When Stardust Met Tempel, a Love Story

Comet Tempel 1 near Stardust-NExT close approach (NASA)

Comet Tempel 1 near Stardust-NExT close approach (NASA)

A NASA spacecraft, a lonely comet and a Valentine’s date with no comparison.

Last night, NASA’s veteran Stardust-NExT mission successfully visited its second comet, Tempel 1. Having already been visited by NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005, it’s hard not to wonder whether Tempel 1 was a little apprehensive. Deep Impact did lob a refrigerator-sized copper impactor into the comet’s surface during the 2005 encounter, so I think we can forgive the comet some pre-date jitters.

Fortunately, Stardust was the perfect date (no impactors, silverware, dishes or bottles were thrown), just a peaceful flyby, during which the spacecraft beamed dozens of photos back to Earth. To quote Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator: “It was 1,000 percent successful!”

Alas, although the date was a success, there won’t be the sound of wedding bells any time soon. Stardust is now powering away from the comet at a breakneck speed. Was it something Tempel 1 said?

For more on this Valentine’s rendezvous, have a read of my Discovery News article “Stunning Photos from a Comet Near-Kiss.”

Oh yes, and I got bored, so I created a rough animation of the flyby. Enjoy!

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Can Spicules Explain the Mysteries of Coronal Heating?

Solar spicules as imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA)

Solar spicules as imaged by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (NASA)

There’s one recurring question I’ve been asking for nearly a decade: Why is the Sun’s corona (its atmosphere) so hot?

When asking this out loud I inevitably get the sarcastic “um, because the Sun is… hot?” reply. Yes, the Sun is hot, really hot, but solar physicists have spent the last half-century trying to understand why the corona is millions of degrees hotter than the solar surface.

After all, if the air surrounding a light bulb was a couple of magnitudes hotter than the bulb’s surface, you’d want to know why that’s the case, right? At first glance, the solar atmosphere is breaking all kinds of thermodynamic laws.

The Sun is a strange beast and because of its magnetic dominance, energy travels through the solar body in rather unfamiliar ways. And today, a group of solar physicists have put forward a new theory as to where the coronal energy is coming from. But they’ve only been able to do this with help from NASA’s newest and most advanced solar telescope: the Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO.

Using the SDO’s high-definition cameras and imagery from the awesome Japanese Hinode solar observatory, features previously invisible to solar astronomers have been resolved. The features in question are known as “spicules.” These small-scale jets inject solar plasma from the solar surface into the lower corona, but until now they’ve been considered too cool to have any appreciable heating effect.

That was until a new type of hot, high-speed spicule was discovered.

“It’s a little jet, then it takes off,” solar physicist Scott McIntosh, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s High Altitude Observatory, told Discovery News’ Larry O’Hanlon. “What we basically find is that the connection is the heated blobs of plasma. It’s kind of a missing link that we’ve been looking for since the 1960s.”

These Type II spicules blast hot multi-million degree Kelvin plasma at speeds of 100 to 150 kilometers per second (62 to 93 miles per second) into the corona and then dissipate. What’s more, these aren’t isolated events, they’ve been observed all over the Sun. “This phenomenon is truly ubiquitous and populates the solar wind,” said McIntosh.

While this research provides more clarity on coronal dynamics, McIntosh is keen to point out that Type II spicules probably don’t tell the whole coronal heating story.

NASA’s coronal physics heavyweight James Klimchuk agrees. “It is very nice work, but it is absolutely not the final story on the origin of hot coronal plasma,” he said.

“Based on some simple calculations I have done, spicules account for only a small fraction of the hot plasma.”

Klimchuk favors coronal heating through magnetic stresses in the lower atmosphere generating small reconnection events. Right at the base of the corona, loops of magnetic flux channeling multi-million degree plasma high above the Sun’s chromosphere become stressed and eventually snap. These reconnection processes produce sub-resolution nanoflare events — akin to small explosions releasing energy into the solar plasma, heating it up.

Another heating mechanism — a mechanism I studied during my solar research days (.pdf) — is that of wave heating, when magnetohydrodynamic waves (I studied high-frequency Alfven waves, or ion cyclotron waves) interact with the lower corona, heating it up.

But which heating mechanism injects the most energy into the corona? For now, although there’s plenty of theorized processes (including these new transient Type II spicules), we don’t really know. We can only observe the solar corona from afar, so getting a true grasp on coronal dynamics is very hard. We really need a probe to dive deep into the solar atmosphere and take a measurement in-situ. Although the planned Solar Probe Plus will provide some answers, it may still be some time before we know why the corona is so hot.

But it is most likely that it’s not one coronal heating mechanism, but a combination of the above and, perhaps, a mechanism we haven’t uncovered yet.

For more on this fascinating research, check out Larry O’Hanlon’s Discovery News article “New Clue May Solve Solar Mystery.”

Dead On Arrival: Necropanspermia Spawned Life on Earth?

Are those Martian fossils in meteorite ALH84001? (NASA)

Are those Martian fossils in meteorite ALH84001? (NASA)

Panspermia” is a hypothesis that life is transferred from planet-to-planet and star system-to-star system through some interplanetary or interstellar means.

But for panspermia to work, this life needs to be sufficiently protected — and, um, kept alive — from the worst the universe can throw at it (such as radiation, cold and vacuum). Alas, when considering interstellar hops, the timescales are likely too long (i.e. millions of years) and said life will be dead on arrival.

We know that Earth Brand™ life is a pretty hardy thing. After all, we’ve tortured terrestrial microbes and mosquito larvae in the vacuum of space to see if they’d pop. Sure enough, when brought back to terra firma the various creatures wriggled and squirmed as if nothing had happened. But these experiments in orbit were carried out over the course of months or years. While this might be suitable for interplanetary transfers, it would take millions of years for an extraterrestrial interloper to traverse even a modest interstellar gap.

Any hitchhikers that were alive on a stellar wind-blown particle will be toast (or, more accurately: freeze-dried, pulverized, mashed-up, DNA-shredded mess) on reaching their exotic destination eons later.

What good are tiny alien fossils when the panspermia model is supposed to seed other worlds with life… that’s actually alive?

Enter a new incarnation of pansermia: “Necropanspermia.”

Conceived by Paul Wesson, of Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Canada, necropanspermia is the transfer of the information of life to new worlds, wriggling extraterrestrial bacterium not required.

Assuming alien microbial life has made the trip across interstellar space, died and then fossilized, Wesson reckons the information contained within the long-dead microbe could be used as some kind of template by a hospitable world to use and grow new life. (It’s not quite zombie science, but it’s hard not to say “reanimated alien corpse.”)

Wesson even goes so far to suggest ET’s microbial remains can be “resurrected.”

“Resurrection may, however, be possible.” Wesson concludes in his Space Science Reviews paper. “Certain micro-organisms possess remarkably effective enzyme systems that can repair a multitude of strand breaks.”

Hypothesizing about various forms of panspermia may seem more like a philosophical argument, but Wesson suggests that we might be able to find evidence for necropanspermia if we collect some dust samples from the outermost reaches of the solar system, far enough away from Earth’s biological pollution.

Alas, as the Hayabusa asteroid mission has proven, capturing dust from anywhere in space isn’t easy.

Read more about necropanspermia in my Discovery News article “Life on Earth Spawned by Dead Alien Microbes?

Compex Magnetic Eruption Witnessed by Solar Observatories

Solar Dynamics Observatory view of the solar disk shortly after eruption (NASA).

This morning, at 08:55 UT, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) detected a C3-class flare erupt inside a sunspot cluster. 100,000 kilometers away, deep within the solar atmosphere (the corona), an extended magnetic field filled with cool plasma forming a dark ribbon across the face of the sun (a feature known as a “filament”) erupted at the exact same time.

It seems very likely that both events were connected after a powerful shock wave produced by the flare destabilized the filament, causing the eruption.

A second solar observatory, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), then spotted a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) blast into space, straight in the direction of Earth. Solar physicists have calculated that this magnetic bubble filled with energetic particles should hit Earth on August 3, so look out for some intense aurorae, a solar storm is on its way…

For more on this impressive solar eruption, read my Discovery News article, “Incoming! The Sun Unleashes CME at Earth

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

Hayabusa Returns to Earth with a Flash

Hayabusa re-enters over the Australian Outback, generating a bright fireball (screen grabs from the JAXA video feed)

Staring hard at the live streaming video of the black Australian skies, I was hoping to see a faint streak of light glide across the camera’s field of view.

But no, it wasn’t that subtle.

Shortly after 9:51 am EDT on Sunday morning (or, for me, a far more civilized 2:51 pm GMT), the Japanese space agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa’s mission officially came to an end, burning up in the atmosphere. However, a few hours before, the spacecraft released a 40 cm-wide capsule, sending it ahead of the main spacecraft. This sample return capsule would have a very different re-entry than its mothership.

As I watched the small dot of light on the horizon of the streaming video getting brighter and brighter — feverishly hitting the PRTSC button and using some rapid cut&paste-fu in Photoshop — suddenly it erupted, shedding light on the distant clouds that had been invisible in the night.

Far from the re-entry being a faint or dull event, it was dazzling (as seen in the screen grabs to the right).

So, after seven dramatic years in space, the Hayabusa mission has come to an end.

For the full story about how Hayabusa got hit by the largest solar flare in history, limped to visit an asteroid called Itokawa and how its sample-collecting kit malfunctioned, have a read of my main article on Discovery News: Hayabusa Generates Re-Entry Fireball Over Australia

Note: Thanks to everyone who re-tweeted the sequence of re-entry pics. As of this moment it has received over 30,000 views on Twitpic!

Jupiter Got Smacked, Again

Quite frankly, I’m stunned.

An Australian amateur astronomer has just observed his second ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event: an impact in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Phil Plait was very quick to get the news out, describing it as a “major coincidence,” and he ain’t wrong!

Anthony Wesley’s first event was the famous July 2009 observation of what was thought to have been the immediate aftermath of a comet impact in the Jovian atmosphere. His second happened on Thursday at 20:31 UTC when he was observing Jupiter when something hit the atmosphere, generating a huge fireball.

It is not known whether this event was caused by a comet or asteroid, but in a bizarre case of serendipity, earlier on Thursday Hubble released more information on his original impact event. The July 2009 “bruise” in the gas giant’s atmosphere is now thought to have been caused by an asteroid, and not a comet.

The Hubble press release included details on how researchers deduced that it was actually more likely that a 500 meter-wide asteroid hit Jupiter in 2009. One clue was that newly installed cameras on the space telescope detected little dust in the halo surrounding the impact site — a characteristic that was detected after the impact of the shards of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July 1994. Also, the calculated trajectory of the 2009 event indicated the object didn’t have an orbit commonly associated with comets. If the 2009 event was an asteroid, that means Wesley saw something never seen before: the site of a recent asteroid impact on a celestial body.

And now, less than a year after being the first to see that impact aftermath, Wesley has done it again. Another amateur astronomer, Christopher Go, was quick to confirm Thursday’s fireball with a video of the 2 second flash in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

These impact events serve as a reminder about Jupiter’s fortuitous role in our Solar System. As the gas giant is so massive, its gravitational pull has a huge influence over the outer planets, dwarf planets, comets and asteroids. Acting like an interplanetary ‘vacuum cleaner’ Jupiter can block potentially disastrous chunks of stuff from taking a dive into the inner Solar System. It is thought that this distant planet has helped Earth become the thriving world it is today, preventing many asteroids and comets from ruining our evolution.

Thank you Jupiter!

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.

Gecksteroids! Asteroids and Geckos May Share Common Force

The asteroid Itokawa (as imaged by the Japanese Hayabusa probe) and a gecko tattoo. Bear with me, it'll make sense soon (JAXA)

The asteroid Itokawa (as imaged by the Japanese Hayabusa probe) and a gecko tattoo. Bear with me, it'll make sense soon (JAXA)

What do asteroids and geckos have in common? Not a lot, as you’d expect, but they may share a common force.

This rather strange notion comes from research being done by a team of University of Colorado scientists who have been studying the odd nature of the asteroid Itokawa. When the Japanese Hayabusa mission visited the space rock in 2005 (Hayabusa’s sample return capsule is set to return to Earth on June 13th by the way), it noticed the asteroid was composed of smaller bits of rubble, rather than one solid chunk. Although this isn’t a surprise in itself — indeed, many asteroids are believed to be floating “rubble piles” — the rate of spin of the asteroid posed a problem.

Itokawa spins rather fast and if only the force of gravity was keeping the lumps of rock together, they would have been flung out into space long ago. In short, the asteroid shouldn’t exist.

Although plenty of theories have been bandied around, one idea seems to stick.

More commonly found as a force that holds molecules together, the van der Waals force may bind the individual components of the asteroid together, acting against the centripetal force caused by its spin.

But where do the geckos come in?

Geckos are highly skilled in the “climbing up walls” department, and it’s the van der Waals force that makes this happen. Should the body of a gecko be tilted in such a way against a perfectly smooth, “impossible” to climb surface, the gravity acting on the little creature will trigger the force into action. Therefore geckos have evolved to exploit the practical application of van der Waals.

This has some rather interesting ramifications for asteroid evolution too. During early stages of asteroid formation, the larger fragments of rock are flung off; the centripetal force exceeds that of gravity. In the latter stages of development, only the smallest rocks remain behind, their mass small enough to allow van der Waals forces to overcome the spin.

So, there you have it, asteroids do have something in common with geckos. It seems only right to call these space rubble piles “Gecksteroids.”

Thanks to my Discovery News colleague Jennifer Ouellette for drawing the comparison between asteroids and geckos!

Source: Discovery News, arXiv.org

NASA’s Asteroid Mission: Scary but Useful

Things have been moving fast for NASA in recent weeks, culminating in President Obama’s inspiring speech at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. I haven’t commented on the new direction for the US space agency’s direction thus far as I’ve needed some time to digest the ramifications of these plans. But generally, I’m positive about the scrapping of the moon goal in favor of a manned asteroid mission (by 2025) and Mars some time around 2035.

But it hasn’t been easy, especially after the Ares I-X test launch in October 2009.

The Ares I-X was the first new NASA manned vehicle my generation has seen take to the skies (I was only one year old when the first of the shuttle fleet launched, beginning nearly 30 years of low-Earth orbit operations, so that doesn’t count). Despite criticism that this test flight was nothing more than old tech dressed up as a sleek “new” rocket, I was thrilled to see it launch.

The end product didn’t matter on that day. Sure, we’ve been to the Moon before, but it just seemed like the best plan on the table. I was inspired, I felt excited about our future in space. Seeing how astronauts live and work on the lunar surface, using it as a stepping stone for further planetary exploration (i.e. Mars) seemed… sensible. Expensive, but sensible

But the overriding sentiment behind Obama’s new plans was that we’ve been there before, why waste billions on going back? Continuing with the bloated Constellation Program would have used up funds it didn’t have. Cost overruns and missed deadlines were already compiling.

So, the White House took on the recommendations of experts and decided to go for something far riskier than a “simple” moon hop. Things going to plan and on schedule, in the year 2025 we’ll see a team of astronauts launch for a much smaller and far more distant target than the moon.

The asteroid plan has many benefits, the key being that we need to study these potentially devastating chunks of rock up close. Should one be heading in the direction of Earth, it would be really nice to have the technological ability to deal with it. A manned mission may be necessary to send to a hazardous near-Earth asteroid. Think Armageddon but with less nukes, no Bruce Willis, but more science and planning. Besides, if a rock the size of a city is out there, heading right at us, I’m hopeful we’ll have more than 18 days to deal with the thing.

My Discovery News colleague Ray Villard agrees:

“A several month-long human round trip to an asteroid will test the sea legs of astronauts for interplanetary journeys. And, asteroids are something we have to take very seriously in coming up with an Earth defense strategy, so that we don’t wind up going extinct like the dinosaurs.”

Possibly even more exciting than the asteroid plan is what — according to Obama — will happen ten years after that: a manned mission to Mars. I can’t overemphasize my enthusiasm for a mission to the Red Planet; that will be a leap for mankind like no other. Granted, there is plenty of criticism flying around that we need to live on the moon first before we attempt to land on Mars, but looking at the new plan, we won’t be actually landing on Mars any time soon. A 2030′s mission to Mars will most likely be a flyby, or if we’re really lucky, an orbital manned mission.

And that’s why going to an asteroid will be a good first step. Spending months cramped inside a spaceship with a handful of crewmates will likely be one of the biggest challenges facing man in space, so popping over to a near-Earth asteroid first is a good idea. A Mars trip could take over a year (depending on the mission). Now, this is where technological development sure would help.

If NASA can plough dedicated funds into new technologies, new life support and propulsion systems can be developed. Those two things will really help astronauts get places quicker (avoiding boredom) and live longer (avoiding… death). For the “living longer” part, there appears to be genuine drive to increase the life of the space station and do more impressive science on it. As it’s our only manned outpost, perhaps we’ll be able to use it for what it’s designed for.

There are a lot of unknowns still, and Obama’s Thursday speech certainly wasn’t NASA’s silver bullet, but it’s a start. Allocating serious funding for space technology development whilst setting the space program’s sights on going where no human has been before will surely boost enthusiasm for space exploration. In fact, I’d argue that this is exactly what NASA should be doing.

Although I was dazzled by the Ares I-X, I can see that continuing with Constellation would have been a flawed decision. Launching a manned mission to explore an interplanetary threat sounds risky, but considering that asteroids are the single biggest cosmic threat to civilization, it sure would be useful to know we have the technology to send astronauts to asteroids, perhaps even dealing with a potential threat in the near future.