Category Archives: ESA

ESA Hitches a Ride

Image: KARI

Check out the links, I’ve got a few new bookmarks.  Nice job ESA.

ESA:  The first ESA-funded space weather monitoring instrument was launched on 4 December 2018, hitching a ride on South Korea’s new geostationary satellite, GEO-KOMPSAT-2A – the Geostationary Korea Multi-Purpose Satellite-2A.

The satellite, seen in this image, was lofted into orbit on an Ariane rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and will provide meteorological monitoring over the Asia-Pacific region as well as data on space weather.

Space weather’ describes the constantly changing conditions in space as a result of the unpredictable behaviour of our active Sun.

This dynamic solar activity changes the space environment, causing variations in magnetic and electric fields, and levels of high-energy particles and radiation around our planet. Such changes can cause impair satellites, disturb telecommunication and satellite navigation, and damage with crucial infrastructure on Earth, such as power grids.

ESA’s Service Oriented Spacecraft Magnetometer (SOSMAG) instrument has four tiny sensors that will measure Earth’s magnetic field and provide data on how space weather affects it.

The SOSMAG kit is designed ultimately to be mounted on a variety of different spacecraft, in an array of orbits, which together will give a fuller picture of Earth’s space weather environment. These ‘hosted payloads’ boost efficiency and reduce cost, while providing critical data to be fed into ESA’s Space Weather Services Network.

Find out more about the network, ESA’s future Distributed Space Weather Sensor System, and the upcoming Lagrange mission to monitor the Sun, all part of the Agency’s plan to monitor hazards in space and one day to mitigate them.

The SOSMAG instrument is funded by ESA’s Space Situational Awareness programme, and was built by an industrial consortium consisting of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Space Research Institute (IWF), Magson GmbH, the Institut für Geophysik und Extraterrestrische Physik of TU Braunschweig and the Blackett Laboratory of Imperial College London (ICL).

Contrived View of the Solar North Pole

We have not seen an image of the solar poles since the Ulysses mission ended in 2009. Now ESA has figured out a way to contrive a view of the poles once again. Looking at the image it appears to be a little “off” in the way it is put together, but what a nice effort – great job ESA! This technique is quite timely because while we are at the bottom of a solar cycle there are signs a new solar cycle could be in the very-very early stages of beginning.

A tiny sunspot formed a couple of weeks ago at a very high latitude with the correct magnetic configuration for the next cycle. Now that sunspot apparently disappeared because I’ve not seen it since, however there is hope and high latitude sunspots a good sign.

Image: ESA/Royal Observatory of Belgium

ESA:  We’ve sent numerous missions into space to study the Sun; past and present solar explorers include ESA’s Proba-2 (PRoject for OnBoard Autonomy 2) and SOHO (SOlar Heliospheric Observatory) probes, NASA’s SDO and STEREO missions (the Solar Dynamics Observatory and Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, respectively), and the joint NASA/ESA Ulysses mission. However, most of these spacecraft have focused mainly on the equatorial regions of the Sun, with the notable exception of Ulysses – this probe observed our star at a wide range of latitudes for nearly two decades, until the mission came to an end in 2009.

Despite Ulysses’ insights, this focus on low solar latitudes has left the Sun’s poles relatively unexplored. A lack of imaging data means that scientists must get creative in piecing together pictures of the Sun’s polar regions – as seen here in this artificial image of the solar north pole.

This image extrapolates low-latitude Proba-2 observations of the Sun to reconstruct a view of the star’s pole. While the poles cannot be seen directly, when spacecraft observe the solar atmosphere they gather data on everything along their line of sight, also viewing the atmosphere extending around the disc of the Sun (the apparent glow around the main disc of the Sun, which also extends over the poles). Scientists can use this to infer the appearance of the polar regions. In order to estimate the properties of the solar atmosphere over the poles, they continuously image the main disc of the Sun and take small slivers of data from the outer and upper regions of the star as it rotates, compensating for the fact that the Sun does not rotate at constant speeds at all latitudes. Over time, these small arrays of data can be combined to approximate a view of the pole, as shown in this view. More in-depth information on the process used to create this image can be found here.

Signs of this patchwork approach can be seen in this image, which comprises data from Proba-2’s extreme-ultraviolet SWAP imager. The line across the middle is created due to small changes in the solar atmosphere that occurred over the timeframe of creating this image. This image also shows a bright bulge on the upper-right side of the Sun; this is created by a low-latitude coronal hole rotating around the solar disc. The polar coronal hole region, which can be seen as the dark patch in the centre of the solar disc, is a source of fast solar wind. It is seen here to contain a subtle network of light and dark structures, which may cause variations in solar wind speed.

While such views go a way towards revealing the secrets of the Sun’s poles – such as how waves propagate across our star, and how it may create phenomena such as coronal holes and ejections that go on to influence space weather around the Earth – direct observations of these regions are needed in order to build on past data gathered by Ulysses. ESA’s Solar Orbiter aims to plug this knowledge gap when it launches in 2020. This mission will study the Sun in detail from latitudes high enough to explore its polar regions, also revealing how its magnetic field and particle emissions impact its cosmic environment – including the area of space that we call home.

SpaceBok Hops Along

I have to say it, yes right here: I love this thing. According to the press release below, the SpaceBok could jump as high as 4 meters if it were on the moon! I was going to try and describe the motion then I thought a video would be perfect and then remembered the first video I saw of the SpaceBok and even found it – see below.

ESA’s caption: This walking and hopping robot is currently being tested in ESA’s Mars Yard.

SpaceBok is a quadruped robot designed by a Swiss student team from ETH Zurich and ZHAW Zurich, under the supervision of Professor Marco Hutter and PhD student Hendrik Kolvenbach, for future missions to the Moon or Mars.

“Legged robots can traverse unstructured terrain and could be used to explore areas of interest, such as craters, which rovers are unable to reach,” explains team member Patrick Barton. “As they are very versatile, they can change gait to adapt to different terrain.”

“In contrast to other legged robots, SpaceBok is primarily built for hopping,” adds team member Elias Hampp. “While this is not particularly useful on Earth, it could reach a height of four metres on the Moon. This would allow for a fast and efficient way of moving forward.”

““We are currently implementing and testing vision sensors, to increase SpaceBok’s autonomy and robustness,” says team member Radek Zenkl.

ESA’s 8 x 8 m Mars Yard ‘sandbox’, filled with different sizes of sand, gravel, and rock, is part of the Planetary Robotics Laboratory at the Agency’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Space Weather – Coronal Holes

Here is a look at the coronal hole providing an increase in solar wind and the sporadic aurora

There is a sunspot group now too; called Sunspot 2726 it is about centered on the solar disk (not seen in this image) and a plage in the northern mid-latitudes starting to rotate around the disk.  Aside from being an intensely hot area in the solar chromosphere and can be associated with a sunspot, a plage is a great Scrabble word.

The image shown is from ESA/ROB via helioviewer.org. I encourage you to check out helioviewer.org.

ESA:   This image show dramatic dark areas in the Sun’s corona and was acquired by the SWAP instrument on ESA’s Proba-2 mission at midday on Wednesday, 7 November.

The dark areas are ‘coronal holes’ – areas of open magnetic field in the Sun’s corona that emit charged particles as high-speed solar wind that spreads into space.

When it reaches Earth, this solar wind can affect the functioning of satellites in orbit.

The nice thing is that these are predictable events, as we can see these gaps or holes on the solar disc before the high-speed wind hits Earth.

ESA’s future Lagrange mission will significantly improve our ability to detect these holes and forecast solar wind effects, providing a lead time of three to five days.

Space Weather

If you are out and about after dark and you are in higher latitudes (meaning towards the poles) northern and southern hemisphere and have clear skies keep an eye out for an aurora. We have had sporadic aurora over the past couple days thanks to a coronal hole on the Sun. Disturbances in the geomagnetic field due to strong earthquakes may be another possible aurora source.

ESA: Earth’s magnetosphere is a region of space dominated by our planet’s magnetic field. The magnetosphere protects Earth from most of the solar wind, a flow of charged particles streaming out from the Sun.

However, some particles are able to penetrate this shield and reach the ionosphere, giving rise to space weather effects, including the beautiful polar lights, or auroras, as well as geomagnetic storms. Space weather has a real impact on our activities on Earth, and poses a significant risk to space-farers – robotic and human alike.

Various space missions, including ESA’s Cluster and Swarm, are investigating the magnetic environment around the Earth and how it interacts with the solar wind.

Meanwhile, Sun-watching satellites like the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), located at the L1 point between Earth and the Sun, monitor coronal mass ejections leaving the Sun and measure the speed of the solar wind 1.5 million km away from our planet, about 1 hour before it reaches Earth.

Image: ESA

European Space Weather Week


The 15th annual European Space Weather Week is here. To that end here is an example of space weather, an aurora, on the planet Uranus.  It will be interesting to see what comes from ESWW this time around.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a proper aurora and it’s likely to be a while until I do. Solar Activity is very low and the Sun for the most part is spotless. You can get a current image and more from a great page maintained by Canadian Amateur Radio Station VE3EN (73 to the op) called SolarHam.com

The great image comes to us from: ESA/Hubble & NASA, L. Lamy / Observatoire de Paris

ESA: On the first day of the 15th annual European Space Weather Week, this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope fittingly shows a striking occurrence of celestial weather in the outer reaches of the Solar System: an aurora on Uranus.

Auroras, also known as polar lights, are a relatively familiar type of space weather to Earth-based stargazers, but have also been spied on many other planets in the Solar System.

Views of the Earth’s Northern and Southern Lights show glowing sheets and rippling waves of bright light painting the sky in striking shades of green and even red, blue, and purple; these breath-taking scenes are created as streams of energetic charged particles hit the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere at altitudes of up to a few hundreds of kilometres, and interact with resident atoms and molecules of mostly oxygen and nitrogen. These emit photons at specific visible wavelengths or colours – green and red for oxygen, blue and purple for nitrogen – and fill the sky with an eerie auroral glow.

Hubble has observed auroras on Uranus on various occasions: in 2011, when the telescope became the first to image the phenomenon from the vicinity of Earth, then again in 2012 and 2014, taking extra data beyond visible light.

By pointing Hubble’s ultraviolet eye on Uranus twice during the same month, from 1 to 5 and 22 to 24 November 2014, scientists were able to determine that the planet’s glimmering auroras rotate along with the planet. The observations also helped to locate Uranus’ magnetic poles, and allowed scientists to track two so-called interplanetary shocks that propagated through the Solar System. These shocks were triggered by two powerful bursts of material flung out by the Sun via the solar wind, an ongoing flow of charged particles constantly emanating from our star, and caused the most intense auroras ever seen on Uranus.

This image, originally published in 2017, shows the auroras as wispy patches of white against the planet’s azure blue disc, and combines optical and ultraviolet observations from Hubble with archive data from NASA’s Voyager 2 probe. Voyager 2 was the first and only craft to visit the outermost planets in the Solar System; it flew past Uranus in January 1986, and past Neptune in August 1989. These icy planets have not been visited since. NASA and ESA have been studying a possible joint mission that would target the two ice giant planets in order to explore their intriguing role in our planetary system.

European Space Weather Week runs from 5 to 9 November 2018, and brings together engineers, scientists, specialists, and professionals from across the continent in order to exchange news, ideas, and strategies on space weather and protecting Earth’s cosmic environment.

New School Challenges from ESA

Bravo ESA, makes me wish I were a kid again!

ESA:  In the beginning of the World Space Week, ESA is proud to present two new school challenges: Climate Detectives and Moon Camp.

Meant for teams of school students guided by a teacher or educator, Moon Camp and Climate Detectives give young people the chance to run interdisciplinary projects and develop new skills, ranging from science and technology to teamwork and communication, like real space experts would do.

Moon Camp

With Moon Camp, ESA and Airbus Foundation, in partnership with Autodesk, challenge students to take part in the future exploration of space by designing a human shelter on the Moon! The students will have to design a 3D Moon Camp able to sustain the lives of at least two astronauts, taking into account:

  • the use of local resources, such as lunar soil and ice
  • technological solutions, such as power sources, a recycling system, a food growth chamber
  • protection  from meteorites and radiation

The Moon Camp challenge presents two separate categories featuring different levels of complexity:

  • Category 1, for students  up to 12 years old, using the 3D design tool Tinkercad® (free online tool) and
  • Category 2, for students between 13 to 18 years old, using the 3D design tool Fusion 360® (free for students and schools).

Teams can submit their design from 1 November 2018 until 16 March 2019.

Find out more about Moon Camp and help ESA settle on the Moon!

Climate Detectives

Climate detectives

With Climate Detectives ESA challenges students to make a difference in understanding and protecting Earth’s climate.Students will identify a climate problem by observing their local environment and will be tasked to investigate it as Climate Detectives. To this end, they will use available Earth Observation data coming from real satellites, or take measurements on the ground. Based on their investigation, teams will propose a way to help reduce the problem. The students will learn about climate on Earth as a complex and changing system and the importance of respecting our environment.

Climate Detectives is open to teams of students between 8 and 15 years old. The project is deployed in three Phases. Submission for Phase 1 is now open, and it will close on 15 November 2018.

So, do not hesitate any further and find out more about Climate Detectives. ESA needs you to make a difference by protecting Earth’s climate and helping our planet!

Saturn at Opposition from Hubble

A beautiful image of Saturn and some of its moons from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC) and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI); CC BY 4.0

Original caption: \Cassini ended its 13-year mission at Saturn on 15 September 2017 when it plunged into the gas giant’s atmosphere, but the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is still keeping an eye on the ringed planet.

This is a composite image taken by Hubble on 6 June 2018 showing a fully-illuminated Saturn and its rings, along with six of its 62 known moons. The visible moons are (from left to right) Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, Janus, Epimetheus and Mimas (click here for an annotated version). Dione is the largest moon in the picture, with a diameter of 1123 km, compared to the smallest, oddly-shaped Epimetheus with a diameter around 116 km.

During Cassini’s mission, Enceladus was identified as one of the most intriguing moons, with the discovery of water vapour jets spewing from the surface implying the existence of a subsurface ocean. Icy moons with subsurface oceans could potentially offer the conditions to harbour life, and understanding their origins and properties are essential for furthering our knowledge of the Solar System. ESA’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (Juice), due to launch in 2022, aims to continue this theme by studying Jupiter’s ocean-bearing moons: Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto.

The Hubble image shown here was taken shortly before Saturn’s opposition on 27 June, when the Sun, Earth and Saturn were aligned so that the Sun fully illuminated Saturn as seen from Earth. Saturn’s closest approach to Earth occurs around the same time as opposition, which makes it appear brighter and larger and allows the planet to be imaged in greater detail.

In this image the planet’s rings are seen near their maximum tilt towards Earth. Towards the end of Cassini’s mission, the spacecraft made multiple dives through the gap between Saturn and its rings, gathering spectacular data in this previously unchartered territory.

The image also shows a hexagonal atmospheric feature around the north pole, with the remnants of a storm, seen as a string of bright clouds. The hexagon-shaped cloud phenomenon is a stable and persistent feature first seen by the Voyager 1 space probe when it flew past Saturn 1981. In a study published just last week, scientists using Cassini data collected between 2013 and 2017, as the planet approached northern summer, identified a hexagonal vortex above the cloud structure, showing there is still much to learn about the dynamics of Saturn’s atmosphere.

The Hubble observations making up this image were performed as part of the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project, which uses Hubble to observe the outer planets to understand the dynamics and evolution of their complex atmospheres. This was the first time that Saturn was imaged as part of OPAL. This image was first published on 26 July.

Anticrepuscular Rays over Southern Tuscany


This glorious image from C) Ollie Taylor (limks below), via ESA illustrates wonderfully one of my favorite things – Atmospheric Optics.

Keep an eye on the sky and you too can see many of the optical effects described in my favorite atmospheric optics site, oddly enough named Atmospheric Optics – check it out and see what you can put to use, I think it’s great fun when it works out. The coolest thing I think I’ve seen and I may have a picture of it is the supernumerary rainbow.

Here is ESA’s caption to this great photo: This panorama comprises five images showing the Sun setting over the medieval and Renaissance town of Montepulciano, southern Tuscany.

While the enormous ball of hot gas that is our star cannot be directly seen, its presence is suggested by the radiant streams of light emanating from below the horizon — called anticrepuscular rays, or antisolar rays.

Despite appearing to meet at a point just below the horizon, the rays are in fact near-parallel beams of sunlight. Similar to the way that parallel railway lines seem to converge at a point in the distance, this is a trick of perspective; while these rays of sunlight do eventually meet at the Sun, it is a great deal further away than they make it appear.

Earth’s atmosphere, made up of gases, particulates and clouds, has shaped the way humans have seen the Sun for as long as they have been able to perceive it, for example making the white-hot star appear yellow against a blue sky, masking the infinite blackness of space.

However, as soon as we get past this protective layer, the true effect of our raging Sun becomes apparent in the fast changing, and potentially harmful environment of space, where space weather rules.

Space weather refers to the environmental conditions in space as influenced by solar activity; besides emitting a continuous stream of electrically charged atomic particles, the Sun periodically emits billions of tonnes of material threaded with magnetic fields in colossal-scale ‘coronal mass ejections’.

These ‘solar sneezes’ can and have caused significant disruption to Earth’s protective magnetic bubble and upper atmosphere, affecting satellites in orbit, navigation systems, terrestrial power grids, and data and communication networks. A recent ESA study estimated the potential impact in Europe from a single, extreme space weather event could be about €15 billion.

For this reason, ESA is planning a new mission to monitor the Sun’s activity and provide early warnings. The spacecraft will be positioned between the Sun and Earth at a special position called the fifth Lagrange point. From here, it can observe the ‘side’ of our star, detecting rapidly changing solar activity before it reaches Earth, providing much-needed warning of extreme weather events, allowing measures to be taken to protect and minimise any possible damage to satellites in orbit or infrastructure on Earth.

More images by UK-based photographer Ollie Taylor can be found on his website, or via Instagram and Facebook.