Author: Elizabeth Tasker (page 1 of 3)

Standing on an Asteroid: Could the Future of Research and Education be Virtual Reality?

Scenes from the virtual reality talk on Hayabusa2 with students from the Yokohama International School. Each student has a robot avatar they can use to look around the scene, talk with other people and interact with objects. (OmniScope)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to stand on an asteroid? A rugged terrain of boulders and craters beneath your feed, while the airless sky above you opens onto the star-spangled blackness of space.

It sounds like the opening scene for a science fiction movie. But this month, I met with students on the surface of an asteroid, all without leaving my living room.

The solution to this riddle —as you probably guessed from the title of this article— is virtual reality.

Virtual reality (or VR) allows you to enter a simulated environment. Unlike an image or even a video, VR allows you to look in all directions, move freely and interact with objects to create an immersive experience. An appropriate analogy would be to imagine yourself imported into a computer game.

It is therefore perhaps not surprise that a major application for VR has been the gaming industry. However, interest has recently grown in educational, research and training applications.

Discussing the Hayabusa2 mission in virtual reality. We began with a talk using slides and then went on to examine the spacecraft. (OmniScope)

The current global pandemic has forced everyone to seek online alternatives for their classes, business meetings and social interactions. But even before this year, the need for alternatives to in-person gatherings was increasing. International conferences are expensive on both the wallet and environment, and susceptible to political friction, all of which undermine the goal of sharing ideas within a field. Meanwhile, experiences such as planetariums and museums are limited in reach to people within comfortable traveling distance.

Standard solutions have included web broadcasts of talks, or interactive meetings via platforms such as Zoom or Google hangouts. But these fail to capture the atmosphere of post-talk discussions that are as productive in a conference as the talks themselves. Similarly, you cannot talk to people individually without arranging a separate meeting.

Virtual reality offers an alternative that is closer to the experience of in-person gatherings, and where disadvantages are off-set with opportunities impossible in a regular meeting.

Imagine teaching a class on the solar system, where you could move your classroom from the baked surface of Mercury, to the sulphuric clouds of Venus and onto the icy moons of Jupiter.… Read more

Have We Photographed Our Nearest Planetary System?

Artist impression of Proxima Centauri c. Press “HD” on the player for the best image quality (E. Tasker).

The discovery of Proxima Centauri b in 2016 caused a flood excitement. We had found an extrasolar planet around our nearest star, making this the closest possible world outside of our solar system!

But despite its proximity, discovering more about this planet is difficult. Proxima Centauri b was found via the radial velocity technique, which measures the star’s wobble due to the gravity of the orbiting planet. This technique gives a minimum mass, the average distance between the star and planet and the time for one orbit, but no details about conditions on the planet surface.

If the planet had transited its star, we might have tried detecting starlight that passed through the planet’s atmosphere. This technique is known as transit spectroscopy, and reveals the composition of a planet’s atmosphere by detecting what wavelengths of light are absorbed by the molecules in the planet’s air. But searches for a transit proved fruitless, suggesting the planet’s orbit did not pass in front of the star from our viewpoint.

The radial velocity technique measures the motion of the star due to the gravity of the planet. As the star moves away from the Earth, its light becomes stretched and redder. As it moves back towards Earth, the light shifts to bluer wavelengths. The technique gives the planet’s period, distance from the star and its minimum mass. (E. Tasker)

Another option for planet characterization is to capture a direct image of the planet. This is one of the most exciting observational techniques, as it reveals the planet itself, not its influence on the star. Temporal changes in the planet’s light could reveal surface features as the planet rotates, and if enough light is detected to analyze different wavelengths, then the atmospheric composition could be deduced.

But direct imaging requires that the planet’s light can be differentiated from the much brighter star. With our current instruments, Proxima Centauri b orbits too close to its star to be distinguished. This seemed to close the door on finding out more about our nearest neighbors, until the discovery of a second planet in the system was announced early this year.

Also identified via the radial velocity technique, Proxima Centauri c has a minimum mass of 5.8 Earth masses. It sits further out than its sibling, with a chilly orbit that takes 5.2 years.… Read more

Japan’s Mission to the Martian Moons Will Return a Sample From Phobos. What Makes This Moon So Exciting?

Artist impression of JAXA’s MMX spacecraft around Mars (JAXA).

Japan in planning to launch a mission to visit the two moons of Mars in 2024. The spacecraft will touchdown on the surface of Phobos, gathering a sample to bring back to Earth. But what is so important about a moon the size of a city?

Unlike the spherical shape of the Earth’s moon, the Martian moons resemble asteroids, with an asymmetric lumpy potato structure. This highlights one of the first mysteries about the pair: how did they form?

Light reflected from the moons’ surface gives clues to their composition, as different minerals absorb particular wavelengths of radiation. If an object reflects more light at longer wavelengths, it is said to have a spectra with a red slope. This is true of both Phobos and Deimos, which appear very dark in visible light but reflect more strongly in longer near-infrared wavelengths. It is also true of D-type asteroids, which orbit the sun in the outer edge of the asteroid belt that sits between Mars and Jupiter.

The similarities between both their lumpy shape and reflected light has led to speculation that the two moons are captured asteroids, snagged by Mars’s gravity after a collision in the asteroid belt scattered them towards the sun.

How did the martian moons form? Were they asteroids captured by Mars’s gravity or formed during a giant impact event? (Elizabeth Tasker)

However, such a gravitational lasso would typically move the captured object onto an inclined or highly elliptical orbit. Neptune’s moon, Triton, is suspected to be captured as it orbits in the reverse direction to Neptune’s own spin and on a path tilted from the ice giant’s equator by 157 degrees.

Yet both Phobos and Deimos sit on near-circular orbits in the equatorial plane of the planet. This configuration suggests the moons may have been formed in a giant impact with Mars, which threw debris into orbit and this coalesced into the two moons.

This mystery will be one of the first tackled by Japan’s planned Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission, that is due to launch in the fiscal year of 2024. Onboard are multiple instruments designed to unpick the moons’ composition from close quarters, providing far more detailed information than that from distant reflected light.

If these moons are impact debris, their composition should be similar to Mars. Captured asteroids would show a more unique rocky formula.… Read more

Exactly How Like Our Earth is an Earth-like Planet?

Explainer video for Earth-Like. (Vimeo edition with subtitles here)

Are we alone? The question hangs over each discovery of an Earth-sized planet as we speculate on its habitability. But how different and varied could these worlds really be? Perhaps the best way to get a flavor of this potential diversity is to build a few planets.

This is the idea behind Earth-Like: a website and twitter bot that lets you build your own Earth-like world. Earth-Like begins with a planet that resembles our Earth today, with oceans flowing over the surface and an atmosphere that maintains the global average temperature at a comfortable 15°C (59°F) on our orbit within the habitable zone. By making changes to the fraction of exposed land, the volcanic rate and position within the habitable zone, you can change the conditions on our planet into wildly different environments from desert to snowball.

Earth-Like can create a visualisation of what your planet might look like. This one is 91% covered with land, sitting in the middle of the habitable zone with 5 x the volcanic rate of Earth today! Its average temperature is about 9°C (48°F).

The concept for Earth-Like began during a workshop on planet diversity held at the Earth-Life Sciences Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo. The discussions highlighted that the potential for variation between rocky worlds is vast. A planet rich in carbon could have a mantle of diamond. A stagnant surface rather than mobile continental plates could throttle volcanism. The gravity on a large rocky planet might flatten the topology to allow shallow seas to cover all the land.

At the moment, observations can only tell us the physical size (either radius or mass) and the orbit of the majority of extrasolar planets. As we do not know what the surface of these worlds is like, we dub new discoveries Earth-like or potentially habitable if their size and the amount of radiation they receive from the star is similar to Earth. But this fails to convey how incredibly alien these worlds could be.

Earth-Like was spearheaded by undergraduate student, Kana Ishimaru, at the University of Tokyo (now a graduate student at the University of Arizona), working with myself, Julien Foriel (now a researcher at Harvard University) and Nicholas Guttenberg at ELSI. We wanted to build a model that would give a feel of the diversity of potentially habitable worlds and which could be run easily on a web browser.… Read more

The Giant Moon That Might Be the Heart of a Jupiter

Artist’s impression of the exomoon candidate Kepler-1625b-i, the planet it is orbiting and the star. (NASA/ESA/L. Hustak, STScI)

“Moons are where planets were in the 1990s,” predicted René Heller from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research a few years ago. “We’re on the brink.”

Heller was predicting that we were close to the first discoveries of exomoons: moons that orbit extrasolar planets outside our solar system. When a possible exomoon detection was announced in 2017, Heller’s prediction was proved correct. Not only had we found a candidate moon, but its properties defied our formation theories just as with the discoveries of the first exoplanets.

However, a paper published in Science this month has proposed a method for building this most unusual of moons.

As we move away from the sun, the planets of our solar system become mobbed with moons. How these small worlds formed is attributed to three different processes:

Moons in our solar system are thought to have formed through three different mechanisms (E. Tasker / Many Worlds)

The most extensive moon real estate orbits our gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The majority of these moons are thought to have been born during the planets’ own formation, forming in disks of gas, dust and ice that circled the young worlds. These circumplanetary disks are like miniaturised versions of the protoplanetary disks that circle young stars and give rise to planets.

One exception to this is Neptune’s moon, Triton, which orbits in the opposite direction to the planet’s rotation. This retrograde path would not be expected to arise if Triton has formed out of a circumplanetary disk around Neptune, which always rotate the same direction as the forming planet. Instead, Triton was likely a dwarf planet that was snagged by Neptune’s gravity during a chance encounter.

The capture scenario has also been proposed for the two moons of Mars. The lumpy satellites resemble asteroids and may have been born in the asteroid belt that sits between Mars and Jupiter. However, both moons orbit the red planet in circular orbits that sit in the same plane, pointing to a more disk-like formation method. Although Mars is too small to have had a substantial circumplanetary disk during formation, a giant impact later in its history could have thrown debris into orbit. This debris disk could then have coalesced into the two moons.

Such a violent start to Mars’s moons would mimic the beginnings of our own moon.… Read more

The Planets Too Big for Their Star

Artist rendering of a red dwarf , with three exoplanets orbiting. About 75% of all stars in the sky are the cooler, smaller red dwarfs. (NASA)

Two giant planets have been found orbiting a tiny star, defying our theories for how planets are formed.

To be entirely truthful, there is nothing new in an exoplanet discovery shredding our current ideas about how planets are built. The first extrasolar planets ever discovered orbit a dead star known as a pulsar. Pulsars end their regular starry life in a colossal supernova explosion that should incinerate or eject any orbiting worlds. This discovery was followed a few years later by the first detection of a hot Jupiter; a gas giant planet orbiting its star in just a few days, defying theories that said such planets should form on long orbits where there is more building material to make massive worlds. Exoplanet hunting is a field full of surprises and now, it has one more.

GJ 3512 is a red dwarf star with a luminosity only around a thousandth (0.0016L) of our sun. The small size of these stars makes it easier to detect the presence of a planet, and many of our most famous exoplanet discoveries have been found orbiting red dwarf stars, including Proxima Centauri b and the seven worlds in the TRAPPIST-1 system. But a notable attribute of these systems is that the planets are small. Unlike our own sun which boasts four gas giant worlds, planets around red dwarfs are typically smaller than Neptune.

Artist impression of the seven planets of Trappist-1 that also orbit a red dwarf star. These are small worlds. Jupiter-sized gas giants were not previously thought to form around the small red dwarf stars (NASA/JPL-Caltech).

This preference for downsized worlds is assumed to be due to the protoplanetary disk; the disk of dust and gas that swirls around young stars out of which planets are born. Protoplanetary disks around small stars tend to be low mass and puffy. This limits and spreads out the solid material, making it difficult for a young planet to grow.

Yet the two planets discovered around GJ 3512 are not small.
Led by Juan Carlos Morales at the IEEC Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia, the announcement of the discovery was published in the journal Science today.

The team detected these two new worlds using the radial velocity technique which measures the wobble in the position of the star due to the gravitational tug of the orbiting planet.… Read more

Searching for the Edge of Habitability

Topographical map of Venus by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft (1990 – 1994). Color indicates height. (NASA/JPL/USGS)

How many habitable worlds like our own could exist around other stars? Since the discovery of the first exoplanets, the answer to this question has seemed tantalizingly close. But to estimate the number of Earths, we first need to understand how our planet could have gone catastrophically awry.

In other words, we need to return to Venus.

We have now discovered over 4000 planets beyond our solar system. Approximately one-third of these worlds are Earth-sized and likely to have rocky surfaces not crushed under deep atmospheres. The next step is to discover how many of these support temperate landscapes versus ones unsuitable for life.

The Earth’s habitability is often ascribed to the level of sunlight we receive. We orbit in the so-called ‘habitable zone’ where our planet’s geological cycle can adjust the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to keep our seas liquid. In a closer orbit to the sun, this cycle could not operate fast enough to keep the Earth cool. Our seas would evaporate and our atmosphere fill with carbon dioxide, sending the planet temperature into an upwards spiral known as a runaway greenhouse.

If our solar system had just one Earth-sized planet, this would suggest we could simply count-up similar sized planets in the habitable zones around other stars. This would then be our set of the most likely habitable worlds.

However, this idea is shredded in a new paper posted this month to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Led by Stephen Kane from the University of California, Riverside, the paper is authored by many of the top planetary scientists we have met before in this column.

Their message is simple: our sun is orbited by two Earth-sized planets but only one is habitable. To identify habitable planets around other stars, we need to explain why the Earth and Venus evolved so differently. And the data suggests this is not just a climate catastrophe.

Orbiting beyond the inner edge of the habitable zone, Venus does appear at first to be a runaway Earth. The planet’s atmosphere is 96.5% carbon dioxide, smothering the surface to escalate temperatures to a staggering 863°F (462°C). Images from NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission in the late 1970s revealed a surface of highlands and lowlands that resembled the continents of Earth. This is all consistent with a picture of an Earth-like planet with a runaway greenhouse atmosphere.… Read more

Hayabusa2 Snatches Second Asteroid Sample

Artist impression of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft touching down on asteroid Ryugu (JAXA / Akihiro Ikeshita)

“1… 2… 3… 4…”

The counting in the Hayabusa2 control room at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (JAXA, ISAS) took on a rhythmic beat as everyone in the room took up the chant, their eyes fixed on the large display mounted on one wall.

“10… 11… 12… 13…”

The display showed the line-of-sight velocity (speed away from or towards the Earth) of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. The spacecraft was about 240,000,000 km from the Earth where it was studying a near-Earth asteroid known as Ryugu. At this moment, the spacecraft was dropping to the asteroid surface to collect a sample of the rocky body.

“20… 21… 22… 23…”

Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km. Image was captured with the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018 ( JAXA, University of Tokyo & collaborators)

Asteroid Ryugu is a carbonaceous or “C-type” asteroid; a class of small celestial bodies thought to contain organic material and undergone relatively little alteration since the beginning of the Solar System. Rocks similar to Ryugu would have pelted the early Earth, possibly delivering both water and the first ingredients for life to our young planet. Where and when these asteroids formed and how they moved through the Solar System is therefore a question of paramount importance to understanding how terrestrial planets like the Earth became habitable. It is a question not only tied to our own existence, but also to assessing the prospect of life elsewhere in the Universe.

The Hayabusa2 mission arrived at asteroid Ryugu just over one year ago at the end of June 2018. The spacecraft remotely analyzed the asteroid and deployed two rovers and a lander to explore the surface. Then in February of this year, the spacecraft performed its own descent to touchdown and collect a sample. The material gathered will be analyzed back on Earth when the spacecraft returns home at the end of 2020.

Touchdown is one of the most dangerous operation in the mission. The distances involved mean that it took about 19 minutes to communicate with the spacecraft during the first touchdown and 13 minutes during the second touchdown, when the asteroid had moved slightly closer to Earth. Both these durations are too long to manually guide the spacecraft to the asteroid surface.… Read more

Starting Life on Another Planet

Inside the planet simulator at McMaster University
A look inside the planet simulator in the Origins of Life laboratory at McMaster University. Within this chamber, the origins of life can be explored on different worlds (McMaster University).

Have you ever wondered if you could kick-start life on another planet? In the Origins of Life laboratory at McMaster University in Canada, there is a machine that allows you to try this very task.

Exactly how life began on the Earth remains heavily debated, but one of the most famous ideas was proposed by Charles Darwin in a letter to a friend in 1871:

“But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts…” Darwin began.

In contrast to the vast ocean, a pond would allow simple organic molecules to be concentrated and increase the probability of reactions that would form chains of longer molecules such as RNA; a single-stranded version of DNA that is thought to have been used for genetic information by the earliest forms of life.

warm little pond
Did life begin in warm little ponds such as these? (Katharine Sutliff / Science).

It is highly likely that such warm little ponds would have the necessary ingredients to build such complex molecules. Experiments performed by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in the 1950s demonstrated that water containing just the basic molecules of methane, ammonia and hydrogen would react to form a wide range of simple organics. Meteorites have also been found to contain similar molecules, proposing an alternative way of populating pools of water on the early Earth.

These ponds should therefore contain plenty of simple organics such as nucleotides, which stack together to form RNA. However, this stacking step turns out to be tricky.

“Anywhere where you have stagnant water and take sample, you will find organic molecules,” explains Maikel Rheinstädter, associate director of McMaster’s Origins Institute. “But you only find the building blocks, not the longer chains. Obviously, something is missing.”

In pond water, molecules are free to move around and potentially meet to initiate a reaction. The problem is that nucleotides carry a negative charge which repels the molecules from one another. While their motion is unconstrained, the nucleotides will therefore not approach close enough to react and form a longer molecule.

The solution is to dry out the pond.

As winter turned to summer on our young planet, shallow pools would have evaporated to leave the molecules suspended in the water lying on the muddy clay bottom.… Read more

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Asteroid Mission Reveals a Remarkable New World

The Hayabusa2 touchdown movie, taken on February 22, 2019 (JST) when Hayabusa2 first touched down on asteroid Ryugu to collect a sample from the surface. It was captured using the onboard small monitor camera (CAM-H). The video playback speed is five times faster than actual time (JAXA).

On March 5 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) released the extraordinary video shown above. The sequence of 233 images shows a spacecraft descending to collect material from the surface of an asteroid, before rising amidst fragments of ejected debris. It is an event that has never been captured on camera before.

The images were taken by a camera onboard the Hayabusa2 spacecraft, a mission to explore a C-type asteroid known as “Ryugu” and bring a sample back to Earth.

C-type asteroids are a class of space rock that is thought to contain carbonaceous material and undergone little evolution since the early days of the Solar System. These asteroids may have rained down on the early Earth and delivered our oceans and possibly our first organics. Examination of the structure of Ryugu and its composition compared to Earth will help us understand how planets can become habitable.

Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km
Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km. Image was captured with the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018 at around 16:00 JST. (JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST.)

Hayabusa2 arrived at asteroid Ryugu on June 27, 2018. The spacecraft spent the summer examining the asteroid with a suite of onboard instruments. Despite being a tiny world at only 1km across, Hayabusa2 spotted different seasons on Ryugu. Like the Earth, the asteroid’s rotation axis is inclined so that different levels of sunlight reach the northern and southern hemispheres.

It also rotated upside down, spinning in the opposite sense to the Earth and its own path around the Sun. This is likely indicative of a violent past, a view supported by the heavily bouldered and cratered surface. This rugged terrain presented the Hayabusa2 team with a problem: where could they land?

After a summer of observations, Hayabusa2 had been planning three different operations on the asteroid surface. The first was the deployment of two little rovers known as the MINERVA-II1. The second was the release of a shoebox-sized laboratory known as MASCOT, designed by the German and French space agencies.… Read more

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