Friday, December 6, 2019

🚀 December 6, 2019: NIAC Interview, Interstellar Comet Approach, Balloon-Launched Rockets, Cancer Struggles in Microgravity, IKEA on Mars, and More...


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An interview with Jason Derleth, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts

As you may or may not know, I do a live broadcast from my YouTube channel every Monday afternoon called "Open Space". Sometimes these are solo live QAs with the audience, where I just try to answer everyone's burning space questions. And other times I'll get a live guest, and turn the audience loose on them instead.

This week I was joined by Jason Derleth from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (or NIAC). This is a special part of NASA that funds innovative ideas for new telescopes, propulsion systems, and rovers. Many of the cool, science-fiction ideas we present on my YouTube channel and on Universe Today come from research done at NIAC.

I had several people tell me this was one of the favorite interviews I've done recently, so I thought I'd share this with you. Of course, if you don't have time to watch these live (who does?), you can also listen to them after as an audio podcast.


Fraser Cain
Universe Today

As always, if you have comments or questions, or suggestions on how I can improve this newsletter, please don't hesitate to reply this email or email me at info@universetoday.com.



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Flying In The Cloudtops Of Venus. Balloons, Airships And Airplanes For Venus

The exploration of Venus has been mainly about getting down to the surface of the planet. The Soviet Union sacrificed lander after lander to discover just how extreme the conditions are down there on the ground.

But higher up, among the clouds, the climate on Venus is surprisingly Earthlike in temperature and pressure, and there have been some fascinating ideas for robotic and human explorers to fly the skies of Venus, to help understand our evil twin planet.

Let's take a look at them.

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Interstellar Comet Borisov is About to Make its Closest Approach to Earth

Astronomers discovered the last interstellar object, Oumuamua, as it was speeding out of the Solar System. This time, they've got more advance warning, and they'll be able to watch comet 2I/Borisov as it flies into the inner Solar System. On December 8th, it'll make its closest approach to the Sun (and might even break up), and then it'll make its closest approach to Earth when it comes within 300 million kilometers. That's not very close, essentially about twice the distance from the Earth to the Sun. But still, an opportunity to study it in even more detail with the world's telescopes.


There's Now an Operational Radio Telescope on the Far Side of the Moon

People always ask me when there's going to be a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, a place which is shadowed from the Earth's overwhelming radio chatter. Well, good news, a fully operational radio telescope was just deployed, although, it's probably not what you're expecting. The instrument is called the Netherlands-China Low-Frequency Explorer, and it's mounted on the Chinese-built Queqiao communications satellite, which relays data from the Chang'e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover. It has three 5-meter monopole antennae, which will allow it to examine light from the earliest epochs in the Universe when the first stars and galaxies were forming.


Cancer Seems to Have Trouble Spreading in Microgravity

We know that microgravity is bad for astronaut health, but there might actually be a benefit to floating around weightless: battling cancer. According to new research, it looks like cancer cells might get confused when they're not experiencing gravity, and be unable to coordinate a further spread into the rest of the body. In a recent microgravity test, 80-90% of cancer cells were disabled, they just died or floated away. And this included some of the hardest cancers to kill, like ovarian, breast, nose and lung cancer. The next step will be to send a special experiment to the International Space Station. I can imagine a future cancer treatment center in orbit.


Another beautiful view of Jupiter from Juno, captured as it was speeding away from a flyby

I'm always grateful for the beautiful pictures sent home by NASA's Juno spacecraft. This one was captured on November 3, 2019, as Juno completed its most recent flyby of Jupiter. When this picture was taken, Juno was about 104,600 kilometers away from the planet, positioned towards its southern pole. You can see the massive cyclonic storms near the planet's south pole as well as turbulence between the orange and brown bands. Incredible.


Giant Meteor Impacts Might Have Triggered Early Earth's Plate Tectonics

One of Earth's big advantages is the planet's plate tectonics, which keep rock and carbon circulating in and out of the planet's interior. We see worlds like Mars and Venus which lack plate tectonics, to know how vital this process is for life on Earth. But how did we go from a molten ball of rock to a solid crust that's constantly resurfacing? One new study has proposed that it was the constant bombardment of meteors in the Earth's early history that might have gotten the process rolling. Large impacts, bigger than 300 km in diameter might have created thermal anomalies in the mantle, changing its buoyancy, and causing regions of crust to float across the mantle.


Using Balloons to Launch Rockets

Getting into orbit requires two steps. You need to get out of the atmosphere, and you need to travel sideways at about 28,000 km/h, so you're literally falling around the Earth. Companies have proposed several methods of getting high above the atmosphere, but one idea is balloons. A company pioneering this idea is called Leo Aerospace, which would carry a rocket to an altitude of 18 kilometers on a balloon. Then the rocket fires its engines and continues the journey to orbital velocity. Leo Aerospace is looking to use this technique for smaller launches, delivering payloads that weigh less than 25 kilograms. This is an underserved market and could be big business.


Landslides Work Differently on Mars, and Now We Might Know Why

Landslides are a puzzling feature for both Earth and other planets, as they flow a lot farther than friction should allow. It was previously thought that Mars landslides required water ice to act as a layer of lubrication, but a new study says that ice isn't actually needed. Instead, an underlying layer of lighter, unstable rocks could explain the landslides. As the landslide gets going, rocks are pulverized, shifting up and down in the sliding material. And this mechanical action allows the slide to go much farther than you'd expect.


Luca Parmitano Takes the Wheel and Test Drives a Rover From Space.

Just a couple of weeks ago, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano took over the controls for a rover down here on the surface of the Earth, completing a bunch of activities. It sounds simple, but Parmitano was 10,000 kilometers away from the rover, orbiting the Earth at a speed of 28,000 km/h. His commands to the rover had to be transferred through a space internet, and he got force-feedback responses to his controls. Parmitano guided the rover through an obstacle course that looks like the Moon, and this was the whole point. Future astronauts in orbit around the Moon or Mars could use this technology to explore an alien world without having to actually go down to the surface.


IKEA's New Collection is Inspired by the Challenges of Living on Mars

After spending some time in a simulated Mars habitat, IKEA designer Christina Levenborn realized that the place needed a serious makeover, to help provide better communal eating spaces, shared entertainment and to give explorers more personal privacy. Based on her observations, IKEA developed the Rumtid line, which translates to "space time". In addition, they provided the Mars research station with new interior layouts and design strategies to make the simulated habitat more comfortable and livable for the people working together. These lessons will help future explorers and settlers when they make the journey to Mars for real.


There's a New Record for the Most Massive Black Hole Ever Seen: 40 Billion Solar Masses

The supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way weighs in at an impressive 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun. Well, that's nothing compared to the monster supermassive black hole discovered at the heart of the Abell 85 cluster of galaxies. Located about 700 million light-years from Earth, this black hole weighs in at approximately 40 BILLION times the mass of the Sun. Astronomers were able to measure the movement of stars at the core of galaxy Holm 15A, and determined that it would take a black hole with this much mass to create this effect.


A Microorganism With a Taste for Meteorites Could Help us Understand the Formation of Life on Earth

Astrobiologists have found a strain of microbial life that really loves to eat the minerals on extraterrestrial meteorites. The life form is called Metallosphaera secula, and it's part of a family known as lithotrophs, which are bacteria that derive their energy from inorganic sources. As a steady stream of meteorites were falling to Earth in its early history, this could have supplied these microorganisms with a steady supply of nutrients and energy and could have helped life spread around the world.


LIGO Will Squeeze Light To Overcome The Quantum Noise Of Empty Space

LIGO is already one of the most sensitive instruments ever created by humanity, capable of detecting the gravitational waves from colliding black holes. And now engineers working with LIGO have incorporated a new technique that should make the instrument even more sensitive. By changing the way the laser beams that measure gravitational waves are detected, they're able to take advantage of quantum uncertainty. They sacrifice knowledge about the brightness of the light in exchange for getting more information about the phase of the beam. This technique is called "quantum squeezing" and it should make LIGO twice as sensitive.


Astronauts are Going to Attach a "Robot Hotel" to the Outside of the International Space Station

Yesterday's launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft will be delivering a new "robot hotel" to the International Space Station. This will serve as a storage spot for two robots on board ISS called the Robotic External Leak Locators (RELL), which use mass spectrometers to detect gases that could be leaking out of the station. Two of these units are already on board the station and have successfully detected two leaks since their arrival. This new storage facility will reduce the amount of time the crew will need to deploy the RELL robots.

Other Interesting Space Stuff

Amazing Astrophotography on @universetoday


M45 Pleiades by @kara.marcus

Autumn means that some of the most beautiful objects in the night sky return, such as the Orion Nebula. But the one that's easiest to see with the unaided eye is M45, or the Pleiades Star Cluster. It's a relatively newly formed collection of stars, which are still blowing away their cocoon of stellar material with their powerful winds. This picture was captured by @kara.marcus.

We have featured thousands of astrophotographers on our Instagram page, which has more than 191,000 followers. Want to do a takeover? Use the hashtag #universetoday and I'll check out your photos.

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