The Sun Just Unleashed a Massive Explosion — at Mars

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NASA/ESA/SOHO

The Earth and Mars are currently on exact opposite sides of the sun — a celestial situation known as “Mars solar conjunction” — a time when we have no way of directly communicating with satellites and rovers at the Red Planet. So, when the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SoHO) spotted a huge (and I mean HUGE) bubble of superheated plasma expand from the solar disk earlier today (July 23), it either meant our nearest star had launched a vast coronal mass ejection directly at Earth or it had sent a CME in the exact opposite direction.

As another solar observatory — the STEREO-A spacecraft — currently has a partial view of the other side of the sun (it orbits ahead of Earth’s orbit, so it can see regions of the sun that are out of view from our perspective), we know that this CME didn’t emanate from the sun’s near side, it was actually launched away from us and Mars will be in for some choppy space weather very soon.

It appears the CME emanated from active region (AR) 2665, a region of intense magnetic activity exhibiting a large sunspot.

“If this explosion had occurred 2 weeks ago when the huge sunspot was facing Earth, we would be predicting strong geomagnetic storms in the days ahead,” writes Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com.

CMEs are magnetic bubbles of solar plasma that are ejected at high speed into interplanetary space following a magnetic eruption in the lower corona (the sun’s lower atmosphere). From STEREO-A’s unique vantage point, it appears the CME detected by SoHO was triggered by a powerful solar flare that generated a flash of extreme-ultraviolet radiation (possibly even generating X-rays):

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Observation by STEREO-A of the flaring event that likely triggered today’s CME (NASA/STEREO)

When CMEs encounter Earth’s global magnetic field, the radiation environment surrounding our planet increases, posing a hazard for satellites and unprotected astronauts. In addition, if the conditions are right, geomagnetic storms may commence, creating bright aurorae at high latitudes. These storms can overload power grids on the ground, triggering mass blackouts. Predicting when these storms will occur is of paramount importance, so spacecraft such as SoHO, STEREO and others are constantly monitoring our star’s magnetic activity deep inside the corona and throughout the heliosphere.

Mars, however, is a very different beast to Earth in that it doesn’t have a strong global magnetosphere to shield against incoming energetic particles from the sun, which the incoming CME will be delivering very soon. As it lacks a magnetic field, this CME will continue to erode the planet’s thin atmosphere, stripping some of the gases into space. Eons of space weather erosion has removed most of the Martian atmosphere, whereas Earth’s magnetism keeps our atmospheric gases nicely contained.

When NASA and other space agencies check in with their Mars robots after Mars solar conjunction, it will be interesting to see if any recorded the space weather impacts of this particular CME.

h/t Spaceweather.com

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TRAPPIST-1: The ‘Habitable’ Star System That’s Probably a Hellhole

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Red dwarfs can be angry little stars (NASA/GSFC/S. Wiessinger)

There are few places that elicit such vivid thoughts of exotic habitable exoplanets than TRAPPIST-1 — a star system located less than 40 light-years from Earth. Alas, according to two recent studies, the planetary system surrounding the tiny red dwarf star may actually be horrible.

For anyone who knows a thing or two about red dwarfs, this may not come as a surprise. Although they are much smaller than our sun, red dwarfs can pack a powerful space weather punch for any world that orbits too close. And, by their nature, any habitable zone surrounding a red dwarf would have to be really compact, a small detail that would bury any “habitable” exoplanet in a terrible onslaught of ultraviolet radiation and a blowtorch of stellar winds. These factors would make the space weather environment around TRAPPIST-1 extreme to say the least.

“The concept of a habitable zone is based on planets being in orbits where liquid water could exist,” said Manasvi Lingam, a Harvard University researcher who led a Center for Astrophysics (CfA) study, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology. “This is only one factor, however, in determining whether a planet is hospitable for life.”

The habitable zone around any star is the distance at which a small rocky world can orbit and receive just the right amount of heating to maintain liquid water on its hypothetical surface. Orbit too close and the water vaporizes; too far and it freezes. As life needs liquid water to evolve, seeking out exoplanets in their star’s habitable zone is a good place to start.

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The peaceful surface of a TRAPPIST-1 habitable zone exoplanet as imagined in this artist’s rendering (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

For the sun-Earth system, we live in the middle of the habitable zone, at a distance of one astronomical unit (1 AU). For a world orbiting a red dwarf like TRAPPIST-1, its orbital distance would be a fraction of that — i.e. three worlds orbit TRAPPIST-1 in the star’s habitable zone at between 2.8% and 4.5% the distance the Earth orbits the sun. This is because red dwarfs are very dim and produce meager heating — for a world to receive the same degree of heating that our planet enjoys, a red dwarf world would need to snuggle up really close to its star.

But just because TRAPPIST-1 is dim, it doesn’t mean it holds back on ultraviolet radiation. And, according to this study, the three “habitable” exoplanets in the TRAPPIST-1 system are likely anything but — they would receive disproportionate quantities of damaging ultraviolet radiation.

“Because of the onslaught by the star’s radiation, our results suggest the atmosphere on planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system would largely be destroyed,” said co-author Avi Loeb, who also works at Harvard. “This would hurt the chances of life forming or persisting.”

Life as we know it needs an atmosphere, so the erosion by UV radiation seems like a significant downer for the possible evolution of complex life.

That’s not the only bad news for our extraterrestrial life dreams around TRAPPIST-1, however. Another study carried out by the CfA and the University of Massachusetts in Lowell (and published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters) found more problems. Like the sun, TRAPPIST-1 generates stellar winds that blast energetic particles into space. As these worlds orbit the star so close, they would be sitting right next to the proverbial nozzle of a stellar blowtorch — models suggest they experience 1,000 to 100,000 times stellar wind pressure than the solar wind exerts on Earth.

And, again, that’s not good news if a planet wants to hold onto its atmosphere.

“The Earth’s magnetic field acts like a shield against the potentially damaging effects of the solar wind,” said Cecilia Garraffo of the CfA and study lead. “If Earth were much closer to the sun and subjected to the onslaught of particles like the TRAPPIST-1 star delivers, our planetary shield would fail pretty quickly.”

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The TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet family. TRAPPIST-1 e, f and g are located in the system’s habitable zone (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So it looks like TRAPPIST-1 e, f and g really take a pounding from their angry little star, but the researchers point out that it doesn’t mean we should forget red dwarfs as potential life-giving places. It’s just that life would have many more challenges to endure than we do on our comparatively peaceful place in the galaxy.

“We’re definitely not saying people should give up searching for life around red dwarf stars,” said co-author Jeremy Drake, also from CfA. “But our work and the work of our colleagues shows we should also target as many stars as possible that are more like the sun.”

Beyond Spacetime: Gravitational Waves Might Reveal Extra-Dimensions

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NASA (edit by Ian O’Neill)

We are well and truly on our way to a new kind of astronomy that will use gravitational waves — and not electromagnetic waves (i.e. light) — to “see” a side of the universe that would otherwise be invisible.

From crashing black holes to wobbling neutron stars, these cosmic phenomena generate ripples in spacetime and not necessarily emissions in the electromagnetic spectrum. So when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) made its first gravitational wave detection in September 2015, the science world became very excited about the reality of “gravitational wave astronomy” and the prospect of detecting some of the most massive collisions that happen in the dark, billions of light-years away.

Like waves rippling over the surface of the ocean, gravitational waves travel through spacetime, a prediction that was made by Albert Einstein over a century ago. And like those ocean waves, gravitational waves might reveal something about the nature of spacetime.

We’re talking extra-dimensions and a new study suggests that gravitational waves may carry an awful lot more information with them beyond the characteristics of what generated them in the first place.

Our 4-D Playing Field

First things first, remember that we interact only with four-dimensional spacetime: three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. This is our playing field; we couldn’t care less whether there are more dimensions out there.

Unless you’re a physicist, that is.

And physicists are having a hard job describing gravity, to put it mildly. This might seem weird considering how essential gravity is for, well, everything. Without gravity, no stars would form, planets wouldn’t coalesce and the cosmos would be an exceedingly boring place. But gravity doesn’t seem to “fit” with the Standard Model of physics. The “recipe” for the universe is perfect, except it’s missing one vital ingredient: Gravity. (It’s as if a perfect cake recipe is missing one crucial ingredient, like flour.)

There’s another weird thing about gravity: Although it’s very important in our universe (yes, there might be more than one universe, but I’ll get to that later), it is actually the weakest of all forces.

But why so weak? This is where string theory comes in.

String theory (and, by extension, superstring theory) predicts that the universe is composed of strings that vibrate at different frequencies. These strings form something like a vast, superfine noodle soup and these strings thread through many dimensions (many more than our four-dimensions) creating all the particles and forces that we know and love.

Now, the possible reason why gravity is so weak when compared with the other fundamental forces could be that gravity is interacting with many more dimensions that are invisible to us 4-D beings. Although string theory is a wonderful mathematical tool to describe this possibility, there is little physical evidence to back up this superfine noodly mess, however.

But as already mentioned, if string theory holds true, it would mean that our universe contains many more dimensions than we regularly experience. (The unifying superstring theory, called “M-theory”, predicts a total of 11 dimensions and may provide the framework that unifies the fundamental forces and could be the diving board that launches us into the vast ocean that is the multiversebut I’ll stop there, I’ve said too much.)

Groovy. But what the heck has this got to do with gravitational waves? As gravitational waves travel through spacetime, they might be imprinted with information about these extra dimensions. Like our wave analogy, as the sea washes over a beach, the frequency of the waves increase as the water becomes shallower — the ocean waves are imprinted with information about how deep the water is. Could gravitational waves washing over (or, more accurately, through) spacetime also create some kind of signature that would reveal the presence of very, very tiny extra-dimensions as predicted by superstring theory?

Possibly, say researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI) in Potsdam, Germany.

“Physicists have been looking for extra dimensions at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN but up to now this search has yielded no results,” says Gustavo Lucena Gómez, second author of a new study published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. “But gravitational wave detectors might be able to provide experimental evidence.”

Beyond Spacetime?

The researchers suggest that these extra-dimensions might modify the signal of gravitational waves received by detectors like LIGO and leave a very high-frequency “fingerprint.” But as this frequency would be exceedingly high — of the order of 1000 Hz — it’s not conceivable that the current (and near-future) ground-based gravitational wave detectors will be sensitive enough to even hope to detect these frequencies.

However, extra-dimensions might modify the gravitational waves in a different way. As gravitational waves propagate, they stretch and shrink the spacetime they travel through, like this:

gw-waves-wave

The amount of spacetime warping might therefore be detected as more gravitational wave detectors are added to the global network. Currently, LIGO has two operating observing stations (one in Washington and one in Louisiana) and next year, the European Virgo detector will start taking data.

More detectors are planned elsewhere, so it’s possible that we may, one day, use gravitational waves to not only “see” black holes go bump in the night, we might also “see” the extra-dimensions that form the minuscule tapestry of the fabric beyond spacetime. And if we can do this, perhaps we’ll finally understand why gravity is so weak and how it really fits in with the Standard Model of physics.

Want to know more about gravitational waves? Well, here’s an Astroengine YouTube video on the topic:

Newborn Star Found Growing Inside Magnetic Nest of Chaos

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NRAO/AUI/NSF; D. Berry

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that stars form in extremely powerful and ordered magnetic fields. But “conventional,” our universe is not (as Yoda might say).

In a new and fascinating study published in Astrophysical Journal Letters and carried out by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a star some 1,400 light-years away in the Serpens star-forming region had its magnetic field gauged.

The star, called Ser-emb 8, is embedded inside the magnetic field passing through the molecular cloud it was born in. As the surrounding dust aligns itself with the direction of these magnetic field lines, ALMA is able to make precise measurements of the polarization of the emissions produced by this dust. From these incredibly sensitive measurements, a map of the polarization of light could be created, providing a view of the magnetic nest the star was born in.

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Texture represents the magnetic field orientation in the region surrounding the Ser-emb 8 protostar, as measured by ALMA. The gray region is the millimeter wavelength dust emission. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); P. Mocz, C. Hull, CfA

And this nest is an unexpected one; it’s a turbulent region lacking the strong and ordered magnetism that would normally be predicted to be in the immediate vicinity of Ser-emb 8. Previous studies have shown newborn stars to possess powerful magnetic fields that take on an “hourglass” shape, extending from the protostar and reaching light-years into space. Ser-emb 8, however, is different.

“Before now, we didn’t know if all stars formed in regions that were controlled by strong magnetic fields. Using ALMA, we found our answer,” said astronomer Charles L. H. “Chat” Hull, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. “We can now study magnetic fields in star-forming clouds from the broadest of scales all the way down to the forming star itself. This is exciting because it may mean stars can emerge from a wider range of conditions than we once thought.”

By comparing these observations with computer simulations, an insightful view of the earliest magnetic environment surrounding a young star has been created.

“Our observations show that the importance of the magnetic field in star formation can vary widely from star to star,” added Hull in a statement. “This protostar seems to have formed in a weakly magnetized environment dominated by turbulence, while previous observations show sources that clearly formed in strongly magnetized environments. Future studies will reveal how common each scenario is.”

Hull and his team think that ALMA has witnessed a phase of star formation before powerful magnetic fields are generated by the young star, wiping out any trace of this pristine magnetic environment passing through the star forming region.

When Black Holes Collide… Astroengine Is Now On YouTube!

So… it begins!

Astroengine has finally been launched on YouTube, kicking off with a summary of the recent gravitational wave discovery by LIGO. I’m aiming to produce at least one video a week and I’d really like to make it as viewer-driven as possible. So if you have any burning space science questions or any critique about the videos I’m posting, please reach out!

But for now, you know what to do: like, subscribe and enjoy!

‘Failed’ Star Rapidly Orbits ‘Dead’ Star in Weird Stellar Pairing

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ESO

The galaxy may be filled with weird stellar wonders, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a binary system stranger than WD1202-024.

First thought to be an isolated white dwarf star approximately 40% the mass of our sun, astronomers studying observational data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope realized the stellar husk has company. In an extremely fast 71-minute orbit, the star has a brown dwarf, 67 times the mass of Jupiter, in tow — an unprecedented find.

White dwarfs are formed after sun-like stars run out of fuel and die. This will be the fate of our sun in about five billion years time, after it becomes depleted of hydrogen in its core and puffs-up into a red giant. Shedding its outer layers after a period of violent stellar turmoil, a planetary nebula will form with a tiny mass of degenerate matter — a white dwarf — in its center. Earth would be toast long before the sun turns into a red giant, however.

But in the case of WD1202-024, it seems that when it was a young star (before it passed through its final red giant phase), it had a brown dwarf in orbit.

Commonly known as “failed stars,” brown dwarfs are not massive enough to sustain sufficient fusion in their cores to spark the formation of a star. But they’re too massive to be called planets as they possess the internal circulation of material that is more familiar to stars (so with that in mind, I like to refer to brown dwarfs as “overachieving planets”). They are the bridge between stars and planets and fascinating objects in their own right.

But the brown dwarf in the WD1202 binary couldn’t have formed with only a 71-minute orbit around the white dwarf; it would have evolved further away. So what happened? After carrying out computer simulations of the system, the international team of researchers found a possible answer.

“It is similar to an egg-beater effect,” said astronomer Lorne Nelson, of Bishop’s University, Canada, during the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas on June 6th. “The brown dwarf spirals in towards the center of the red giant and causes most of the mass of the red giant to be lifted off of the core and to be expelled. The result is a brown dwarf in an extraordinarily tight, short-period orbit with the hot helium core of the giant. That core then cools and becomes the white dwarf that we observe today.”

In the future, the researchers hypothesize, the brown dwarf will continue to orbit the white dwarf until energy is depleted from the system via gravitational waves. In less than 250 million years, the orbital distance will be so small that the extreme tidal forces exerted by the white dwarf will start to drag brown dwarf material into the star, cannibalizing it.

This will turn WD1202 into a cataclysmic variable (CV), causing its brightness to flicker as the brown dwarf material is extruded into an accretion disk orbiting the white dwarf.

What a way to go.

The ‘Alien Megastructure’ Star Is Doing Weird Things Again

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NASA (edit by Ian O’Neill)

In our quest to understand what the heck is going on with Tabby’s Star, astronomers have been given a cosmic gift — a dimming event is happening right now and they’re collecting data in real time.

Early Friday morning, the star — officially designated KIC 8462852 — dipped in brightness inextricably and bulletins started to fly around the internet. Astronomers involved in the original discovery took to Twitter to announce the awesomeness and rally the world’s observatories to point their telescopes at the action 1,300 light-years away:

But why all the excitement? Well, this is the same star that, last year, hogged the headlines with speculation that a super advanced alien civilization was building some kind of “megastructure” around the star. (You can read my article on it here.) But why would the world’s media, let alone professional scientists, be okay with even hinting at the “alien” thing?

Well, as part of the Planet Hunters project, Tabby’s Star is wonderfully weird. After analyzing observations from NASA’s exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope, the citizen scientists noticed something peculiar.

Usually, Kepler’s ultra-sensitive optics detect the slight dimming of stars when any planets in orbit drift in front — an event known as a “transit.” These transits are typically very slight, but the signals detected at KIC 8462852 were mind-boggling. Between 2011 and 2013, Tabby’s Star exhibited a series of dips, dimming the brightness of the star by over 20 percent. Tabby’s Star was so-named after astronomer Tabetha Boyajian who led this research. Further studies of the star has also revealed a longer period of dimming.

And on Friday morning, it started happening again.

“At about 4 a.m. this morning, I got a phone call from Tabby [Boyajian] saying that Fairborn [Observatory] in Arizona had confirmed that the star was 3 percent dimmer than it normally is and that is enough that we are absolutely confident that this is no statistical fluke,” said Jason Wright, an associate professor of astronomy at Pennsylvania State University, during a live webcast. “We’ve now got it confirmed at multiple observatories I think.”

Now that astronomers are able to observe the star while the dimming is happening live (rather than studying past observations, which as been the case up until now), spectra of the star can be recorded and compared to previous data. This spectral information might reveal what material is causing the weird transit signals, potentially ruling some hypotheses out. But it might also create new questions.

Many hypotheses have been put forward for these unprecedented events before Friday. The most popular natural explanation has been the possibility that a giant “swarm” of comets drifted between the star and us, blocking the starlight. But this explanation falls short and doesn’t really explain why the brightness dips are so dramatic.

The most popular unnatural explanation is — you guessed italiens and astronomers are having a really hard job disproving this hypothesis. This idea is based around the possibility that a super advanced alien civilization (that’s well on its way to becoming a type II Kardashev civilization) is building a star-spanning solar array, akin to a Dyson swarm. In this scenario, the dimming in brightness would be caused by vast solar arrays blocking the light from view.

Now that the dimming is happening again, it will be interesting to see how the megastructure idea evolves.

Although imagining super-advanced aliens building stuff around a nearby star is fun, this episode so early in our hunt for extrasolar worlds is giving us a glimpse of just how strange our galaxy can be. In all likelihood, it probably isn’t an alien megastructure and more likely something astronomers have completely overlooked. But it could also be that these Kepler data are being caused by a natural stellar phenomenon that we’ve never seen before — a possibility that could be revealed very soon.

Two Exoplanets Are Whipping-Up a Pretty Protoplanetary Gas Spiral

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ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Tang et al.

Using the awesome power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, astronomers have probed the protoplanetary disk of a young star system — with a twist.

ALMA is no stranger to protoplanetary disks; the array of 66 radio antennae in the Atacama desert is extremely sensitive to the emissions from the gas and dust surrounding stars. But this observation has revealed something more — there are two obvious dusty rings (orange) that are being sculpted by the presence of massive worlds, but between them (in blue) is a spiral gas structure. If there’s one thing I love it’s space spirals!

When comparing these observations with theoretical modeling of the system — called AB Aurigae, located about 470 light-years away — for that gas spiral to exist, there must be some interplanetary interplay between two exoplanets orbiting the star at 30 and 80 AU (astronomical units, where 1 AU is the average distance that Earth orbits the sun). The spiral is following the direction of rotation of the disk.

Besides looking really pretty, studies of these spiral structures help astronomers identify the presence of exoplanets and build a better understanding of the nature of protoplanetary disks.

We’re Really Confused Why Supermassive Black Holes Exist at the Dawn of the Cosmos

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ESO

Supermassive black holes can be millions to billions of times the mass of our sun. To grow this big, you’d think these gravitational behemoths would need a lot of time to grow. But you’d be wrong.

When looking back into the dawn of our universe, astronomers can see these monsters pumping out huge quantities of radiation as they consume stellar material. Known as quasars, these objects are the centers of primordial galaxies with supermassive black holes at their hearts.

Now, using the twin W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes on Hawaii, researchers have found three quasars all with billion solar mass supermassive black holes in their cores. This is a puzzle; all three quasars have apparently been active for short periods and exist in an epoch when the universe was less than a billion years old.

Currently, astrophysical models of black hole accretion (basically models of how fast black holes consume matter — likes gas, dust, stars and anything else that might stray too close) woefully overestimate how long it takes for black holes to grow to supermassive proportions. What’s more, by studying the region surrounding these quasars, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Germany have found that these quasars have been active for less than 100,000 years.

To put it mildly, this makes no sense.

“We don’t understand how these young quasars could have grown the supermassive black holes that power them in such a short time,” said lead author Christina Eilers, a post-doctorate student at MPIA.

Using Keck, the team could take some surprisingly precise measurements of the quasar light, thereby revealing the conditions of the environment surrounding these bright baby galaxies.

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MPIA

Models predict that after forming, quasars began funneling huge quantities of matter into the central black holes. In the early universe, there was a lot of matter in these baby galaxies, so the matter was rapidly consumed. This created superheated accretion disks that throbbed with powerful radiation. The radiation blew away a comparatively empty region surrounding the quasar called a “proximity zone.” The larger the proximity zone, the longer the quasar had been active and therefore the size of this zone can be used to gauge the age (and therefore mass) of the black hole.

But the proximity zones measured around these quasars revealed activity spanning less than 100,000 years. This is a heartbeat in cosmic time and nowhere near enough time for a black hole pack on the supermassive pounds.

“No current theoretical models can explain the existence of these objects,” said Joseph Hennawi, who led the MPIA team. “The discovery of these young objects challenges the existing theories of black hole formation and will require new models to better understand how black holes and galaxies formed.”

The researchers now hope to track down more of these ancient quasars and measure their proximity zones in case these three objects are a fluke. But this latest twist in the nature of supermassive black holes has only added to the mystery of how they grow to be so big and how they relate to their host galaxies.

Supermassive black hole with torn-apart star (artist’s impress
A supermassive black hole consumes a star in this artist’s impression (ESO)

These questions will undoubtedly reach fever-pitch later this year when the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) releases the first radio images of the 4 million solar mass black hole lurking at the center of our galaxy. Although it’s a relative light-weight among supermassives, direct observations of Sagittarius A* may uncover some surprises as well as confirm astrophysical models.

But as for how supermassive black holes can possibly exist at the dawn of our universe, we’re obviously missing something — a fact that is as exciting as it is confounding.

NASA Uses Gravitational Wave Detector Prototype to Detect ‘Space Mosquito’ Splats

Artist impression of ESA LISA Pathfinder in interplanetary space (ESA)

Imagine speeding down the highway and plowing into an unfortunate swarm of mosquitoes. Now imagine that you had the ability to precisely measure the mass of each mosquito, the speed at which it was traveling and the direction it was going before it exploded over your windscreen.

Granted, the technology to accomplish that probably isn’t feasible in such an uncontrolled environment. Factors such as vibration from the car’s motor and tires on the road, plus wind and air turbulence will completely drown out any “splat” from a minuscule insect’s body, rendering any signal difficult to decipher from noise.

But move your hypothetical “car and mosquitoes” into space — as silly as that may sound — and things become a lot less noisy. And now NASA is measuring its own special kind of “mosquito splat” signal by using a rather unlikely space experiment.

The European LISA Pathfinder spacecraft is a proof of concept mission that’s currently in space, orbiting a region of gravitational stability between the Earth and the sun — called the L1 point located a million miles away. The spacecraft was launched there in late 2015 to carry out precision tests of instruments that will eventually be used in the space-based gravitational wave detector eLISA. Inside the payload is a miniaturized laser interferometer system that measures the distance between two test masses.

When launched in 2034, eLISA (which stands for Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) will see three spacecraft, orbiting the sun at the L1 point, firing ultra-precise lasers at one another as part of a space-based gravitational wave detector. Now we actually know gravitational waves exist — after the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (or LIGO) detected the space-time ripples created after the collisions of black holes — excitement is building that we might, one day, be able to measure other phenomena, such as the ultra-low frequency gravitational waves that were created during the Big Bang.

But the only way we can do this is to send stunningly precise interferometers into space, away from our vibration-filled atmosphere to stand a chance of detecting some of the faintest space-time rumbles in our cosmos that would otherwise be drowned out by a passing delivery truck or windy day. And LISA Pathfinder is currently out there, testing a tiny laser interferometer in a near-perfect gravitational free-fall, making the slightest of slight adjustments with its “ultra-precise micro-propulsion system.”

Although LISA Pathfinder is a test (albeit a history-making test of incredible engineering ingenuity), NASA thinks that it could actually be used as an observatory in its own right; not for hunting gravitational waves, but for detecting comet dust.

Like our mosquito-windscreen analogy, spacecraft get hit by tiny particles all the time, and LISA Pathfinder is no exception. These micrometeoroides come from eons of evaporating comets and colliding asteroids. Although measuring less than the size of a grain of sand, these tiny particles zip around interplanetary space at astonishing speeds — well over 22,000 miles per hour (that’s 22 times faster than a hyper-velocity rifle round) — and can damage spacecraft over time, slowly eroding unprotected hardware.

Therefore, it would be nice if we could create a map of regions in the solar system that contain lots of these particles so we can be better prepared to face the risk. Although models of solar system evolution help and we can estimate the distribution of these particles, they’ve only ever been measured near Earth, so it would be advantageous to find the “ground truth” and measure them directly from another, unexplored region of the solar system.

This is where LISA Pathfinder comes in.

As the spacecraft gets hit by these minuscule particles, although they are tiny, their high speed ensures they pack a measurable punch. As scientists want the test weights inside the spacecraft to be completely shielded from any external force — whether that’s radiation pressure from the sun or marauding micro-space rocks — the spacecraft has been engineered to be an ultra-precise container that carefully adjusts its orientation an exact amount to directly counter these external forces (hence the “ultra-precise micro-propulsion system”).

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When LISA Pathfinder is struck by space dust, it compensates with its ultra-precise micro-thrusters (ESA/NASA)

This bit is pretty awesome: Whenever these tiny space particles hit the spacecraft, it compensates for the impact and that compensation is registered as a “blip” in the telemetry being beamed back to Earth. After careful analysis of the various data streams, researchers are learning a surprising amount of information about these micrometeoroides — such as their mass, speed, direction of travel and even their possible origin! — all for the ultimate goal of getting to know the tiny pieces of junk that whiz around space.

“Every time microscopic dust strikes LISA Pathfinder, its thrusters null out the small amount of momentum transferred to the spacecraft,” said Diego Janches, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We can turn that around and use the thruster firings to learn more about the impacting particles. One team’s noise becomes another team’s data.”

So, it turns out that you can precisely measure a mosquito impact on your car’s windshield — so long as that “mosquito” is a particle of space dust and your “car” is a spacecraft a million miles from Earth.

NASA put together a great video, watch it:

Aside: So it turned out that I inadvertently tested the “car-mosquito” hypothesis when driving home from Las Vegas — though some of these were a lot bigger than mosquitoes…