Institute of Astronomy

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Readying the Webb Telescope for Launch

Astronomy News - 18 April 2017 - 9:06am
Video Length: 3:36

Stringent testing is underway to prove the James Webb Space Telescope can handle an Earth-shaking take-off and still capture the universe’s first light while deeply ensconced in the hyper-cold of space.

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NASA Missions Provide New Insights into 'Ocean Worlds' in Our Solar System

Astronomy News - 18 April 2017 - 9:05am
Two veteran NASA missions are providing new details about icy, ocean-bearing moons of Jupiter and Saturn, further heightening the scientific interest of these and other "ocean worlds" in our solar system and beyond. The findings are presented in papers published Thursday by researchers with NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and Hubble Space Telescop

Two million stars on the move

Astronomy News - 13 April 2017 - 9:01am

The changing face of our Galaxy is revealed in a new video from ESA’s Gaia mission. The motion of two million stars is traced 5 million years into the future using data from the Tycho-Gaia Astrometric Solution, one of the products of the first Gaia data release. This provides a preview of the stellar motions that will be revealed in Gaia's future data releases, which will enable scientists to investigate the formation history of our Galaxy.

New approach to dark energy might explain our cooling universe

Astronomy News - 12 April 2017 - 9:10am

We thought dark energy was behind the accelerated expansion of the universe to its cold, dark end state, but it might be a supporting actor in a quantum plot

Quantum effects cloak impossible singularities with black holes

Astronomy News - 12 April 2017 - 9:10am

Theoretical points in space-time that destroy the laws of physics may not be a threat in the real world thanks to quantum mechanics

Volunteers spot four super-Earths orbiting sun-like star

Astronomy News - 12 April 2017 - 9:09am

Zooniverse’s Exoplanet Explorers project invites citizen scientists to scour data from the Kepler spacecraft - within two days they found a planetary system

Water telescope uses gamma rays to track new kind of pulsar

Astronomy News - 12 April 2017 - 9:08am

We may have found a fresh way to spot the spinning corpses of massive stars, using the glow of interstellar gas – and maybe a new class of pulsar too

Mars’s atmosphere hosts metal layers that shouldn’t exist

Astronomy News - 12 April 2017 - 9:08am

Earth’s magnetic field provokes layers of iron and magnesium in the atmosphere, but Mars has no such field - so finding similar layers is a surprise

O marks the spot for magnetic reconnection

Astronomy News - 11 April 2017 - 9:01am

ESA's Cluster mission is challenging the current view of magnetic reconnection – the breaking and immediate rearrangement of magnetic field lines in the collision of two plasma flows. According to a new study, most of the energy dissipated during a reconnection event is not released at the crossings, or X-lines, between the two plasma flows but rather in swirling vortices, or O-lines, where magnetic field lines bundle up and spiral together. The new finding, which contradicts the accepted consensus, is an important step in the process of understanding the mechanisms that accelerate particles in space plasma.

NASA to Reveal New Discoveries in News Conference on Oceans Beyond Earth

Astronomy News - 11 April 2017 - 8:59am
NASA will discuss new results about ocean worlds in our solar system from the agency’s Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope during a news briefing 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, April 13.

Mars is so small because Jupiter shook up its formation

Astronomy News - 10 April 2017 - 9:11am

Models suggest Mars should be up to twice the mass of Earth, but it’s only one-tenth that, and Jupiter’s effects on the nascent solar system could be to blame

NASA funds radical Pluto hopper and cosmic echolocation concepts

Astronomy News - 10 April 2017 - 9:10am

The space agency just announced the recipients of its Innovative Advanced Concepts programme, which kickstarts researchers’ so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas

ALMA Captures Dramatic Stellar Fireworks

Astronomy News - 10 April 2017 - 9:09am
Stellar explosions are most often associated with supernovae, the spectacular deaths of stars. But new ALMA observations provide insights into explosions at the other end of the stellar life cycle, star birth. Astronomers captured these dramatic images as they explored the firework-like debris from the birth of a group of massive stars, demonstrating that star formation can be a violent and explosive process too.

Violent end as young stars dramatically collide

Astronomy News - 10 April 2017 - 9:08am

Scientists capture a dramatic collision between two young stars that tore apart their stellar nursery.

Galactic garbage

Astronomy News - 10 April 2017 - 9:07am

Millions of pieces of human-made trash are orbiting the Earth. Some are tiny, but all pose a risk.

Atmosphere containing water detected around rocky exoplanet

Astronomy News - 7 April 2017 - 9:05am

An exoplanet just 1.4 times the size of Earth has an atmosphere containing water and methane, new observations show

An All-Nighter with Planet Jupiter

Astronomy News - 7 April 2017 - 9:05am
Video Length: 3:36

Stop what you’re doing and mark your calendar. Jupiter can be viewed at opposition from sunset on April 7, 2017 to sunrise on April 8, 2017.

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Tiny Thrusters Demonstrate a Capability Needed to Detect Gravitational Waves

Astronomy News - 7 April 2017 - 9:03am

Technology Infused: On December 3, 2015, the LISA Pathfinder mission blasted into space carrying the most stable spacecraft thruster system ever qualified for use in space. Developed by NASA JPL, the Space Technology 7 (ST-7) Disturbance Reduction System (DRS) is designed to control the spacecraft’s position to within a millionth of a millimeter. ST-7 DRS consists of clusters of colloid micronewton thrusters and control software residing on a dedicated computer. To operate, the thrusters apply an electric charge to small droplets of liquid and accelerate them through an electric field. This new thruster technology has never successfully been used in space before. ST-7 DRS will deliver extremely small pulses of energy (5 to 30 micronewtons of thrust) to precisely control the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft.

This cluster of four colloid thrusters is part of the Disturbance Reduction
System, developed by NASA/JPL, which will help keep the LISA Pathfinder

spacecraft extremely stable. (Image credit: ESA/NASA/JPLCaltech)  

Impact: Precise spacecraft control is vital to achieve the LISA Pathfinder goal: demonstrating technology concepts required to detect low-frequency gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are incredibly faint. The magnitude of oscillation is on the order of tens of picometers—one picometer is one trillionth of a meter—which is why it is critical to keep the spacecraft stable enough to detect the waves. The LISA Pathfinder contains two test masses— objects designed to respond only to gravity (to the greatest extent possible). These test masses are made of a mixture of gold and platinum so that they will be very dense, but also non-magnetic. They each weigh about 4 pounds (2 kilograms) and measure 1.8 inches (4.6 centimeters) on each side. The LISA Pathfinder spacecraft is intended to shield the test masses from external forces so that they follow a trajectory determined only by the local gravitational field. The dominant force to overcome is solar pressure, which pushes on the spacecraft and is the equivalent of about the weight of a grain of sand. By precisely measuring the position of the freely floating test masses, the ST-7 DRS uses its “micro-rocket” thrusters to keep the spacecraft centered about the test masses. In effect, the spacecraft essentially flies in formation with the test masses, using onboard sensor information (provided by the European LISA Technology Package) to control the thrusters and keep the test masses totally isolated from external forces. By measuring their relative motion, a future mission could use such test masses as references in the quest to detect gravity waves.

The LISA Pathfinder spacecraft will help pave the way for a mission to detect gravitational
waves. NASA/JPL developed a thruster system onboard. (Image credit: ESA)  

Status and Future Plans: ST-7 DRS is one of two thruster systems being tested on the LISA Pathfinder mission (the other system was developed by the European Space Agency). If successful, there are numerous potential uses for this technology in the future. For example, the system could be used to stabilize a future spacecraft that needs to be very still to detect exoplanets. ST-7 DRS could replace the reaction wheels that help control a spacecraft’s orientation, reducing the overall mass of the spacecraft. The thruster system could also be used to enable spacecraft to fly in formation. For example, a constellation of small satellites flying together could use these thrusters to remain highly synchronized.

Sponsoring Organization: The Astrophysics Division provided funding via the SAT program to PI John Ziemer at NASA JPL to support development of the ST-7 DRS.

Master Image: 

Exoplanet mission gets ticket to ride

Astronomy News - 7 April 2017 - 9:01am

A Soyuz rocket operated by Arianespace from Europe's spaceport in Kourou will boost ESA's upcoming exoplanet satellite into space.

Hubble takes close-up portrait of Jupiter [heic1708]

Astronomy News - 7 April 2017 - 9:01am

During April 2017 Jupiter is in opposition: it is at its closest to Earth and the hemisphere facing Earth is fully illuminated by the Sun. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope used this special configuration to capture an image of what is by far the largest planet in the Solar System. This image adds to many others made in the past, and together they allow astronomers to study changes in the atmosphere of the gas giant.