vendredi 26 octobre 2018

The Surprising Coincidence Between Two Overarchieving NASA Missions

NASA - Dawn Mission patch / NASA - Kepler Space Telescope patch.

Oct. 26, 2018

Two vastly different NASA spacecraft are about to run out of fuel: The Kepler spacecraft, which spent nine years in deep space collecting data that detected thousands of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system, and the Dawn spacecraft, which spent 11 years orbiting and studying the main asteroid belt's two largest objects, Vesta and Ceres.

However, the two record-setting missions have more in common than their coincidentally low fuel levels. Both missions gathered data that broke new scientific ground, searching for answers inside and outside our solar system.

Image above: Illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft, with its distinctive ion propulsion. Image Credit: NASA.

Launched in 2007, Dawn was the first spacecraft to orbit a body between Mars and Jupiter, and the first to orbit more than one deep-space destination. From 2011 to 2012, Dawn studied the asteroid Vesta before pulling off an unprecedented maneuver by leaving orbit and traveling to Ceres, which it observed for over 3.5 years. Dawn will remain in a stable orbit around Ceres for decades. Among its many findings, Dawn helped scientists discover organics on Ceres and evidence that dwarf planets could have hosted oceans over a significant part of their history — and possibly still do.

Image above: Illustration of NASA's Kepler spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA.

Kepler, meanwhile, launched in 2009 and revealed that there is statistically at least one planet around every star in our galaxy. It also opened our eyes to the variety of worlds beyond our solar system, with its discovery of more than 2,600 planets orbiting other stars. Among these worlds are rocky, Earth-size planets, some of which orbit within their stars' habitable zones, where liquid water could pool on the surface. Kepler also characterized a class of planets that don't exist in our solar system: worlds between the sizes of Earth and Neptune, or "super-Earths."

Both missions were extended past their originally anticipated lifetime because of the innovative work of their engineers and scientists. In 2016, Dawn's mission at Ceres was extended. In 2017, its mission at Ceres was extended again to study the dwarf planet from altitudes as low as 22 miles (35 kilometers) above Ceres's surface, with the main goal of understanding the evolution of Ceres and possibly active geology.

Dawn spacecraft traveling to Ceres. Animation Credit: NASA

In 2012, Kepler completed its primary mission and was awarded an extension. After the failure of a second gyroscope that kept the spacecraft steady in 2013, clever engineers found a way to use solar pressure to keep the spacecraft temporarily pointed in a desired direction. Starting in 2014, this new mission was dubbed K2. It has been running ever since, gathering science from 19 different patches of sky with populations of stars, galaxies and solar system objects.

Kepler Space Telescope. Animation Credit: NASA

Both missions, with their vastly distinct data sets, have given scientists here on Earth a lot to think about. From Dawn's mission, we found that Ceres may still be geologically active and could have had briny water rising and depositing salts on its surface. From Kepler's mission, we learned that planets are more common than stars in our galaxy and that many of them could be promising for life as we know it. It also showed us the diversity of planets and planetary systems out there, some of which are very different than ours.

As we prepare to say goodbye to these two record-breaking missions, we rejoice in the fact that discoveries will still arise from their data decades into the future.

Related articles:

The Legacy of NASA’s Dawn, Near End of Mission:

Rocky? Habitable? Sizing up a Galaxy of Planets:

Kepler and K2:

Dawn: and

Images (mentioned), Animations (mentioned), Text, Credit: NASA.


Spacesuits and High-Temp, Fire Science Focus of Crew Today

ISS - Expedition 57 Mission patch.

October 26, 2018

U.S. spacesuits and hot, fiery research kept the Expedition 57 crew busy Friday. The three-member crew from around the world also continued the ongoing upkeep of the International Space Station’s systems.

A pair of spacesuits inside the Quest airlock had their cooling loops scrubbed today by station Commander Alexander Gerst of ESA (European Space Agency). The suit maintenance comes ahead of a pair of spacewalks being planned to connect new lithium-ion batteries on the space station’s port truss structure.

Image above: Official crew portrait of Expedition 57 crew members (from left) Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA, Alexander Gerst of ESA (European Space Agency) and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos. Image Credit: NASA.

Fellow flight engineers Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos worked on advanced science hardware. The two devices, the Electrostatic Levitation Furnace (ELF) and the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR), enable the safe research of high temperatures, flames and gases.

Auñón-Chancellor cleaned up the ELF inside the Kibo lab module after removing samples exposed to extremely high temperatures. Scientists are observing how microgravity affects the thermophysical properties of a variety materials at different temperatures.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

Prokopyev worked in the Destiny lab module replacing fuel bottles for experiments inside the CIR researching how fuels and flames burn in space. Results may guide the development of rocket engines and fire safety aboard spacecraft.

Related links:

Expedition 57:

Electrostatic Levitation Furnace (ELF):

Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR):

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

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Scientists Take a New Look at Protecting Vision in Space

ISS - International Space Station logo.

Oct. 26, 2018

Mice that flew aboard the International Space Station contributed to a variety of scientific studies through an innovative program that shares tissue samples with researchers around the globe.

One participating investigation, Mouse Epigenetics, is the first study to identify specific changes in eye tissue, particularly blood vessels, in response to microgravity. These results were recently published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

Image above: Glove Box set up on the Kobairo Rack for the Mouse Epigenetics experiment in the Kibo Japanese Experiment Pressurized Module (JPM). Image Credit: JAXA.

The group of mice spent 35 days in the Habitat Cage Unit (HCU) installed in the space station’s Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Kibo facility. Some mice were kept in the space station’s microgravity environment and others in artificial Earth gravity, or 1 g, produced by a rotating centrifuge in the HCU. The ability to produce this artificial gravity means that most environmental conditions associated with spaceflight remain, except the mice experienced the same level of gravity as on Earth. That allowed the researchers to test, for the first time, the effectiveness of using artificial gravity to reduce effects of exposure to microgravity.

Previous research suggests that one of the responses of the human body to spaceflight and microgravity is oxidative stress. An imbalance between the reactive oxygen generated by normal cell metabolism and the cell’s ability to handle toxic byproducts from that metabolism, oxidative stress produces peroxides and free radicals, unstable atoms that can damage cells. On Earth, oxidative stress is a normal beneficial cell process but in excess is associated with cancers, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and many other conditions.

The mouse epigenetics investigators wanted to examine whether the space-flown mice experienced increased oxidative stress and cellular damage in eye tissue, along with changes in proteins associated with various cellular functions in the eye. They also examined whether application of artificial gravity would lessen these changes.

Image above: JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui setting up the Mouse Epigenetics experiment onboard the space station. Image Credit: JAXA.

Sure enough, the mice in microgravity experienced higher rates of apoptosis in retinal vascular cells than the mice in artificial gravity and controls on the ground. (Apoptosis, or programmed cell death, is the death of cells that are no longer needed in the body and is a normal part of growth and development.) Analysis also showed the mice in microgravity had significant alteration of proteins responsible for cell death, cell repair, inflammation and metabolic function in the eye.

“This is the first study to establish that there are some significant changes in the protein composition of the eye in microgravity,” said Michael Delp of Florida State University, one of the paper’s authors. “We believe oxidative stress may be the primary factor in damage of blood vessels in the eye, which we believe could play a big role in impairing vision both in microgravity and on Earth.”

A significant number of astronauts report vision impairment during their time in space that continues after returning to Earth, and its cause has been the subject of many studies aboard the orbiting laboratory.

“We saw biomarkers for oxidative stress, which is significant because it suggests to us why the damage occurs,” said Xiao W. Mao of Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Medical Center in California and also one of the authors. “Once we know that, we can eventually develop countermeasures to crack the problem, not only for spaceflight but for age-related oxidative damage on Earth.”

Image above: The team of scientists analyzing tissue samples from the ground control mice in Japan. Image Credits: Michael Delp, Florida State University.

The study also is the first to provide evidence that artificial gravity could provide some protection against such impairment.

“Another big takeaway from this study is that application of artificial gravity can mitigate a lot of the worst effects we found,” Delp said.

The next step, the researchers said, is testing the potential protection from different levels of artificial gravity. This could provide insight into the effects on travelers to, for example, the Moon and Mars, which have a fraction of Earth’s gravity. In addition, researchers want to look at longer-term changes by keeping mice in space for 60 or 90 days.

This investigation represents the first NASA-JAXA publication from a collaboration under the Japan-U.S. Open Platform Partnership Program (JP-US OP3).

International Space Station (ISS). Image Credit: NASA

“It was very important to our work that JAXA was willing to share tissue from the experiment,” said Mao. “All the collaboration and support was very important.”

Satoru Takahashi with the University of Tsukuba, Japan, was a principal investigator for the Mouse Epigenetics investigation. The research was supported by grants from NASA Space Biology, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Loma Linda University Department of Basic Sciences. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Proteomics Facility and Arkansas Children’s Research Institute Developmental Bioinformatics Core provided technical support.

Related links:

Mouse Epigenetics:

Habitat Cage Unit (HCU):

Oxidative stress:

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA):

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/JSC/International Space Station Program Science Office/Melissa Gaskill.


Jovian White Oval

NASA - JUNO Mission logo.

Oct. 25, 2018

A swirling, oval white cloud in Jupiter’s South South Temperate Belt is captured in this image from NASA's Juno spacecraft. Known as White Oval A5, the feature is an anticyclonic storm. An anticyclone is a weather phenomenon where winds around the storm flow in the direction opposite to those of the flow around a region of low pressure.

Juno took the two images used to produce this color-enhanced view on Sept. 6, 2018, at 6:45 p.m. PDT (9:45 p.m. EDT) and 6:58 p.m. PDT (9:58 p.m. EDT) as the Juno spacecraft performed its 15th close flyby of Jupiter. At the time the images were taken, the spacecraft was about 25,000 miles (40,500 kilometers) to 39,000 miles (63,000 kilometers) from Jupiter's cloud tops, above a southern latitude spanning from about 54 to 66 degrees.

Juno orbiting Jupiter

Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created this image using data from the spacecraft's JunoCam imager.

JunoCam's raw images are available for the public to peruse and to process into image products at:  

More information about Juno is at: and

Image, Animation, Text, Credits: NASA/Jon Nelson/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.


A changing crater: Honouring a renowned Mars scientist

ESA - Mars Express Mission patch.

26 October 2018

Mars Express

The surface of Mars may appear to be perpetually still, but its many features are ever-changing – as represented in this Mars Express view of the severely eroded Greeley impact crater.

Greeley crater, named for the renowned planetary scientist Ronald Greeley, is located in one of the most ancient parts of Mars: a section of the planet’s southern highlands named Noachis Terra.

 Perspective view of Greeley Crater

This region is thought to be some four billion years old, and is thus home to many features that formed in the very earliest days of the Solar System. Many craters have formed, changed, and eroded away in Noachis Terra, and Greeley crater is no exception.

The subject of these Mars Express images sits between two huge, deep impact basin plains, Argyre and Hellas, and is a great example of a very old crater that has endured significant erosion over time.

Greeley Crater in context

Wind, water, ice, and subsequent impacts have all played a part in wearing down the once-fresh structure of the crater. They have smoothed away and removed its walls and rims, erased any characteristic patterns in the nearby landscape that may have formed alongside the crater (such as ‘ejecta’, or rays of material flung out from an impact site), and infilled and flattened out its floor.

This floor is covered with a number of smaller impact pits and pockmarks that have occurred since Greeley crater’s formation – another clear indication of the crater’s immense age. With a depth of only 1.5 km Greeley crater is actually relatively shallow for a martian crater, making it somewhat difficult to pick out from the surrounding terrain.

Mars Express plan view of Greeley Crater

Accompanying views of the crater show it in a wider context on Mars, colour-coded by topography – highlighting the relative depths of the crater, its broken-down wall, smaller superimposed craters, and other features throughout the region – and also via an oblique perspective, which looks across the crater towards the south-west. Together, these images well-characterise the crater and its environment, and offer an intriguing insight into this ancient region on our planetary neighbour.

Greeley crater earned its moniker following a proposal by the International Astronomical Union in 2015 to name the crater after distinguished planetary scientist Ronald Greeley. Greeley passed away on 27 October 2011.

Topography of Greeley Crater

Alongside significant work in planetary science spanning not only Mars and related missions but also lunar research and missions to Venus, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune, Greeley was a Regents’ Professor of planetary geology at Arizona State University from 1977 to 2011, and co-investigator of the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) – the instrument that gathered the data used in these images.

Related links:

Mars Express:

Mars Express overview:

Animation, Images, Text, Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO/NASA MGS MOLA Science Team/ATG Medialab.

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BepiColombo magnetometer boom deployed - sequence

ESA - BepiColombo Mission patch.

26 October 2018

The 2.5 m long boom carrying the magnetometer sensors onboard ESA's BepiColombo Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) has been successfully deployed. The sensors are now prepared to measure the magnetic field on the way to Mercury.

Following launch last weekend, and having completed the 'launch and early orbit phase' on Monday, confirming the spacecraft and systems were healthy and functioning now they are in space, attention has now turned to checking the suite of scientific instruments on the science orbiters.

Animation above: BepiColombo magnetometer boom deployed - gif sequence. Animation Credits: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

As part of this activity, one more piece of hardware had to be deployed: the magnetometer boom onboard the MPO. The deployment, which took about one minute to complete, was captured in a series of images taken by one of the monitoring cameras onboard the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM).

The transfer module is equipped with three monitoring cameras – or M-CAMs – which provide black-and-white snapshots in 1024 × 1024 pixel resolution. The magnetometer boom is seen in M-CAM 2. The images were taken with an exposure of 40 milliseconds, and a time interval of six seconds between images, starting at 12:40:09 UTC (14:40:09 CEST) on 25 October. Eleven images were taken in the sequence – eight of them capture the motion of the boom, as seen here.

Image above: BepiColombo magnetometer boom deployed. Image Credits: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM , CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

At the same time, the sensors in the boom itself recorded the local magnetic field during the deployment.

The M-CAMs already returned space 'selfies' in the days after launch, featuring the MTM's deployed solar wings and MPO's antennas – activities which were confirmed first by telemetry. A portion of the array can be seen towards the right in this orientation, and the cone-shaped medium-gain antenna is in the lower part of the image on the left.

Image above: BepiColombo's first space selfies. Image Credits: ESA/BepiColombo/MTM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

The monitoring cameras will be used at various occasions during the seven year cruise phase. While the MPO is equipped with a high-resolution scientific camera, this can only be operated after separating from the MTM upon arrival at Mercury in late 2025 because, like several of the 11 instrument suites, it is located on the side of the spacecraft fixed to the MTM during cruise.

Once at Mercury, the magnetometer will measure the planet's magnetic field, the interaction of the solar wind, and the formation and dynamics of the magnetosphere – the magnetic 'bubble' around the planet. Together with measurements captured by a similar instrument suite onboard JAXA's Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, the spacecraft will provide scientists with data that will help investigate the dynamic environment of the planet, as well as the origin, evolution and current state of the planet's magnetic field and its interior.

BepiColombo approaching Mercury. Image Credits: ESA/ATG medialab/NASA/JPL

BepiColombo is a joint endeavour between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA. It is the first European mission to Mercury, the smallest and least explored planet in the inner Solar System, and the first to send two spacecraft to make complementary measurements of the planet and its dynamic environment at the same time.

Related article:

BepiColombo blasts off to investigate Mercury’s mysteries:

Related links:


BepiColombo overview:

BepiColombo in depth:

Animation (mentioned), Images (mentioned), Text, Credit: European Space Agency (ESA).

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jeudi 25 octobre 2018

Rocky? Habitable? Sizing up a Galaxy of Planets

NASA - Kepler / K2 Second Mission logo.

Oct. 25, 2018

The planets so far discovered across the Milky Way are a motley, teeming multitude: hot Jupiters, gas giants, small, rocky worlds and mysterious planets larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune. As we prepare to add many thousands more to the thousands found already, the search goes on for evidence of life – and for a world something like our own.

And as our space telescopes and other instruments grow ever more sensitive, we're beginning to zero in.

Image above: Artist’s concept of how rocky, potentially habitable worlds elsewhere in our galaxy might appear. Data gathered by telescopes in space and on the ground suggest that small, rocky planets are common. (Placing them so close together in a line is for illustrative purposes only.) Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech).

The discoveries so far inspire excitement and curiosity among scientists and the public. We've found rocky planets in Earth's size range, at the right distance from their parent stars to harbor liquid water. While these characteristics don't guarantee a habitable world – we can't quite tell yet if these planets really do possess atmospheres or oceans – they can help point us in the right direction.

Future space telescopes will be able to analyze the light from some of these planets, searching for water or a mixture of gases that resembles our own atmosphere. We will gain a better understanding of temperatures on the surface. As we continue checking off items on the habitability list, we'll draw closer and closer to finding a world bearing recognizable signs of life.

Among the most critical factors in the shaping and development of a habitable planet is the nature of its parent star. The star's mass, size and age determine the distance and extent of its "habitable zone" – the region around a star where the temperature potentially allows for liquid water to pool on a planet's surface.

Star-mapping the Galaxy

The European Space Agency's Gaia satellite, launched in 2013, is becoming one of history's greatest star mappers. It relies on a suite of high-precision instruments to measure star brightness, distance, and composition. The ambitious goal is to create a three-dimensional map of our Milky Way galaxy. The chart so far includes the positions of about 1.7 billion stars, with distances for about 1.3 billion.

That has prompted a reassessment of star sizes to learn whether some might be larger, smaller, dimmer or brighter than scientists had thought.

It turns out that many of the stars were found to be brighter – and larger – than previous surveys estimated. For the team managing the explosion of planet finds from NASA's Kepler space telescope, beginning in 2009, that also means a revision of sizes for the planets in orbit around them.

If a star is brighter than we thought, it's often larger than we thought as well. The planet in orbit around it, measured proportionally by the transit method, must also be larger.

That means some of the planets thought to be of a size and temperature similar to Earth's are really bigger – and usually, hotter.

"Gaia has improved distances and has improved assessments of how bright a star is, and how big a planet is," said Eric Mamajek, the deputy program chief scientist for NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program. "The whole issue has always been, how well do we understand the star? This is just another chapter of that ongoing story."

The latest scientific data from the Gaia space probe also is prompting a reassessment of the most promising "habitable zone" planets found by observatories around the world, as well as space-based instruments like NASA's Kepler. As scientists iron out both observations and definitions of what we consider a potentially habitable world, better data is bringing us closer to finding such a planet and – maybe just as important – finding our own planet's place among them.

Of the 3,700 exoplanets – planets around other stars – confirmed by scientists so far, about 2,600 were found by the Kepler space telescope. Kepler hunts for the tiny eclipse, or dip in starlight, as a planet crosses the face of its star.

Image above: Kepler and K2 · Kepler Space Telescope operating as the K2 mission. Image Credit: NASA.

The most recent analysis of Kepler's discoveries shows that 20 to 50 percent of the stars in the sky are likely to have small, potentially rocky planets in their habitable zones. Our initial estimate of near Earth-sized, habitable-zone planets from the Kepler spacecraft as of June 19, 2017, was 30. Preliminary analysis of newer data, on both those exoplanets and their host stars, shows that the number is likely smaller – possibly between 2 and 12.

Much more data are needed, including a better understanding of how a planet's size relates to its composition.

"We're still trying to figure out how big a planet can be and still be rocky," said Jessie Dotson, an astrophysicist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. She is also the project scientist for Kepler's current, extended mission, known as K2.

At first glance, the latest analysis might seem disappointing: fewer rocky, potentially habitable worlds among the thousands of exoplanets found so far. But that doesn't change one of the most astonishing conclusions after more than 20 years of observation: Planets in the habitable zone are common.

More and better data on these far distant planets means a more accurate demographic portrait of a universe of planets – and a more nuanced understanding of their composition, possible atmospheres and life-bearing potential.

That should put us on more solid ground for the coming torrent of exoplanet discoveries from TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), and future telescopes as well. It brings us one step closer in our search for a promising planet among a galaxy of stars.

"This is the exciting part of science," Dotson said. "So often, we're really portrayed as, 'Now we know this story.' But I have a theory: Scientists love it when we don't know something. It's the hunt that's so exciting."

Kepler and K2:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Jon Nelson/JPL/Calla Cofield, written by Pat Brennan.


Plant Science and Solar Array Photos as Station Nears Milestone

ISS - Expedition 57 Mission patch.

October 25, 2018

Botany science and solar array photography were on the Expedition 57 crew’s schedule today including ongoing maintenance of the orbital lab. The research and photo surveys help scientists and engineers understand how life and International Space Station systems adapt to microgravity.

Image above: The aurora and the night sky above Earth’s atmosphere are pictured from the space station. A portion of the station’s solar arrays and a pair of nitrogen/oxygen recharge system tanks are pictured in the foreground. Image Credit: NASA.

Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor is helping NASA and its international partners understand how plants grow in microgravity to promote humans living longer and farther in space. She set up the Veggie plant growth facility today to grow a variety of edible plants such as kale and lettuce inside Europe’s Columbus lab module. Botanists are also exploring how cultivating plants to provide a fresh food supply affects crew morale.

Commander Alexander Gerst started his day familiarizing himself with the botany experiment. The German astronaut from of ESA (European Space Agency) then worked throughout the day photo-documenting the station’s port side solar arrays. The photos will be downloaded so ground specialists can inspect the condition of the arrays for damage sites.

Image above: Sunrise over North Pacific Ocean, seen by EarthCam on ISS, speed: 27'616 Km/h, altitude: 408,37 Km, image captured by Roland Berga (on Earth in Switzerland) from International Space Station (ISS) using ISS-HD Live application with EarthCam's from ISS on October 24, 2018 at 19:09 UTC. Image Credits: Aerospace/Roland Berga.

On the Russian side of the space lab, cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev checked on power supply systems inside the Zarya cargo module before moving on to science and life support work. Zarya was the first station module launched into space and will reach its 20th anniversary on Nov. 20.

Related links:

Expedition 57:

Veggie plant growth facility:

Kale and lettuce:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.

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The ghost of Cassiopeia

ESA - Hubble Space Telescope logo.

25 October 2018

The Ghost Nebula

About 550 light-years away in the constellation of Cassiopeia lies IC 63, a stunning and slightly eerie nebula. Also known as the ghost of Cassiopeia, IC 63 is being shaped by radiation from a nearby unpredictably variable star, Gamma Cassiopeiae, which is slowly eroding away the ghostly cloud of dust and gas. This celestial ghost makes the perfect backdrop for the upcoming feast of All Hallow's Eve — better known as Halloween.

The constellation of Cassiopeia, named after a vain queen in Greek mythology, forms the easily recognisable “W” shape in the night sky. The central point of the W is marked by a dramatic star named Gamma Cassiopeiae.

Ground-based view of the sky around IC 63

The remarkable Gamma Cassiopeiae is a blue-white subgiant variable star that is surrounded by a gaseous disc. This star is 19 times more massive and 65 000 times brighter than our Sun. It also rotates at the incredible speed of 1.6 million kilometres per hour — more than 200 times faster than our parent star. This frenzied rotation gives it a squashed appearance. The fast rotation causes eruptions of mass from the star into a surrounding disk. This mass loss is related to the observed brightness variations.

The radiation of Gamma Cassiopeiae is so powerful that it even affects IC 63, sometimes nicknamed the Ghost Nebula, that lies several light years away from the star. IC 63 is visible in this image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Zoom-in on the Ghost Nebula

The colours in the eerie nebula showcase how the nebula is affected by the powerful radiation from the distant star. The hydrogen within IC 63 is being bombarded with ultraviolet radiation from Gamma Cassiopeiae, causing its electrons to gain energy which they later release as hydrogen-alpha radiation — visible in red in this image.

This hydrogen-alpha radiation makes IC 63 an emission nebula, but we also see blue light in this image. This is light from Gamma Cassiopeiae that has been reflected by dust particles in the nebula, meaning that IC 63 is also a reflection nebula.

Pan across a cosmic ghost

This colourful and ghostly nebula is slowly dissipating under the influence of ultraviolet radiation from Gamma Cassiopeiae. However, IC 63 is not the only object under the influence of the mighty star. It is part of a much larger nebulous region surrounding Gamma Cassiopeiae that measures approximately two degrees on the sky — roughly four times as wide as  the full Moon.

This region is best seen from the Northern Hemisphere during autumn and winter. Though it is high in the sky and visible all year round from Europe, it is very dim, so observing it requires a fairly large telescope and dark skies.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST)

From above Earth’s atmosphere, Hubble gives us a view that we cannot hope to see with our eyes. This photo is possibly the most detailed image that has ever been taken of IC 63, and it beautifully showcases Hubble’s capabilities.

More information:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.


Images of Hubble:

Hubblesite release:

NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope:

Images, Animation, Text, Credits: ESA/Hubble/Mathias Jäger/NASA, Digitized Sky Survey 2/Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin/Videos: Hubble, Digitized Sky Survey 2, N. Risinger ( Music: Astral Electronic.


Mars Express keeps an eye on curious cloud

ESA - Mars Express Mission patch.

25 October 2018

Since 13 September, ESA’s Mars Express has been observing the evolution of an elongated cloud formation hovering in the vicinity of the 20 km-high Arsia Mons volcano, close to the planet’s equator.

In spite of its location, this atmospheric feature is not linked to volcanic activity but is rather a water ice cloud driven by the influence of the volcano’s leeward slope on the air flow – something that scientists call an orographic or lee cloud – and a regular phenomenon in this region.

Elongated cloud on Mars

The cloud can be seen in this view taken on 10 October by the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) on Mars Express – which has imaged it hundreds of times over the past few weeks – as the white, elongated feature extending 1500 km westward of Arsia Mons. As a comparison, the cone-shaped volcano has a diameter of about 250 km; a view of the region with labels is provided here:

Mars just experienced its northern hemisphere winter solstice on 16 October. In the months leading up to the solstice, most cloud activity disappears over big volcanoes like Arsia Mons; its summit is covered with clouds throughout the rest of the martian year.

Mars Express

However, a seasonally recurrent water ice cloud, like the one shown in this image, is known to form along the southwest flank of this volcano – it was previously observed by Mars Express and other missions in 2009, 2012 and 2015.

The cloud’s appearance varies throughout the martian day, growing in length during local morning downwind of the volcano, almost parallel to the equator, and reaching such an impressive size that could make it visible even to telescopes on Earth.

Cloud on 21 September

The formation of water ice clouds is sensitive to the amount of dust present in the atmosphere. These images, obtained after the major dust storm that engulfed the entire planet in June and July, will provide important information on the effect of dust on the cloud development and on its variability throughout the year.

Cloud on 17 September

The elongated cloud hovering near Arsia Mons this year was also observed with the visible and near-infrared mapping spectrometer, OMEGA, and the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on Mars Express, providing scientists with a variety of different data to study this phenomenon.

Follow the development of this cloud via the daily images sent by the VMC:

Related links:

Mars Express:

Mars Express overview:

Images Credits: ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO/Text Credits: ESA/Markus Bauer/Dmitri Titov/IAS/Brigitte Gondet/DLR/Daniela Tirsch/University of the Basque Country/Agustin Sánchez-Lavega/ATG Medialab.

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Final lap of the LHC track for protons in 2018

CERN - European Organization for Nuclear Research logo.

25 Oct 2018

Image above: View of the LHC accelerator in 2018. (Image: Maximilien Brice, Julien Ordan/CERN).

Today, protons said their goodbyes to the Large Hadron Collider during a last lap of the track. At 6 a.m., the beams from fill number 7334 were ejected towards the beam dumps. It was the LHC’s last proton run from now until 2021, as CERN’s accelerator complex will be shut down from 10 December to undergo a full renovation.

Image above: LHC Page1, showing the operational state of the accelerator at 6.02 a.m. on Wednesday 24 October. The spiral represents the proton bunches stopped by the beam dump (Image: CERN).

Now is the time for the scientists who read the collisions meter to make a first assessment. The integrated luminosity in 2018 (or the number of collisions likely to be produced during the 2018 run) reached 66 inverse femtobarns (fb-1) for ATLAS and CMS, which is 6 points better than expected. About 13 million billion potential collisions were delivered to the two experiments. LHCb accumulated 2.5 fb-1, more than the 2.0 predicted, and ALICE 27 inverse picobarns. The remarkable efficiency of the LHC this year is due to excellent machine availability and an instantaneous luminosity that regularly exceeded the nominal value. Since the start of the second run at a collision energy of 13 TeV, the integrated luminosity was 160 fb-1, higher than the 150 fb-1 expected.

Graphic above: This graph shows the integrated luminosity delivered to the ATLAS and CMS experiments during different LHC runs. The 2018 run produced 65 inverse femtobarns of data, which is 16 points more than in 2017. (Image: CERN)

However, this does not mean that the LHC runs are finished for this year. The show will go on for four more weeks, during which time the collider will master another kind of particle, lead ions (lead atoms that have been ionised, meaning they have had their electrons removed). After a few days of machine tests, the teams will inject these heavy ions, a run which have been prepared over recent months in the injectors. The collisions of lead ions allow studies to be conducted on quark-gluon plasma, a state of matter that is thought to have existed a few millionths of a second after the Big Bang.


CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature.

The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

Founded in 1954, the CERN Laboratory sits astride the Franco–Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 22 Member States.

Related links:

Large Hadron Collider (LHC):





For more information about European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Visit:

Images (mentioned), Graphic (mentioned), Text, Credits: CERN/Corinne Pralavorio.


NASA's InSight Will Study Mars While Standing Still

NASA - InSight Mission logo.

October 25, 2018

You don't need wheels to explore Mars.

After touching down in November, NASA's InSight spacecraft will spread its solar panels, unfold a robotic arm ... and stay put. Unlike the space agency's rovers, InSight is a lander designed to study an entire planet from just one spot.

Image above: This artist's concept depicts NASA's InSight lander after it has deployed its instruments on the Martian surface. Image Credits:NASA/JPL-Caltech.

This sedentary science allows InSight to detect geophysical signals deep below the Martian surface, including marsquakes and heat. Scientists will also be able to track radio signals from the stationary spacecraft, which vary based on the wobble in Mars' rotation. Understanding this wobble could help solve the mystery of whether the planet's core is solid.

Here are five things to know about how InSight conducts its science.

1. InSight Can Measure Quakes Anywhere on the Planet

Quakes on Earth are usually detected using networks of seismometers. InSight has only one - called SEIS (Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) - so its science team will use some creative measurements to analyze seismic waves as they occur anywhere on the planet.

SEIS will measure seismic waves from marsquakes and meteorite strikes as they move through Mars. The speed of those waves changes depending on the material they're traveling through, helping scientists deduce what the planet's interior is made of.

Seismic waves come in a surprising number of flavors. Some vibrate across a planet's surface, while others ricochet off its center. They also move at different speeds. Seismologists can use each type as a tool to triangulate where and when a seismic event has happened.

This means InSight could have landed anywhere on Mars and, without moving, gathered the same kind of science.

2. InSight's Seismometer Needs Peace and Quiet

Seismometers are touchy by nature. They need to be isolated from "noise" in order to measure seismic waves accurately.

SEIS is sensitive enough to detect vibrations smaller than the width of a hydrogen atom. It will be the first seismometer ever set on the Martian surface, where it will be thousands of times more accurate than seismometers that sat atop the Viking landers.

To take advantage of this exquisite sensitivity, engineers have given SEIS a shell: a wind-and-thermal shield that InSight's arm will place over the seismometer. This protective dome presses down when wind blows over it; a Mylar-and-chainmail skirt keeps wind from blowing in. It also gives SEIS a cozy place to hide away from Mars' intense temperature swings, which can create minute changes in the instrument's springs and electronics.

3. InSight Has a Self-Hammering Nail

Have you ever tried to hammer a nail? Then you know holding it steady is key. InSight carries a nail that also needs to be held steady.

This unique instrument, called HP3 (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package), holds a spike attached to a long tether. A mechanism inside the spike will hammer it up to 16 feet (5 meters) underground, dragging out the tether, which is embedded with heat sensors.

At that depth, it can detect heat trapped inside Mars since the planet first formed. That heat shaped the surface with volcanoes, mountain ranges and valleys. It may even have determined where rivers ran early in Mars' history.

4. InSight Can Land in a Safe Spot

Because InSight needs stillness - and because it can collect seismic and heat data from anywhere on the planet - the spacecraft is free to land in the safest location possible.

InSight's team selected a location on Mars' equator called Elysium Planitia - as flat and boring a spot as any on Mars. That makes landing just a bit easier, as there's less to crash into, fewer rocks to land on and lots of sunlight to power the spacecraft. The fact that InSight doesn't use much power and should have plenty of sunlight at Mars' equator means it can provide lots of data for scientists to study.

5. InSight Can Measure Mars' Wobble

InSight has two X-band antennas on its deck that make up a third instrument, called RISE (Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment). Radio signals from RISE will be measured over months, maybe even years, to study the tiny "wobble" in the rotation of the planet. That wobble is a sign of whether Mars' core is liquid or solid - a trait that could also shed light on the planet's thin magnetic field.

Collecting detailed data on this wobble hasn't happened since Mars Pathfinder's three-month mission in 1997 (although the Opportunity rover made a few measurements in 2011 while it remained still, waiting out the winter). Every time a stationary spacecraft sends radio signals from Mars, it can help scientists improve their measurements.

Image above: NASA's InSight spacecraft is on its way to Mars. Image Credits: NASA/JPL.

About InSight

JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

A number of European partners, including France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), support the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) in Switzerland, Imperial College and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument.

For more information about InSight, visit:

Related links:

Viking landers:

Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS):

Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/JPL/Andrew Good.