Category Archives: Cool Stuff

CubeSat Plasma Thruster

Nice, it was only a matter of time.

ESA: This micro-pulsed plasma thruster has been designed for propulsion of miniature CubeSats; its first firing is seen here. The thruster works by pulsing a lightning-like electric arc between two electrodes. This vaporizes the thruster propellant into charged plasma, which is then accelerated in the electromagnetic field set up between the electrodes.

Developed for ESA by Mars Space Ltd and Clyde Space of the UK with Southampton University, this 2 Watt, 42 Newton-second impulse plasma thruster has been qualified for space, with more than a million firing pulses demonstrated during testing.

It has been designed for a range of uses, including drag compensation in low orbits, orbit maintenance, formation flying and small orbit transfers. The thruster could also serve as a CubeSat deorbiting device, gradually reducing orbital altitude until atmospheric re-entry is achieved.

About the size of a DVD reader, the thruster weighs just 280 grams including its propellant load and drive electronics.

An Isolated Neutron Star

Great image collaboration between two great observatories, Chandra and the VLT – Credits: X-ray (NASA/CXC/ESO/F.Vogt et al); Optical (ESO/VLT/MUSE & NASA/STScI. The circumstances surrounding the neutron star is very interesting.

NASA (Molly Porter) – Astronomers have discovered a special kind of neutron star for the first time outside of the Milky Way galaxy, using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.

Neutron stars are the ultra dense cores of massive stars that collapse and undergo a supernova explosion. This newly identified neutron star is a rare variety that has both a low magnetic field and no stellar companion.

The neutron star is located within the remains of a supernova – known as 1E 0102.2-7219 (E0102 for short) – in the Small Magellanic Cloud, located 200,000 light years from Earth.

This new composite image of E0102 allows astronomers to learn new details about this object that was discovered more than three decades ago. In this image, X-rays from Chandra are blue and purple, and visible light data from VLT’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument are bright red. Additional data from the Hubble Space Telescope are dark red and green.

Oxygen-rich supernova remnants like E0102 are important for understanding how massive stars fuse lighter elements into heavier ones before they explode. Seen up to a few thousand years after the original explosion, oxygen-rich remnants contain the debris ejected from the dead star’s interior. This debris (visible as a green filamentary structure in the combined image) is observed today hurtling through space after being expelled at millions of miles per hour.

Chandra observations of E0102 show that the supernova remnant is dominated by a large ring-shaped structure in X-rays, associated with the blast wave of the supernova. The new MUSE data revealed a smaller ring of gas (in bright red) that is expanding more slowly than the blast wave. At the center of this ring is a blue point-like source of X-rays. Together, the small ring and point source act like a celestial bull’s eye.

The combined Chandra and MUSE data suggest that this source is an isolated neutron star, created in the supernova explosion about two millennia ago. The X-ray energy signature, or “spectrum,” of this source is very similar to that of the neutron stars located at the center of two other famous oxygen-rich supernova remnants: Cassiopeia A (Cas A) and Puppis A. These two neutron stars also do not have companion stars.

The lack of evidence for extended radio emission or pulsed X-ray radiation, typically associated with rapidly rotating highly-magnetized neutron stars, indicates that the astronomers have detected the X-radiation from the hot surface of an isolated neutron star with low magnetic fields. About ten such objects have been detected in the Milky Way galaxy, but this is the first one detected outside our galaxy.

But how did this neutron star end up in its current position, seemingly offset from the center of the circular shell of X-ray emission produced by the blast wave of the supernova? One possibility is that the supernova explosion did occur near the middle of the remnant, but the neutron star was kicked away from the site in an asymmetric explosion, at a high speed of about two million miles per hour. However, in this scenario, it is difficult to explain why the neutron star is, today, so neatly encircled by the recently discovered ring of gas seen at optical wavelengths.

Another possible explanation is that the neutron star is moving slowly and its current position is roughly where the supernova explosion happened. In this case, the material in the optical ring may have been ejected either during the supernova explosion, or by the doomed progenitor star up to a few thousand years before.

A challenge for this second scenario is that the explosion site would be located well away from the center of the remnant as determined by the extended X-ray emission. This would imply a special set of circumstances for the surroundings of E0102: for example, a cavity carved by winds from the progenitor star before the supernova explosion, and variations in the density of the interstellar gas and dust surrounding the remnant.

Future observations of E0102 at X-ray, optical, and radio wavelengths should help astronomers solve this exciting new puzzle posed by the lonely neutron star.

A paper describing these results was published in the April issue of Nature Astronomy, and is available online. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

1.1 Million Names and More

I am one of the 1,137,202 names on the Parker Solar Probe. I hope you are too.

The Parker Solar Probe is going to dive into the Sun’s atmosphere 24 times if all goes as expected. We are going to get a look at how the Sun works (and other stars) work from very close-up. Among the questions that could be answered is why the corona actually heats up by a factor of 1000 degrees (F). Yes by a factor of 1000 degrees. Nobody knows why.

Anyway the chip was installed on the Parker probe and if all goes as scheduled it will launch to the Sun.

The Parker Probe is names as a fitting tribute to heliophysicist Eugene Parker. It was Parker who first theorized the existence of the solar wind. This is the first NASA mission to be named for a living individual.

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

New Mars Investigations Planned?

This image is from the Visual Monitoring Camera aboard the Mars Express on 14 April of this year. Check out the VMC Twitter page for the latest images.

There is a new goal in regard to Mars missions. ESA and NASA are going to investigate a soil sample return mission! Wow! That would be huge. You can also bet the commercial space industry will be watching also. Seems like a worthy challenge to the likes of Space X, Orbital, ULA and others.

Here’s the story from ESA.

VividX2 Makes History

The VividX2 makes history as the world’s first commercial satellite able to provide full-colour video of life on Earth.

It is capable of taking ultra-high definition images of any location on Earth and can take two minutes of video at the same time.

The satellite is only about the size of a typical cloths-washing machine (a cubic meter) and weighs just 100 kg.

See more at

The TESS Data Pipeline

While we wait for the launch tomorrow of TESS, delayed “to conduct additional Guidance Navigation and Control analysis”, let’s look at how the data getting from the spacecraft back to researchers. We are not talking about a little data, the data rate could reach 27 gigabytes per day!

A quick word about the delay, everybody is doing their best to be sure that everything is perfect for the launch. I am unaware of what appears to be a last-minute decision; it could be just for reassurance or it could be something was not quite right. Double check the fairing while you are there.

Anyway, being a ham radio operator I enjoy these bits of communications news.

NASA — A Science Pipeline to New Planet Discoveries

NASA’s ongoing search for life in the universe produces a lot of data. The agency’s new planet-hunting mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, will collect 27 gigabytes per day in its all-sky search for undiscovered planets orbiting 200,000 of the brightest and closest stars in our solar neighborhood. That’s the equivalent of about 6,500 song files beaming down to Earth every two weeks. The music of the stars, however, is not as polished for human ears as the latest Taylor Swift album. To get ready for scientific discovery, the data needs a bit of fine tuning.

One of the first steps in the data’s journey from deep space to a scientist’s laptop is the Science Processing Operations Center, called SPOC, at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, the design of which is based on the Kepler mission’s Science Operations Center, called the SOC, also at Ames. The SOC has been chugging along for more than a decade, spitting out tens of thousands of possible planet signals from the Kepler space telescope, NASA’s groundbreaking planet-finding mission that’s revolutionized our view of the heavens as a place chock-full of other worlds where life could exist. Among Kepler’s many gifts to TESS is its science data pipeline, which will provide the public’s “data of record” for the mission. About 75 percent of the Kepler pipeline, which took over 150 person-years to develop, remains the same for TESS, giving this new mission a leg up on discoveries.

A data pipeline is like an assembly line where computer algorithms act in stages to refine data and extract types of information — in this case, the possible signals of planets. TESS’s cameras observe the slight dip in the brightness of a star as a planet crosses, or transits, in front of the star. Over time, a pattern emerges as the dips line up across multiple transits, revealing the signal of an orbiting planet.

It’s a simple concept with a history of successful science, but the raw data, appearing as two-minute digital counts of brightness on each pixel, is contaminated with signals from the telescope and the sky when it first arrives here on Earth. SPOC’s science data pipeline does a cleanup job, and paves the way for the mission’s science office branch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pick out the most promising planet candidates. From there, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University coordinates follow-up observations to determine which candidates are bona fide planets.

NASA Ames’ Pleiades supercomputer, one of the most powerful systems in the world, has the power to process TESS’s biweekly data deluge of almost 10 billion pixels in three to five days, a cadence that enables SPOC to keep up with the volume of incoming data.

TESS’s mission is to identify the most promising exoplanets for follow-up observations. Future missions and observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, will apply new technologies to study these exoplanets’ atmospheres in search of the chemical signatures of life.

TESS’s first public release of pipeline-processed data is planned for the beginning of 2019. Astronomers will then begin to peer at data from entirely new areas of the sky where we await new discoveries from these singing stars and their quietly humming planets.
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