Cosmic Ray Activity Jeopardizes Space Travel

Maybe it’s good thing we do not have an active manned spaceflight mission at the moment. However with a planned mission to mars in the decade if this space weather does not calm down “Houston We Could Have a Problem”.

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This week the online journal Space Weather reported that due to a highly abnormal and extended lack of solar activity, the solar wind is exhibiting extremely low densities and magnetic field strengths, which causes dangerous levels of hazardous radiation to pervade the space environment.

“The behavior of the sun has recently changed and is now in a state not observed for almost 100 years,” says Schwadron, lead author of the paper and principal investigator for the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). He notes that throughout most of the space age, the sun’s activity has shown a clockwork 11-year cycle, with approximately six- to eight-year lulls in activity (solar minimum) followed by two- to three-year periods when the sun is more active. “However, starting in about 2006, we observed the longest solar minimum and weakest solar activity observed in the space age.”

These conditions brought about the highest intensities of galactic cosmic rays seen since the beginning of the space age, which have created worsening radiation hazards that potentially threaten future deep-space astronaut missions.

“While these conditions are not necessarily a showstopper for long-duration missions to the moon, an asteroid, or even Mars, galactic cosmic ray radiation in particular remains a significant and worsening factor that limits mission durations,” says Schwadron.

The study is the capstone article in the Space Weather CRaTER Special Issue, which provides comprehensive findings on space-based radiation as measured by the UNH-led detector. The data provides critical information on the radiation hazards that will be faced by astronauts on extended missions to deep space such as those to Mars.

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The high radiation levels seen during the sun’s last minimum cycle limits the allowable days for typical astronauts behind spacecraft shielding. Given the trend of reducing solar output, the allowable days in space for astronauts is dropping and estimated to be 20 percent lower in the coming solar minimum cycle as compared to the last minimum cycle.

How long will these high radiation conditions occur no one knows?

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The Mysterious X-37B Lands

I had no idea about this story and I READ the tech and space news regularly so I am fairly certain that most of you, my dedicated readers also had no idea of “what was going on up there”.

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Apparently back in December of 2012 the United States Air Force sent an unmanned robot plane into space. It landed back on earth this week, October 13. It is a mission that began way back in 2012.

The X-37B  is a space plane with a secret purpose.

There are many theories regarding the function and mission of the X-37B. Maybe it could ferry future troops into battle, taking them very high and then sending them back to Earth very fast. However this potentially fast transport mission is not the most striking feature of the X-37B’s performance. Foe me it is how long it can stay in space. The space plane’s first major trip into orbit lasted for seven months, and the plane’s second mission in space lasted 15 months. When it returned earlier this week it will have stayed in orbit for 22 months!

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The X-37B being checked out after landing on a previous long term flight into space.

 

The U.S. Air Force’s fact sheet lists the official purpose of the craft as “reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” However it is the secrecy surrounding the X-37B that has many in the space community scratching their heads and asking, “what is it’s purpose?”.

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The Sun’s Strange Filament

I really hope our sun is OK because if it’s not… well it was nice knowing all of you.

I say this because last week NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) which watches the sun 24 hours a day, observed a gigantic filament for several days as it rotated around with the sun. If straightened out, the filament would reach almost across the whole sun, about 1 million miles or 100 times the size of Earth. That’s one big filament and the scary thing is no one, not even NASA is quite sure what it was.

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You can actually “Like” NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory or SDO on Facebook. facebook.com/NASA.Little.SDO

SDO captured images of the filament in numerous wavelengths, each highlighting material of different temperatures on the sun. By looking at any solar feature in different wavelengths and temperatures, scientists can learn more about what causes such structures, as well as what catalyzes their occasional giant eruptions out into space.

A dark snaking line in the upper right of these images on Sept. 30, 2014, show a filament of solar material hovering above the sun’s surface. NASA’s SDO captured the images in extreme UV light – different colors represent different wavelengths of light and different temperatures of solar material. Credit: NASA/SDO

Look at the images to see how the filament appears in different wavelengths. The brownish combination image was produced by blending two wavelengths of extreme UV light with a wavelength of 193 and 335 Angstroms. The red image shows the 304 Angstrom wavelength of extreme UV light.

Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Follow SDO on Facebook.

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Titan’s Toxic Atmosphere

Artist rendition of Cassini orbiting Saturn.

Artist rendition of Cassini orbiting Saturn.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has spotted a strange cloud on Saturn’s moon Titan two years ago which appears to be made of icy hydrogen cyanide, a poison that on Earth has been used to kill everything from rats to whales.

The toxic cloud reportedly defies expectations for where and how clouds form onSaturn’s moon and is requiring scientists to adjust their understanding of what is going on in the Titan’s atmoitanosphere.

The large spinning cloud appeared was first observed in Titan’s southern hemisphere in May of 2012 and was high in the atmosphere, about 200 miles above the surface. The cloud, which is still going strong 2+ years later is actually spinning faster than the moon itself, taking nine hours to complete a rotation while Titan takes about 16 Earth days.

Cloud on Saturn's moon Titan

Two views of Saturn’s moon Titan show a huge, swirling cloud that was first observed by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2012. Scientists say the cloud is made of poisonous hydrogen cyanide — and much higher than would be predicted. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/University of Arizona/SSI/Leiden Observatory and SRON)

Using data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft the researchers found the chemical signature of hydrogen cyanide ice. This was a real surprise because the spot where the cloud sits, about 190 miles above the surface, is not where hydrogen cyanide should be. At that height, it should be too warm for the toxic chemical to condense into ice.

Titan’s Long Seasons

Titan’s solar “year” as it travels with Saturn around the sun lasts about 29 years, and each season is roughly seven years. The latest seasonal shift occurred in 2009, with the northern hemisphere moving from winter to spring and the southern hemisphere heading from summer to autumn. So this poisonous polar vortex, swirling around as Titan’s southern half makes its way toward winter, sheds fresh light on the seasonal dynamics on this strange moon.

Concept of Titan's surface which has long captured the imagination of astronomers and scientists,

Concept of Titan’s surface which has long captured the imagination of astronomers and scientists,

Understanding the dynamics of Titan’s atmosphere could help researchers better understand those of primordial Earth. That is because there are some theories that a young Earth held large amounts of methane possibly just like that of Saturn’s moon.

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MAVEN Orbits Mars

After a 10-month journey, confirmation of successful orbit insertion was received on September 21, 2014 from MAVEN and as a result our exploration of Mars continues.

Artist's concept of Maven in orbit around the planet Mars. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC.

Artist’s concept of Maven in orbit around the planet Mars. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC.

MAVEN will now begin a six-week commissioning phase that includes maneuvering into its final science orbit and testing the instruments and science-mapping commands. MAVEN then will begin its one Earth-year primary mission, taking measurements of the composition, structure and escape of gases in Mars’ upper atmosphere and its interaction with the sun and solar wind.

Space missions take a lot of time and patience. For example this mission has taken 11 years from the original concept for MAVEN to now having a spacecraft in orbit at Mars.

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The primary mission includes five “deep-dip” campaigns, in which MAVEN’s lowest orbit altitude will be lowered from 93 miles  to about 77 miles. These measurements will provide information down to where the upper and lower atmospheres meet, giving scientists a full profile of the upper tier.

The spacecraft’s principal investigator is based at CU/LASP. The university provided two science instruments and leads science operations, as well as education and public outreach, for the mission.

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft recently completed assembly and has started environmental testing. In the Multipurpose Test Facility clean room at Lockheed Martin.

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft recently completed assembly and has started environmental testing. In the Multipurpose Test Facility clean room at Lockheed Martin.

MAVEN like all space programs today is a joint venture. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center manages the project and also provided two science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley provided four science instruments for MAVEN. JPL provides navigation and Deep Space Network support, and Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Program for NASA.

You can learn more about MAVEN’s mission here.

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NASA Poised to Return Man to Space

launchamericasplashpage940px-91-300x225NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and other senior officials gathered earlier this week at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to announce that NASA will once again resume human space flight in the United States. The big news was accompanied by the announcement that Boeing and SpaceX will be the commercial partners to help transport astronauts to the International Space Station, and that they will launch from Cape Canaveral.

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has been relying on Russia’s space program to transport American astronauts to and from the ISS. The partnership with Russia is costing the U.S. taxpayer $70 million per seat!

Check out NASA’s “teaser video” which was released just before their announcement.

 

Earlier this year, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that in response to US sanctions, “NASA might want to try using a trampoline to get astronauts to the ISS”. This is an actual quote so given the political climate as well as the ridiculous cost it was time for a major change.

The contract has now taken on new urgency as a result of the rising tensions between the United States and Russia over its annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. Could another space race that ended with the United States landing on the moon in 1969 be about to start again?
NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik prepares to enter Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft for a fit check evaluation at the company's Houston Product Support Center in this undated image. NASA will partner with Boeing and SpaceX to build commercially owned and operated 'space taxis' to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependence on Russia for rides, officials said on Tuesday, September 16.

NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik prepares to enter Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft for a fit check evaluation at the company’s Houston Product Support Center in this undated image. NASA will partner with Boeing and SpaceX to build commercially owned and operated ‘space taxis’ to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependence on Russia for rides, officials said on Tuesday, September 16.


NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to build their spacecraft during the final phase of a crew transportation development effort that began back in 2010. The agency’s Commercial Crew Program will advise the companies as they advance from design to flight test vehicle to operational spacecraft, along with all the associated ground support, and launch and recovery systems.

NASA and its aerospace industry partners have marked their calendars for 2017 with the goal of certification – including at least one test flight to the International Space Station with a NASA astronaut aboard.

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Solar Storms Abound This Week

e5946882a39a9e87f7e92bbf1b48339cOur sun is a very busy place and most of the time major events like solar storms occur that 99% of the public are completely aware of.

For example a very big storm erupted on the sun earlier this week on September 10th, and Earth was in the crosshairs.

The sun unleashed an X-class solar flare, the most powerful type — at 1:45 p.m. EST from an Earth-facing sunspot known as Active Region 2158, which also fired off another intense solar flare the day prior . Both space weather events were captured on camera by NASA’s sun-watching Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft.

Wednesday’s solar flare qualified as an X1.6 storm but poses no danger to anyone on Earth or the astronauts living aboard the International Space Station, NASA officials reported to space.com. However, some people’s lives could be affected by the solar tempest.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft captured this view of a dense loop of plasma erupting on the Sun's surface—a solar prominence.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft captured this view of a dense loop of plasma erupting on the Sun’s surface—a solar prominence.

 

Geomagnetic storms can temporarily disrupt GPS signals, radio communications and power grids, as well as intensify the beautiful auroral displays known as the northern and southern lights.

Wednesday’s X1.6 flare qualifies as intense, but is far from the strongest blasted out by the sun this year. For example, our star fired off a monster X4.9 flare in February. (X4 flares are four times as powerful as X1 flares.)

The sun is currently at or near the peak phase of its 11-year activity cycle, which is known as Solar Cycle 24. But our star has been relatively quiescent during Solar Cycle 24, whose max phase is the weakest in about 100 years, scientists say.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory is one of several spacecraft regularly monitoring the sun to track space weather events and their potential risks to astronauts and satellites.

Our sun continues to be a very busy and exciting place that very few of us think about. However there is a lot of action there and the sun is critical to the existence and quality of life on our little planet.

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Asteroids Caught Colliding

When a crop of dust spread forth from the star NGC 2547-1D8 during 2012 observations, scientists quickly sprang into action. What they believe happened was that two huge asteroids 1,200 light-years away crashed into each other. What is exciting about this is that researchers believe that what they witnessed could be a planetary formation similar to what created our own solar system.

An artist's conception of what scientists think was an asteroid collision near star NGC 2547-1D8, which is 1,200 light-years from Earth. An influx of dust was noticed from Earth between August 2012 and 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An artist’s conception of what scientists think was an asteroid collision near star NGC 2547-1D8, which is 1,200 light-years from Earth. An influx of dust was noticed from Earth between August 2012 and 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We think two big asteroids crashed into each other, creating a huge cloud of grains the size of very fine sand, which are now smashing themselves into smithereens and slowly leaking away from the star,” stated lead author and graduate student Huan Meng of the University of Arizona.

“We not only witnessed what appears to be the wreckage of a huge smashup, but have been able to track how it is changing — the signal is fading as the cloud destroys itself by grinding its grains down so they escape from the star,” stated Kate Su of the University of Arizona, who is a co-author on the study.

Artist rendering of the Spitzer Space Telescope

It is believed that planets, moons and other objects in our solar system coalesced over millions of years from collisions such as this. The far-away collision did take place in a spot where planets could form some day, NASA noted, which makes it all the more interesting to scientists.

A paper on the research is available in the journal Science. Observations on the system continue.

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Is Our Universe Wrapped Around a Black Hole?

The USS Voyager at the edge of a quantum singularity in 2371.

The USS Voyager at the edge of a quantum singularity in 2371.

Perhaps the biggest most compelling cosmic question ever asked has been “how was the universe born” and even more though provoking, “what was here before there was a universe”. The common belief is that a “big bang” started it all. A new theory suggests that what we perceive as the big bang could simply be the three-dimensional “mirage” of a collapsing star in a universe profoundly different than our own. 


 

“Cosmology’s greatest challenge is understanding the big bang itself,” writes Perimeter Institute Associate Faculty member Niayesh Afshordi, Affiliate Faculty member and University of Waterloo Professor Robert Mann (no relation), and PhD student Razieh Pourhasan.

The common and long held theory suggests that the big bang began with a singularity — an unfathomably hot and dense phenomenon of spacetime where the standard laws of physics break down. Singularities are bizarre, and our understanding of them is limited. In fact even in my favorite TV show, “Star Trek” which comprises 726 episodes each an every the crew has encountered singularities the mighty starship crew struggles to understand what is happening and usually bizarre adventures abound.

Before the Big Bang. Credit: Image courtesy of Perimeter Institute

Before the Big Bang.
Credit: Image courtesy of Perimeter Institute

So getting back to the “Big Bang” theory (not the TV show). The problem, as the authors of this hypothesis see it, is that the big bang therory has our relatively comprehensible, uniform, and predictable universe arising from the physics-destroying insanity of a singularity. It seems unlikely, atleast to them. It is because singularities are random and chaotic and our universe has physical rules that seem to apply.

How can a universe where the rules of physics apply be born from an event of such chaos and randomness such as “the big bang”? That is the basic question theorists such as these struggle with.

So perhaps something else happened. Perhaps our universe was never singular in the first place. Maybe – just maybe the big bang theory is wrong.

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Their suggestion is that our known universe could be the three-dimensional “wrapping” around a four-dimensional black hole’s event horizon. What?

In this scenario, our universe burst into being when a star in a four-dimensional universe collapsed into a black hole. Double What?

In our three-dimensional universe, black holes have two-dimensional event horizons — that is, they are surrounded by a two-dimensional boundary that marks the “point of no return.” In the case of a four-dimensional universe, a black hole would have a three-dimensional event horizon.

In their proposed scenario, our universe was never inside the singularity. The result being that our universe came into existent outside an event horizon, protected from the singularity. It originated as, and remains, just one feature in the imploded wreck of a four-dimensional star.

The theorists here suggest a parallel to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which prisoners spend their lives seeing only the flickering shadows cast by a fire on a cavern wall.

“Their shackles have prevented them from perceiving the true world, a realm with one additional dimension,” they write. “Plato’s prisoners didn’t understand the powers behind the sun, just as we don’t understand the four-dimensional bulk universe. But at least they knew where to look for answers.”

Weird things happen in and around a singularity. For example in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Parallax,” the quantum singularity creates a mirror image and a temporal distortion as Voyages travels through it.

Weird things happen in and around a singularity. For example in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Parallax,” the quantum singularity creates a mirror image and a temporal distortion as Voyager travels through it.

Now I for sure have no idea if there is reality with this latest theory of how our universe came into existence but it certainly has a charm to it and it sounds remarkably close to an episode of Star Trek or two…

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Hubble’s Galactic Soup

Artist's concept of the Milky Way Galaxy. GLAST will provide detailed information on where stars are forming. Credit: NASA JPL

Artist’s concept of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA JPL

Our little blue planet as you are aware is the third planet in our solar system and our solar system is but one small part of the greater Milky Way Galaxy and our galaxy is one of countless galaxys in our universe. The size of our known universe is unimaginable in its scope. Our very young civilization is trying to grasp our place in the universe and although we struggle to do this amazing machines launched into the orbit of our planet are looking out to the deeper universe to help us understand who we are and our place in the cosmos.

To prove this a new NASA/ESA (European Space Agency) Hubble Space Telescope image shows a whole host of colorful and differently shaped galaxies; some bright and nearby, some fuzzy, and some so far from us they appear as small specks in the background sky. Together they appear as kind of galactic soup.

The most prominent characters are the two galaxies on the left — 2MASX J16133219+5103436 at the bottom, and its blue-tinted companion SDSS J161330.18+510335 at the top. The latter is slightly closer to us than its partner, but the two are still near enough to one another to interact. Together, the two make up a galactic pair named Zw I 136.

Hubble view of differently shaped galaxies. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Hubble view of differently shaped galaxies.
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Both galaxies in this pair have disturbed shapes and extended soft halos. They don’t seem to conform to our view of a “typical” galaxy — unlike the third bright object in this frame, a side-on spiral seen towards the right of the image.

Astronomers classify galaxies according to their appearance and their shape. The most famous classification scheme is known as the Hubble sequence, devised by its namesake Edwin Hubble. One of the great questions in galaxy evolution is how interactions between galaxies trigger waves of star formation, and why these stars then abruptly stop forming. Interacting pairs like this one present astronomers with perfect opportunities to investigate this.

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