and other symbols of nationhood.

To coincide with the press conference, a website with further details was launched at www.asgardia.space. The project can also be followed on Twitter where updates will be provided, along with interaction between the Asgardia team and members of the public.


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15th October 2016

The next 5,000 years

A guest piece by sci-fi author Drew Wagar.


the far future timeline


In this guest piece, we talked to sci-fi author Drew Wagar about his predictions for the next five, 50, 500 and 5,000 years.



Being an SF writer means you have to imagine different futures, different worlds. It is generally easier to do that when you aren’t tied to the present, or you can pick another world or civilisation and use your imagination.

Predicting where we might be in the future is rather more tricky, and, almost certainly, is going to be wrong – but it’s a fun exercise and here are my thoughts on where we might be...


The next 5 years (2021)

This period is probably the hardest as it is most likely to be wrong, or at least, proved as inaccurate by progress!

On the technology front, 3D printing is one to watch in the next few years; it has the potential to revolutionise the provision and transport of items, in the same way that email displaced the letter. 4G (and better) mobile network access will become the norm for all devices, relegating ‘wired’ connections to history for most users. 2 terabyte SD cards will appear in this time frame. Storage will soon cease to be an issue for most users.

Entertainment will continue to shift away from traditional broadcast media and print to reality augmented and deeply personalised content. I suspect there will be interesting developments as VR and augmented reality leaves the realms of ‘geekdom’ and moves into the mainstream.

I fear the divide between the haves and have-nots will continue to widen, with continued social unrest. For those without means, the future looks bleaker. Pension provision will continue to erode with massive numbers wakening to the realisation that they will never be able to stop working. Debt will continue to force reductions in public spending, against an outcry regarding social welfare. Unfortunately, the traditional ‘left’ will continue to field unworkable and outdated solutions to these problems and leave unfettered capitalism as the unopposed solution.

We will spectacularly fail to get to grips with the burgeoning climate crisis, due to political lobbying, ignorance and the impact of religion world-wide. The 2020s will open with territorial conflicts over oil, water and food supply, enflamed by religious disputes continuing or even worse than the 2010s.


The next 50 years (2066)

Being optimistic I’m going to give us commercially available fusion power in this time period. This effectively ends the ‘oil years’ and makes a range of technology obsolete. Prior to this though, ‘history’ is punctuated by wars both big and small over the diminishing resources of the old carbon economy and the disastrous impacts of climate change.

Personalised electronics, coupled with emerging genetics and nanotechnology continues to expand, with the youngest generation having no qualms about integrating electronics to augment their minds and bodies. The first signs of ‘pure humans’ and ‘augmented humans’ becoming separate societies begins to appear.

AI becomes a recognisable ‘thing’ in this time period, with many jobs replaced by artificial intelligence, particularly in transport, healthcare and brokerage. There are significant amounts of the planet that are run without any human intervention at all.

The concept of ‘owning’ a car will seem very old-fashioned, along with 9-5 working hours. This will be part of a changing zeitgeist world-wide, as the ‘baby boomer’ generation and their thinking finally dies away. Constant ‘debt’ crises force a change whereby rampant consumerism is replaced by a more pragmatic ‘value for money’ consideration. Credit, loans and debt become dirty words possibly due to a catastrophic financial crash and resultant restructuring.

There remains the strong possibility of a major world conflict in this time period. India and China capitalise on this and become the dominant economic entities, overtaking the United States by mid-century.

Environmental problems grow worse before getting better, with the melting of Arctic sea ice and the widespread collapse of the Antarctic ice shelves. Coastal flooding causes major upheaval. No sea ice at the North Pole becomes the norm. Major displacement of some established coastal areas.

However, there are signs for optimism as the end of the carbon economy favours different nations and those who have invested in alternative energy sources and modern infrastructure.


The next 500 years (2516)

Humanity is now wrestling with an ‘excess energy’ problem, whereby energy production is so cheap and commonplace that excessive heat generation is a major global problem again. Climate engineering is a massive undertaking whereby the levels of greenhouse gases are being reduced to cater for the massive amounts of heat that global energy use is generating.

Small parts of Earth are now ‘off-limits’, marked as enclosures for what came to be known as ‘pure humans’ prior to the event known by historians as the ‘Schism’; in this, humanity separated into distinct cultural sects, characterised by their desire to use, or not, selective nano/bio/electronic technology to augment themselves.

The vast majority opted for the enhancements – there was a brief war, which was a forgone conclusion. All illness, mental and physical, deformities were banished as a result. Sex and other dimorphisms ceased to exist. Humans now are partly cybernetic and have abilities that would have been regarded as ‘superpowers’ to humans 500 years before – able to fly, withstand harm and survive extreme acceleration. ‘Pure humans’, without these enhancements, are allowed in the enclosures and left undisturbed to continue their existence. Most consider them fascinating ‘zoo animals’ with hugely limited lifespans and intelligence.

Mars and Venus have been terraformed for the convenience of migration from Earth. They will have been seeded with water from the Kuiper belt and perhaps with minor orbit alterations, courtesy of managed asteroids, to make them even more habitable.

Mining operations across the solar system will have transformed many moons and some planets – though the gas giants will appear largely similar to 21st century eyes.


The next 5,000 years (7516)

Perhaps the most difficult, but certainly the most astonishing changes from the view point of the 21st century.

A major breakthrough in harnessing vacuum energy and a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the universe that eluded 21st century scientists in their entirety now provides the means for humanity to visit other solar systems.

Unlike the imagined crewed spacecraft of thousands of years ago, these ships are merely specialised augmented humans, with humanity’s intelligence, biology crafted into the ship itself. They require no crew, as they are the crew. Humanity explores the stars directly, not by means of primitive physical containers. Much of the galaxy has been mapped.

On Earth, the planet is unrecognisable. Gone is any indication of a transport system, or even major cities. Humanity’s technology is now so advanced that individuals have no need of ‘devices’ whether they are transports, housing, communications or sustenance. Thus the planet now looks utterly unspoilt, returned to an ‘Eden’ of legend. Every individual is utterly self-sufficient in all things.

Culture now revolves around the purest type of entertainment, the exchange of thought, dreams, stories and discovery. Freed from the need to fight to survive, humanity achieves unparalleled greatness.



Drew's books include the Shadeward Saga, a four part sci-fi epic set on the tidally-locked world of Esurio, orbiting the red dwarf star Lacaille 9352.

He is currently writing Elite Dangerous: Premonition, the official Elite Dangerous novel being published by Frontier Developments in 2017. Drew himself is a fan of the game – set in 3302 – in which players can explore a scientifically accurate, virtual recreation of the entire Milky Way galaxy. Featuring what is possibly the largest gaming environment ever created, and playable in VR, Elite Dangerous gives players the chance to travel unimaginable distances, witness breathtaking astronomical sights, land on planetary surfaces, mine asteroids, trade commodities, take part in battles and much more.

Drew lives in Kent with his wife, two sons, a dog and a cat. His favourite colour is dark green. Everything else is subject to change without notice.


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14th October 2016

Universe contains 10 times more galaxies than previously thought

Using 3D imaging techniques on 20 years of photographs by the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers estimate there are 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe – an order of magnitude more than previously thought.


10 times more galaxies universe future timeline


A team of astronomers led by Christopher Conselice of the University of Nottingham, UK, has found that 10 times as many galaxies were packed into a given volume of space in the early universe than today. Most of these galaxies were relatively small and faint, with masses similar to those of the satellite galaxies surrounding the Milky Way. As they merged to form larger galaxies, the population density of galaxies in space dwindled. This means that galaxies are not evenly distributed throughout the universe's history.

"These results are powerful evidence that a significant galaxy evolution has taken place throughout the universe's history, which dramatically reduced the number of galaxies through mergers between them – thus reducing their total number," said Conselice. "This gives us a verification of the so-called top-down formation of structure in the universe."

One of the most fundamental questions in astronomy is that of just how many galaxies the universe contains. The landmark Hubble Deep Field – taken in the mid-1990s – gave the first real insight into the universe's galaxy population. Later more sensitive observations, such as Hubble's Ultra Deep Field, revealed a myriad of faint galaxies. This led to an estimate that the observable universe contained about 200 billion galaxies. The new research shows that this estimate must be at least 10 times too low.

Conselice and his team reached this conclusion using deep-space images from Hubble, as well as published data from other teams. They painstakingly converted the images into 3-D, to make accurate measurements of galaxy numbers at different epochs in the universe's history. In addition, they used new mathematical models allowing them to infer the existence of galaxies that the current generation of telescopes cannot observe. This led to the surprising conclusion that for the numbers of galaxies we now see and their masses to add up, there must be a further 90 percent of galaxies in the observable universe that are too faint and too far away to be seen with present-day telescopes. These small, faint galaxies from the early universe merged over time into larger galaxies we can now observe.


10 times more galaxies universe future timeline
Credit: NASA and and Ann Feild [STScI]


"It boggles the mind that over 90 percent of the galaxies in the universe have yet to be studied. Who knows what interesting properties we will find when we discover these galaxies with future generations of telescopes? In the near future, the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to study these ultra-faint galaxies," said Conselice.

The decreasing number of galaxies as time progresses also contributes to the solution for Olbers' paradox (first formulated in the early 1800s by German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers): Why is the sky dark at night if the universe contains an infinity of stars? The team came to the conclusion that indeed there actually is such an abundance of galaxies that, in principle, every patch in the sky contains part of a galaxy. However, starlight from the galaxies is invisible to the human eye and most modern telescopes due to other known factors that reduce visible and ultraviolet light in the universe. Those factors are the reddening of light due to the expansion of space, the universe's dynamic nature, and the absorption of light by intergalactic dust and gas. All combined, this keeps the night sky dark to our vision.


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7th October 2016

Saturn's moon Dione may contain a subsurface ocean

The Cassini mission has revealed evidence of a subsurface ocean within Saturn's moon Dione.


dione surface
The rolling, cratered landscape of Saturn's moon Dione. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


A subsurface ocean lies deep within Saturn's moon Dione, according to new data from the Cassini spacecraft. Two other moons of the gas giant – Titan and Enceladus – are already known to hide global oceans beneath their icy crusts, but a new study suggests an ocean exists in Dione as well.

In this study, researchers from the Royal Observatory of Belgium show gravity data from recent Cassini flybys can be explained if Dione's crust floats on an ocean located 100 km (62 miles) below the surface. The ocean is several tens of kilometres deep and surrounds a large rocky core. Seen from within, Dione is similar to its smaller but more famous neighbour Enceladus, whose south polar region spurts huge jets of water vapour into space. Dione seems to be quiet now, but its broken surface bears witness of a more tumultuous past.

The researchers modelled the icy shells of Enceladus and Dione as global icebergs immersed in water, where each surface ice peak is supported by a large underwater keel. Scientists have used this approach in the past, but previous results have predicted a very thick crust for Enceladus and no ocean at all for Dione.

"As an additional principle, we assumed that the icy crust can stand only the minimum amount of tension or compression necessary to maintain surface landforms", said Mikael Beuthe, lead author of the new study. "More stress would break the crust down to pieces."


dione enceladus
Dione with Enceladus in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.


According to the new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, Enceladus' ocean is much closer to the surface, especially near the south pole where geysers erupt through a few kilometres of crust. These findings agree well with the discovery last year that Enceladus undergoes large back-and-forth oscillations, or "libration", during its orbit. Enceladus' libration would be much smaller if its crust was thicker. As for Dione, the new study finds it contains a deep ocean between its crust and core.

"Like Enceladus, Dione librates – but below the detection level of Cassini,'' said Antony Trinh, co-author of the study. "A future orbiter hopping around Saturn's moons could test this prediction."

Dione's ocean has probably survived for the whole history of the moon, and thus offers a long-lived habitable zone for microbial life. "The contact between the ocean and the rocky core is crucial", said Attilio Rivoldini, co-author of the study. "Rock-water interactions provide key nutrients and a source of energy, both being essential ingredients for life." The ocean of Dione is too deep for easy access, but Enceladus as well as Jupiter's moon Europa are generous enough to eject water samples in space, ready to be captured by a passing spacecraft.


dione moon earth size comparison
Size comparison of the Moon, Earth and Dione. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/Gregory H. Revera.


The club of "ocean worlds" – icy moons or planets with subsurface oceans in common parlance – is gaining new members with each new mission to the outer Solar System. Three ocean worlds orbit Jupiter, three orbit Saturn, and Pluto could also belong to the club, according to recent observations of the New Horizons spacecraft. The approach to modelling planetary bodies used in this study is a promising tool to study these worlds if we can measure their shape and gravity field, according to Mikael Beuthe. "Future missions will visit Jupiter's moons, but we should also explore Uranus' and Neptune's systems", he said.

Cassini was launched in 1997 and has been operational since 2004. Next year, on 15th September 2017, its 20-year mission will end as it plunges into Saturn's hydrogen and helium atmosphere.


dione and saturn
Dione and Saturn. Credit: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory / Space Science Institute



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28th September 2016

SpaceX founder Elon Musk reveals plan for manned missions to Mars

SpaceX founder and entrepreneur Elon Musk has revealed his plan to send humans to Mars on a new spacecraft, with the first flights beginning in the 2020s.




Yesterday, at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Elon Musk gave a presentation in which he described his plans to send humans to Mars in the next decade. If successful, this would be achieved using the largest rocket ever designed, to launch a spacecraft capable of delivering up to 100 people into orbit. The rocket booster will be reusable, like SpaceX's existing Falcon 9 rocket, and will return to the launch pad. Another rocket launch would deliver fuel to the awaiting spacecraft, after which solar panels would be unfurled for the remaining journey to Mars.

Musk claims the trip could take as little as 80 days, significantly faster than most of today's unmanned probes that typically need 180 days (six months). Upon its arrival at the Red Planet, the spacecraft would land on its feet using retro-propulsion rockets. It would be named the "Heart of Gold" after the ship commanded by Zaphod Beeblebrox in Douglas Adams' famous novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The astronauts would then step onto the surface of a new planet, becoming the first humans to do so. For return trips to Earth, rocket fuel could be synthesised on Mars from water and CO2.

As for the question of when this could all happen, Musk said he was "intentionally a bit fuzzy about this timeline". However, he wants to begin sending equipment and supplies to Mars every two years, starting with the first Red Dragon mission in 2018. The first humans could follow by the mid-2020s.


future timeline mars


Musk is well known for his ambitious schedules when it comes to new technologies, such as electric and self-driving cars. His plans for Mars would be significantly earlier than NASA's intended missions for the 2030s. This has raised concerns regarding the financial and technical feasibility. For example, radiation could be a significant problem for the astronauts, as well as long periods without Earth's gravity, for which a great deal more research is needed to determine the impact on human health. During the presentation, he was also somewhat vague about the growing of food on Mars and the generation of energy. He said nothing about the problem of Martian dust, which not only covers solar panels, but could pose a serious risk to the astronauts' health if breathed in.

In terms of the costs involved, Musk appears confident. While a trip to Mars with current technologies may cost upwards of ten billion dollars, he hopes to bring this down substantially – so that, in the not-too-distant future, a ticket to Mars could be bought for only $100,000. This would enable many thousands of people to settle on Mars within a relatively short time. In addition to funding some aspects of the Mars missions from SpaceX profits, he is seeking backers for a public-private partnership. The interplanetary division of SpaceX currently receives up to $30 million per year in funding – but this will increase substantially after the final version of the Falcon 9 rocket is rolled out. The reusability of the Mars spacecraft, in-orbit refuelling and on-site propellant production would reduce costs by "orders of magnitude".




The Interplanetary Transport System, to give its official name, is not just for Mars. In the longer term, Musk claims the system it uses could be designed for extended missions to the moons of Jupiter and even further into the Solar System. SpaceX has already begun developing the Raptor rocket engine that will power the craft. His presentation also touched on the longer-term possibility of terraforming Mars to make it habitable and Earthlike.

"The thing that Mars really represents is life insurance, ensuring that the light of consciousness is not extinguished, backing up the biosphere," he said at the presentation. "It's not about everybody moving to Mars – it's about becoming multiplanetary."

The full presentation including a downloadable PDF is available on the SpaceX website.





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