Friday, February 21, 2020

🚀 February 21, 2020: A Mission to Phobos! Lighter Radiation Shielding, Relativistic Meteors Hitting Earth? And More...


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Japan Is Sending a Lander to Phobos

One of the missions I've been the most excited about just got a green light from the Japanese Space Agency: a mission to the Mars moon Phobos. Called the Martian Moon eXploration (MMX) mission, JAXA announced this week that they've finally wrapped up three years of analysis and they're ready to move forward with the development of the hardware and software. MMX will be based on the successful Hayabusa2 spacecraft which flew to asteroid Ryugu in 2019 and gathered samples. Like Hayabusa2, MMX will touch down on the surface, extract samples, and then return them to Earth in the late 2020s. If all goes well, the mission will blast off for Phobos in 2024, arrive at the moon of Mars and use a drill to extract at least 10 grams from the surface, returning it to Earth in September 2029.

Phobos is a fascinating place in the Solar System, and its formation is still a bit of a mystery. Is it a captured asteroid or did it form from a giant impact into Mars. MMX can help us get the answer.

P.S. I'm going to be traveling to Tokyo, Japan next week, so the newsletter might get interrupted while I'm on the road. I'll try to get some news published while I'm traveling, and maybe even visit JAXA while I'm in Japan. Stay tuned.


Fraser Cain
Universe Today

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Betelgeuse Is Still Dimming! And We Have the Pictures to Prove It

Near the end of 2019, astronomers watching the red giant Betelgeuse noted how much the star had dimmed, continuing to steadily fade for months.

It's a variable star, and it's known to get dimmer and brighter, but the big surprise is that it's still continuing to dim, recently passing magnitude 1.56 and still getting dimmer. This is unprecedented in the decades that astronomers have been watching the star.

The world's biggest telescopes are on the case, and the European Southern Observatory released dramatic new images of Betelguese, resolving features on the star's surface and surrounding area showing how it's dramatically changed over the course of 2019.

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A New Technique to Make Lighter Radiation Shielding For Spacecraft: Rust.

It turns out that rust on your car might be helping to protect you from the radiation of deep space. Okay, fine, maybe not. But engineers have developed a new process that could provide better radiation shielding in space using metal oxides (aka, rust). They found that metal oxides could provide the same level of radiation shielding as aluminum at 30% the weight. Future spacecraft could use this technique to provide better shielding for the same weight and volume, or the same shielding for less weight. It's a promising new direction.


ESA is Considering a Mission to Give Advanced Warnings of Solar Storms

The European Space Agency announced their plans to develop a space weather early warning system, to give us more advanced notice of powerful and dangerous solar storms. Right now we only get a couple of hours notice of storms that could disrupt our satellites and interconnected electrical grids, but a pair of spacecraft at the Sun-Earth L4/L5 Lagrange points could watch the Sun continuously, and detect when a powerful flare is headed our way.


There Could be Meteors Traveling at Relativistic Speeds When They Hit the Atmosphere

When we see a meteor shower, we're seeing pieces of dust smaller than a grain of sand hitting the atmosphere at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour, burning up and leaving beautiful trails. But according to a new paper from Dr. Abraham Loeb and Amir Siraj, there could be the occasional meteor that's going much much faster, even relativistic speeds when they hit the atmosphere. In theory, grains of dust can be accelerated during a supernova detonation to relativistic speeds, and then they cross the Universe and strike the atmosphere. And in theory, it should be possible to listen for when they hit the atmosphere.


Both Stars in This Binary System Have Accretion Disks Around Them

When new stars get going, they're surrounded by a rotating disk of material called an accretion disk. But astronomers have found a binary pair of stars where two of them are orbiting around each other, and each star has its own accretion disk. Needless to say, the interactions between these disks is creating some surprising flares and flashes that can give astronomers more insights into how they form and evolve during a star's young life.


SETI Researchers Release Petabytes of Data in the Search For Aliens

Radio telescopes are constantly scanning the skies for various scientific research. At the same time, scientists looking for any evidence of extraterrestrials (SETI) want to get their hands on as much radio data as they can to look for signals. The problem is that the scientists were compressing the data to make it useful for their research, but now they've agreed to provide uncompressed raw data that SETI researchers can use to search for signals as well. Good news in the hunt for aliens.


Q&A 118: Are We In a New Space Race? And More... Featuring Dr Jessie Christiansen

In this week's questions show, I talk about how we're in a new space race, and what this means for returning to the Moon. Of course, lots of follow up answers about the Fermi Paradox. Follow Dr Jessie Christiansen on Twitter


This Is Why Betelgeuse (Probably) Isn't About To Explode

Of course, we all want Betelguese to explode as a supernova in our lifetimes, and the recent dimming has gotten everyone really excited. But it looks like the dimming has stabilized, and astronomers are expecting it to start brightening up again any time now. And there's no reason why this means it's about to explode. What's happening in the core, what stage of its fusion process is the key, and the reality is that events in the core can take thousands of years to reach the surface. So it's probably dust, or just an extreme variation.


NASA Announces the 4 new Discovery Missions it's Considering. You're Going to Want them All to Fly

You know how excited I get when new missions are announced. It looks like NASA's got 4 new missions that we're going to want to keep an eye on as part of its Discovery Program. There's DAVINCI+, a mission to analyze the atmosphere of Venus, the Io Volcano Observer (IVO), a mission to Neptune's moon Trident called, uh, TRIDENT, and another mission to Venus called VERITAS to map its surface in more detail. I'm sure I'll do a video on these shortly, but here's a sneak preview.


How Interferometry Works, and Why it's so Powerful for Astronomy

We've talked quite a bit about the technique of interferometry, especially how it was used to take the incredibly sensitive images of the black hole at the heart of M87. But how does interferometry work? Why does it work well for radio telescopes while it's trickier for optical telescopes? Brian Koberlein explains.

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Juno's Jupiter by Kevin Gill

This is a stunning photograph of Jupiter captured by NASA's Juno spacecraft during its flyby in September 2017. This week astronomers announced that Juno has detected a significant amount of water vapor in Jupiter's upper atmosphere, measuring about 0.25% of the planet's clouds.⁠

This is about triple the amount that has been detected in the Sun's outer atmosphere. Even though Jupiter has a very similar chemical composition to the Sun being made of mostly hydrogen and helium, it clearly has its differences too.⁠

I just want to make a special nod to Kevin Gill @apoapsys on the image processing work. I'm so glad NASA decided to add a camera to Juno. :-)⁠

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