Category Archives: Cool Stuff

Comet Borisov

An interplanetary visitor.

Credits: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

From NASA: A newly discovered comet has excited the astronomical community this week because it appears to have originated from outside the solar system. The object — designated C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) — was discovered on Aug. 30, 2019, by Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Nauchnij, Crimea. The official confirmation that comet C/2019 Q4 is an interstellar comet has not yet been made, but if it is interstellar, it would be only the second such object detected. The first, ‘Oumuamua, was observed and confirmed in October 2017.

The new comet, C/2019 Q4, is still inbound toward the Sun, but it will remain farther than the orbit of Mars and will approach no closer to Earth than about 190 million miles (300 million kilometers).

After the initial detections of the comet, Scout system, which is located at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, automatically flagged the object as possibly being interstellar. Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at JPL worked with astronomers and the European Space Agency’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Center in Frascati, Italy, to obtain additional observations. He then worked with the NASA-sponsored Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to estimate the comet’s precise trajectory and determine whether it originated within our solar system or came from elsewhere in the galaxy.

The comet is currently 260 million miles (420 million kilometers) from the Sun and will reach its closest point, or perihelion, on Dec. 8, 2019, at a distance of about 190 million miles (300 million kilometers).

“The comet’s current velocity is high, about 93,000 mph [150,000 kph], which is well above the typical velocities of objects orbiting the Sun at that distance,” said Farnocchia. “The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space.”

Currently on an inbound trajectory, comet C/2019 Q4 is heading toward the inner solar system and will enter it on Oct. 26 from above at roughly a 40-degree angle relative to the ecliptic plane. That’s the plane in which the Earth and planets orbit the Sun.

C/2019 Q4 was established as being cometary due to its fuzzy appearance, which indicates that the object has a central icy body that is producing a surrounding cloud of dust and particles as it approaches the Sun and heats up. Its location in the sky (as seen from Earth) places it near the Sun — an area of sky not usually scanned by the large ground-based asteroid surveys or NASA’s asteroid-hunting NEOWISE spacecraft.

C/2019 Q4 can be seen with professional telescopes for months to come. “The object will peak in brightness in mid-December and continue to be observable with moderate-size telescopes until April 2020,” said Farnocchia. “After that, it will only be observable with larger professional telescopes through October 2020.”  

Observations completed by Karen Meech and her team at the University of Hawaii indicate the comet nucleus is somewhere between 1.2 and 10 miles (2 and 16 kilometers) in diameter. Astronomers will continue collect observations to further characterize the comet’s physical properties (size, rotation, etc.) and also continue to better identify its trajectory.

The Minor Planet Center is hosted by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and is a sub-node of NASA’s Planetary Data System Small Bodies Node at the University of Maryland. JPL hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies. All are projects of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program and elements of the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Way to Go!

Congrats to Judith de Santiago who won the “under 18” ESA 3D printing competition! Very pleased to see. Thanks to J. Santiago and ESA for the image.

ESA: Judith de Santiago, winner of the under 18 category of ESA’s lunar 3D printing competition, with the printed version of her design: a dodecahedron (or 12-sided) plant pot.

While studying lunar base concepts ESA ran a competition, asking: what would you 3D print on the Moon, to make it feel like home?

Judith, a student from Madrid, Spain, proposed a pot for plants that would be cherished on a Moon base, incorporating symbols of Earth: “The blue curves of the bottom represent the waves of the sea, and the badge with a small plant located at the centre, inspired by Disney’s movie WALL·E, represents the Earth in general.”

Judith ensured her design was realistic by designing it in a 3D printing format.

“I first got interested in 3D printing two years ago when my high school got a new 3D printer,” Judith explains. “We were talking about future printers and what they have in mind to do with them such us using them for medical situations or maybe to build houses or even more! 

“I remember my first 3D prototype: that day I was learning how to draw in a new app and I told my father to choose a random item. That’s how I did a coke can, then I sent it to my tech teacher to print it for me and the result was amazing.

“Since then I’ve been learning how to use the different apps to create from basic figures to replace some broken pieces. Finally, I got a small 3D printer for my birthday so I could keep practicing.”

As a prize, Judith received this prototype version of her design BeeVeryCreative in Portugal, part of the URBAN consortium of companies overseeing ESA’s ‘Conceiving a Lunar Base Using 3D Printing Technologies’ project: “It is exactly as I imagined it to be – I was very excited to see it.”

The competition received more than a hundred entries from adults and children across the world with other ideas including a mobile lampshade to generate Earth-like colours, an hourglass filled with lunar dust, a glass model of Earth including realistic night lighting, proposals for statues and game boards – not to mention a few suggestions to print a 3D printer.

The adult category was won by visual artist Helen Schell from the UK, proposing a ‘magic Moon garden’, printed from recycled coloured plastics.

Spring is Coming!

Spring is coming to the Antarctic, here’s the first Sun of the season to prove it. Click the image for a larger version.

ESA: First sunlight in Antarctic research station Concordia after four months of darkness.

ESA research medical doctor Nadja Albertsen writes in her blog: “Sun or not, it’s quite magical.

When there are no clouds, the landscape around Concordia seems almost endless. When it is cloudy, the world seems to close in around us, in more acute isolation.

I take off my goggles for several minutes. For the first time in months, it is warm enough, and though the lenses are clear, it is still amazing to view the landscape without them. With over three months left in Antarctica, I am sucking it all up, like a giant bacon smoothie.

Light of heart and a little cold in the eyes, I go back to the base. It is lunch time and I am on table and dishwashing duty.

I am (almost) sure that tomorrow the layer of cloud will disperse, and the Sun will shine and the cold will bite again. First sunrise or not – we will eventually get so much Sun, we will tire of it. By the end of October it is all we will see.”

Follow the Concordia Chronicles.

Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–N. Albterse

A Balloon Flight!

Most of you know I really enjoy the high-altitude ballon flights and there is a new solar telescope taking a ride tomorrow – if all goes well of course.

The Balloon-borne Investigation of Temperature and Speed of Electrons in the corona, BITSE seeks to explain how the Sun spits out the solar wind.

Launch location: New Mexico

Participating space agencies: NASA and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, or KASI.

The docking of the Soyuz cargo-spaceship may be attempted later today or tomorrow (depending on where you are). I’ll put up a link just in case.

UPDATE: Well shoot, the post did not publish this morning. Well here it is and an new docking time and date for Soyuz. MONDAY night at 15:38 UT.


Luca at work aboard the International Space Station in this ESA image.

ESA: Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it is off to work the microbes go.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano slides the smallest miners in the universe into the Kubik experiment container on the International Space Station.

For the next three weeks, three different species of bacteria will unleash themselves on basalt slides in the Kubik centrifuge that simulates Earth and martian gravity as well as in microgravity.

Run by a research team from the University of Edinburgh in the UK, the BioRock experiment is testing how altered states of gravity affect biofilm formation – or the growth of microbes on rocks.

Microbes are able to weather down a rock from which they can extract ions. This natural process enables biomining, where useful metals are extracted from rock ores.

Already a common practice on Earth, biomining will eventually take place on the Moon, Mars and asteroids as we expand our understanding and exploration of the Solar System.

The bacteria arrived at the Space Station on the latest Dragon resupply mission in a dehydrated, dormant state.

The organisms are given ‘food’ to restore cell growth and left to grow on basalt at 20°C.

After three weeks, the samples will be preserved and stored at 4°C while they await their return to Earth.

Researchers will map out how altered states of gravity affect the rock and microbes as a whole, as well as which microbe is the best candidate for mining in space. It is hoped these results will shine light on extraterrestial biomining technologies and life-support systems involving microbes for longer duration spaceflight.

Biomining in space can also increase the efficiency of the process on Earth and could even reduce our reliance on precious Earth resources.

In addition to installing the little creatures, Luca is busy with a host of other experiments during his six-month mission, called Beyond.

Listen to the latest episode of the ESA Explores podcast for more science on the Space Station.

Follow Luca and his #MissionBeyond on social media and the blog.

Parabolic Flight #72

The perception portion seems quite interesting. Free floating and no visual references relative to distance, oh yeah it’s easy to see how to see this is relevant to humankind’s future in space.

ESA: Engineers, pilots, researchers and scientists convened in Bordeaux, France, for ESA’s 71st parabolic flight campaign. Over the course of three days they flew on a specially-fitted commercial aircraft, testing equipment and running research as the pilots put the plane through repeated parabolas, giving the passengers and their experiments brief bouts of microgravity.

ESA’s project coordinator Neil Melville introduces the experiments that flew on this campaign, from plasma to granular physics and heat pipes.

Parabolic flights are one of many platforms ESA offers for European researchers to run experiments for spaceflight. These flights are one of the few that allow the researchers to interact with their own experiments “hands-on” in a weightless environment. Send a proposal through our continuously open research announcements and you could be flying on the next campaign.

Fly Your Satellite

Every now and then I mention the opportunities for students to actually build and fly experiments including CubeSats into space. I do this in the context of NASA, but ESA also has a robust programme to help university students along the way too.