Category Archives: ESA

ESA’s Next Science Mission

Funny how things progress. Not that long ago other planetary systems were unknown altogether and now we know they are really common place. We’ve even gotten to the point where we going to be looking at the chemical composition of their atmospheres. That’s one of the goals of Ariel or the Atmospheric Remote‐sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large‐survey mission.

Image: (Artist’s impression): ESA/ATG medialab, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

ESA – 20 March 2018 The nature of planets orbiting stars in other systems will be the focus for ESA’s fourth medium-class science mission, to be launched in mid 2028.

Ariel, the Atmospheric Remote‐sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large‐survey mission, was selected by ESA today as part of its Cosmic Vision plan.

The mission addresses one of the key themes of Cosmic Vision: What are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life?

Thousands of exoplanets have already been discovered with a huge range of masses, sizes and orbits, but there is no apparent pattern linking these characteristics to the nature of the parent star. In particular, there is a gap in our knowledge of how the planet’s chemistry is linked to the environment where it formed, or whether the type of host star drives the physics and chemistry of the planet’s evolution.

Ariel will address fundamental questions on what exoplanets are made of and how planetary systems form and evolve by investigating the atmospheres of hundreds of planets orbiting different types of stars, enabling the diversity of properties of both individual planets as well as within populations to be assessed.

Observations of these worlds will give insights into the early stages of planetary and atmospheric formation, and their subsequent evolution, in turn contributing to put our own Solar System in context.

“Ariel is a logical next step in exoplanet science, allowing us to progress on key science questions regarding their formation and evolution, while also helping us to understand Earth’s place in the Universe,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.

“Ariel will allow European scientists to maintain competitiveness in this dynamic field. It will build on the experiences and knowledge gained from previous exoplanet mission
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22 Years of SOHO

Here’s to many more from SOHO.

Image: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

ESA — The activity cycle of the Sun – where the number of sunspots increase and decrease – has been monitored regularly for around 250 years, but the use of space-based telescopes has given us a whole new perspective of our nearest star.

On 22 December 2017 the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) reached 22 years in space. That duration is significant because it is the average length of the complete solar magnetic cycle. Sunspot cycles are known to occur over about 11 years, but the full cycle is double this length owing to the behaviour of the magnetic fields. The Sun’s polarity gradually changes through its cycle, so that after 11 years the orientation of the field will have flipped between the northern and southern hemispheres. At the end of a 22-year cycle, the orientation of the magnetic field is the same as it was at the start.

Each image shown here is a snapshot of the Sun taken every spring with the Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope on SOHO. Observing in the ultraviolet reveals the Sun’s corona – the extremely hot atmosphere, up to some 2 million degrees, that extends millions of kilometres into space.

When the Sun is at its most active, strong magnetic fields show up as bright spots in the ultraviolet images of the corona. Activity also becomes obvious on the photosphere, which is the surface we see in visible light.

When the Sun is active, sunspots appear on the surface. Concentrations of magnetic fields can reduce the surface temperature in some areas and this reduced temperature makes these areas appear black in visible light images. The last 11-year cycle began in 1996, and the current one started in 2008, with solar maximum occurring in 2014.

By monitoring the Sun for almost a complete 22-year cycle, SOHO has provided a wealth of data on solar variability. This has been vital for monitoring the interaction of the Sun’s activity with Earth, and improving capabilities in space weather forecasting.

SOHO has made many important discoveries with its suite of instruments, such as revealing the existence of sunquakes, detecting waves travelling through the corona and identifying the source of the ‘fast’ solar wind.

Hypervelocity Testing

The prospect of getting hit by debris is pretty scary.

It would be great to be able to have something we could just hoover the debris – not as far fetched as it sounds.

Image: Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics

ESA — What looks like a mushroom cloud turned sideways is actually the instant an 2.8 mm-diameter aluminium bullet moving at 7 km/s pierces a spacecraft shield, captured by a high-speed camera.

“We used a gas gun at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics to test a novel material being considered for shielding spacecraft against space debris,” explains ESA researcher Benoit Bonvoisin.

“Our project has been looking into various kinds of ‘fibre metal laminates’ produced for us by GTM Structures, which are several thin metal layers bonded together with composite material.”

Growing levels of orbital debris pose increasing risks to all kinds of Earth-orbiting missions, adds engineer Andreas Tesch: “Such debris can be very damaging because of their high impact speeds of multiple kilometres per second.

“Larger pieces of debris can at least be tracked so that large spacecraft such as the International Space Station can move out of the way, but pieces smaller than 1 cm are hard to spot using radar – and smaller satellites have in general fewer opportunities to avoid collision.”

In some orbital regions small natural meteoroids can also pose a threat, in particular during intense seasonal meteoroid streams such as the Leonids.

To avoid damage from whatever source, protection is needed against small debris, typically consisting of one or more shields. Often used is the ‘Whipple shield’ – originally devised to guard against comet dust – with multiple layers separated by 10–30 cm.

The project, supported through ESA’s General Support Technology Programme, which prepares promising technology for spaceflight, looked at the efficiency of fibre metal laminates compared to current aluminium shields.

This still from the video shows the point after which the solid aluminium bullet has broken apart into a cloud of fragments and vapour, which becomes easier for the following layers to capture or deflect.

“The next step would be to perform in-orbit demonstration in a CubeSat, to assess the efficiency of these FMLs in the orbital environment,” concludes Benoit.

Space Radiation on Earth

So from the Van Allen Belts we turn to cosmic rays. How do we study them? ESA is up to the task.

I can’t wait until this is finished and returning data. Great stuff.

Image: GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung GmbH/Jan Michael Hosan 2018

ESA – The constant ‘rain’ of radiation in space includes cosmic rays, which, despite the name ‘ray’, comprises highly energetic particles arriving from beyond the Solar System. These rays are considered the main health hazard for astronauts conducting future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

This bad stuff can also play havoc with sensitive spacecraft electronics, corrupting data, damaging circuits and degrading microchips.

There are many different kinds of cosmic rays, and they can have very different effects on spacecraft and their occupants, depending on the types of particles, the particles’ energies and the duration of the exposure.

A new international accelerator, the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR), now under construction near Darmstadt, Germany, at the existing GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research (GSI), will provide particle beams like the ones that exist in space and make them available to scientists for studies that will be used to make spacecraft more robust and help humans survive the rigours of spaceflight.

For example, researchers will be able to investigate how cells and human DNA are altered or damaged by exposure to cosmic radiation and how well microchips stand up to the extreme conditions in space.

FAIR’s central element will be a new accelerator ring with a circumference of 1100 m, capable of accelerating protons to near-light speeds. The existing GSI accelerators will repurposed to serve as pre-accelerators for the new FAIR facility.

This image shows the high-tech equipment that generates the particles, which are then injected into the GSI and FAIR accelerator systems.

On 14 February 2018, ESA and FAIR inked a cooperation agreement that will build on an existing framework of cooperation between the Agency and GSI, and see the two cooperate in the fields of radiation biology, electronic components, materials research, shielding materials and instrument calibration.

The agreement also includes cooperation in technology and software development and in joint activities in areas such as innovation management.

Sentinel-3B Nears Completion

Sentinel-3B being readied for a launch hopefully in early April 2018.

ESA – The Copernicus Sentinel-3B satellite at Thales Alenia Space’s premises in Cannes, France. Carrying a suite of cutting-edge instruments, the Sentinel-3 satellites have been designed to measure Earth’s oceans, land, ice and atmosphere to monitor and understand large-scale global dynamics. The mission also provides essential information in near-real time for ocean and weather forecasting.

Image: ©ESA–S. Corvaja

Open Cluster Gaia 1

Look what Gaia found! Nice job with the image Mr. Kaiser and nice job to Gaia for pointing this out.

Image: H. Kaiser / ESA

Original caption: If you gazed at the night sky over the past few weeks, it is possible that you stumbled upon a very bright star near the Orion constellation. This is Sirius, the brightest star of the entire night sky, which is visible from almost everywhere on Earth except the northernmost regions. It is, in fact, a binary stellar system, and one of the nearest to our Sun – only eight light-years away.

Known since antiquity, this star played a key role for the keeping of time and agriculture in Ancient Egypt, as its return to the sky was linked to the annual flooding of the Nile. In Ancient Greek mythology, it represented the eye of the Canis Major constellation, the Great Dog that diligently follows Orion, the Hunter.

Dazzling stars like Sirius are both a blessing and a curse for astronomers. Their bright appearance provides plenty of light to study their properties, but also outshines other celestial sources that happen to lie in the same patch of sky.

This is why Sirius has been masked in this picture taken by amateur astronomer Harald Kaiser on 10 January from Karlsruhe, a city in the southwest of Germany.

Once the glare of Sirius is removed, an interesting object becomes visible to its left: the stellar cluster Gaia 1, first spotted last year using data from ESA’s Gaia satellite.

Gaia 1 is an open cluster – a family of stars all born at the same time and held together by gravity – and it is located some 15 000 light-years away. Its chance alignment next to nearby, bright Sirius kept it hidden to generations of astronomers that have been sweeping the heavens with their telescopes over the past four centuries. But not to the inquisitive eye of Gaia, which has been charting more than a billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy.

Mr Kaiser heard about the discovery of this cluster during a public talk on the Gaia mission and zealously waited for a clear sky to try and image it using his 30 cm-diameter telescope. After covering Sirius on the telescope sensor – creating the dark circle on the image – he succeeded at recording some of the brightest stars of the Gaia 1 cluster.

Gaia 1 is one of two previously unknown star clusters that have been discovered by counting stars from the first set of Gaia data, which was released in September 2016. Astronomers are now looking forward to Gaia’s second data release, planned for 25 April, which will provide vast possibilities for new, exciting discoveries.

More information about opportunities for amateur astronomers to follow up on Gaia observations here.

Exploration Mission 1 Insignia

Here is the design for the Exploration Mission 1 patch.  You know a design is good when I can figure it out and I had the red and blue arrows figured almost at once.

From NASA:  The Exploration Mission-1 artwork showcases the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft and lifting off from Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The triangular shape represents the three main programs that comprise NASA’s Deep Space Exploration Systems: Orion, SLS, and Exploration Ground Systems, and is a classic shape for NASA mission emblems dating back to the shuttle era.

Several elements within the design carry symbolic meaning for this historic flight. The silver highlight surrounding this patch gives nod to the silver Orion spacecraft, including the European service module that will be voyaging 40,000 miles past the Moon in deep space. The orange rocket and flames represent the firepower of SLS. The setting is historic Launch Pad 39B, represented by the three lightning towers. The red and blue mission trajectories encompassing the white full Moon proudly emphasizes the hard work, tradition, and dedication of this American led-mission while also embracing NASA’s international partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) as both agencies forge a new future in space.

The Exploration Mission-1 emblem was designed in collaboration by the creative team working for the Deep Space Exploration Systems programs, which includes Orion, SLS, and Exploration Ground Systems, located at NASA Headquarters in Washington, Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Johnson Space Center in Houston, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and Kennedy. Because the maiden mission of SLS and Orion is uncrewed, the program teams had the rare opportunity to conceive the mission identifier. Exploration Mission-2, which will fly with crew, will have an insignia designed by NASA’s Astronaut Office with the help of the crew that will fly aboard the most capable deep space system to take flight.

Learn more about Deep Space Exploration Systems.

Learn more about Exploration Ground Systems.

Learn more about Exploration Mission-1.

Learn more about NASA enterprise and mission insignia: Emblems of Exploration.