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2016: the year in space and astronomy

The Conversation

Alan Duffy, Swinburne University of Technology and Rebecca Allen, Swinburne University of Technology

The achievements of astrophysicists this year were as groundbreaking as they were varied. From reuniting a lander with a mothership on a comet, to seeing the most extreme cosmic events with gravitational waves, 2016 was truly out of this world for science.

Here are some of the highlights of the year that was.

1. Gravitational Waves

The spectacular announcement that ripples in the very fabric of spacetime itself had been found (and from surprisingly massive black holes colliding) sent similarly massive ripples through the scientific community. The discovery was made using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and represents a fundamentally new sense with which to see the universe.

Animation showing how colliding black holes cause a ripple in spacetime that moves outwards into the universe as a gravitational wave.

The gravitational waves cause one arm of the LIGO detector to stretch relative to the other by less than a thousandth of the width of a proton in the centre of the atom. Relatively speaking, that’s like measuring a hair’s-width change in the distance to the nearest star.

This discovery was the end of a century-long quest to prove Einstein’s final prediction that these gravitational waves are real. It also allows us to directly “see” that famously and fundamentally invisible entity: the black hole (as well as definitively proving its existence). The fact that the two black holes collided 1.3 billion years ago and the waves swept through Earth just days after turning the detector on only add to the incredible story of this discovery.

The ‘sound’ of the black holes colliding where the measured signal from LIGO is converted to audio, the rising chirp sound towards the end is the two black holes spiralling together ever more quickly. A surprisingly wimpy sound for the most extreme collision ever detected.

2. SpaceX lands (and crashes) a rocket

The year started so well for SpaceX with the incredible achievement of sending a satellite into orbit, which is no mean feat itself at such low cost, before then landing that launch rocket on a barge in the ocean. A seemingly unstoppable sequence of launches and landings made it appear that a new era of vastly cheaper access to space through rockets that could be refuelled and reused was at hand.

A Falcon 9 first-stage automatically returns to the barge/droneship ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

Unfortunately, with the explosion of a Falcon 9 on the launchpad, the company was grounded, but apparently hopes for a resumed launch in early January.

SpaceX outlines a vision for travel to Mars with planned Interplanetary Transport System.

Add to that the visionary plans to settle Mars outlined by Elon Musk, albeit not without some audacious challenges, and it’s been a year of highs and lows for SpaceX.

3. Closest star may harbour Earth-like world

Proxima Centauri is our Sun’s nearest neighbour at just over four light years away, and it appears that its solar system may contain an Earth-like world. Until this year, astronomers weren’t even sure that any planets orbited the star, let alone ones that might harbour the best extrasolar candidate for life that spacecraft could visit within our lifetime.

What a trip to the Sun’s closet neighbour would look like.

The planet, creatively named “Proxima b”, was discovered by a team of astronomers at Queen Mary University in London. Using the light of Proxima Centauri, the astronomers were able to detect subtle shifts in the star’s orbit (seen as a “wobble”), which is the telltale sign that another massive object is nearby.

An artist’s impression of Proxima b’s landscape. ESO/M. Kornmesser

While Proxima Centauri is barely 10% the size of our Sun, Proxima b’s orbit is only 11 days long, meaning it is very close to the star and lies just within the so-called habitable zone. However, follow-up with either Hubble or the upcoming James Webb Space telescope is necessary to determine if the exoplanet is as well suited for life as Earth.

4. Breakthrough Listen listening and Starshot star-ted

With a potential Earth twin identified in Proxima b, now the challenge is to reach it within a human lifetime. With the breakthrough initiative starshot, which has been funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and endorsed by none other than Stephen Hawking, lightweight nanosails can be propelled by light beams to reach speeds up to millions of kilometres an hour.

Such speeds would allow a spacecraft to arrive at Proxima b in about 20 years, thus enabling humans to send information to another known planet for the first time.

However, there are many challenges ahead, such as the fact that the technology doesn’t exist yet, and that high-speed collisions with gas and dust between stars may destroy it before it can reach its target.

But humans have proven to be resourceful, and key technology is advancing at an exponential rate. Incredibly the idea of sailing to another world is no longer science fiction, but rather an outrageously ambitious science project.

One of the founders of the Breakthrough initiatives, Yuri Milner, discusses the technology needed for breakthrough starshot.

Perhaps, aliens are already sending out their own information in the form of radio transmissions. In another breakthrough initiative called Listen, also championed by Hawking, astronomers will be searching the habitable zones around the million closest stars to try to detect incoming radio transmissions. Involving Australia’s very own Parkes telescope (as well as the Green Bank Telescope and Lick Observatory at visible wavelengths of light), observations have been running through 2016 and the search for alien signals will continue for the next decade.

5. Philae reunited with Rosetta

In 2014 the Philae lander became the first space probe to land on a comet, and even though its crash landing dictated that its science transmission would be a one-off, its recent rediscovery by Rosetta has allowed it to continue to contribute to analysis of comet 67P.

Philae’s crash location, as well as the orientation of the doomed probe, has allowed astronomers to accurately interpret data taken by Rosetta regarding the composition of the comet.

Where’s Philae? ESA

While Philae has literally been living under (crashed on) a rock for the past two years, Rosetta has been the busy bee, taking numerous images, spectroscopy and other data of the comet.

In fact, data taken from Rosetta’s spectrometer has been analysed and revealed that the amino acid, glycine, is present in the comet’s outgassing, which breaks away from the surface of the comet as it becomes unstable from solar heating. Glycine is one of the fundamental building blocks of life; necessary for proteins and DNA, and its confirmed extraterrestrial confirms that the ingredients for life are unique to Earth, and that we may have comets to thank for providing our microbial ancestors with those crucial ingredients.

Dust and gas emitted from comet 67P reveal an amino acid. ESA

Outlook for Down Under

The future for astrophysics in Australia in 2017 looks particularly bright, with two ARC Centres of Excellence: CAASTRO-3D studying the build of atoms over cosmic time; and OzGRav exploring the universe with gravitational waves; as well as SABRE, the world’s first dark matter detector in the Southern Hemisphere, installed by end of the year.

If you thought 2016 was a great year in space, then you’re in for a treat in 2017.

The ConversationAlan Duffy, Research Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology and Rebecca Allen, PhD candidate researching galaxy formation and evolution, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Once upon a time… how the Rosetta mission won our hearts

The Conversation

Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria

Last Friday, September 30, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission, which explored the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, reached its final conclusion and was heralded a resounding success.

The mission accomplished great technical feats. It was the first to place a spacecraft into orbit around a comet and Rosetta was in the hot-seat to watch the sun turn this cold icy object into a hive of activity.

In November 2014, Rosetta released Philae, the first probe to land on the surface of a comet. The probe ended up bouncing across the comet’s surfacing before coming to rest in the shadows. But it did spend three successful days gathering scientific data before its primary battery was drained and communication was lost.

Just a month before mission end, Philae was finally found.
Main image and lander inset: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; context: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

The mission gathered a wealth of scientific information, as Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko became the most studied comet in history. The comet’s gravity has been mapped, its various surface terrains have been identified, and its distinctive “rubber ducky” shape is now recognised as two smaller comets that gently melded together as one.

Data from Philae revealed that the comet’s surface is covered with key organic compounds, suggesting that the building blocks of life may be widespread throughout the universe.

But alongside all these great achievements has been the exciting array of science communication that has supported the mission. The goal of ESA was to reach out to as many people as possible and the team looked for new and interesting ways to capture the minds, and also the hearts, of a wide audience.

Once upon a time…

Long, long ago (or in reality back in January 2014), there was a little spacecraft that needed waking up. Launched a decade earlier, the spacecraft had been placed in hibernation for 31 months as it completed the last leg of its journey towards the comet.

The ESA team began a Wake Up, Rosetta! campaign to inform the public about this mission that had begun long ago but had a very exciting year ahead of it.

With wonderful insight, ESA recognised the parallel between Rosetta’s story and the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. This inspired the team to produce a cartoon series, specifically targeted to families and young children that would introduce them to Rosetta.

It was time to wake up Rosetta as well as wake up the public to the fantastic mission that was about to occur. ESA

The end result was a charming cartoon series that has reached a range of audiences and has even won the hearts of the scientists themselves.

Hooking people in

Via the cartoon, complex technical and scientific topics have been tackled in a highly approachable way, one that is widely understood by children as well as appreciated by adults.

The cartoons hooked people in to the process of how a mission unfolds (eg. Preparing for #CometLanding), accurately described the science being undertaken (eg. Living with a comet)
and also brilliantly connected with people on an emotional level, adding to the excitement, anticipation and curiosity inspired by the mission (Are we there yet?).

But what about the bad times?

Producing the series was not without its risks. What would happen if the mission failed? This was put to the test when Philae’s landing did not go precisely as planned. Having brought Philae to life and into the hearts of their audience, would he now be left for dead on the comet?

The team realised they could take advantage of the nature of the cartoon and its strong emotional focus. In the #cometlanding episode, the “mishap” was presented in terms of common feelings: a story of the fear, surprise, commitment and even adding a little humour.

Philae packs his bag for the comet landing: camera, compass, pickaxe, snow boots and importantly a sandwich as he’ll need his own source of energy. ESA

In the end, Philae completes the tasks at hand, is proud of his work and slips gently into a long deep sleep. It’s the stuff of fairy tales but made all the better because it was inspired by real events unfolding millions of kilometres away.

One of many approaches

The ESA team should be applauded for their philosophy of making the Rosetta mission personally relevant to people world-wide and being able to building such strong connections.

The cartoon even spun-off its own merchandising material with stickers given out by scientists at public events and a 3D paper model to be made at home. It was featured on T-shirts, sweatshirts and even became a cuddly soft toy.

However, the cartoon was just one aspect of the Rosetta mission’s broad communication campaign. The Rosetta blog provided news and updates as they occurred, there were plenty of interviews with mission experts, and also a Discovery Channel documentary Landing on a Comet.

In a very bold and innovative move, the ESA team released a high-quality short sci-fi film, using all the glamour of Hollywood to present the scientific, technical and philosophical aspects of the mission.

This beautiful work of fiction introduced the mission and a follow up epilogue, released last week, celebrated the mission end.

Well done to ESA and Rosetta for the amazing scientific work that was accomplished and for inspiring all of us along the way.

A detailed overview of ESA’s communication strategy for the Rosetta mission is presented in the March issue of Communicating Astronomy with Public (CAP Journal).

The ConversationTanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museum Victoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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From Mercury to Pluto: the year ahead in planetary exploration

The Conversation

By Donna Burton, University of Southern Queensland

2015 is already shaping up to be a big year in astronomy and planetary exploration, with the best yet to come. Here are some highlights to keep your eye on throughout the year.

Opportunity

January 25 marked 11 years since the Opportunity Rover landed on Mars in 2004 just three weeks after its now inactive twin Spirit. This view is taken from the rim of the Endeavour Crater at a point known as Cape Tribulation.

Opportunity ’s view from Cape Tribulation on the rim of Endeavour Crater, January 22, 2015
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ

This is the highest point that the rover Opportunity has reached since it left the Victoria Crater area back in 2008. It has taken three years for the 180kg solar powered robot to complete the journey down to the Endeavour Crater, which measures 22 kilometres in diameter.

One of its key mission accomplishments has been the characterisation of soft rocks and soil to provide evidence of past water on the Mars. Asteroid 39392 Opportunity was named after this hardworking rover.

Dawn probe

This animation of the dwarf planet Ceres was made by combining images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on January 25, 2015.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Later this year in March, the NASA probe Dawn will arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres is one of the largest known bodies in the asteroid belt. It is thought that favourable conditions for life may have once existed there, and the presence of water has recently been announced.

NASA also recently released amazing results from the Dawn mission about the asteroid Vesta. This asteroid was believed to be dry, since it was believed that asteroids are incapable of retaining water.

Yet the recent results provide evidence that Vesta may have had short-lived flows of water-mobilised material on its surface. These results make the asteroid very interesting as these characteristics were thought only to be present on planets. Who knows what interesting discoveries will be made with the upcoming rendezvous with Ceres?

MESSENGER to Mercury

Alver crater graces this image of Mercury’s limb. Secondary crater chains that scour the surface and lead toward the top right of the scene appear to be from the Rembrandt basin to the north.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

The MESSENGER ((Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging Mission) to Mercury was due to end in March 2015. Launched on August 3, 2004, it entered orbit around Mercury on March 17, 2011, for a one-year discovery mission, and has provided unprecedented views of the innermost planet.

A manoeuvre on January 21 increased the altitude of its orbit, prolonging the mission for possibly another month. Sometime in late April, the probe will descend and crash into the surface of Mercury.

Happy 25th Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope in a picture snapped by a Servicing Mission 4 crewmember just after the Space Shuttle Atlantis captured Hubble with its robotic arm on May 13, 2009.
NASA

The Hubble Space Telescope turns 25 on April 25, 2015.

Launched into space on the Shuttle Discovery in 1990, and in spite of early problems and repairs over the years, it is still going strong. It is expected to continue through to 2018 when the James Webb Telescope is launched.

New Horizons

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft as it approaches Pluto and its three moons in summer 2015.
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

My favourite event will occur on July 14 when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flies by Pluto and Charon.

The probe left Earth in 2006, just after Pluto was demoted to being a dwarf planet. It will provide us with the first up close and personal images of this outer solar system object. Initial observations started in January, but the best views will occur as it flies by the dwarf planet on July 14 before heading off to visit other objects far out in the Kuiper Belt.

Rosetta

Mosaic of four images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 22 January 2015 at 28.0 km from the centre of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA

Rosetta successfully launched the Philae lander onto the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 2014 and continues to orbit the comet as it makes closest approach to the sun on 13 August 2015.

Rosetta’s mission is to monitor how the comet changes as it approaches the sun. It is hoped that the Philae lander, currently in hibernation, will wake up in the early months of the year as it gets more sunlight on its solar panels and again gather data.

Cassini meets Enceladus

This view looks across the region of Enceladus’ geyser basin and down on the ends of the Baghdad and Damascus fractures that face Saturn.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

In October NASA’s Cassini mission is scheduled to undertake a close flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

The flyby will allow the spacecraft to get close enough to fly through the geysers of water that have been discovered emanating from this very interesting icy moon and hopefully reveal secrets of a possible subsurface ocean.

Goodbye Voyager 2

Artist’s impression of Voyager departing our solar system and entering deep space.
NASA/JPL

2015 will also see Voyager 2 follow its younger sibling out past the edge of our solar system sometime during this year.

Both Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977 and, with Pioneer 10, are now the most distant man-made objects in the solar system. While Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, has not been contactable since 2003, both Voyager probes continue to send information.

This is just a snapshot of some of the highlights of 2015, which is sure to be a momentous year in space exploration.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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The Rosetta lander detects organic matter: the seeds of life?

The Conversation

By Jonti Horner, University of Southern Queensland

Scientists working with data sent back by the now-slumbering Philae lander have announced the discovery of organic molecules on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Finding organic compounds on 67P’s surface is not actually particularly surprising. Organic compounds have been detected in material shed by comets before, and have been observed throughout interstellar space.

But we have never before been able to measure them in-situ, and this is where Philae offers something new and exciting.

While the results are preliminary, with researchers still working on a more detailed analysis, they are a tantalising reminder of the role comets played in the origin of life on Earth.

A rough but rewarding ride

Last week, the world watched in awe as the Philae lander departed from the Rosetta spacecraft then hopped, skipped and jumped across the surface of the comet.

European Space Agency’s mission of landing on the surface of a comet – a dirty snowball left over from the solar system’s birth – is surely one of the greatest technological achievements in the history of mankind.

Unfortunately, Philae’s landing wasn’t quite as smooth as was hoped, and the lander bounced to a stop leaning against a rock, in a shadowy region of the comet’s surface.

The result – Philae currently receives too little sunlight to stay awake, and after a couple of days of frantic activity on the surface, has now gone into hibernation.

Hopefully, as the comet swings towards perihelion (its closest approach to the sun) next August, the amount of light Philae receives will increase and the lander will awake from its slumber – but we can’t know for sure.

For now, Philae’s work is done, and the baton has been passed to the teams who are now furiously studying the hard-earned data sent back to Earth before Philae fell asleep.

That data was squirted back to the Earth shortly before the lander entered sleep mode – and it is likely that exciting results will continue to appear over the next weeks and months.

The first such results have already been made public, with the scientists confirming the detection of organic molecules on the comet’s surface. Not much is currently known – the scientists are still trying to fully disentangle the story of what has been observed – but the result is a tantalising glimpse of what is to come.

Comets and the origin of life

The reason that these results are particularly exciting goes back to two of the great unanswered scientific questions:

  1. what was the origin of life?
  2. how common is it throughout the universe?

Current theories of planet formation suggest that the Earth should have formed dry – this close to the sun in the proto-planetary nebula that birthed our planet, temperatures would have been too high for water to freeze out.

As a result, Earth required hydration, and it is thought that comets such as 67P would have been one of the main sources of the Earth’s water, delivering it in countless comet collisions during the final stages of planet formation.

Beyond the question of the origin of water, though, the origin of complex chemistry, the precursor to life, has long puzzled scientists. Where did the chemical building blocks that make up life as we know it come from?

Were those compounds “cooked” in the early oceans, or in the vast tidal zones that fringed the continents following the formation of the moon?

Or did they come from beyond the Earth, delivered in the collisions that dominated the process of planet formation?

Organics from space and home

As time goes by, it is seeming ever more likely that the origin of complex organic compounds on Earth is two-fold. Some was almost certainly cooked on our planet’s surface, with the rest delivered by comets and asteroids, smashing into our planet.

It is in this context that the Philae observations are so exciting – further evidence that organic compounds are common in the universe.

Could comets hold the seeds of life?

The result is an important confirmation that such compounds must be abundant. To have detected them after just a “sniff” of the comet suggests that they’re everywhere on its surface.

And given that we know comets have crashed into the Earth in vast numbers throughout our planet’s history, we must have been repeatedly doused in the kind of compounds that are the direct precursors to life itself.

Panspermia?

Interestingly, the idea that life could have been delivered to Earth by comets has another, more speculative side – a theory known as “panspermia”. What if life didn’t start on Earth at all, but rather began elsewhere, and was delivered to our planet by rocks (or snowballs) from space?

The idea isn’t actually as far-fetched as it sounds. Experiments have shown that bacteria can survive the kind of forces that would be experienced in the collision of a comet or asteroid on a planet such as Earth.

And we know that impacts can eject solid, complete rocks from the surfaces of planets intact – we have meteorites on Earth that were definitely ejected from Mars. Still other experiments show that bacteria can survive, dormant, in the vacuum of space.

Following all of these results, it is quite possible, and perhaps even likely, that life in our solar system has been scattered back and forth between the planets over the billions of years since the planets formed. So if we do find life on Mars, then perhaps it will share a common origin with life on Earth, thanks to the countless collisions that have wracked both planets since they formed.

Some scientists go further, though, noting that life could be carried in comets from one planetary system to another. We know that they carry a rich organic budget – as demonstrated by Philae’s latest exciting result – but what if they carry more than just the precursors to life? Perhaps comets are actually an inter-stellar delivery mechanism, by which youthful planets are seeded with life as they form.

The more extreme versions of panspermia remain both speculative and controversial. Despite this, it is becoming more apparent that comets are, at the very least, a prime source of the precursors to life. They delivered the water on which life thrives, as well as the compounds upon which it is built.

Without comets, it seems, we may well not be here.

The ConversationJonti Horner does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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