vendredi 2 août 2019

Asteroid's surprise close approach illustrates need for more eyes on the sky

Asteroid Watch logo.

2 August 2019

On 25 July, an asteroid the size of a football field flew by Earth, coming within 65 000 km of our planet’s surface during its closest approach – about one fifth of the distance to the Moon.

Asteroid '2019 OK' observed moving against backdrop of stars

The 100 m-wide asteroid dubbed '2019 OK' was detected just days before it passed Earth, although archival records from sky surveys show it had previously been observed but wasn't recognised as a near-Earth asteroid.

While 2019 OK illustrates the need for even more eyes on the sky, it also provides an opportunity to improve the asteroid recognising abilities of current and future telescopes, including ESA's upcoming 'Flyeye'.

ESA observed the asteroid just before its flyby, by requesting two separate telescopes in the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) take images of the space rock.

ESA observation of 2019OK through ISON network

One of these is shown here, revealing the asteroid – the dark blob at the centre of the image – move across a background of stars, which appear as faint streaks.

With these observations, asteroid experts at ESA were able to extract precise measurements of the position and movement of the rocky body.

“With the ISON observations we were able to determine the distance of the close approach incredibly accurately,” explains Marco Micheli from ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre.

“In fact, with a combination of observations from across the globe, the distance is now known to better than one kilometre!”

The asteroid was first discovered by the Southern Observatory for Near-Earth Asteroids Research (SONEAR) just a day before its close approach.

The SONEAR observatory in Brazil was first to detect asteroid 2019 OK

Observations of 2019 OK were independently confirmed by other observatories, including the Arecibo radar in Puerto Rico and a third telescope in the ISON network.

Since the discovery, with knowledge of where the asteroid would have been and by searching for it by eye, existing images were found in the Pan-STARRS and ATLAS sky survey archives.

Both surveys had in fact captured the asteroid in the weeks before the flyby, but this slow space rock appeared to move just a tiny amount between images, and was therefore not recognised.

"This 'un-recognition' of an asteroid, despite it being photographed," explains Rüdiger Jehn, ESA's Head of Planetary Defence, "will be used to test the software going into ESA's upcoming asteroid-hunting telescope, the Flyeye."

More eyes on the sky

We know of, and are tracking, thousands of asteroids in the Solar System, so why was this one discovered so late? Unfortunately, there is currently no single obvious reason, apart from its slow motion in the sky before close approach.

Highly elliptical orbit of asteroid 2019 OK

2019 OK also travels in a highly elliptical orbit, taking it from within the orbit of Venus to well beyond that of Mars. This means the time it spends near Earth and is detectable with current telescope capabilities is relatively short.

ESA, NASA and other agencies and organisations around the globe – professional and amateur – discover new asteroids every day. This work constantly increases our understanding of the number, distribution and movement of orbiting rocky bodies.

Infographic: asteroid danger explained

Asteroids the size of 2019 OK size are relatively common in the Solar System, but hit Earth on average only every 100 000 years. Travelling in a highly elliptical orbit that takes it within the orbit of Venus, this asteroid wont come close to Earth again for atleast 200 years.

Planetary Defence at ESA

Two key goals of ESA’s Planetary Defence activities are, by 2030, Europe will be able to:

- provide early warning for dangerous asteroids larger than 40 m in size, about three weeks in advance;

- deflect asteroids smaller than 1 km if known more than two years in advance.

ESA’s planned network of Flyeye telescopes will significantly help in the global search for risky space rocks, necessary to provide early warnings.

Future Flyeye telescope

The Agency’s Hera mission – currently being designed to test asteroid deflection for the first time – will develop our capacity to knock asteroids off a dangerous path.

AIM and CubeSats watch impact

Find out more about Planetary Defence at

Hera mission:

ESA’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Centre:



ATLAS sky survey archives:

Images, Animations, Text, Credits: ESA/A. Baker/S. Schmalz/ISON/SONEAR Observatory/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO/

Best regards,

The Moon and Mercury May Have Thick Ice Deposits

NASA - Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) patch / NASA - MESSENGER Mission patch.

Aug. 2, 2019

Earth’s Moon and Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, may contain significantly more water ice than previously thought, according to a new analysis of data from NASA’s LRO and MESSENGER spacecraft.

The potential ice deposits are found in craters near the poles of both worlds. On the Moon, "We found shallow craters tend to be located in areas where surface ice was previously detected near the south pole of the Moon, and inferred this shallowing is most likely due to the presence of buried thick ice deposits,” said lead author Lior Rubanenko of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Image above: Conceptual illustration of permanently shadowed, shallow icy craters near the lunar south pole. Image Credits: UCLA/NASA.

In the past, telescopic observations and orbiting spacecraft have found glacier-like ice deposits on Mercury, but as of yet not on the Moon. The new work raises the possibility that thick ice-rich deposits also exist on the Moon. The research may not only help resolve the question regarding the Moon’s apparent low ice abundance relative to Mercury, but it could also have practical applications: “If confirmed, this potential reservoir of frozen water on the Moon may be sufficiently massive to sustain long-term lunar exploration,” said Noah Petro, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Project Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The poles of Mercury and the Moon are among the coldest places in our solar system. Unlike Earth, the spin axes of Mercury and the Moon are oriented such that, in their polar regions, the Sun never rises high above the horizon. Consequently, polar topographic depressions, such as impact craters, never see the Sun. For decades it has been postulated these so-called permanently shadowed regions are so cold that any ice trapped within them can potentially survive for billions of years.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). Animation Credit: NASA

Previous observations of the poles of Mercury with Earth-based radar revealed a signature characteristic of thick, pure ice deposits. Later, MESSENGER – the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging spacecraft – imaged these ice deposits. “We showed Mercury’s polar deposits to be dominantly composed of water ice and extensively distributed in both Mercury’s north and south polar regions,” said Nancy Chabot, instrument scientist for MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging System from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “Mercury’s ice deposits appear to be much less patchy than those on the Moon, and relatively fresh, perhaps emplaced or refreshed within the last tens of millions of years.”

Previous radar and imaging studies of the Moon, whose polar thermal environments are very similar to those of Mercury, found only patchy, shallow ice deposits. This outstanding difference served as the motivation for the UCLA researchers’ work – a comparative analysis of polar craters on Mercury and the Moon to delve into this difference between the two worlds. The research was published July 22 in Nature Geoscience.

The airless surfaces of Mercury and the Moon are scarred by many impact craters. These craters form when meteoroids or comets impact the surface. The team analyzed simple craters that are formed by smaller, less energetic impactors. These depressions are held together by the strength of the surface dust layer, or regolith and tend to be more circular and symmetrical than large craters. The UCLA scientists exploited this inherent symmetry to estimate the thickness of ice trapped within simple craters.

The study used elevation data obtained by MESSENGER and LRO to measure approximately 15,000 simple craters with diameters ranging from 2.5 km to 15 km (about 1.5 miles to 9.3 miles) on Mercury and the Moon. Researchers found that craters become up to 10% shallower near the north pole of Mercury and the south pole of the Moon, but not the north pole of the Moon.

Image above: Artist's view of MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging or MESSENGER. Image Credit: NASA.

The authors concluded that the most probable explanation for these shallower craters is the accumulation of previously undetected thick ice deposits on both worlds. Supporting this conclusion, the researchers found that the pole-facing slopes of these craters are slightly shallower than their equator-facing slopes, and that the shallowing is more significant in regions that promote ice stability because of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. The topographic signal detected by the scientists is relatively more prominent in smaller simple craters, but does not preclude the possibility that ice may be more widespread in larger craters across the lunar pole.

Additionally, unlike Mercury, where the ice has been shown to be nearly pure, the deposits detected on the Moon are most likely mixed with the regolith, possibly in a layered formation. The typical age of the simple craters examined by the researchers indicates they could potentially accumulate ice that was later mixed with overlying regolith over long time scales. The scientists found that these inferred buried ice deposits are correlated with the locations of already detected surface ice. This finding could imply that the exposed ice deposits may be exhumed, or they could result from molecular diffusion from depth.

The research was funded by the LRO and MESSENGER missions. LRO is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Launched on June 18, 2009, LRO has collected a treasure trove of data with its seven powerful instruments, making an invaluable contribution to our knowledge about the Moon. MESSENGER was managed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The spacecraft was launched Aug 3, 2004, and began orbiting Mercury on March 18, 2011. The mission ended with a planned impact on the surface of Mercury on April 30, 2015. NASA is leading a sustainable return to the Moon with commercial and international partners to expand human presence in space and bring back new knowledge and opportunities.

Related links:

Nature Geoscience:

Earth's Moon:

Mercury (Planet):

LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter):

MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging):

Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Bill Steigerwald/Nancy Jones.


Hubble Traces a Galaxy’s Outer Reaches

NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Aug. 2, 2019

Believe it or not, this long, luminous streak, speckled with bright blisters and pockets of material, is a spiral galaxy like our Milky Way. But how could that be?

It turns out that we see this galaxy, named NGC 3432, oriented directly edge-on to us from our vantage point here on Earth. The galaxy’s spiral arms and bright core are hidden, and we instead see the thin strip of its very outer reaches. Dark bands of cosmic dust, patches of varying brightness and pink regions of star formation help with making out the true shape of NGC 3432 — but it’s still somewhat of a challenge! Because observatories such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have seen spiral galaxies at every kind of orientation, astronomers can tell when we happen to have caught one from the side.

The galaxy is located in the constellation of Leo Minor (the Lesser Lion). Other telescopes that have had NGC 3432 in their sights include those of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS).

Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Animation Credits: NASA/ESA

For more information about Hubble, visit:

Text Credits: ESA (European Space Agency)/NASA/Rob Garner/Image, Animation, Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Filippenko, R. Jansen.


CERN and ESA forge closer ties through cooperation protocol

CERN - European Organization for Nuclear Research logo.

August 2, 2019

LHC and Space. (Image: CERN)

A new collaboration agreement between CERN and ESA, signed on 11 July, will address the challenge of operating in harsh radiation environments, which are found in both particle-physics facilities and outer space. The agreement concerns radiation environments, technologies and facilities with potential applications in both space systems and particle-physics experiments or accelerators.

This first implementing protocol of CERN-ESA bilateral cooperation covers a broad range of activities, from general aspects such as coordination, financing and personnel exchange, to a list of irradiation facilities for joint R&D activities. It also states the willingness of both organisations to support PhD students working on radiation subjects of common interest.

Image above: Franco Ongaro, Director of Technology, Engineering and Quality and Head of ESTEC, European Space Agency (left) with Eckhard Elsen, CERN Director for Research and Computing (Image: Julien Ordan/CERN).

The agreement identifies seven specific high-priority projects: high-energy electron tests; high-penetration heavy-ion tests; assessment of EEE commercial components and modules (COTS); in-orbit technology demonstration; “radiation-hard” and “radiation-tolerant” components and modules; radiation detectors, monitors and dosimeters; and simulation tools for radiation effects.

In some cases, important preliminary results have already been achieved: high-energy electron tests for the JUICE mission were performed in the CLEAR/VESPER facility to simulate the environment of Jupiter. Complex components were also tested with xenon and lead ions in the SPS North Area at CERN for an in-depth analysis of galactic cosmic-ray effects. These activities will continue and the newly identified ones will be implemented under the coordination of the CERN-ESA Committee on Radiation Issues.


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 23 Member States.

European Space Agency (ESA):

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

Images (mentioned), Text, Credit: European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).


3-D Bioprinting, Grip Studies on Station May Benefit Earth and Space Systems

ISS - Expedition 60 Mission patch.

August 2, 2019

The Expedition 60 crewmembers are busy conducting new and advanced science experiments today aboard the International Space Station. A U.S. space freighter will begin its secondary mission after it departs the station on Tuesday.

3-D bioprinting in space may become a viable platform in the future for fabricating human organs. NASA astronaut Christina Koch activated the new BioFabrication Facility in the morning testing its ability to print cells.

Image above: Expedition 60 Flight Engineer Christina Koch of NASA works with the BioFabrication Facility that will soon be tested for its ability to print organ-like tissues. Image Credit: NASA.

Flight Engineer Nick Hague is researching the thermophysical properties of ultra-heated materials in microgravity and installed samples into the Electrostatic Levitation Furnace. He then fueled up the Bioculture System to support the Cell Science-02 bone healing and tissue regeneration study.

Hague and Koch are also training for next week’s robotic release of the Cygnus space freighter after 109 days in space. Cygnus will depart the station Tuesday and eject a set of CubeSats for space research after it reaches a safe distance from the station. The commercial cargo craft will orbit Earth for a few months of systems tests and nanosatellite deployments before its fiery, but safe atmospheric destruction above the Pacific Ocean.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

Flight Engineers Andrew Morgan and Luca Parmitano continued to explore how microgravity affects their ability to grip and manipulate objects. The GRIP study, from the European Space Agency, may inform the design of future spacecraft control devices and interfaces.

Commander Alexey Ovchinin and Flight Engineer Alexander Skvortsov continue configuring the new Progress 73 resupply ship and offloading its new cargo. The duo also took turns servicing Russian science hardware and life support systems.

Related links:

Expedition 60:

BioFabrication Facility:

Electrostatic Levitation Furnace:

Bioculture System:

Cell Science-02:

Cygnus space freighter:


Progress 73 resupply ship:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Norah Moran.

Best regards,

Satellite with Swiss equipment ready to fly

ESA - EDRS Mission logo.

August 2, 2019

EDRS-C will go into orbit Tuesday from the European Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Ruag Space provides several elements of the craft.

ARIANESPACE - Ariane 5 Flight VA249 Mission poster

The Ariane 5 rocket will take off next Tuesday to launch a satellite to make data transmission faster and better. Ruag Space provides onboard computer, thermal insulation and solar reflectors that dissipate heat.

The European Space Agency (ESA) Data Relay Satellite System (EDRS) aims to enable faster and better data transmission between satellites and ground stations. It is the most advanced laser communication network to date and helps Earth observation satellites transmit large amounts of data to Europe almost in real time.

Data Relay Satellite System (EDRS)

EDRS-C is the first satellite of this program. It will be launched from the European Space Center at Kourou, French Guiana. The launcher launcher's payload cap is provided by Ruag Space, the company said Friday in a statement.

EDRS-C Space Data Highway

This structure offers various protections. It protects against the inclement weather on the firing point, the acoustic effects after ignition of the engines, the resistance of the air and the heat of friction in flight. It is abandoned at an altitude of about 110 kilometers.

Solar reflectors

The EDRS-C satellite also benefits from protection against heat and cold in the space developed by Ruag. The insulation consists of several layers of a metallized polyimide sheet. Each layer is thinner than a human hair.


Ruag Space's optical solar reflectors provide the satellite with additional thermal protection. These mirrors help the satellite dissipate the excessive heat it generates in space. Insulation and reflectors were produced in Austria. Ruag also supplies the EDRS-C onboard computer. It controls and monitors the payload of the satellite and many other subsystems.

Ruag Space is the space division of the Swiss technology group Ruag. It employs more than 1,300 people in 13 locations in Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, Finland, USA and Austria.

Related links:
European Space Agency (ESA):



Ruag Space:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: ATS/Arianespace/ESA/Airbus/Ruag Space/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.

Best regards,

Space Station Science Highlights: Week of July 29, 2019

ISS - Expedition 60 Mission patch.

Aug. 2, 2019

The recent arrival of the 18th SpaceX Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-18) mission brought with it a number of new scientific investigations. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station kicked off some of these new experiments this week while continuing existing investigations. This research included studies of motion control in space, printing of biological tissue and robot swarms. The orbiting laboratory provides a platform for commercial research that supports Artemis, NASA’s program to return humans to the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars.

Image above: The Dragon capsule on the 18th SpaceX Commercial Resupply services mission docks with the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

Here are details on some of the science conducted on the space station during the week of July 29:

New experiments hot off the Dragon

Last week saw the start of new experiments that arrived aboard the Dragon capsule on Saturday, July 27. Crew members installed the BioFabrication Facility, which provides a platform to attempt printing biological tissues in microgravity. This investigation could serve as a first step toward achieving the ability to fabricate entire human organs in space. The astronauts also began and documented the BioRock experiment, which is testing space-based biomining, the process of using microbes to extract minerals from rocks.

Get a GRIP

Animation above: NASA Astronaut Andrew Morgan perfects a seated session of the GRIP experiment, which analyzes motion control in space. Animation Credit: NASA.

The crew collected data to study how being in the microgravity environment affects the nervous system and movement control as part of the European Space Agency’s GRIP experiment. Researchers are testing the ability of astronauts to manipulate items and control their arm motions in space by following a system of beeps and lights that indicate how they should move their arms and hands. Researchers will analyze this data and see how motion control in space differs from on the ground. These results could help scientists understand how gravity affects movement on Earth and may benefit patients with neurological diseases.

Prepping for student-controlled robots on the space station

With advances in propulsion, swarms of small spacecraft are expected to become feasible in the near future, creating a new range of capabilities for Earth and space observation missions. The SPHERES robots are putting some of these technologies to the test. Last week, the crew prepared to run code from participants of the SPHERES Zero Robotics (ZR) 2019 Middle School Summer Program. The SPHERES team tests algorithms developed by students and selects the best designs for the competition to operate the robots on board the space station.

Building stronger bones

Animation above: NASA astronaut Nick Hague handles the Cell Science-02 experiment. Animation Credit: NASA.

The Cell Science-02 investigation examines how microgravity affects healing, tissue regeneration and agents that induce healing. Astronauts used the Life Sciences Glovebox to conduct research into bone regeneration, retrieving bone cell samples to observe healing and tissue regeneration properties. The investigation has potential applications for treating those dealing with impaired healing of serious wounds and bone loss due to osteoporosis on Earth. It also could assist in developing better countermeasures against loss of bone density by astronauts in space.

Other investigations on which the crew performed work:

- ACME Flame Design, which studies the production and control of soot to optimize oxygen-enriched combustion and the design of robust, soot-free flames, is part of a series of independent ACME experiments using the orbiting laboratory’s Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR):

- The ISS Experience creates short virtual reality videos from footage taken during the yearlong investigation covering different aspects of crew life, execution of science and the international partnerships involved on the space station:

- The Actiwatch is a wristwatch-like monitor containing an accelerometer to measure motion and color-sensitive photodetectors for monitoring ambient lighting to help analyze the crew’s circadian rhythms, sleep-wake patterns and activity:

- Food Acceptability examines changes in the appeal of food aboard the space station during long-duration missions. “Menu fatigue” from repeatedly consuming a limited choice of foods may contribute to the loss of body mass often experienced by crew members, potentially affecting astronaut health, especially as mission length increases:

- Rodent Research-17 (RR-17) uses young and old mice to evaluate the physiological, cellular and molecular effects of microgravity and spaceflight:

- Space Moss determines how microgravity affects the growth, development and other features of moss. Tiny plants without roots, mosses need only a small area for growth, an advantage for their potential use in space and future bases on the Moon or Mars:

Space to Ground: Fast Track: 08/02/2019

Related links:

Expedition 60:


BioFabrication Facility:

BioRock experiment:

GRIP experiment:


SPHERES Zero Robotics (ZR):

Cell Science-02:

Life Sciences Glovebox:

Spot the Station:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Animations (mentioned), Video (NASA), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/Vic Cooley, Lead Increment Scientist Expedition 60.


jeudi 1 août 2019

August Brings More Spaceship Traffic and a Spacewalk

ISS - Expedition 60 Mission patch.

August 1, 2019

The International Space Station is hosting five spaceships today as August ramps up for more orbital traffic activity. Six Expedition 60 crewmembers are also unloading U.S. and Russian cargo, activating new science experiments and stocking the station’s galley.

Russia’s Progress 73 (73P) cargo craft completed a fast-track delivery mission early Wednesday docking to the Pirs Docking Compartment just three hours and nineteen minutes after launching from Kazakhstan. Cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov opened the 73P hatch shortly afterward starting its four-month stay. He and station Commander Alexey Ovchinin then began unloading nearly three tons of new consumables, fuel and supplies.

Image above: July 31, 2019: International Space Station Configuration. Five spaceships are parked at the space station including the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft, Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus space freighter, and Russia’s Progress 73 resupply ship and Soyuz MS-12 and MS-13 crew ships. Image Credit: NASA.

Two U.S. space freighters occupy the station’s Earth-facing Harmony and Unity module ports. Harmony will open up Tuesday when Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus resupply ship departs after 109 days in space. The Canadarm2 robotic arm installed the SpaceX Dragon to Unity on Saturday after its arrival and capture beginning a month of cargo operations.

NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Nick Hague are tending to mice today shipped aboard Dragon for ongoing biological research. The reusable vehicle will return the mice back to Earth at the end of the month, including other cargo, so scientists can analyze a variety of changes that only occur in microgravity.

 International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

Dragon also delivered a new commercial crew vehicle port, the International Docking Adapter-3 (IDA-3), in its unpressurized trunk. Robotics controllers will soon extract the IDA-3 before two spacewalkers install it to Unity’s space-facing port a few days later.

A few days before Dragon departs, Russia will launch an unpiloted Soyuz MS-14 crew ship to the orbiting lab for a test of its upgraded 2.1a Soyuz booster. It will dock to the Poisk module for a two-week stay before parachuting back to Earth in the vast steppe of Kazakhstan.

Related article:

Russia’s Progress Cargo Craft Racing Toward Space Station & Progress Cargo Ship Reaches Station in Just Two Orbits

Related links:

Expedition 60:

Progress 73 (73P):

Pirs Docking Compartment:

Harmony module:

Unity module:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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

Best regards,

Hubble Uncovers a ‘Heavy Metal’ Exoplanet Shaped Like a Football

NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Aug. 1, 2019

How can a planet be "hotter than hot?" The answer is when heavy metals are detected escaping from the planet's atmosphere, instead of condensing into clouds.

Observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveal magnesium and iron gas streaming from the strange world outside our solar system known as WASP-121b. The observations represent the first time that so-called "heavy metals"—elements heavier than hydrogen and helium—have been spotted escaping from a hot Jupiter, a large, gaseous exoplanet very close to its star.

Image above: This artist's illustration shows an alien world that is losing magnesium and iron gas from its atmosphere. The observations represent the first time that so-called "heavy metals"—elements more massive than hydrogen and helium—have been detected escaping from a hot Jupiter, a large gaseous exoplanet orbiting very close to its star.The planet, known as WASP-121b, orbits a star brighter and hotter than the Sun. The planet is so dangerously close to its star that its upper atmosphere reaches a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 times greater than any known planetary atmosphere. A torrent of ultraviolet light from the host star is heating the planet's upper atmosphere, which is causing the magnesium and iron gas to escape into space. Observations by Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph have detected the spectral signatures of magnesium and iron far away from the planet.The planet's "hugging" distance from the star means that it is on the verge of being ripped apart by the star's gravitational tidal forces. The powerful gravitational forces have altered the planet's shape so that it appears more football shaped.The WASP-121 system is about 900 light-years from Earth. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Olmsted (STScI).

Normally, hot Jupiter-sized planets are still cool enough inside to condense heavier elements such as magnesium and iron into clouds.

But that's not the case with WASP-121b, which is orbiting so dangerously close to its star that its upper atmosphere reaches a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature in WASP-121b's upper atmosphere is about 10 times greater than that of any known planetary atmosphere. The WASP-121 system resides about 900 light-years from Earth.

"Heavy metals have been seen in other hot Jupiters before, but only in the lower atmosphere," explained lead researcher David Sing of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "So you don't know if they are escaping or not. With WASP-121b, we see magnesium and iron gas so far away from the planet that they're not gravitationally bound."

Ultraviolet light from the host star, which is brighter and hotter than the Sun, heats the upper atmosphere and helps lead to its escape. In addition, the escaping magnesium and iron gas may contribute to the temperature spike, Sing said. "These metals will make the atmosphere more opaque in the ultraviolet, which could be contributing to the heating of the upper atmosphere," he explained.

The sizzling planet is so close to its star that it is on the cusp of being ripped apart by the star's gravity. This hugging distance means that the planet is football shaped due to gravitational tidal forces.

"We picked this planet because it is so extreme," Sing said. "We thought we had a chance of seeing heavier elements escaping. It's so hot and so favorable to observe, it's the best shot at finding the presence of heavy metals. We were mainly looking for magnesium, but there have been hints of iron in the atmospheres of other exoplanets. It was a surprise, though, to see it so clearly in the data and at such great altitudes so far away from the planet. The heavy metals are escaping partly because the planet is so big and puffy that its gravity is relatively weak. This is a planet being actively stripped of its atmosphere."

The researchers used the observatory's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to search in ultraviolet light for the spectral signatures of magnesium and iron imprinted on starlight filtering through WASP-121b's atmosphere as the planet passed in front of, or transited, the face of its home star.

This exoplanet is also a perfect target for NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to search in infrared light for water and carbon dioxide, which can be detected at longer, redder wavelengths. The combination of Hubble and Webb observations would give astronomers a more complete inventory of the chemical elements that make up the planet's atmosphere.

The WASP-121b study is part of the Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury (PanCET) survey, a Hubble program to look at 20 exoplanets, ranging in size from super-Earths (several times Earth's mass) to Jupiters (which are over 100 times Earth's mass), in the first large-scale ultraviolet, visible, and infrared comparative study of distant worlds.

Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Animation Credits: NASA/ESA

The observations of WASP-121b add to the developing story of how planets lose their primordial atmospheres. When planets form, they gather an atmosphere containing gas from the disk in which the planet and star formed. These atmospheres consist mostly of the primordial, lighter-weight gases hydrogen and helium, the most plentiful elements in the universe. This atmosphere dissipates as a planet moves closer to its star.

"The hot Jupiters are mostly made of hydrogen, and Hubble is very sensitive to hydrogen, so we know these planets can lose the gas relatively easily," Sing said. "But in the case of WASP-121b, the hydrogen and helium gas is outflowing, almost like a river, and is dragging these metals with them. It's a very efficient mechanism for mass loss."

The results will appear online today in The Astronomical Journal:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

For more information about Hubble, visit:

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Rob Garner/GSFC/Claire Andreoli/STSI/Donna Weaver/Ray Villard/JHU/David Sing.

Best regards,

Space Station Cell Study Seeks Causes of Major Diseases

ISS - International Space Station logo.

August 1, 2019

High above the Earth, researchers are conducting a first-of-its-kind study to help patients with Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis on the planet below. The International Space Station experiment is looking for what triggers these diseases by studying how nerve and immune brain cells interact.

The experiment, carried to the space station aboard the SpaceX CRS-18 cargo flight, will look at what is causing damage to the nervous system that is common in both illnesses and reveal how living in space affects similar cells in healthy astronauts.

Image above: Dopaminergic neurons growing in a culture dish (20x magnification). A skin biopsy from a patient with Parkinson’s disease was reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells. The stem cells were then differentiated into dopaminergic neurons (green), the same cells that are lost in Parkinson’s disease patients. Work is under way to use these cells as a replacement for lost neurons as a treatment for the disease. Image courtesy of Aspen Neuroscience.

The study is led by stem cell expert Andres Bratt-Leal of Aspen Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, and Valentina Fossati, a multiple sclerosis researcher with the New York Stem Foundation Research Institute in New York.

“This is the first time anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on such cells,” said Bratt-Leal. “These cells are hard to study in a lab because of the way gravity influences them. The cool part is now we can do it in space!”

Neuron killers

Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis are neurodegenerative illnesses that damage the brain and central nervous system. The researchers suspect this damage may be the result of a glitch in the body’s immune system. NASA is interested in how spaceflight changes the immune system since some astronauts experience strange effects following missions, including temporary activation of dormant viruses.

To learn more, Bratt-Leal and Fossati are focusing on the types of cells in the brain that seem to play key roles in the onset of both diseases. The first types are neurons and the cells that create them, which go on to form the body’s nerve network and allow the brain to monitor and control it. The second are microglia: immune cells that patrol the brain and try to defend the neurons from threatening invaders.

“The microglia are found in every part of the brain, and it’s really starting to look like neurodegenerative illnesses develop because the cells begin behaving improperly or overreacting,” said Fossati. “Misbehaving microglia may contribute to killing the neurons.”

A new way to make old cells

To find out whether that is the case, the researchers need to study the growth of neurons and microglia from people with the diseases and compare them to healthy people of the same age. Since these cells are located within the brain, they cannot be extracted safely.

Bratt-Leal and Fossati found another way, harnessing a new stem cell technology called “induced pluripotent stem cells” to make neurons and microglia from the skin cells of patients and healthy people in laboratories.

Space for cells

Bratt-Leal and Fossati launched newly created diseased and healthy cells into space to observe them away from the heavy influence of Earth’s gravity.

“We know that forces can influence the behavior of cells by changing aspects such as their shape. So, what happens when you remove gravity?” said Bratt-Leal. “How the cells respond will tell us new things about how they function.”

The cells are now aboard the space station, living inside a CubeLab developed by Space Tango, a company that develops equipment for microgravity research. The CubeLab is approximately the size of a small shoebox.

Image above: Microglia cells growing in a culture dish (63x magnification). Microglia are the immune cells of the brain and play a role that is not fully understood in neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis. The cells shown here were differentiated from induced pluripotent stem cells that were made from a patient’s skin biopsy. Image courtesy of New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) Research Institute.

Inside the CubeLab is a camera to watch the experiment as well as a pair of 96-chamber containers holding the cells. One “well plate” holds the cells of a Parkinson’s patient and a healthy person of similar age. The second plate contains the cells of a multiple sclerosis patient and an age-matched healthy donor. A tubing and pump system automatically provides liquid food to the cells inside their chambers. 

Over the course of 30 days, Bratt-Leal and Fossati can watch remotely to see how the neuron cells organize into balls, called “organoids,” and how the microglia cells respond to and infiltrate them. After a month, the cells will be returned to Earth, where researchers plan to examine their shape and arrangement and test their DNA to see if microgravity and space radiation exposure altered their gene expression.

The results of the research ultimately could help scientists identify new ways to treat Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Also, discovering the way nerve cells are affected by microgravity and radiation may lead to improved methods for protecting astronauts in space, particularly on long-duration missions.

Related links:

Nerve and immune brain cells interact:

Space Tango:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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


Mission accomplished for the solar sail LightSail 2

The Planetary Society logo.

August 1, 2019

LightSail 2 has managed to raise its altitude thanks to the pressure of solar radiation in orbit around the Earth.

Image above: The solar sail is a small satellite with a square of 32 square meters of thin film, light and reflective polyester Mylar.

The American organization Planetary Society announced Wednesday the success of the operation of its solar sail: already in orbit around the Earth, LightSail 2 has managed to raise its altitude thanks to the pressure of solar radiation.

The team behind the $ 7 million project said it has demonstrated a new form of propulsion that could one day transform distant space exploration. Because this bread-sized satellite equipped with a huge glossy polyester sail is powered neither by a motor, nor with the help of fuel or solar panels, but only by the pressure of the elusive photons of the Sun.

"Over the past four days, the spacecraft has climaxed, or its highest point in orbit, about 1.7 kilometers through its solar sail," said Bruce Betts, LightSail 2 project manager.

Planetary Society post on Twitter

It becomes the first ship to use a solar sail to propel itself into Earth orbit and the second solar sail to fly successfully after the Japanese Ikaros in 2010.

"We officially declared the success of the mission," said Bill Nye, director of the Planetary Society, on Twitter. "This technology allows us to take objects to extraordinary destinations in the solar system, and perhaps beyond, in a way that was never possible because we do not need fuel or fuel control systems, "he said.

He added that he would like to see technology applied to missions such as the search for life on the planet Mars, on the icy moon of Jupiter, Europe, and Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. According to him, solar sails could "lower the cost of these missions".

Related article:

The solar sail LightSail 2 opened in space

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Images, Text, Credits: AFP/The Planetary Society/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.

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mercredi 31 juillet 2019

Russia’s Progress Cargo Craft Racing Toward Space Station & Progress Cargo Ship Reaches Station in Just Two Orbits

ROSCOSMOS - Russian Vehicles patch.

July 31, 2019

Image above: Russsia’s Progress 73 cargo craft launches on time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station. Image Credit: Roscosmos.

Carrying almost three tons of food, fuel and supplies for the International Space Station crew, the unpiloted Russian Progress 73 cargo spacecraft launched at 8:10 a.m. EDT (5:10 p.m. Baikonur time) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The resupply ship reached preliminary orbit and deployed its solar arrays and navigational antennas as planned. Following a 2-orbit rendezvous, the Russian cargo spacecraft will dock to the orbiting laboratory at 11:35 a.m. NASA Television coverage of rendezvous and docking will begin at 10:45 a.m.

Progress MS-12 launch

Progress 73 will remain docked at the station for five months before departing in December for its deorbit in Earth’s atmosphere.

The Progress is the second of two cargo resupply ships delivering supplies to the six crewmembers aboard the space station this month. SpaceX’s cargo Dragon spacecraft attached to station on Saturday, July 27, two days after launching on a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Russian Progress Cargo Ship Reaches Station in Just Two Orbits

Traveling about 259 miles over northwest China, the unpiloted Russian Progress 73 cargo ship docked at 11:29 a.m. EDT to the Pirs docking compartment on the Russian segment of the complex.

Image above: This image from an external high definition video camera shows Russia’s Progress 73 resupply ship nearing its docking port on the space station. Image Credit: NASA TV.

In addition to the arrival of Progress today, the six crewmembers aboard the space station welcomed SpaceX’s cargo Dragon spacecraft on July 27, two days after launching on a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Progress MS-12 docking to the ISS

On July 20, the Soyuz MS-13 spacecraft arrived to the space station carrying NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan and Luca Parmitano of ESA (European Space Agency) and Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Their arrival restored the station’s crew complement to six. They joined NASA astronauts Nick Hague, Christina Koch and Expedition 60 Commander Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos.

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Images (mentioned), Videos, Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia/Roscosmos/NASA TV/SciNews.

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Confirmation of Toasty TESS Planet Leads to Surprising Find of Promising World

NASA - TESS Mission logo.

July 31, 2019

A piping hot planet discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has pointed the way to additional worlds orbiting the same star, one of which is located in the star’s habitable zone. If made of rock, this planet may be around twice Earth’s size.

The new worlds orbit a star named GJ 357, an M-type dwarf about one-third the Sun’s mass and size and about 40% cooler that our star. The system is located 31 light-years away in the constellation Hydra. In February, TESS cameras caught the star dimming slightly every 3.9 days, revealing the presence of a transiting exoplanet — a world beyond our solar system — that passes across the face of its star during every orbit and briefly dims the star’s light.

TESS Helps Reveal Multiple Planets, Including Promising Worl

Video above: Tour the GJ 357 system, located 31 light-years away in the constellation Hydra. Astronomers confirming a planet candidate identified by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite subsequently found two additional worlds orbiting the star. The outermost planet, GJ 357 d, is especially intriguing to scientists because it receives as much energy from its star as Mars does from the Sun. Video Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“In a way, these planets were hiding in measurements made at numerous observatories over many years,” said Rafael Luque, a doctoral student at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC) on Tenerife who led the discovery team. “It took TESS to point us to an interesting star where we could uncover them.”

The transits TESS observed belong to GJ 357 b, a planet about 22% larger than Earth. It orbits 11 times closer to its star than Mercury does our Sun. This gives it an equilibrium temperature — calculated without accounting for the additional warming effects of a possible atmosphere — of around 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius).

“We describe GJ 357 b as a ‘hot Earth,’” explains co-author Enric Pallé, an astrophysicist at the IAC and Luque’s doctoral supervisor. “Although it cannot host life, it is noteworthy as the third-nearest transiting exoplanet known to date and one of the best rocky planets we have for measuring the composition of any atmosphere it may possess.”

But while researchers were looking at ground-based data to confirm the existence of the hot Earth, they uncovered two additional worlds. The farthest-known planet, named GJ 357 d, is especially intriguing.

Image above: This diagram shows the layout of the GJ 357 system. Planet d orbits within the star’s so-called habitable zone, the orbital region where liquid water can exist on a rocky planet’s surface. If it has a dense atmosphere, which will take future studies to determine, GJ 357 d could be warm enough to permit the presence of liquid water. Image Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith.

“GJ 357 d is located within the outer edge of its star’s habitable zone, where it receives about the same amount of stellar energy from its star as Mars does from the Sun,” said co-author Diana Kossakowski at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “If the planet has a dense atmosphere, which will take future studies to determine, it could trap enough heat to warm the planet and allow liquid water on its surface.”

Without an atmosphere, it has an equilibrium temperature of -64 F (-53 C), which would make the planet seem more glacial than habitable. The planet weighs at least 6.1 times Earth’s mass, and orbits the star every 55.7 days at a range about 20% of Earth’s distance from the Sun. The planet’s size and composition are unknown, but a rocky world with this mass would range from about one to two times Earth’s size.

Image above: This illustration shows one interpretation of what GJ 357 d may be like. Image Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith.

Even through TESS monitored the star for about a month, Luque’s team predicts any transit would have occurred outside the TESS observing window.

GJ 357 c, the middle planet, has a mass at least 3.4 times Earth’s, orbits the star every 9.1 days at a distance a bit more than twice that of the transiting planet, and has an equilibrium temperature around 260 F (127 C). TESS did not observe transits from this planet, which suggests its orbit is slightly tilted — perhaps by less than 1 degree — relative to the hot Earth’s orbit, so it never passes across the star from our perspective.

To confirm the presence of GJ 357 b and discover its neighbors, Luque and his colleagues turned to existing ground-based measurements of the star’s radial velocity, or the speed of its motion along our line of sight. An orbiting planet produces a gravitational tug on its star, which results in a small reflex motion that astronomers can detect through tiny color changes in the starlight. Astronomers have searched for planets around bright stars using radial velocity data for decades, and they often make these lengthy, precise observations publicly available for use by other astronomers.

Luque’s team examined ground-based data stretching back to 1998 from the European Southern Observatory and the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain, among many others.

A paper describing the findings was published on Wednesday, July 31, in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and is available online.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

Related article:

NASA’s TESS Mission Scores ‘Hat Trick’ With 3 New Worlds

Related links:

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Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC):

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Images (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Rob Garner/Goddard Space Flight Center, by Francis Reddy.


A satellite to measure light pollution

NOAA & NASA - Suomi NPP Mission patch.

July 31, 2019

An ETH Zurich researcher came up with the idea of ​​analyzing data from an American satellite to determine nocturnal light pollution in Switzerland.

Suomi NPP satellite. Image Credits: NOAA / NASA

Analyzing the data of an American satellite to determine nocturnal light pollution in Switzerland: this is the idea of ​​a Swiss researcher. The result is a map that compares with previous years.

Every morning early, the Suomi NPP (Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership) dedicated to environmental monitoring measures light sources around the world. This US satellite meticulously carries out its tasks day after day since April 2012. NOAA, the US ocean and atmospheric observation agency, collects this data "to monitor and understand the dynamics of our planet," according to its website.

Member of Dark-Sky Switzerland

A biochemist who graduated from the ETH Zurich and is a member of the organization Dark-Sky Switzerland, which campaigns against nocturnal light pollution, Lukas Schuler came up with the idea of ​​creating a map based on these surveys.

Light pollution in Switzerland last year. (Photo:

His work, published in the journal Environmental Science & Policy, allows to visualize the night light load in all Switzerland, according to a scale of colors. Comparisons with previous years are possible, as well as trend analysis, according to a statement from Dark-Sky Switzerland published Wednesday.

Shipyards and tourism

Significant increases in luminous intensity are therefore attributable in most cases to large construction sites and new infrastructure, as well as to winter tourism. The decreases are due to the switch to LEDs with anti-scattering protection and better lighting strategies.

This progress is important in light of the growing light pollution and its impact on the fauna and flora. In particular, it is suspected of contributing to the disappearance of pollinating nocturnal insects, without forgetting its disturbing potential for humans.

The authors have examined various aspects of this problem, for example possible links between a decrease in light intensity and criminal acts or road accidents. They found no correlation.

They also analyzed the habitats of crayfish populations in the canton of Zurich. Result: these crustaceans clearly prefer dark areas, corresponding to a maximum brightness of 4.5 full moons, according to a measurement unit developed by the researchers.

Related links:

Dark-Sky Switzerland:

Article Dark-Sky Switzerland:

EPFZ (ETH Zürich):


Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: ATS/NOAA/NASA/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.