Asteroid Tanning in the Solar Wind Salon

Asteroids tan fast in the solar wind (ESO)

In a study carried out by European Southern Observatory (ESO) scientists, it was found that asteroids are susceptible to sunburn. By comparing the material found inside meteorites here on the ground with the colour of asteroids floating in space, there is a huge difference; the asteroids in space are redder.

So far, this might not be too surprising, after all, the surface of Mars is red with ferrous oxides (rust), why shouldn’t asteroids be red too? Actually, asteroids aren’t necessarily made of the same stuff as Mars, and they aren’t getting tanned due to the Sun’s ultraviolet rays; asteroids are bathed in ionizing solar wind particles, causing the asteroid’s surfaces to redden over a period of time. And that period is short when compared with Solar System time scales. It only takes a million years for the surface of young asteroids (born from energetic asteroid collisions) to weather under the constant barrage of particles from the solar wind.

This has some interesting implications for asteroid studies. Possibly the most striking factor this study uncovers is the nature of near-Earth asteroids that have been observed exhibiting comparatively “young” surfaces, apparently free from solar wind reddening. Previously, astronomers have agreed that these young surfaces were down to recent asteroid collisions. However, the period of the solar wind tanning effect is much shorter than asteroid collision frequency. So even if two asteroids collided, in all likelihood, if we observed one of these asteroids, the solar wind would have weathered the surface back to its reddened state.

It turns out that some near-Earth asteroids have “young” surfaces due to gravitational interactions with planets as they pass. When this happens, the red dust is “shaken off”, revealing the untouched rock beneath.

For more, check out my article Young Asteroids Age Fast with a Solar Wind Tan on the Universe Today.

An Explanation For Solar Sigmoids

Hinode X-ray observation of a solar sigmoid (David McKenzie/Montana State University)
Hinode X-ray observation of a solar sigmoid (David McKenzie/Montana State University)

Sigmoids in the solar corona have been studied for many years, but little explanation of their formation or why they are often the seed of powerful solar flares have been forthcoming. Using high-resolution X-ray images from the Japanese-led solar mission Hinode (originally Solar-B), solar physicists have known that these very hot S-shaped structures are composed of many highly stressed magnetic flux tubes filled with energized plasma (also known as ‘fibrils’), but until now, little was known about the formation and flare eruption processes that occur in sigmoids.

Now, a team of solar physicists from the University of St Andrews believe they have found an answer using powerful magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) computer models, aiding our understanding of coronal dynamics and getting us one step closer to forecasting space weather…

Continue reading “An Explanation For Solar Sigmoids”

Space Experts to Discuss Threat of Asteroid Impact

Artist impression of a gravitational tractor deflecting the path of an NEO (Dan Durda/B612 Foundation)

Imagine you’re an astronomer who discovered an asteroid. Happy days, you might be able to name it after yourself (99942 O’Neill has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?). At first you feel little concern, after all, we are getting better at spotting near-Earth objects. But when you get news from another observatory that they had been tracking the same object weeks earlier, your interest is piqued. On the one hand, you didn’t technically discover it, but you did confirm its existence. Unfortunately this is probably the one observation you really didn’t want to make. It turns out that this chunk of rock is heading in our direction. And unlike the Earth-grazers that have come before, this asteroid isn’t going to drift past our planet, it isn’t even going to skip off our atmosphere, it’s going to hit us.

Now imagine you are the president of a nation determined to stop the asteroid from hitting Earth. What do you do? Naturally you’d call your team of oil drillers scientific advisors to present your options. One space scientist suggests sending a rocket to the asteroid, strapping it on in the hope it might be nudged out of harms way. The astronomer who made the discovery of the killer asteroid is having a nervous break down in the corner of the room. Your military advisor is urging you to attach a nuclear warhead to your most powerful rocket, in an attempt to obliterate the target. The Secretary of State is calling for restraint; we need to collaborate with other nations, blasting nuclear missiles in to space would violate all kinds of international treaties, wars have been started for less, perhaps someone else has a better idea…?

Although I doubt we’ll ever be fully prepared to act swiftly and decisively in the event of discovering a civilization-ending asteroid, we can at least try. Defending the planet against the ever-present threat of impact is one of the most critical abilities we must develop as a race, ensuring the long-term future of our species. Fortunately, a team of scientists, engineers, policy makers and lawyers (lawyers?) are teaming up to confront this problem…
Continue reading “Space Experts to Discuss Threat of Asteroid Impact”

Where is Planet X? Where is Nemesis?

Artists impression of the hypothetical star, Nemesis (Anynobody on Wikipedia)

Before Pluto was discovered, the world’s astronomers were captivated by the possibility of finding another massive planet beyond the orbit of Neptune. In 1930, Pluto was discovered lurking in what was considered to be the edge of the Solar System. However, it quickly became apparent that Pluto was tiny; it wasn’t the Planet X we were looking for. For the last 80 years, astronomers have been looking for a large planet that might go to some way of explaining interplanetary features such as the “Kuiper Cliff”, but Planet X has not been found. Unfortunately, the word “Planet X” has now become synonymous with conspiracy theories and doomsday, almost as notorious as the word “Nemesis”.

Nemesis is another unanswered question hanging over Solar System evolution: does the Sun have a binary twin? Is there a second, dim, hidden “sun” stalking it’s brighter counterpart from over a light year away? Some scientists have come forward to suggest that the existence of a hypothetical second sun — embodied as a brown dwarf or red dwarf — could explain some cyclical effects here on Earth (i.e. mass extinctions occurring with a strange regularity). Naturally, the discussion about Nemesis (like the discussion about the possibility of a massive Planet X) is purely academic, and only based on indirect observations and anecdotal evidence. Just because they might exist, doesn’t mean they do.

In a publication recently published to the arXiv database, one Italian researcher has dusted off this topic and asked a very basic question: Can we constrain the possible locations of Nemesis and/or Planet X if they did exist? His results are fascinating…
Continue reading “Where is Planet X? Where is Nemesis?”

C.A.T. Scans of the Solar Wind

Guest article by Dr. Mario M. Bisi (Research Focus)

A cut in the ecliptic plane through a 3D reconstruction on 08 November 2004 at 0000 UT using white-light data from SMEI. The view is from directly North of the ecliptic; the Sun is at the centre marked by a +, the Earth is on the right marked with a ⊕ along with its orbit as a black near-circular line around the Sun (the Earth orbits anti-clockwise around the Sun from this point of view). The darker the colour, the greater the density of material in the ecliptic.  (©Dr. Mario M. Bisi)
A cut in the ecliptic plane through a 3D reconstruction on 08 November 2004 at 0000 UT using white-light data from SMEI. The view is from directly North of the ecliptic; the Sun is at the centre marked by a +, the Earth is on the right marked with a ⊕ along with its orbit as a black near-circular line around the Sun (the Earth orbits anti-clockwise around the Sun from this point of view). The darker the colour, the greater the density of material in the ecliptic. (©Dr. Mario M. Bisi)

The Computer Assisted Tomography (C.A.T.) technique has been used for many years now and is well known for use on people where certain health conditions need more thorough, detailed, and deeper scans into the human body and the need for three-dimensional (3D) reconstructed imaging. However, similar such scans can also be used on the solar wind to discover the shapes and sizes of structures near Earth and throughout the inner heliosphere in three dimensions. These scans have been carried out for some time, pioneered in the most part by those at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS), University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in La Jolla, CA, U.S.A. in close-collaboration with the Solar-Terrestrial Environment Laboratory (STELab), Nagoya University, Toyokawa, Japan…
Continue reading “C.A.T. Scans of the Solar Wind”

Welcome to my Sinkhole, Premium Martian Real Estate

A sinkhole in Tractus Fossae, created by tectonic activity (HiRISE/NASA)
A sinkhole in Tractus Fossae, created by tectonic activity (HiRISE/NASA)

It might not look like much from space, but this depression in the Martian landscape might be considered to be a priceless feature when viewed by future Mars colonists.

In December 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) flew silently over the Tharsis bulge, the location of a series of ancient volcanoes. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) captured what appears to be a deep hole. This kind of feature has been seen before, like a Martian pore, deep and foreboding. Usually these sinkholes aren’t as deep as they look, but they are deeper than the surrounding landscape. They are also similar to their terrestrial counterparts in that they have very steep sides (unlike the gentle, eroded slopes of crater rims) and they are caused by a lack of material below. On Earth, sinkholes often form due to water flowing beneath, removing material, causing the overlying rock/soil to slump, forming a sudden hole. In the example above, the sinkhole (or “collapse pit”) was caused by tectonic activity. In this case, it is likely that the material dropped into a void left over by magma-filled dykes (lava tubes from old volcanoes).

A stretched and image processed version of the sinkhole; the bottom of the hole is visible (HiRISE/NASA)
A stretched and image processed version of the sinkhole; the bottom of the hole is visible (HiRISE/NASA)

The result is a hole with very steep sides. It has been suggested that these sink holes may be useful to future Mars colonists, as they can use the natural feature for shelter. On Mars, humans would be subject to an increased dosage of radiation (due to the tenuous Martian atmosphere and lack of a global magnetic field), so it is preferable to find any form of natural shelter to build your habitat. The depth of this kind of sinkhole will afford some protection, and drilling into the cavern side would be even better. Perhaps even put a dome over the top? No need to build walls around your building then. Also, there’s the interesting–if a little frightening–prospect of accessing underground lava tubes. Therefore, colonists won’t need to dig very far to create a subterranean habitat with all the radiation protection they’ll ever need (the insulation would also be impressive).

Although this scenario might be a little far-fetched, and probably only suitable for an established human presence on Mars (after all, the numerous valleys would probably suffice for most permanent habitats drilled into cliff faces), it does go to show that the current missions in orbit around Mars are doing a great job at seeking out some possible housing solutions for our future Mars settlers…

Source: HiRISE, Marspedia

When the Space Hotel’s a Rockin’…

Guest article by Greg Fish (blog: world of weird things)


You can’t go on vacation any more without your video camera, especially if you’re going some place spectacular and exciting. When the new wave of space tourists soars into orbit, they’re going to come back with some spectacular home movies. Some of them may be a lot steamier than others because there’s bound to be a couple just itching to be the first humans to have sex in space and capture it on high definition video to bolster their claim to fame. Yes, sex in space in inevitable and the moment people finally get a little privacy and a little room in which to play (something that’s missing on today’s space missions), it’s going to happen.

But before you rush to reinvent the Kama Sutra in 360 degree freedom, a few tips for you aspiring 60+ mile high club members…
Continue reading “When the Space Hotel’s a Rockin’…”

The Space Exploration Crisis

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency
President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?

Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?

Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.

However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.
Continue reading “The Space Exploration Crisis”

The Link Between Beer and the Colonization of Space

A Japanese brewery has successfully produced 100 litres of Space Beer. Hurrah!

The beer won’t actually be consumed in space (which seems a shame somehow), but it was made totally from barley grown on the International Space Station. For a lucky few, 60 people will get to sample the beer in Tokyo next month. So, what can they expect?

Alas, there won’t be much difference between the Sapporo Brewery’s 100% space barley brew when compared with a terrestrial grain as there is no measured difference in the DNA of barley grown in space when compared with barley grown on Earth. Therefore I doubt there will be any “eureka!” moment for the alcoholic beverage industry and therefore no immediate plans to launch a micro(gravity)brewery into orbit…

That said, this isn’t just a publicity stunt. The barley was grown as part of a joint Japanese/Russian experiment to test the suitability of certain crops to be grown in space. Along with the barley; wheat, peas and lettuce were also harvested. In previous tests, a Canadian research paper was presented revealing no difference between the DNA of barley grown in space when compared to the stuff grown on Earth. Although this kinda takes away from the possibility that space barley could make a better beer, it is reassuring to know that terrestrial foodstuffs can be grown in space with minimal risk of mutation (and possible hazardous side effects to space traveller’s health). Obviously more work will need to be done, with several generations of the same plant re-cultivated and harvested, but these first results are very exciting.

Hold on. Exciting? Why?

This is another step in the direction of a reduced dependence on Earth for the supply of food. If a Japanese brewery can produce 100 litres of beer from ingredients grown in space, we’ve made an important leap into the production of other consumables from ingredients grown in space. Imagine what this means for the future of mankind when we begin setting up colonies on the Moon and, eventually (in my lifetime I hope!) on Mars. The vision of cultivating food on other planets becomes one step closer to reality.

This is one of the International Space Station’s key strengths. It is a long-term scientific mission to assess man’s adaptability to a space-based environment. Growing barley in space is therefore not a commercial venture (Sapporo is not selling any of the Space Beer it produces, although the company will most certainly profit from some good exposure in the media), it is a critical step in our space-faring ability. Add this success to the recent installation of the urine recycling system added as part of the STS-126 shuttle mission to the ISS and you can see that we are beginning to cut the umbilical cord that prevents long-term manned space travel.

Hopefully, within 20 years, these techniques will have been perfected, allowing mankind to begin work on other planets, ultimately setting up self-sustaining colonies throughout the Solar System.

And all this excitement from the production of a small quantity of Space Beer…

For more, read my Universe Today article Cheers! Japanese Brewery Produces Space Beer… But What’s the Point?

Interview with World of Weird Things: Colonizing Space, at a Profit

A manned outpost, could be a reality if the business opportunities are there.
A manned outpost, could be a reality if the business opportunities are there.

This morning I had a thought-provoking interview with Greg Fish, owner and writer for the superb website World of Weird Things. Greg wanted to get my insight to the world of commercial spaceflight and future colonization of other worlds, writing up a brilliant article called Colonizing Space, At A Profit based on my interview.

We examined the benefits mankind can reap from the exploration of space, but the responsibility of doing so is not exclusive to NASA or any other government-funded agency. The future of spaceflight rests in the hands of entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, and primarily, businessmen. Manned exploration of the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt could open a new frontier of mineral exploitation, in turn opening a new era for mankind. It may be our best hope in the long-run to survive as a race.

We could be on the verge of a Solar System-wide “gold rush”, it just depends who will be the first to have the vision for such an endeavour.

If you were the company to build the first colony on Mars, the planet is all yours for the taking,” – quote from Colonizing Space, At A Profit, on World of Weird Things

Thank you Greg for wanting to speak with me, and for preparing a very inspiring interview! Be sure to check out World of Weird Things, there are some very interesting articles and essays, delving into a huge array of topics, each written with a high degree of thought and intellect. A firm favourite on my reading list.