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The WFIRST Space Observatory Becomes the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. But Will it Ever Fly?

An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), now  the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which will search for exoplanets that are small rocky as well as Neptune sized at a greater distance from their host stars than currently possible.  It will also study multiple cosmic phenomena, including dark energy and other theorized Einsteinian phenomena. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Earlier last week, NASA put out a release alerting journalists to  “an exciting announcement about the agency’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission.”

Given the controversial history of the project — the current administration has formally proposed cancelling it for several years and the astronomy community (and Congress) have been keep it going — it seemed to be a  newsworthy event, maybe a breakthrough regarding an on-again, off-again very high profile project.

And since WFIRST was the top large mission priority of the National Academies of Sciences some years ago — guidance that NASA almost always follows — the story could reflect some change in the administration’s approach to the value of long-established scientific norms.  Plus, it could mean that a space observatory with cutting-edge technology for identifying and studying exoplanets and for learning much more about dark matter and Einsteinian astrophysics might actually be launched in the 2020s.

But instead of a newsy announcement about fate of the space telescope, what NASA disclosed was that the project had been given a new name — the Nancy Grace Roman space telescope.

As one of NASA’S earliest hired and highest-ranking women, Roman spent 21 years at NASA developing and launching space-based observatories that studied the sun, deep space, and Earth’s atmosphere. She most famously worked to develop the concepts behind the Hubble Space Telescope, which just spent its 30th year in orbit.

This is a welcome and no doubt deserving honor.  But it will be much less of an honor if the space telescope is never launched into orbit.  And insights into the fate of WFIRST (the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope) are what really would constitute “an exciting announcement.”

What’s going on?

Nancy Grace Roman at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in the early 1970s (NASA)

 

I have no special insights, but I think that one of the scientists on the NASA Science Live event was probably on to something when she said:

“I find it tremendously exciting that the observatory is being  renamed,”  said Julie McEnery, deputy project scientist for the (now) NASA Roman mission.  … 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

Mapping the Surfaces of Our Solar System

 

A portion of the new “unified” geological map of the moon. (NASA/GSFC/USGS.)

It was not all that long ago that a “map” of our  moon, of Mars, of a large asteroid such as Vesta, of Titan, or of any hard-surfaced object in our solar system would have some very general outlines, some very large features identified,  and  then the extraterrestrial equivalent of the warning on Earth maps of yore that beyond a certain point “there be dragons.”  Constructing a map of the topography and geology of a distant surface requires deep understanding and data and lot of hard work.

Yet such an in-depth mapping is underway and has already resulted in detailed surface rendering of Mars,  of Jupiter’s moons Ganymede and Io, and of our moon.  And now, using both Apollo-era data for the moon and measurements from the Japanese lunar orbiter and currently flying American orbiter, the U.S. Geological Survey, in partnership with NASA and the Lunar and Planetary Institute,  has produced a rendering of our moon that moves extraterrestrial mapping significantly further.

It unifies all the data collected using a variety of techniques and produces a map with well-defined geological units, with in-laid topography (on digital versions,) and with a guide of sorts for moon watchers on Earth.  The red sections in the map above are the basalt lava flows that have the fewest craters from asteroid hits and so are the youngest surfaces.  They are also the darker sections of the moon that we see when we look into the night sky at a full moon.

The maps are not at a detail to allow NASA mission planners to assess a landing site, but they do tell what the geological environs are going to be and so are a guide to what might be found.

 

Orthographic projections (presenting three-dimensional objects in two-dimensions)  of the new “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon” showing the geology of the moon’s near side (left) and far side (right) with shaded topography from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA). This geologic map is a synthesis of six Apollo-era regional geologic maps, updated based on data from recent satellite missions. It will serve as a reference for lunar science and future human missions to the Moon.  (NASA/GSFC/USGS.)

The chief purpose of the map — in which 5 kilometers of distance are represented by 1 millimeter on the map — is to summarize the current state of lunar geologic knowledge.… 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

Viruses, the Virosphere and Astrovirology

An electron microscopic image of the 2019 novel coronavirus grown in cells at The University of Hong Kong.  Thin-section electron micrographs of the novel coronavirus show part of an infected cell, grown in a culture, with virus particles being released from the cell’s surface. (The University of Hong Kong)

 

When the word “virus” first came into use, it was as a “poison” and “a very small disease-causing agent.”  While the presence of viruses was theorized earlier, they were not fully identified until the 1890s.

So from their earliest discovery, viruses were synonymous with disease and generally of the ghastly epidemic type of disease we now see with coronavirus.  Few words carry such a negative punch.

Without in any way  minimizing the toll of viruses on humans (and apparently all other living things,) men and women who study viruses know that this association with disease is far too restrictive and misses much of what viruses do.  It’s perhaps not something to argue while a viral pandemic is raging, but that’s when the focus on viruses is most intense.

Here, then, is a broader look at what viruses do and have done — how they inflict pandemics but also have introduced genes that have led to crucial evolutionary advances, that have increased the once-essential ability of cyanobacteria in early Earth oceans to photosynthesize and produce oxygen, and that have greatly enhanced the immunity systems of everything they touch.  They — and the virosphere they inhabit — have been an essential agent of change.

Viruses are also thought to be old enough to have played a role — maybe a crucial role — in the origin of life, when RNA-like replicators outside cells may have been common and not just the domain of viruses.  This is why there is a school of thought that the study of viruses is an essential part of astrobiology and the search for the origins of life.  The field is called astrovirology.

Viruses are ubiquitous — infecting every living thing on Earth.

Virologists like to give this eye-popping sense of scale:  based on measurements of viruses in a liter of sea water, they calculate the number of viruses in the oceans of Earth to be 10 31.  That is 10 with 31 zeros after it.  If those viruses could be lined up, the scientists have calculated, they would stretch across the Milky Way 100 times.

“The vast majority of viruses don’t care about humans and have nothing to do with them,” said Rika Anderson,  who studies viruses around hydrothermal vents and teaches at Carleton College in Minnesota. … Read more

Theorized Northern Ocean of Mars; now long gone.  (NASA)

Change is the one constant in our world– moving in ways tiny and enormous,  constructive and destructive.

We’re living now in a time when a rampaging pandemic circles the globe and when the climate is changing in so many worrisome and potentially devastating ways.

With these ominous  changes as a backdrop, it is perhaps useful to spend a moment with change as it happens in a natural world without humans.  And just how complete that change can be:

For years now, planetary scientists have debated whether Mars once had a large ocean across its northern hemisphere.

There certainly isn’t one now — the north of Mars is parched, frigid and largely featureless.  The hemisphere was largely covered over in a later epoch by a deep bed of lava, hiding signs of its past.

The northern lowlands of Mars, as photographed by the Viking 2 lander. The spacecraft landed in the Utopia Planitia section of northern Mars in 1976. (NASA/JPL)

Because our sun sent out significantly less warmth at the time of early Mars (4.2-3.5  billion years ago,) climate modelers have long struggled to come up with an explanation for how the planet — on average, 137 million miles further out than Earth — could have been anything but profoundly colder than today. And if that world was so unrelentingly frigid, how could there be a surface ocean of liquid water?

But discoveries in the 21st century have strongly supported the long-ago presence of water on a Mars in the form of river valleys, lakes and a water cycle to feed them.  The work done by the Curiosity rover and Mars-orbiting satellites has made this abundantly clear.

An ocean in the northern lowlands is one proposal made to explain how the water cycle was fed.

And now, In a new paper in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets,  scientists from Japan and the United States have presented modelling and analysis describing how and why Mars had to have a large ocean early in its history to produce the geological landscape that is being found.

Lead author Ramses Ramirez, a planetary scientist with the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo, said it was not possible to determine how long the ocean persisted, but their team concluded that it had to be present  in that early period around 4 billion to 3.5 billion years ago.  That is roughly when what are now known to be river valleys were cut in the planet’s southern highlands.… Read more

What, Exactly, Is A Virus?

An illustration of the coronavirus. (Centers of Disease Control)

By now, the coronavirus is an all too familiar menace to most of the peoples of the world.  How it is spread,  the symptoms of the disease,  the absolute necessity of taking precautions against it — most people know something about the coronavirus pandemic.

But the question of what a virus actually is, what are its characteristics and where do they come from,  this seem to be far less well understood by the public.

So here is a primer on this often so destructive agent and its provenance — a look into the complicated, sometimes deadly and yes, fascinating world of viruses.

Viruses are microscopic pathogens that have genetic material (DNA or RNA molecules that encode the structure of the proteins by which the virus acts), that have a  a protein coat (which surrounds and protects the genetic material), and in some cases they have an outside envelope of lipids.

Most virus species have virions — the name given to a virus when it is not inside a host cell. They are too small to be seen with an optical microscope because they are one hundredth the size of most bacteria.

Transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. (NIAID-RML)

Unlike bacteria, viruses are generally not considered to be “alive.”

Although viruses do have genomes, they need to take over the machinery of other living cells to follow their own genome instructions.  This is why viruses cannot reproduce by themselves — as opposed to non-viral parasites  that can reproduce outside of a host cell.

Viruses are also too small and simple to collect and use energy, i.e., perform metabolism.   So they just take energy from the cells they infect, and use it only when they make copies of themselves.  They don’t need any energy at all when they are outside of a cell.

And viruses have no way to control their internal environment,  and so they do not maintain their own homeostasis as living creatures do.

These limitations are what lead many scientists to describe viruses as “almost alive,” which is a complicated state of existence indeed.

 

Infectious particles of an avian influenza virus emerge from a cell. 

Read more

Planetary Protection and the Moons of Mars

Mars with its two moons, Phobos and Deimos. Phobos orbits a mere 3,700 mile3s (6,000 km) above the surface, while Deimos is almost 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) away from the planet. In comparison, there is an almost 384,000 kilometers mean distance between the surface of the Earth and our elliptically orbiting moon. With the moons so close to Mars, debris from meteorite impacts on the planet can easily land on the moons. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

Sometime in the early to mid-2020s, the capsule of the Japanese Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission is scheduled to arrive at the moons of Mars – Phobos and Deimos.

These are small and desolate places, but one goal of the mission is large: to collect samples from the moons and bring them back to Earth.

If it succeeds, the return would likely be the first ever from Mars or its moons — since planned sample return efforts from the planet itself will be considerably more challenging and so will take longer to plan and carry out.

The Mars moon mission has the potential to bring back significant information about their host planet, the early days of our solar system, and the origins and make-up of the moons themselves.

It also has the potential, theoretically at least, to bring back Martian life, or signatures of past Martian microbial life. And similarly, it has the potential to bring Earth life to one of the moons.

Hidenori Genda, an ELSI planetary scientist with a long-lasting interest in the effects of giant planetary impacts, such as the one that formed our moon. His work has also focused on atmospheres, oceans, and life beyond Earth. (Nerissa Escanlar)

Under the general protocols of what is called “planetary protection,” this is a paramount issue and is why the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was obliged to assess the likelihood of any such biological transfers with MMX.

To make that assessment, the agency turned to a panel of experts that included planetary scientist, principal investigator, and associate professor Hidenori Genda of Tokyo’s Earth-Life Science Institute.

The panel’s report to JAXA and the journal Life Sciences in Space Research concluded that microbial biology (if it ever existed) on early Mars could have been kicked up by incoming meteorites, and subsequently traveled the relatively short distance through space to land on Phobos and Deimos.

However, the panel’s conclusions were unambiguous: the severe radiation these microbes would encounter on the way would make sure anything once living was now dead.… 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

Exploring Our Sun Will Help Us Understand Habitability

The surface of the sun, with each “kernel” or “cell” roughly the size of Texas. The movie is made up of images produced by the Daniel Inouye SolarTelescope in Hawaii.  Novel and even revolutionary data and images are also expected from the Parker Solar Probe (which will travel into the sun’s atmosphere, or corona) and the just launched Solar Orbiter, which will study (among many other things) the sun’s polar regions. (NSO/NSF/AURA)

 

Scientists have been  studying our sun for centuries, and at this point know an awful lot about it — the millions of degrees Fahrenheit heat that it radiates out from the corona, the tangled and essential magnetic fields that it creates, the million-miles-per-hour solar wind and the charged high-energy solar particles that can be so damaging to anything alive.

But we have now entered a time when solar science is taking a major leap forward with the deployment of three pioneering instruments that will explore the sun and its surroundings as never before.  One is a space telescopes that will get closer to the sun (by far) than any probe before, another is a probe that will make the first observations of the sun’s poles, and the third is a ground-based solar telescope that can resolve the sun in radically new ways — as seen in the image above, released last month.

Together, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, the joint European Space Agency-NASA Solar Orbiter mission and the National Science Foundation’s Inouye Solar Telescope on Hawai’i will provide pathways to understand some of the mysteries of the sun.  They include resolving practical issues involving the dynamics  of “space weather” that can harm astronauts and telecommunications systems, and larger theoretical unknowns related to all the material that stars scatter into space and onto planets.

Some of those unresolved questions include determining how and why heat and energy flow from the sun’s inner core to the outer corona and make it so much hotter, determining the structure and dynamics of the plasma and magnetic fields at the sources of the solar wind, the make-up and effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections, and how and why the sun is able to create and control the heliosphere — the vast bubble of charged particles blown by the solar wind into interstellar space.

 

An illustration of Kepler2-33b, , one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date using NASA Kepler Space Telescope.

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