Institute of Astronomy

Astronomy News

Seven SMD-Supported Instruments to Search for Evidence of Life on Europa

20 March 2017 - 10:30am

Technologies Infused: When NASA launches its mission to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa in the 2020s, seven instruments enabled by SMD technology investments or flight development efforts will be onboard to help achieve mission science goals.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Europa mission spacecraft approaching its target for one of many flybys. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The Europa mission will gather high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, and investigate the composition and structure of its interior and icy shell to determine if the moon might be habitable for primitive forms of life. Evidence from NASA’s Galileo mission in the 1990s strongly suggested that Europa may contain a vast ocean underneath its icy crust. Europa also experiences great tidal forces as it orbits Jupiter, and these forces cause the moon to flex, which produces heat in the moon’s interior. Scientists also believe that Europa’s ocean is in direct contact with its rocky interior, creating conditions that could be similar to geologically active places on Earth’s sea floor, called hydrothermal zones. Hydrothermal zones on Earth harbor large numbers of organisms that thrive because of chemical processes that occur as water and rock interact at high temperatures. Europa’s potential liquid water, combined with its heat-producing geological activity, make it one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for signs of present-day life. Seven of the instruments that NASA recently selected to fly on the Europa mission were enabled by SMD technology investments or previous planetary mission investments (see table on page 21). Two of those instruments— MASPEX and REASON—are detailed below.

Compiled from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft data, this colorized surface image of Europa shows the blue-white terrains that indicate relatively pure water ice. Scientists are very interested in these features because they may offer a way to investigate the habitability of the moon’s interior ocean. (Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

MASPEX: The MAss Spectrometer for Planetary EXploration/ Europa is a time-of-flight (TOF) mass spectrometer designed to determine the composition of Europa’s surface and subsurface ocean by measuring the moon’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space. MASPEX employs fast-switched dual reflectron ion optics to provide high-mass resolution in a half-meter long instrument. This new technology enables mass resolution several orders of magnitude greater than previous mass spectrometers flown on NASA missions. MASPEX is also highly sensitive.

The MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) instrument.

It can store over 100,000 ions and extract them at a rate of 2 Khz, providing a very high throughput and high time resolution. MASPEX’s storage capability, coupled with an imbedded cryotrap that is more than 100,000 times more sensitive than previous instruments, allows the analysis of trace organics at levels less that one part per billion and the isotopic analysis of trace noble gases like xenon. MASPEX provides a new and powerful tool for understanding the habitability, origin, and evolution of Europa.

Artist’s concept of Europa’s frozen surface. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

REASON: Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) is a dual-frequency (9 MHz and 60 MHz) ice-penetrating radar instrument designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within. REASON will also assess the near-surface structure and topography, as well as the state of Europa’s ionosphere. The longer wavelength signal (9 MHz) can pass through Europa’s ice with less interference from surface roughness. However, radio waves emitted by the planet Jupiter interfere with the signal, so it can be used only on the side of Europa facing away from the planet. The shorter wavelength signal (60 MHz), in contrast, is unaffected by Jupiter, but is more susceptible to interference from the roughness of Europa’s ice. Together, the two signals will achieve comprehensive and clear images of Europa. REASON measurements will help scientists determine the thickness of the moon’s icy shell, search for evidence of water plumes, and characterize subsurface lakes and chemical exchange processes. Additionally, data from REASON will provide valuable information about potential landing sites and terrain for future missions that explore Europa’s surface.

Impact: As part of the suite of science instruments on the Europa mission, MASPEX and REASON will enable scientists to learn more about the moon’s composition, including whether an ocean exists underneath its icy surface, and whether there are conditions that could potentially harbor life. MASPEX will be most sensitive mass spectrometer ever flown in space, and will analyze the composition of gases found in Europa’s atmosphere. REASON will characterize Europa’s icy shell and the ocean that potentially lies beneath it. Other instruments onboard will detect emanating heat, measure the moon’s magnetic field, and collect the most detailed images of Europa’s surface ever obtained.

Status and Future Plans: The NASA Europa mission is now further developing MASPEX, REASON, and the other selected instruments to ensure they are flight-ready for launch in the early 2020s.

Sponsoring Organization: MASPEX development was funded jointly by the Southwest Research Institute and by NASA’s PSD via the ICEE program. PSD funded technology development for REASON via the Planetary Instrument Definition and Development Program (PIDDP)—a technology program that existed prior to establishment of the PICASSO and MatISSE programs— and the ICEE Program. See table on page 21 for PSD funding sources and PI information for the PSD-sponsored instruments selected for infusion.

Master Image: 

ESA's Jupiter mission moves off the drawing board

20 March 2017 - 10:30am

Demanding electric, magnetic and power requirements, harsh radiation, and strict planetary protection rules are some of the critical issues that had to be tackled in order to move ESA's Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer – JUICE – from the drawing board and into construction.

New Hubble mosaic of the Orion Nebula [heic1705]

20 March 2017 - 10:29am

In the search for rogue planets and failed stars astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have created a new mosaic image of the Orion Nebula. During their survey of the famous star formation region, they found what may be the missing piece of a cosmic puzzle; the third, long-lost member of a star system that had broken apart.

Strongly baryon-dominated disk galaxies at the peak of galaxy formation ten billion years ago

16 March 2017 - 10:15am

Strongly baryon-dominated disk galaxies at the peak of galaxy formation ten billion years ago

Nature 543, 7645 (2017). doi:10.1038/nature21685

Authors: R. Genzel, N. M. Förster Schreiber, H. Übler, P. Lang, T. Naab, R. Bender, L. J. Tacconi, E. Wisnioski, S. Wuyts, T. Alexander, A. Beifiori, S. Belli, G. Brammer, A. Burkert, C. M. Carollo, J. Chan, R. Davies, M. Fossati, A. Galametz, S. Genel, O. Gerhard, D. Lutz, J. T. Mendel, I. Momcheva, E. J. Nelson, A. Renzini, R. Saglia, A. Sternberg, S. Tacchella, K. Tadaki & D. Wilman

In the cold dark matter cosmology, the baryonic components of galaxies—stars and gas—are thought to be mixed with and embedded in non-baryonic and non-relativistic dark matter, which dominates the total mass of the galaxy and its dark-matter halo. In the local (low-redshift) Universe, the mass of dark matter within a galactic disk increases with disk radius, becoming appreciable and then dominant in the outer, baryonic regions of the disks of star-forming galaxies. This results in rotation velocities of the visible matter within the disk that are constant or increasing with disk radius—a hallmark of the dark-matter model. Comparisons between the dynamical mass, inferred from these velocities in rotational equilibrium, and the sum of the stellar and cold-gas mass at the peak epoch of galaxy formation ten billion years ago, inferred from ancillary data, suggest high baryon fractions in the inner, star-forming regions of the disks. Although this implied baryon fraction may be larger than in the local Universe, the systematic uncertainties (owing to the chosen stellar initial-mass function and the calibration of gas masses) render such comparisons inconclusive in terms of the mass of dark matter. Here we report rotation curves (showing rotation velocity as a function of disk radius) for the outer disks of six massive star-forming galaxies, and find that the rotation velocities are not constant, but decrease with radius. We propose that this trend arises because of a combination of two main factors: first, a large fraction of the massive high-redshift galaxy population was strongly baryon-dominated, with dark matter playing a smaller part than in the local Universe; and second, the large velocity dispersion in high-redshift disks introduces a substantial pressure term that leads to a decrease in rotation velocity with increasing radius. The effect of both factors appears to increase with redshift. Qualitatively, the observations suggest that baryons in the early (high-redshift) Universe efficiently condensed at the centres of dark-matter haloes when gas fractions were high and dark matter was less concentrated.

Chinese mountain observatory to probe cosmic-ray origins

16 March 2017 - 10:14am

Chinese mountain observatory to probe cosmic-ray origins

Nature 543, 7645 (2017). http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/543300a

Author: David Cyranoski

The massive project will intercept γ-ray showers in an unexplored energy band.

Astrophysics: Distant galaxies lack dark matter

16 March 2017 - 10:14am

Astrophysics: Distant galaxies lack dark matter

Nature 543, 7645 (2017). doi:10.1038/543318a

Authors: Mark Swinbank

The masses of nearby spiral galaxies are dominated by invisible 'dark matter'. Surprisingly, galaxies in the distant Universe seem to contain comparatively little of it. See Letter p.397

Dark matter took its time to wrap around early galaxies

16 March 2017 - 10:12am

Large spiral galaxies today rotate more quickly than they should, but was it always that way? New maps of ancient galaxies suggest a dark secret

NASA Selects Investigations for First Mission to Encounter the Sun

16 March 2017 - 10:11am
Portal origin URL: NASA Selects Investigations for First Mission to Encounter the SunPortal origin nid: 398556Published: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 14:33Featured (stick to top of list): noPortal text teaser: WASHINGTON - NASA has begun development of a mission to visit and study the sun closer than ever before. The unprecedented project, named Solar Probe Plus, is slated to launch no later than 2018. The small car-sized spacecraft will plunge directly into the sun's atmosphere approximately four million miles from our star's surface. It will explore a region no other spacecraft ever has encountered. NASA has selected five science investigations that will unlock the sun's biggest mysteries. "The experiments selected for Solar Probe Plus are specifically designed to solve two key questions of solar physics - why is the sun's outer atmosphere so much hotter than the sun's visible surface and what propels the solar wind that affects Earth and our solar system? " said Dick Fisher, director of NASA's Heliophysics Division in Washington. "We've been struggling with these questions for decades and this mission should finally provide those answers." As the spacecraft approaches the sun, its revolutionary carbon-composite heat shield must withstand temperatures exceeding 2550 degrees Fahrenheit and blasts of intense radiation. The spacecraft will have an up close and personal view of the sun enabling scientists to better understand, characterize and forecast the radiation environment for future space explorers. NASA invited researchers in 2009 to submit science proposals. Thirteen were reviewed by a panel of NASA and outside scientists. The total dollar amount for the five selected investigations is approximately $180 million for preliminary analysis, design, development and tests. The selected proposals are: - Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons Investigation: principal investigator, Justin C. Kasper, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. This investigation will specifically count the most abundant particles in the solar wind - electrons, protons and helium ions - and measure their properties. The investigation also is designed to catch some of the particles for direct analysis. - Wide-field Imager: principal investigator, Russell Howard, Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. This telescope will make 3-D images of the sun's corona, or atmosphere. The experiment will also provide 3-D images of the solar wind and shocks as they approach and pass the spacecraft. This investigation complements instruments on the spacecraft providing direct measurements by imaging the plasma the other instruments sample. - Fields Experiment: principal investigator, Stuart Bale, University of California Space Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. This investigation will make direct measurements of electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions, and shock waves that course through the sun's atmospheric plasma. The experiment also serves as a giant dust detector, registering voltage signatures when specks of space dust hit the spacecraft's antenna. - Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun: principal investigator, David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. This investigation consists of two instruments that will monitor electrons, protons and ions that are accelerated to high energies in the sun's atmosphere. - Heliospheric Origins with Solar Probe Plus: principal investigator, Marco Velli of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Velli is the mission's observatory scientist, responsible for serving as a senior scientist on the science working group. He will provide an independent assessment of scientific performance and act as a community advocate for the mission. "This project allows humanity's ingenuity to go where no spacecraft has ever gone before," said Lika Guhathakurta, Solar Probe Plus program scientist at NASA Headquarters, in Washington. "For the very first time, we'll be able to touch, taste and smell our sun." The Solar Probe Plus mission is part of NASA's Living with a Star Program. The program is designed to understand aspects of the sun and Earth's space environment that affect life and society. The program is managed by NASA'S Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., with oversight from NASA's Science Mission Directorate's Heliophysics Division. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., is responsible for formulating, implementing and operating the Solar Probe Mission. For more information about the Solar Probe Plus mission, visit:   http://solarprobe.gsfc.nasa.gov/   For more information about the Living with a Star Program, visit: http://science.nasa.gov/about-us/smd-programs/living-with-a-star/   - end - text-only version of this release NASA press releases and other information are available automatically by sending a blank e-mail message to hqnews-subscribe@mediaservices.nasa.gov. To unsubscribe from this mailing list, send a blank e-mail message to hqnews-unsubscribe@mediaservices.nasa.gov. Back to NASA Newsroom | Back to NASA Homepage Portal image: NASA logoScience Categories: Sun

Dark Matter Less Influential in Galaxies in Early Universe

16 March 2017 - 10:10am
New observations indicate that massive, star-forming galaxies during the peak epoch of galaxy formation, 10 billion years ago, were dominated by baryonic or “normal” matter. This is in stark contrast to present-day galaxies, where the effects of mysterious dark matter seem to be much greater. This surprising result was obtained using ESO’s Very Large Telescope and suggests that dark matter was less influential in the early Universe than it is today. The research is presented in four papers, one of which will be published in the journal Nature this week.

Asteroid clay is a better space radiation shield than aluminium

15 March 2017 - 10:31am

Cosmic radiation poses one of the biggest health risks for astronauts on long space missions, but clay extracted from space rocks could protect them

Celebrating 10 years of European research excellence

14 March 2017 - 10:06am

When European government representatives met in Lisbon in the year 2000, and expressed an aspiration that Europe should become the world's leading knowledge economy by 2010, they agreed on the need to create a body to “fund and co-ordinate basic research at European level”.

This was the impetus underlying the creation, in 2007, of the European Research Council (ERC).

Ten years after its foundation, the ERC has become a European success story. It has supported some 6,500 projects through its prestigious grants, and has become a unique model for the fostering and funding of innovative academic research.

To mark the anniversary, events are being held across Europe during ERC Week, running from 13-19 March. At the University of Cambridge, various recipients of ERC grants will be sharing their findings with a wide audience in talks scheduled as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research will be joining in ERC Week celebrations by hosting a conference on Thursday, 16 March.

On the same day, a reception for Cambridge recipients of ERC grants, attended by ERC president Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, will be held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is currently showing the ERC-supported exhibition, “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy”.

The ERC supports outstanding researchers in all fields of science and scholarship. It awards three types of research awards (Starter, Consolidator, Advanced) through a competitive, peer-reviewed process that rewards excellence. Its focus on “frontier research” allows academics to develop innovative and far-reaching projects over five-year periods.

The United Kingdom has been the largest recipient of ERC awards –between 2007 and 2015, it received 24% of all ERC funding.

To date, the ERC has supported 1524 projects by UK-based academics. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have won 218 of those grants, in fields ranging from Astrology to Zoology.

“What is special about an ERC grant?”, asks Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr, who was awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator Award for her project “IN-AFRICA”, which examines the evolution of modern humans in East Africa.

“An obvious side is that it’s a lot of money. But I think it’s more than just the money. Because it’s five years, the ERC grant allows you to get a group and build a real community around the project. It also allows you to explore things in greater depth.”

An ERC grant allowed Dr Debora Sijacki, at the Institute of Astronomy, to attract “a really competitive and international team, which otherwise would have been almost impossible to get.”

Being funded for a five-year period, she adds, “gives you time to expand and really tackle some of the major problems in astrophysics, rather than doing incremental research.”

It also allowed her access to facilities: “In my case, it was access to world-leading supercomputers. And without the ERC grant this would have been difficult.”

“Real progress in research is made when researchers can tackle big important questions," says Prof David Baulcombe, of the Department of Plant Sciences, the recipient of two ERC grants. "The ERC programme invites researchers to submit ambitious, blue-skies, imaginative proposals. There aren’t many others sources of funding that allow one to do that sort a thing.”

Dr Christos Lynteris, of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), is the recipient of an ERC Starting Grant for his project “Visual representations of the third plague pandemic.

“An ERC is a unique opportunity," he says: “it fosters interdisciplinary work. It also fosters analytical tools and the creation of new methods.”

“It offers a great opportunity to work with other people, over a period of 5 years, which is something very unusual, and with quite a liberal framework, so you are able to change and shift your questions, to reformulate them. For me, it means freedom, above everything.”

For Prof. Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, it is the “ERC ethos” and its “emphasis on taking things in new directions” that has made all the difference.

The ERC values an innovative, risk-taking approach “in a way that conventional grant-funding schemes don’t –they usually want to see that slow build rather than the risky step into the unknown.”

Prof. Simon Goldhill, Director of CRASSH, was awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator Award for his project “Bible and Antiquity in 19th Century Culture”. It has given him “the unique opportunity to do a genuinely interdisciplinary collaborative project with the time and space it takes to make such interdisciplinarity work.”

“Most importantly,” he adds, “the financial model offered by this sort of project enables us to do work that is 15 or 20 years ahead of the rest of the world, and Britain and Europe are all the stronger for it.”

The sentiment is echoed by Prof. Ruth Cameron, of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. The impact of an ERC grant for her project “3D Engineered Environments for Regenerative Medicine” has, she says, “exceeded expectations”.

So what has the ERC ever done for us? Quite a lot, say Cambridge academics, as they mark the 10th anniversary of Europe’s premier research-funding body

The financial model offered by this sort of project enables us to do work that is 15 or 20 years ahead of the rest of the world. Britain and Europe are all the stronger for it.Prof. Simon Goldhill, CRASSH


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

Yes

TRAPPIST-1 worlds are close enough for life to hop between them

14 March 2017 - 10:04am

Some think life came to Earth from Mars on a meteorite. If this sort of thing can happen, it’s 1000 times more likely on TRAPPIST-1’s three habitable worlds

Enceladus' south pole is warm under the frost

14 March 2017 - 10:01am

Over the past decade, the international Cassini mission has revealed intense activity at the southern pole of Saturn's icy moon, Enceladus, with warm fractures venting water-rich jets that hint at an underground sea. A new study, based on microwave observations of this region, shows that the moon is warmer than expected just a few metres below its icy surface. This suggests that heat is produced over a broad area in this polar region and transported under the crust, and that Enceladus' reservoir of liquid water might be lurking only a few kilometres beneath.

Discovery of tiny moon completes the set for worlds past Neptune

10 March 2017 - 10:33am

The third-largest dwarf planet has a small satellite, meaning every object bigger than 1000 kilometres across in the outer solar system has a moon of its own

Planetary science: Volcano gas makes worlds habitable

9 March 2017 - 10:55am

Planetary science: Volcano gas makes worlds habitable

Nature 543, 7644 (2017). doi:10.1038/543152c

Gases from erupting volcanoes could make planets beyond the Solar System warmer and hospitable to life, even if the planet is relatively distant from its host star.Ramses Ramirez and Lisa Kaltenegger of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, used a climate model to study

Tribute: Vera Rubin and the dark matter problem

9 March 2017 - 10:55am

Tribute: Vera Rubin and the dark matter problem

Nature 543, 7644 (2017). doi:10.1038/543179d

Author: Albert Bosma

In my view, Neta Bahcall's obituary of Vera Rubin oversimplifies the dark matter problem (Nature542, 32;10.1038/542032a2017). Many diverse observations have contributed to the current picture, and the unknown nature of dark matter shows that this is still far

Fuzzy pulsars orbiting black holes could unmask quantum gravity

9 March 2017 - 10:54am

Random changes in the radio beam of a pulsar orbiting a black hole could be telltale quantum effects, giving us a way to test theories of quantum gravity

Ancient Stardust Sheds Light on the First Stars

9 March 2017 - 10:51am
Astronomers have used ALMA to detect a huge mass of glowing stardust in a galaxy seen when the Universe was only four percent of its present age. This galaxy was observed shortly after its formation and is the most distant galaxy in which dust has been detected. This observation is also the most distant detection of oxygen in the Universe. These new results provide brand-new insights into the birth and explosive deaths of the very first stars.

Gravitational waves pioneer Ronald Drever dies

9 March 2017 - 10:44am

Scottish physicist Ronald Drever, one of the architects behind the discovery of gravitational waves, has died at the age of 85.

Oldest, biggest black holes may have come from enormous stars

8 March 2017 - 10:13am

Big black holes from just after the big bang couldn't have formed the way modern ones do - but they could come from the collapse of the largest stars ever