Hayabusa Re-Entry Video: Spacecraft Destruction at its Best

There’s not a lot to add to this video, it’s too awesome.

It was captured by NASA’s converted DC-8 jet that was flying over Australia when the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft broke up during re-entry. I’ll let the video do the rest of the talking:

Oh yes, and that little dot ahead of the falling debris? That’s the sample return capsule before it was found int he Outback safely. Thank goodness its parachute worked (presumably).

For more spacecraft demolition awesomeness, read “NASA Aircraft Videos Hayabusa Re-Entry

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Awesome.

The Moon, Space Shuttle Atlantis, an aurora plus Kibo, all in one breathtaking scene (Soichi Noguchi)

The instant I saw this photograph I realized I was seeing something so beautiful, I’d have a hard job writing something to accompany it.

Coming straight from the Twitter feed of Soichi Noguchi, Japanese astronaut and social-media-in-space-photography-guru, this single photograph has captured the moon, an aurora hanging above the Earth’s limb, a docked space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station’s Kibo module (plus a bonus robotic arm and solar panel).

This picture is awesome on so many levels. And to be honest, this should be the photograph of Atlantis’ final mission. It encapsulates so much; a testament to what mankind is capable of and a tribute to the men and women who are currently in space, risking their lives for the advancement of our race.

There’s not much else to say, except: wow.

Black Holes, Aurorae and the Event Horizon Telescope

My impression as to how a black hole 'aurora' might look like near an event horizon (Ian O'Neill/Discovery News)

Usually, aurorae happen when the solar wind blasts the Earth’s atmosphere. However, black holes may also have a shot at producing their very own northern lights. What’s more, we might even be able to observe this light display in the future.

Accretion Disks and Magnetic Fields

Simulating a rapidly spinning black hole, two researchers from Japan modeled an accretion disk spinning with it.

Inside this disk would be superheated plasma and as it rotates it might act like a dynamo, charged particles generating a magnetic field looping through the disk. But this magnetic field wont stay confined to the disk for long. Due to inertial effects, the magnetic field would be dragged into the event horizon, causing the magnetic fieldlines to ‘attach’ themselves to the black hole.

Assuming the accretion disk continues to generate a continuous magnetic field, a global black hole ‘magnetosphere’ would result.

A diagram of the black hole's magnetosphere (Takahashi and Takahashi, 2010)

A Plasma Hosepipe

As you’ve probably seen in the striking imagery coming from the high-definition movies being produced by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, magnetic fieldlines close to the solar surface can fill with solar plasma, creating bright coronal loops. This hot plasma fills the loops, feeding around the magnetic field like a hosepipe filling with water.

The same principal would apply to the black hole’s magnetosphere: the looped magnetic field feeding from the accretion disk to the event horizon filling with plasma as it is sucked out of the disk (by the black hole’s dominating gravitational field).

As you’d expect, the plasma will fall into the black hole at relativistic speeds, converted into pure energy, blasting with intense radiation. However, the Japanese researchers discovered something else that may happen just before the plasma is destroyed by the black hole: it will generate a shock.

As predicted by the model, this shock will form when the plasma exceeds the local Alfven speed. For want of a better analogy, this is like a supersonic jet creating a sonic boom. But in the plasma environment, as the plasma flow hits the shock front, it will rapidly decelerate, dumping energy before continuing to rain down on the event horizon. This energy dump will be converted into heat and radiation.

This fascinating study even goes so far as predicting the configuration of the black hole magnetosphere, indicating that the radiation generated by the shock would form two halos sitting above the north and south ‘poles’ of the black hole. From a distance, these halos would look like aurorae.

Very Large Baseline Interferometry

So there you have it. From a spinning black hole’s accretion disk to shocked plasma, a black hole can have an aurora. The black hole aurora, however, would be generated by shocked plasma, not plasma hitting atmospheric gases (as is the case on Earth).

This all sounds like a fun theoretical idea, but it may also have a practical application in the not-so-distant future.

Last year, I wrote “The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?” which investigated the efforts under way in the field of very large baseline interferometry (or “VLBI”) to directly observe the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A*) living in the center of our galaxy.

In a paper written by Vincent Fish and Sheperd Doeleman at the MIT Haystack Observatory, results from a simulation of several radio telescopes as part of an international VLBI campaign were detailed. The upshot was that the more radio antennae involved in such a campaign, the better the resolution of the observations of the ‘shadow’ of the black hole’s event horizon.

If the black hole’s event horizon could be observed by a VLBI campaign, could its glowing aurorae also be spotted? Possibly.

For more, check out my Discovery News article: “Can a Black Hole Have an ‘Aurora’?” and my Astroengine.com article: “The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?

Was Voyager 2 Hijacked by Aliens? No.

The Voyager 2 spacecraft has been speeding through the Solar System since 1977 and it’s seen a lot. Besides scooting past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, the probe is now passing through the very limit of the heliosphere (called the heliopause) where it has begun to detect a magnetic field beyond the Solar System. The fact we have man-made objects exiting our star system is something that makes me goosebumpily.

For some perspective, Voyager 2 is so far away from Earth that it takes nearly 13 hours for commands sent from Earth to reach the probe.

After decades of travel, the NASA spacecraft continues to relay data back to us, making it one of the most profound and exciting space missions ever launched. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the aging explorer recently experienced a glitch and the data received by NASA was rather garbled.

Naturally, the conspiracy theorists were out in force quickly pointing their sticky fingers at a possible encounter of the 3rd kind. How these ‘aliens’ found the probe in the first place and reprogrammed the transmission for it to appear corrupt Earth-side is beyond me, but according to an ‘expert’ in Germany, aliens (with an aptitude for reprogramming 30 year old Earth hardware, presumably) were obviously to blame.

One of the alien implication articles came from yet another classic ‘science’ post thrown together by the UK’s Telegraph where they decided to take the word of a UFO expert (obviously a viable source) without any kind of counter-argument from a real expert of real science. (But this is the same publication that brought us other classics such as the skull on Mars and the Doomsday Turkey, so it’s not too surprising.)

As I discussed in a recent CRI English radio debate with Beyond Beijing hosts Chris Gelken and Xu Qinduo, the Voyager-alien implication is beyond funny; an entertaining sideline to poke fun at while NASA worked out what actually went wrong. But the big difference was that Chris and Xu had invited Seth Shostak (from the SETI Institute) and Douglas C. Lin (from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University) to join the fun. No UFO expert in sight, so the discussion was biased toward science and logic, not crazy talk.

(It was an awesome show by the way, and you can check out the recording via my Discovery News article.)

So what did happen to Voyager 2? It turns out that aliens are not required to answer this cosmic mystery.

On Tuesday, NASA announced that Voyager 2 had flipped one of its bits of memory the wrong way. “A value in a single memory location was changed from a 0 to a 1,” said JPL’s Veronia McGregor.

This glitch was thought to occur in the flight data system, which formats information for transmission to Earth. Should something go wonky in its memory allocation, the stuff it transmits can be turned into gibberish.

Although it isn’t known how this single bit was flipped (and we may never know, as Voyager 2 is an awful long way from home), it sounds very much like a cosmic ray event interfering with the onboard electronics. As cosmic rays are highly energetic charged particles, they can penetrate deep into computer systems, causing an error in calculations.

And this situation isn’t without precedent either. Recently, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was hit by a cosmic ray event, causing the onboard computer to switch to “safe mode.” Also, Voyager 2 is beginning to exit the Sun’s outermost sphere of influence, where turbulence and confused magnetic fields rule. If I had to guess, I’d say — statistically-speaking — the probe might have a greater chance of being hit by the most energetic cosmic rays from deep space.

Just because something “mysterious” happens in space doesn’t mean aliens, the Illuminati or some half-baked doomsday phenomenon caused it. Before jumping to conclusions it would be nice if certain newspapers and UFO experts alike could look at the most likely explanation before pulling the alien card.

Alas, I suspect that some things will never change.

The Astroengine Universe is Expanding*

Astroengine.com is now being syndicated by The Christian Science Monitor! The CSM has been around for ever (well, since 1908) and it’s a publication that’s won seven Pulitzer Prizes. That’s all kinds of awesome. Personally, I’ve been following CSMonitor.com for some time and their coverage of all things science is excellent — I’m very excited to be a part of their new “Cool Astronomy” section.

But I’m not alone! You’ll find many familiar faces in this new superblog, many of which you can see in Astroengine’s blogroll.

What does this mean for Astroengine? Well, nothing is going to change, except I’ll be less lazy and write more. My plan for Astroengine’s global domination is on track!

*I stole this title from a Chipotle ad, but it’s a great ad (and an awesome Mexican take out), so why not? Unfortunately the burritos aren’t free in the Astroengine Universe.

Israel ‘Meteorite’ Isn’t a Meteorite [UPDATE]

That's no space rock: The Israeli 'meteorite' that never was (Ilan Lilush, Tel Aviv Police).

That's no space rock: The Israeli 'meteorite' that never was (Ilan Lilush, Tel Aviv Police).

UPDATE (April 25): The unidentified combustible object has been identified as being “man made” rather than anything cosmic in origin.

“It is definitely not a meteor and not a different natural substance – somebody created it, and it did not appear from outer space,” said Ittai Gavrieli of the Geological Survey of Israel when reporting after analysis of the ‘meteorite.’

Also, it looks like my original assertion that this resembled an incendiary device wasn’t far off. This object contained high quantities of phosphorus, a chemical commonly used in incendiary weapons.

“The object had high concentrations of phosphorus, which is naturally ignited when it comes in contact with air and with inflammatory material,” Gavrieli added.

However, I still stand by my theory that the Moonpeople are behind it.

(Once again, thanks Avi for keeping me in the loop of these meteorite misadventures!)

[Original post below]

ORIGINAL POST: It has all the hallmarks of being a meteorite: It’s on fire! There’s smoke! Hell, even the BBC is reporting about it!

That’s right, isn’t it? When a chunk of rock flies through the Earth’s atmosphere it burns bright, sometimes exploding during re-entry, scattering the ground like a hellish incendiary device? Scary stuff if you’re standing underneath the cosmic fireball.

It seems that some surfers on the beach near the town of Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, Israel had a lucky escape when an unidentified-smoldering object punched a hole through a surfboard and then sat, for some time, burning amongst the seashells. Lots of excitement ensued, and the whole event was captured on videophone. The Israeli police are investigating, saying the unidentified object “fell from the sky.”

However, looking at the video above, that’s no meteorite.

Sure, when a chunk of space rock enters the Earth’s atmosphere it produces light and flame due to atmospheric ram pressure heating the outer layers, producing a trail of ionized gas. But it’s also worth remembering that space rock is very cold (as it’s been deep frozen in space), so the brief heating during re-entry will not heat the cold rock up substantially when it makes landfall, definitely not enough to make it combust when it lands. Re-entry happens for a very short time, although the shell of the meteorite might heat up a little, the insides of the meteorite remain very cold. Even if the rock was heated up during those few fiery seconds of re-entry, it will decelerate very quickly, falling to the ground at terminal velocity. This would have the effect of cooling it down some more.

In fact, it’s been reported that frost has formed on meteorites as soon as they land. That’s radically different to what we’re seeing here.

Even if this could possibly be a meteorite, what’s burning? Last time I checked, space rock didn’t burn like a firework and produce smoke like a signal flare. And meteorites certainly don’t contain any nitroglycerin. That is unless the Moonpeople are throwing bombs at us again, but I’ll save that theory for another day.

Thanks Avi Joseph for pointing me to this video!

I, For One, Welcome Our New BritSpace Overlords

The Habitation Extension Module (HEM) proposed by UK engineers (University of Bristol)

The Habitation Extension Module (HEM) proposed by UK engineers (University of Bristol)

The UK has started its own space agency (at long last) and the agency has a logo. The latter is the big news here.

At a time when motivation for manned spaceflight by NASA is dwindling and yet private industry is forcing its foot in the door of getting stuff into space, it’s nice to hear that the UK government felt the need to keep up with the rest of the world and set up an agency of their own. That’s not to say the UK hasn’t been involved in space programs before now, it’s just that our involvement has always been a piecemeal approach; hitching rides on other nation’s rockets with occasional probes (erm, well, the Mars Beagle 2 lander is the only one that comes to mind). Personally, I blame Maggie Thatcher (I have my reasons).

Awesome, so we now have an agency rather than an office cubicle tagged “Space.” This is a bona fide agency that has lunar aspirations (yep, really, we’re that original) and a funky logo to boot.

However, not everyone is impressed with the logo. In fact, Ken Carbone, a graphic designer who writes for the website Fast Company, thinks it’s dull:

The design recipe is simple, right? Take a square, add a Union Jack, thrust an arrow through it and BAM!

This logo is anything but tasty. The net result looks terribly fractured and unstable. Not the ideal visual for space flight.

To make matters worse, the U.K. Space Agency will have the inevitable and unfortunate acronym “U.K.S.A.” which sounds like something translated into Pig Latin.

But say if “fractured and unstable” is exactly the impression we were trying to give, huh? But, in all fairness, he does point out that all space agency logos are dull.

Let’s have a look the offending logo. Prepare yourself, it’s a disgrace:

Woah! Hold on a second. I thought it was supposed to be crap? As far as logos go, that’s one I can believe in. I mean, it’s a re-worked version of our proud national flag. It also has a gert red arrow, pointing up. What more do you need?

Admittedly, I think the acronym isn’t much cop. U.K.S.A. sucks cheese, “BritSpace” is far superior in my humble opinion (Science Minister Lord Drayson, consider that a suggestion), but as for the logo, I’m proud of that, I think it means business. Look at that arrow. It’s red. Pointing up. Masculine. Grrr.

That’s the logo of an aspiring space faring nation if I ever saw one.

And now for my least favorite space agency logo. Ladies and Gentlemen, please avert your eyes for the Croatian Space Agency:

But hey, what do I know, I’m not a graphic designer.

In all honesty, I like the UKSA logo, but I’m especially happy that the UK actually has an agency now rather than being just a player in the European Space Agency (ESA). But will it motivate a solution to the summering STFC debacle? That remains to be seen.

Then Spitzer Imaged Baby Stars in the Orion Nebula…

The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA)

The Orion Nebula's star-forming region (NASA).

Firstly, apologies that it’s been over a month since last posting to Astroengine.com. Call it slacking off, call it a sabbatical, either way, it’s not good. I’ve actually prepared several half-finished articles, but I just never got around to completing them. However, I have been on writing overdrive over at Discovery News, so if I go quiet over here, you know where to find me.

Speaking of Discovery News, I’ve just posted an incredible image of the heart of the Orion Nebula as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope, so I can’t think of a better way to kick-start Astroengine with an image filled with awesomeness.

Although Spitzer has entered a new phase of operations since it depleted the liquid helium coolant used to maintain its instrumentation, that doesn’t mean its stopped producing some awe-inspiring imagery. In a new vista released on Thursday, a bustling star formation region in Orion is detailed, showing some 1,500 young stars the observatory watched for 40 days. This is an unprecedented study, allowing rapid variations in these baby stars to be tracked by Spitzer.

Young stars are generally highly variable in their brightness, a characteristic that is of huge interest to astrophysicists. If we can understand the mechanisms causing this variation, we can gain an insight to stellar evolution, possibly even understanding the history of our own Solar System.

As Spitzer observes in infrared wavelengths, it’s very sensitive to clouds of dust being heated by these young stars. Therefore, the proto-planetary disks surrounding these million year old stars glow brightly. Not only does this give an indication to the conditions surrounding the star, it also provides astronomers with an idea to how these disks of dust clump together, slowly evolving into exoplanets. And now Spitzer has data sets spanning weeks, dynamic changes in the emissions from the stars and their evolving planetary systems can be studied.

But science aside, the Spitzer imagery is a thing of beauty, reminding us how complex our cosmos really is. Don’t believe me? Take a look for yourself (click the pic to dive right in):

The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

The star forming region in Orion as studied by Spitzer, rotated 90 degrees (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

The Real Inspiration Behind “Project M”

The Project M android... haven't I seen you somewhere before?

The Project M android... haven't I seen you somewhere before?

As you know, I’m highly dubious about this “Project M” that has just surfaced on the intertoobs (I strongly suspect it’s a hoax). But doubts aside, I kept looking at that android throwing stones on the lunar surface thinking I’d seen that guy somewhere before. At first, I thought C3PO from Star Wars… but no! It’s this guy:

It's uncanny! Bender from Futurama explores the lunar surface (NASA/20th Century Fox/Ian O'Neill).

It's uncanny! Bender from Futurama explores the lunar surface (NASA/20th Century Fox/Ian O'Neill).

I think Futurama’s Bender would do a fine job exploring the moon.