Author: Elizabeth Tasker (page 1 of 3)

And Then There Were Three: ESA Follows NASA in Selecting a Mission to Venus

Artist illustration of the EnVision orbiter at Venus (ESA/VR2Planets/DamiaBouic)

It was quite a week for Venus scientists. Just seven days after NASA announced the selection of two Venus missions, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed that a third Venus mission had been chosen for the agency’s medium-class mission category.

(See last week’s post here on Many Worlds about DAVINCI+ and VERITAS)

The new mission is named EnVision, and will be ESA’s second Venus mission following Venus Express (2005 – 2014), which investigated the Venusian climate. While EnVision is an orbiter like Venus Express and VERITAS, its focus is the planet’s geological circulation system that links the atmosphere, surface and interior.

In case you are starting to get your Venus missions in a tangle, the set can be broadly divided up as follows:

Venus Express (ESA: 2005 – 2014) and Akatsuki (JAXA: 2015 – current) are both Venus orbiters focussed on the planet’s climate, returning information about the rapidly rotating upper atmosphere and acidic cloud deck of Venus.

DAVINCI+ (NASA: est. 2029 launch) is an orbiter and descending probe that will dive through the Venusian atmosphere to return top-to-bottom data on the planet’s stifling gases.

VERITAS (NASA: est. 2028 launch) is an orbiter focussed on Venus’s surface and the deep interior. VERITAS will bring us global maps in three-dimensions at a resolution of 30m. This will knock the socks off our current images from NASA’s Magellan orbiter (1989 – 1994), which had a resolution of around 200m.

EnVision (ESA: early 2030s) is the mission focused on how these environments are linked together. Equipped with an instrument suite that covers the top of the atmosphere through to below the planet surface, EnVision will probe how the different regions influence one another to create the planet’s internal systems.

“EnVision has a holistic approach,” explained Jörn Helbert who is a member of the EnVision team. “The larger and more complex payload studies Venus from the top of the atmosphere all the way to the subsurface, with a focus on understanding how the coupled system on Venus works.”

Artist illustration of the EnVision spacecraft, reflecting the goal of understanding why Venus and Earth are so different (NASA / JAXA / ISAS / DARTS / Damia Bouic / VR2Planets).

The coupled system is at the heart of how habitability can develop on rocky planets. A major player in the Earth’s environment is the ability to cycle carbon between the atmosphere, surface and planet mantle.… Read more

Return to Hell: NASA Selects Two Missions to Venus to Explore the Pathway to Habitability

Artists’ renderings show the VERITAS spacecraft (left) and DAVINCI+ probe (right) as they arrive at Venus (Lockheed Martin).

For NASA scientists, Venus missions must feel like buses. You wait thirty years for one, and then two come along at once.

Last week, NASA selected two Venus missions for the space agency’s Discovery Program; solar system exploration missions that can tuck under a lower cost cap than candidates for NASA’s New Horizons or Flagship categories. The first of these is DAVINCI+, which is an orbiter equipped with a descending probe that will take a big whiff of Venus’s stifling atmosphere. The second is the VERITAS orbiter that plans to peer through the clouds to scrutinise the Venusian surface.

While Europe and Japan have both visited Venus more recently than NASA (in fact, the Japanese orbiter is still there), there is little doubt that our inner neighbor is dramatically under-explored compared to Mars. But why the past neglect, and why go twice now?

The answer to the first question is perhaps the easiest.

Venus is hell.

The planet is wrapped in a thick atmosphere consisting of carbon dioxide and clouds of sulfuric acid that beat down on the Venusian surface with pressures nearly one hundred times higher than on Earth and create temperatures sufficient to melt lead.

These conditions have made it difficult to follow the usual pattern of planetary exploration from fly-bys and orbiters to landers and rovers. The Venusian surface is so inhospitable that a rover like NASA’s Mars Perseverance would become rover goop. Although recent engineering combined with high-temperature electronics means that the surface is no longer impossible, it does greatly add to the challenge (and therefore cost) of a lander mission.

Professor Stephen Kane, University of California, Riverside.

Hell-scape conditions have also resulted in Venus being overlooked for any astrobiological studies compared to (the still rather nasty but at least you can stand a rover on the surface) Mars. This makes the urgency to explore Venus now particularly surprising. The missions are a quest to understand habitability. The bottom line is that the hell world of Venus is essential to understanding how a planet becomes habitable and to discovering other habitable worlds outside our solar system.

“Imagine you live in a small town full of life,” explains Professor Stephen Kane from the DAVINCI+ team. “The nearest town is the same size and seems it was once identical. But now, it’s burned to the ground with no sign of life.… Read more

The Directly Imaged World Around α Centauri?

Optical and X-ray (cut-out) image of the Alpha Centauri binary stars (Optical: Zdenek Bardon; X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Colorado/T. Ayres et al.)

There is something terribly exciting about actually seeing an exoplanet. While we have discovered over 4,000 planets outside the solar system, the majority of these worlds have been identified through their influence on their star, either via a dimming of the star’s light as the planet transits across its surface, or the wobble of the star from the planet’s gravitational pull. These are incredibly powerful techniques for planet hunting, but neither allow us to actually lay eyes on the planet itself.

The method to actually see a planet is known as “direct imaging” and it is a tricky process, as the star’s light can easily overwhelm any radiation coming from the smaller, cooler planet. Exoplanet imagining has therefore focused on young Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting far from the powerful lighthouse of the star. These planets are large and their recent formation has left them packed with heat, with temperatures around 1340°F (727°C). Such hot houses emit thermal radiation at wavelengths around 5 microns, so most of the instruments dedicated to capturing planet pictures operate around this wavelength range.

Direct imaging of exoplanets is difficult, and so far has been mainly restricted to young, massive planets. This amazing animation of four planets more massive than Jupiter orbiting the young star HR 8799 includes images taken over seven years at the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. (Jason Wang and Christian Marois)

However, these wavelengths are a bad choice if you want to try imaging an Earth-like world. As an evolved planet on a temperate orbit, thermal emission from a planet like our own is longer at about 10 – 20 microns. This is an awkward wavelength for observations from the Earth, as the Earth’s own thermal emission can swamp the distant signal of the planet.

Yet, being able to directly image temperate planets is an important technique for studying possible habitable worlds. As you move away from the star, the chances of the planet’s orbit transiting across the star’s surface from our view from Earth decreases. For a planet on a similar orbit to the Earth around a sun-like star, the probability is less than 0.5%. The only way to study many of these worlds may be if we can see them directly, and space-based observatories have been generally seen as the path to this kind of imaging.… Read more

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Mission Returns to Earth

Fireball created by the Hayabusa2 re-entry capsule as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere towards the ground (JAXA).

In the mission control room in Japan, all eyes were fixed on one of the large screens that ran along the far wall. The display showed the night sky, with stars twinkling in the blackness. We were waiting for a delivery from space.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission launched from the Tanegashima Space Center on December 3, 2014. The spacecraft was headed to asteroid Ryugu, with the intention of studying the tiny world and collecting a sample to return to Earth.

The mission would prove to be an incredible success. Not only did the spacecraft gather two samples from the asteroid, but it was the first mission to deploy autonomous rovers to explore an asteroid’s surface, generate an artificial crater in order to study the asteroid’s structure and collect a sample of the interior, and additionally, deploy a lander to make scientific measurements from the surface itself. The mission finale was to return the samples safely back to Earth on December 6, 2020. The grains in that sample container may hold clues as to how the Earth became habitable.

Ryugu is an example of a C-type or “carbonaceous” asteroid. These asteroids have undergone relatively little change since the start of the solar system, and are thought to contain hydrated minerals (minerals containing water in their structure) and possible organics. It is this class of asteroid that may have crashed into the early Earth and delivered the necessary tools for life to begin. Analysis of the Ryugu sample could therefore tell us about our own beginnings and how terrestrial planets develop habitable conditions.

Images before and after the first touchdown of Hayabusa2 on asteroid Ryugu, taken with CAM-H on February 21, 2019 (animation plays at 5x speed) (JAXA).

As the Hayabusa2 spacecraft drew near the Earth, five “trajectory control manoeuvres” (TCMs) were planned. The first four of these were designed to put the spacecraft onto a collision course with the Earth, aimed at the Woomera desert in Australia. The re-entry capsule would then be released, and the spacecraft would make a final manoeuvre to divert onto an orbit that swept past the Earth and back into deep space.

Despite the smooth progress so far, there were concerns. The capsule release mechanism had not been tested since launch six years previously and it was always possible that separation would fail.… Read more

The Planet Larger Than Its Star

Artist animation of WD 1856 b orbiting the white dwarf. Due to the tiny size of the white dwarf and close orbit of the planet, the animation is to scale. The slightly inclined orbit means that the planet does not entirely block the white dwarf’s light as it transits (Tasker).

It has been an exciting month for planets. Just days after the announcement of a detection of phosphine in the clouds of Venus, another first in planet discoveries was declared. The new find is the first planet observed to be orbiting a white dwarf; a dead star that is much smaller than the planet it hosts.

Planet WD 1856+534 b was first spotted by the NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and confirmed with a series of observations from ground-based telescopes. The results showed the light from a white dwarf being periodically dimmed by a staggering 56% for brief 8 minutes.

For comparison, one of the easiest exoplanet types to detect is a hot Jupiter that would typically cause a 1% dip in brightness of its star over a period of a few hours.

This suggested a Jupiter-sized planet was closely orbiting a white dwarf that was similar in size to the Earth. Light from the white dwarf is obscured each time the planet passes in front of (or transits) the dead star’s surface on its orbit. Interestingly, the light dip is shaped like the letter V, showing a gentle gradient decreasing and rising from the maximum occultation. The lack of a sharp drop in brightness implied the planet’s orbit was slightly inclined so that it grazed the white dwarf’s surface and only obscured part of the much smaller star.

Light dip (transit) observations of WD 1856 observed with the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) in visible light. The red curve is the best-fitting models. The V-shape suggests the planet is grazing the white dwarf and does not obscure it completely (Vanderburg et al. 2020, Figure 1a).

Although certainly unusual, WD 1856 b is not the first planet known to orbit a smaller star. The first extrasolar planets to be discovered orbit another type of stellar remnant known as a neutron star. While white dwarfs typically have sizes similar to a terrestrial planet, neutron stars have city-sized diameters of order 10 km.

The fact both these cases involve dead stars is no coincidence. In order to orbit, the mass of the planet must be much less than that of the star.… Read more

Could Life Exist in the Clouds of Venus?

Nightside of Venus captured with the IR2 (infrared) camera on JAXA’s Akatsuki climate orbiter (JAXA).

On September 14 at 3pm GMT, an embargo lifted on a research paper reporting evidence for biological activity on Venus. Speculation about the discovery had been spreading rapidly through social media for several days, proving that scientists are incapable of keeping secrets.

With a surface temperature sufficient to melt lead, Venus is not the usual candidate for extraterrestrial life. However, the reported signature resides not on the surface of the planet, but in its clouds.

Led by Professor Jane Greaves at Cardiff University, the research team report an observation of phosphine; a molecule consisting of one atom of phosphorous and three atoms of hydrogen (PH3). On Earth, the trace amounts of phosphine in the atmosphere all come from either human or microbial activity. But does that make the presence of phosphine irrefutable evidence of life on Venus?

The case for phosphine as a biosignature

Phosphine has been found in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn. However, this phosphine forms at the high temperatures and pressures existing deep within the giants’ colossal hydrogen-rich atmospheres. This process is not possible on the terrestrial planets, where the atmospheres are vastly thinner and hydrogen poor.

Instead of hydrogen, Venus’s atmosphere consists predominantly of carbon dioxide with clouds of sulfuric acid. While both ingredients sound abysmal for the prospect of life, the molecules consist of carbon and sulfur bounded to oxygen atoms. The prevalence of oxygen atoms should have resulted in any phosphorous present in the atmosphere to chemically react in a similar fashion to form a phosphate molecule (phosphorous and oxygen), rather than the observed phosphine (phosphorus and hydrogen).

Surface photographs from the former Soviet Union’s Venera 13 spacecraft, which touched down in March 1982. Temperatures on the surface are sufficient to melt lead, while the sulfur in the clouds gives the air its yellow/orange colour (NASA).

Despite considering thousands of possible reactions that might occur within Venus’s atmosphere, Greaves and her team failed to simulate the production of phosphine on Venus through abiotic (non-biological) means. Energetic processes such as lightening, volcanic activity or delivery via meteorites were also ruled out as possible sources, as the quantities they produced should be too low to explain the detection.

Estimates for the lifetime of phosphine also remove the chance that the molecules are leftover from an earlier epoch when the young Venus hosted a more clement environment.… Read more

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

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