Press

Press, Tips & News, Travel journal

Chinas Chang’e-5 Mission Detects Water on the Moon

China’s intrepid Chang’e-5 lander makes the first in situ detection of water on the surface of the Moon.

Lunar panorama

The panoramic view of the Chang’e-5 landing site. Credit: CNSA/CLEP

The idea that the Moon is bone dry is getting turned on its head. A recent paper out from the China Academy of Sciences in the journal Science Advances notes the detection of the chemical compound hydroxyl (OH) of the surface of the Moon. While the detection of water-related compounds has been noted before either in samples or via remote detection, this finding would mark the first time that the elemental constituents of water have been discovered on the surface via up close prospecting.

The landing platform was part of the Chang’e-5 mission that landed on the slopes of the Mons Rümker volcanic formation in the Oceanus Procellarum region on the lunar nearside on December 1st, 2020. The mission included an all-in-one orbiter, lander, and ascent return vehicle, in a single ambitious mission. Though information on the mission from the Chinese National Space Adminstration (CNSA) has–like most of China’s space missions—trickled out slowly to the western press, the agency did post a small press release on the discovery.

The ratio of hydroxyl versus regolith seen in the analysis is tiny: about 180 parts per million (ppm) in the foreground rock, versus 120 ppm in the surrounding regolith. The measurements were made using the lander’s panoramic camera and lunar mineralogical spectrometer (LMS), which made the discovery.

The Chan’e-5 landing site, showing the water discovery in context. Credit: CNSA/Lin Honglei

“The Chang’e-5 spacecraft landed on one of the youngest mare basalts, located at a mid-high latitude on the Moon, and returned 1,731-grams of samples,” said the team in a recent press release. “Before sampling and returning the lunar soil to Earth, however, the lunar mineralogical spectrometer (LMS) onboard the lander performed spectral reflectance measurements of the regolith and of a rock, thereby providing the unprecedented opportunity to detect lunar surface water.”

The history of water on the Moon goes all the way back to samples returned from the Soviet Luna-24 mission in 1976. India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission and NASA’s Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions caught tantalizing hints of water ice in permanently shadowed lunar polar craters from lunar orbit, thought to have been deposited by ancient comets. Water was also seen in the spectra of the resulting plume generated by the Lunar Crater Observation Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) impactor in 2009 which struck Cabeus crater, and NASA’s flying Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) found more evidence for surface hydroxyls on the Moon. Unlike the polar deposits or subsurface ice seen in the LCROSS impact, surface hydroxyls seen in the Chang’e-5 samples are caused by solar wind implantation, a process where hydrogen atoms bond with oxygen on the lunar surface.

China has been busy on the Moon. CNSA also completed the only lunar farside soft landing with Chang’e-4 on January 3, 2019, touching down at Von Kármán crater. We still occasionally hear from the Yutu-2 rover on the lunar farside, and the tiny rover recently created a viral stir in December 2021, when China released images of what was dubbed by the internet the ‘lunar hut’ on the distant horizon. Upon closer inspection, however, the ‘hut’ turned out to be a much more prosaic, rabbit-shaped rock.

Lunar Hut

No ‘lunar hut’ here… just a rabbit-shaped rock. Credit: CNSA

The in situ discovery of OH/H2O compounds is important in showing that the Moon may be much more chemically interesting than thought. To be sure, actually exploiting a resource that’s in the order of 180 ppm would be difficult; you’d have to go though about five metric tons of regolith to get a single liter of usable hydroxyl. Still, those polar regions on the Moon may have lots more water… and what researchers would really like to do is get down below the lunar surface, and see if deposits due to out-gassing are laying in wait.

A battery of lunar missions are returning to the Moon in a big way in 2022 and beyond. One, dubbed the Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment (PRIME-1) equipped with The Regolith Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain (TRIDENT) will head to the Moon  to address this specific question. PRIME/TRIDENT will be aboard Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 mission, headed to Shackleton Crater near the lunar south pole in late 2022.

Be sure to raise a glass of H2O to the almost Full Moon this weekend, and say congrats to China on the discovery of hydroxyls on the Moon.

Press, Tips & News, Travel journal

Top Astronomy Events for January 2022

Astronomy January 2022 sees the ‘Christmas Comet of 2021’ reach perihelion, while planets line up at dusk.

Stellina

Stellina at dusk. Credit: Dave Dickinson

The month of January may be the first full month of northern hemisphere winter, but there’s always several reasons to brave the cold. Ironically, the coldest nights are often the clearest and most stable, as the frigid winter air radiates heat back into space.

The January Sky

January evenings give us a glimpse of our nearby galactic neighbors in the Orion Spur arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Flashback to January 2020, and all eyes were on the bright star Betelgeuse, as the bright star in the shoulder of Orion underwent a historic dimming. And although 2020 didn’t see the red giant star go supernova, January would be a fine time for the giant star to finally burst, either tonight over thousands of years from now.

In the northern or southern hemisphere, the December 31st sky on New Year’s Eve always has a fine marker to ring in the year: Sirius (Alpha Canis Major), the brightest star in the sky, culminates at midnight. Sirius is actually only 8.7 light-years distant, and at declination -16 degrees 45’, is visible just about worldwide.

Fun fact: Though it’s northern hemisphere winter in January, the Earth is actually at perihelion or its closest point to the Sun in the current epoch early in the first days of the year, as the tilt of the planet is a much larger driver of the seasons.

The Moon in January 2022

The Moon reaches New phase early in January on the 2nd, just 19 hours after perigee on New Year’s Day. Full Moon occurs on January 17th, also known as the Full Wolf Moon. In 2022 the path of the Moon is ‘ecliptic-like’ this year, but expect it to get steeper towards 2025. This is because the 5 degree tilt of the Moon is inclined versus the ecliptic (the outline of the path of the Earth around the Sun), not the tilt of the Earth’s axis. This means that the path of the Moon seems to go from shallow to steep to back again versus the ecliptic in an 18.6 year cycle, known as the Precession of the Line on Apsides.

Looking westward on the first dusk of 2022. Credit: Stellarium

The planetary rundown in January 2022: The naked eye planets are nearly all in the evening sky at the beginning of of 2022; only lonely Mars holds down the fort high to the south at dawn. You’ll have to hurry to see Venus though, as it speeds towards inferior conjunction between the Earth and the Sun shortly after the first week of January, to emerge in the dawn and spend the remainder of 2022 there, ruling the morning sky.

January meteors: This just might be the year to spy the elusive Quadrantid meteors. Named after the now defunct constellation of Quadrans Muralis (the Mural Quadrant), the ‘Quads’ have a very narrow peak, making them very elusive. The good news is, the Moon hits New just a day before the expected peak of the Quads, which arrives on January 3rd at 20:40 Universal Time (UT). The 2022 Quadrantids is expected to hit a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 60-200 meteors per hour.

Comet A1 Leonard at perihelion. Credit: NASA/JPL

Comets: A1 Leonard reaches perihelion on January 3rd 0.62 AU (92.8 million kilometers) from the Sun, exactly one year after discovery. Currently at magnitude +4.5 in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus, Comet A1 Leonard is now well-placed for southern hemisphere observers. On an ~80,000 year orbit inbound, A1 Leonard is destined to head out of the solar system after perihelion for good, as celestial mechanics dispatches the comet out into the Milky Way Galaxy to become someone else’s ‘interstellar object’ millions of years in the future. Comet A1 Leonard is now headed off in general the direction of the +3.5 magnitude star Mu Serpentis, 156 light-years distant.

The celestial path of Comet A1 Leonard over the coming decade, until 2032. Credit: Dave Dickinson/Starry Night.

Deep Sky highlight (northern hemisphere) – One of our favorite open clusters rides high on January evenings. Messier 35 (M35) is an easy find with binoculars, in the foot of the zodiacal constellation of Gemini the twins. Crank up the magnification, and thousands of stars overflow the field in a magnificent view. The cluster is also very near the ecliptic plane, sitting in the celestial position that the Sun occupies during the annual June northward solstice. M35 is 2.8 kilo-light-years distant.

Messier 35 from urban skies. Credit: Dave Dickinson, a Stellina capture of about 90 seconds.

Deep Sky highlight (southern hemisphere) – The Ringed Galaxy NGC 1269: A fine example ring galaxy (and a bit of a historical mix up) sits in the rambling southern constellation of Eridanus the River. 33 million light-years distant, NGC 1269 is nearly face-on from our perspective.

A Hubble/GALEX image of Ring Galaxy NGC 1291. Credit: NASA/Hubble STScI/GALEX.

Shining at magnitude +8.5 and a generous 5’ by 4’ across, NGC 1269 is just two degrees north of the +4.3 magnitude star 82 (e) Eridani, making it an easy find with a moderate- to large- telescope. The galaxy is also sometimes listed as ‘NGC 1291’ due to an early 19th century mix-up: Astronomer John Herschel came across the deep-sky object in an 1836 southern sky survey and dutifully recorded it as NGC 1269—though unbeknownst to Herschel—celestial cartographer John Dunlop had already noted the galaxy as NGC 1291 about a decade prior.

Finding Omicron Eridani. Credit: Stellarium.

Challenge object (northern hemisphere) – The 40 Eridani B Triple System: Have you ever seen a red dwarf? How about a white dwarf? The Omicron Eridani (40 Eridani) triple star in the northern end of the meandering constellation Eridanus offers a unique opportunity to check both off of your observing life list. The +4.4 primary offers a fine guidepost to the system… now, crank up the magnification, and look for a +10th magnitude pair 8” apart, just over an arcminute from the primary. These two are the one each red and white dwarf stars. 40 Eridani is 16 light-years distant.

Finding T Pyxidis. Credit: Stellarium.

Challenge Object (Southern Hemisphere) – Its always worth scanning the vacant southern sky region east of +3.7 magnitude Alpha Pyxidis for an elusive star: T Pyxidis is a member of a rare type of variable star, known as a recurrent nova. Usually, T Pyx is undetectable, below +14th magnitude. On random decades, however, T Pyx will flirt with naked eye visibility. This has occurred in 1902, 1920, 1944, 1966 and finally again in 2011. You’re seeing a main sequence star, dumping material on a white dwarf, which flares occasionally in brilliant fashion. When will T Pyxidis pop again?

Top Astronomy Events for January 2022

2-New Moon

3-Comet 2021 A1 Leonard at perihelion

3-The Quadrantid meteors peak

4-Earth reaches perihelion

7-Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation (19.2 degrees from the Sun)

9-Venus reaches inferior conjunction (5 degrees from the Sun0

9-1st Quarter Moon

11-Comet 104P/Kowal at perihelion

17-Full Moon

25-Last Quarter Moon

Press, Tips & News, Travel journal

Next Generation Sentry II System to Assess Risk From Possible Hazardous Asteroids

NASA’s new Sentry II system will refine long term collision predictions for Near Earth Asteroids.

Didymos

The convoluted future path of asteroid Didymos through the inner solar system. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA has a powerful new tool in its arsenal for defending the Earth from hazardous asteroids. Since 2002, the space agency has used the Sentry system to predict the future path of near Earth asteroids (NEAs), and assess their risk for a potential future impact with the Earth. This system, however, has its limitations. As the number of known NEAs nears 28,000 and grows by 3,000 new asteroids per year, a new system is needed to keep up with demand.

The new system named Sentry II will meet this need. Sentry II just went online in December 2021, and will use an enhanced algorithm to look at all of the factors impacting an asteroid’s future trajectory. Astronomers expect to see better, more accurate projections further into the future, using the Sentry II system.

Sentry’s Original Limitations

NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) based out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California works together with the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) to assess impact probabilities over the next century. The system could run the predictions in under an hour, a vital resource especially in terms of seeing small asteroids inbound, which are often discovered with little advance warning. A good example was the Chelyabinsk impactor which struck Russia the day after Valentine’s Day in 2013. The Chelyabinsk rock came at Earth from a sunward direction, and was undetected prior to impact.

However, the original Sentry system had its drawbacks. Asteroid path predictions are limited by the number of observations made: the more observations, the better we know its future path. Not only does this path become more indefinite over time, but small tugs by other planets in the solar system perturb an asteroid’s path. Sentry accounted for this, but it didn’t factor in the complex effect of thermal heating from the Sun via what’s known as the Yarkovsky effect, which slowly nudges an asteroid over time. Small changes add up, and Sentry II will take these into account.

“The fact that Sentry couldn’t automatically handle the Yarkovsky effect was a limitation,” says Davide Farnocchia (NASA-JPL) in a recent press release. “Every time we came across a special case—like asteroids Apophis, Bennu or 1950 DA—we had to do complex and time-consuming manual analyses. With Sentry II, we don’t have to do that anymore.”

The previous method would often break down—especially in the case of close Earth flybys—requiring manual analysis of the future trajectory of the asteroid. Sentry II eliminates this with a different mathematical approach, allowing it to focus in on low probability impact zones (known as keyholes). These are regions which would made a future impact more likely, were an asteroid to pass through these narrow zones.

Sentry II is vital, as new all-sky surveys such as the Vera C. Rubin telescope come online over the next few years. Expect to see a flood of new discoveries of ever smaller asteroids, necessitating the need for a more powerful prediction model such as Sentry II.

101955 Bennu and 99942 Apophis are good case studies in narrowing down the uncertainty of a future impact. Discovered in 2004, 450 meter Apophis generated a brief amount of excitement when it looked like there was a small chance of impact with Earth on April 13 (yes, Friday the 13th) 2029. Better observations and predictions soon ruled this out, though there was still a small chance of an impact later this century in 2068, though that was also ruled out earlier this year.

Thanks to the OSIRIS-Rex mission, we now know the orbit and characteristics of Bennu better than any other asteroid in the solar system. This 530-metre space rock has a small (1-in-2,700) chance of impacting the Earth on September 24th 2182, if it happens to pass through a gravitational keyhole in 2135.

But NASA isn’t just passively hunting for asteroids. On November 24th, the agency launched the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission headed towards double asteroid Didymos, where it will impact the asteroid’s tiny moon Dimorphos in late September-early October 2022. This exercise, coupled with the Sentry II system may prove useful, if we ever did need to move a potentially hazardous asteroid out of harm’s way.

Press, Tips & News, Travel journal

Unique Circumbinary Exoplanet Transits Binary Primary

A unique circumbinary exoplanet system transits both host stars.

Triple Transit

An artist’s conception of the TIC 172900988 b. Credit: NASA

The menagerie of exoplanets just got a little stranger. Add to the fastest, hottest etc… a new find: TIC 172900988 b, a circumbinary world that transits both host primary stars.

Eclipsing binary stars are well known to astronomers: two famous stars, Algol and Beta Lyrae are naked eye variables, dimming and brightening as they happen to pass one in front of another. The same method also works to tease out unseen companions: exoplanets are discovered as a world passes in front of its host star as seen from our line of sight, creating a tiny dip in its brightness.

Circumbinary exoplanets—planets orbiting two stars—have been seen before: the first circumbinary exoplanet discovered was PSR B1620-26 in 2003, and the Kepler Space Telescope found about a dozen of such worlds out of the thousands of exoplanets it discovered. Its successor, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found 3,500 exoplanet candidates and more than 150 confirmed worlds and counting since its launch in 2018.

But what they saw in the light-curve of TIC 172900988 b gave astronomers pause. In addition to the expected dip from the tight orbiting primary pair, they caught a double dip about five days apart, as the 2.8x Jupiter mass world transited one star, and then another.

This is a surreptitious find, as TESS only had a 30 day window to observe this patch of sky. This also enabled astronomers to extrapolate the planet’s roughly 200 day orbit around the primary pair using the short observation arc, another first.

The two host primaries are solar mass, G-type yellow dwarfs like our Sun. The world would probably be a scorcher on the inner edge of the system’s habitable zone, but if, like Jupiter, TIC 172900988 happens to possess large moons, there’s always a chance that they’re partially sheltered inside the giant planet’s magnetic field.

The system is located 246 parsecs distant in the astronomical constellation Cancer the Crab, shining at about 10th magnitude. High-resolution imaging in the near infrared part of the spectrum also revealed a possible red dwarf companion in the system, on a wide-ranging 5,000 year orbit.

The last few decades of exoplanet discovery has revealed just how bizarre other solar systems can be. It’s amazing to think: back until the discovery of pulsar planet system PSR B1257+12 in 1990, no exoplanets were known of… and I remember astronomers in the 1980s making the argument that it might just stay that way, as exoplanet detection is just too difficult. Fast-forward to the end 2021, and we now know of 4,890 worlds in the catalog and counting.

And our fair world also transits from the point of view of any known exoplanet along the plane of the ecliptic as well. It’s been proposed that any worlds found along the ecliptic plane would be excellent targets for a SETI search, as they would probably know we’re here, too.

Add just one more interesting world to the catalog, in the ongoing golden era of exoplanet astronomy.

A1 Leonard
Press, Tips & News, Travel journal

Top Astronomy Events for December 2021

What are the top astronomy events you can observe in December 2021? December sees Comet A1 Leonard at dawn, and  the promise of the bright winter hexagon rising at dusk.

Comet A1 Leonard

Comet C/2021 A1 Leonard passing the galaxy NGC 4631 on November 25th. Image credit: Michael Jäger.

The month of December 2021 brings us home, in more ways than one. Yes, it’s the end of the calendar year. It’s also time for the southward solstice, marking the beginning of astronomical winter in the northern hemisphere, and summer in the southern. But it also marks the return of the Winter Hexagon asterism to the evening sky. So let’s dive into the topic and let’s check out what the top astronomy events for December 2021 are!

The December Sky

Going clockwise from the top, the members of the Winter Hexagon are: Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, and the twins Pollux and Castor. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, and sits due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve. You can tell the twins apart by remembering ‘P’ollux is on the same side as ‘P’rocyon, and ‘C’astor is on the same side as Capella. Betelgeuse tops of the scene, near the center of the hexagon.

Dec 25th

The dusk sky on Xmas eve, December 25th looking west. Credit: Stellarium.

There’s a reason that so many bright stars dominate the December sky. That’s because you’re looking outward from the core of our Milky Way Galaxy towards the Orion Spur, passing through the constellation of the same name. Our Sun is embedded in the Orion Spur, along with the bright December stars in the same direction. In fact, the Galactic Anti-Center is off in the direction of Gemini, very near the open star cluster Messier 35.

In the southern hemisphere, the evening sky in December sees the parade of nearby bright stars continue through Canopus, Achernar and the famous ‘Southern Cross’ Crux riding high to the north near midnight. To some, just spotting the swayback cross of the Crux is the highlight of their astronomical life-list on a journey to the southern hemisphere.

Fun fact: The International Space Station has an orbital inclination of 52.5 degrees meaning that near either solstice, it can enter a period of full illumination, making for multiple bright passes a night worldwide. December favors the southern hemisphere, and in 2021, we enter a six day span of full illumination for the station starting on December 11th.

The Moon in December 2021: The Moon reaches New phase (witha total solar eclipse passing over Antarctica) on December 4th, and reaches Full on December 19th. This is also the most distant or smallest Full Moon of the year (a MiniMoon), and the Long Night’s Moon closest to the December Solstice.

Eclipse

The December 4th total solar eclipse. Credit: NASA/GSFC/AT Sinclair

The planetary rundown in December 2021: Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are lined up at dusk, with lonely Mars reemerging low at dawn, and Mercury near the Sun emerging at dusk in the last week of 2021.

The waxing crescent Moon pairs with Venus on December 7th, marking the start of a great series of passes as it slides by Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter over the course of the week.

December meteors: The December Andromedids—once a great shower in the 19th century that fell into obscurity—may be making a comeback in 2021. Certainly, it’s worth watching for the elusive shower, with the Moon near New in the first week of the month. December is also time for the dependable Geminids, which peak with an expected Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of ~150 for 2021, on the night of December 13th/14th, five days prior to Full Moon. Finally, watch for the 2021 Ursid meteors on the night of December 22nd, with an expected ZHR of 10-20, three days after the Full Moon, and just three days before Christmas.

Comet Leonard

The dawn path of Comet C/2021 A1 Leonard as seen from latitude 30 degrees north looking eastward at 6AM local, from December 1st to the 11th. Credit: Starry Night.

Comets: The first week of December is a great time to nab comet C/2021 A1 Leonard as it begins its plunge sunward. As of writing this, the comet is shining at magnitude +7.5, placed high in the dawn. The comet passes 0.233 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Earth on December 12th and reaches perihelion 0.62 AU from the Sun on January 3rd 2022, exactly one year after discovery. Follow the comet on the morning of December 3rd, when it makes a fine pass near the globular cluster Messier 3 just 12’ apart. The comet might top out at magnitude +4 or so, before we lose it in the dawn by mid-month.

Deep Sky highlight (northern hemisphere) Exploring the Orion Nebula Complex – The Pommel of the sword of Orion just below the belt contains one of the very few nebulae just visible to the naked eye. This is Messier 42, the amazing Orion Nebula. Even in the low power field of view of binoculars or a small telescope, M42 is a fine object, looking like a paper lantern lit from within. This metaphor is apt, because M42 is actually a stellar nursery containing massive stars just starting to shine, blowing back curtains of gas and dust in the process. Crank up the magnification, and you can see a grouping of these young stars near the center of M42, known as the Trapezium. M42 is actually the closest stellar nursery to our solar system, at ~1,300 light-years distant.

M42

The glorious Orion nebula complex. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Deep Sky highlight (southern hemisphere) – The Winter Albireo: everyone knows the northern colored double star Cygnus in the tail of Cygnus the Swan… but did you know that there’s a lesser known southern counterpart? Herschel 3945 is in the constellation Canis Major, and possesses two +5th magnitude stars, one blue and one orange-gold. It actually forms an equilateral triangle with Omicron Canis Majoris 2 and Delta Canis Majoris (Wesen), and really pops out in a binocular field of view. The pair are 27” apart, and about 1,400 light-years distant.

Winter Albireo

Finding the ‘Winter Albireo’. Credit: Stellarium.

Challenge object (northern hemisphere) – One of the brightest stars of the December sky is also and amazing multiple system. Castor is an easy split of two +3rd magnitude stars, 5.3” apart. I’ve heard folks at star parties say that Castor looks like a far-off set of car headlights in the telescope. Now, see a +9th magnitude star, 72” away? That’s a red dwarf system, physically related to the central pair… but each of these three stars are actually spectroscopic binaries (resolvable via the intertwined spectra of the stars), for a total of six stars in the sextuplet system.

Challenge Object (Southern Hemisphere) Can you spy Sirius B? Ever seen a white dwarf? The brightest star in the sky Sirius possesses one, though its a bashful find. Shining at magnitude +8.7, Sirius B wouldn’t be a tough find… were it not for the dazzling nearby primary, about 10,000 times brighter. On a 50 year orbit, 2021-2022 is a great time to try and spy this elusive white dwarf as it just reached apastron in 2019 at 11” arcseconds distant from its primary. The maximum apparent separation as seen from the Earth is 11.3” in 2023. good luck!

Sirius B

The orbit of Sirius b through mid-century. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Top Astronomy Events for December 2021

1-Andromedid meteors?

1/14-Comet 2021 A1 Leonard best at dawn

4-Moon occults Mars for NE Asia (1% illuminated waning crescent Moon)

4-New Moon+Total Solar Eclipse for Antarctica

4-Moon occults Mercury for S. America+Africa in the daytime(1% illuminated waxing crescent Moon)

11-Venus passes just 3’ from 14th magnitude Pluto

14-Geminids peak

19-Full Moon (smallest of the year)

21-Southward Solstice

22-Ursid meteors peak

31-Moon occults Mars for SE Asia (6% illuminated, waning crescent Moon).

We hope that this top astronomy events for December 2021 will bring many enjoyable observing times for you. Clear skies.

exoplanet
Press, Tips & News, Travel journal

SISTINE Suborbital Launch Aids the Hunt for Habitable Exoplanets

A low-cost project named SISTINE could create a baseline index in the search for life on other worlds.

exoplanet

An artist’s conception of a distant exoplanet. Credit: NASA

In astronomy, small missions can have a huge impact. And while huge projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope launching next month took over a decade to get to the launch pad and cost tens of billions of dollars, balloon-based or sub-orbital rockets offer a quick low-cost alternative to get telescopes up over the murk of the lower atmosphere.

Just such a mission launched early this month, from White Sands New Mexico. SISTINE-2 (the Sub-orbital Imaging Spectrograph for Transition region Irradiance from Nearby Exoplanets) launched on November 8th on a Black Brant IX rocket. During its 15 minute flight, the project reached an apogee of 160 miles, successfully collected data, and was later recovered.

SISTINE looks at celestial targets in the ultraviolet (UV) at the 100 to 160 nanometer wavelengths. On the ground, most UV at this wavelength is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere. Some of the very first ‘space telescopes’ were carried aloft by sub-orbital rockets, starting with UV views of the Sun using a captured German V-2 rocket in 1946. The first SISTINE launch occurred in 2019.

SISTINE uses a unique lithium fluoride coating to make its mirrors sensitive at UV wavelengths. These UV wavelengths are key in seeing the breakdown of carbon dioxide molecules into free oxygen. On Earth, life has reworked to atmosphere, and the presence of molecular oxygen or ozone elsewhere could be a strong indicator of life. Stars, however, may also shed energy at the same wavelengths, resulting in the same sort of breakdown and confounding the search with spurious signals.

What the SISTINE project hopes to do is it create an index catalog for main sequence stars in the Morgan-Keenan classification scheme, as a way to sort out bio-signatures versus baseline signals.

Star types

Star types along the Main Sequence. Credit: NASA/Goddard Spaceflight Center

“The interplay between the planet’s atmosphere and ultraviolet light from the host star determines which gases serve as the best biomarkers,” says Principal Mission Investigator Kevin France (University of Colorado) in a recent press release. “Knowing the ultraviolet spectra of these stars will help us find the most promising star-planet environments with future NASA observatories.”

The recent target for the SISTINE-2 launch was Procyon A, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor, 11.5 light-years distant. Though Procyon A is an F-type star slightly hotter than our Sun and hosts a white dwarf companion, it does not possess any known exoplanets.

Procyon

Procyon (in the center of the field of view). Credit: Stellarium.

The findings for the SISTINE project could go a long ways towards the ultimate goal of finding an exoplanet that has life. Next summer, the team plans to carry out a third launch from the Arnhem Space Center in Nhulunbuy, Australia. The southern hemisphere vantage point with afford the SISTINE detector views of the Alpha Centauri system with G- and K-type stars primary stars, as well as the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, known to possess the closest known exoplanet.

Exoplanet science could get interesting in the next decade. The recent Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics announced plans for a 6-meter space telescope as the next true successor to Hubble, a sort of compromise between the proposed LUVIOR (the Large Ultra-Violet Infrared Optical Surveyor) and HabEx (search for Habitable Exoplanets) telescopes. Such an instrument could do an unprecedented survey of the sky at UV wavelengths, to include stars with known exoplanets and perhaps, life.

White Sands Launch

A rocket launch (white vertical streak, center of frame) seen from the White Sands Visitor center. Credit: Dave Dickinson

We could be on the brink of the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe in coming decades, and SISTINE could help pave the way.

Press, Tips & News, Travel journal

Japans Phobos Mission May Bring Back First Mars Sample

An ambitious mission to the Martian moon Phobos may also snag samples from the Red Planet.

An artist’s conception of MMX approaching Phobos. JAXA

The race is on, in the coming decade, to bring back samples of the planet Mars to Earth for study. And while China has its Zhurong rover exploring the Martian surface and NASA’s Perseverance rover is actively collecting samples in Jezero crater for a sample return mission sometime in the 2030s, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Mars Moon eXploration (MMX) may actually beat them all to the punch.Read more

Press, Tips & News, Travel journal

First Possible “Extra-Galactic Exoplanet” Discovered

A novel twist on a proven method to find exoplanets yields a distant and strange world.

M51 Exoplanet

The location of the exoplanet source in the study (inset, left) along with an artist’s concept of the system (right). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. Di Stephano et al. Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/Grendler/Illustration NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

We live in a golden age of exoplanet discovery. In just under three short decades, we’ve gone from an era where no planets were known of beyond our solar system, to a wonderfully strange menagerie of 4,868 known worlds and counting. Now, to this list of ‘hottest, fastest, densest, etc,’ we might just be able to add another first, with the discovery of the first world known to exist beyond our galaxy.

The detection came from a tried and true method, employed in a unique fashion. Missions such as NASA’s Kepler and TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) use what’s known as the transit method. This is done by looking to detect an unseen planet as it passes in front of its host star, slightly dimming its light output in a predictable fashion. Of course, most orbits aren’t aligned to our line of sight, meaning that the transit method preferentially detects ‘hot Jupiters’ on fast orbits close to the target host star.

Astronomers realized that the transit method could also be used on distant targets, were the compact illumination source was sending out a large amount of x-rays. Such a system would host either a black hole or pulsar in a tight orbit around a massive star, drawing away material and emitting copious amounts of x-rays.

In the study, astronomers used the Chandra X-ray observatory to look at 55 systems in  the M51 galaxy, 64 systems in M101, and 119 systems in M104. They hit pay dirt with a brief x-ray transit in the Whirlpool galaxy Messier 51 (Messier 51).

“We are trying to open up a whole new arena for finding other worlds by searching for planetary candidates at x-ray wavelengths,” says Rosanne Di Stefano (Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian) in a recent press release, adding that the “strategy… makes it possible to discover them in other galaxies.”

The bizarre world, known as M51-ULS-1, seems to be a Saturn-sized planet, orbiting a binary pair consisting of either a black hole or a pulsar in a tight orbit around a main sequence star, 20 times as massive as our Sun. Not only must the world host a strange-looking sky, but it must have had a tumultuous past, as the survivor of a cataclysmic supernova that spawned the black hole or pulsar near the system’s center.

The sad fact is though, the system may never be confirmed, or at very least, confirmation may be a long time coming: M51-ULS-1 is on a projected 70 year orbit, meaning we may not see the planet transit in front of the system’s x-ray jet until the end of this century.

“Unfortunately, to confirm that we’re seeing a planet we would likely have to wait decades to see another transit,” Nia Imara (University of California at Santa Cruz) said in a recent press release. “Because of the uncertainties about how long it takes to orbit, we wouldn’t know exactly when to look.”

Spotting Messier 51

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy captured with #myStellina

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy captured with #myStellina

You can see M51 for yourself: the +8.4 magnitude galaxy is a fine deep-sky object. Though I always know to look for it just below the end of the handle of the Big Dipper asterism, it actually lies just across the border of Ursa Major, in the constellation of Canes Venatici. The Earl of Rosse first noted the ‘nebula’s’ spiral structure in 1845, using the massive 72-inch (1.8-metre) Leviathan of Parsonstown telescope in Ireland, then the largest telescope in the world. Messier 51 is 31 million light-years distant.

The discovery, though a fleeting a tantalizing one, shows that such an exotic method for remote exoplanet detection is possible. Chandra and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray mission have produced a treasure trove map of the x-ray sky, a database that may well contain more transiting exoplanets… and last week, the Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics announced that one of its smaller explorer missions on the community’s wish list is Lynx, a more powerful successor to Chandra.

One thing’s for sure: it’s a big Universe. What other exoplanets are out there in the data, awaiting discovery?