samedi 2 novembre 2019

CMS measures Higgs boson’s mass with unprecedented precision

CERN - European Organization for Nuclear Research logo.

November 2, 2019

The CMS collaboration reported the Higgs boson’s mass with a precision of about 0.1%

Image above: A candidate from CMS of a Higgs boson transforming into two photons; the two large green towers show energy deposits from the photons (Image: Thomas McCauley, CMS/CERN).

The Higgs boson is a special particle. It is the manifestation of a field that gives mass to elementary particles. But this field also gives mass to the Higgs boson itself. A precise measurement of the Higgs boson’s mass not only furthers our knowledge of physics but also sheds new light on searches planned at future colliders.

Since discovering this unique particle in 2012, the ATLAS and CMS collaborations at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider have been busy determining its properties. In the Standard Model of particle physics, the Higgs boson’s mass is closely related to the strength of the particle’s interaction with itself. Comparing precise measurements of these two properties is a crucial means of testing the predictions of the Standard Model and helps search for physics beyond the predictions of this theory. In addition to probing its “self-interaction” strength, the researchers have also paid careful attention to the exact mass of the Higgs boson.

When it was first discovered, the particle’s mass was measured to be around 125 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) but it wasn’t known with high precision. Analysis of much more data was needed before reducing the errors in such a measurement. Indeed, ATLAS and CMS have been improving this precision with their respective measurements over the years. Last year, ATLAS measured the Higgs mass to be 124.97 GeV with a precision of 0.24 GeV or 0.19%. Now, the CMS collaboration has announced the most precise measurement so far of this property: 125.35 GeV with a precision of 0.15 GeV, or 0.12%.

Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Animation Credit: CERN

Like most members of the zoo of known particles, the Higgs boson is unstable and transforms – or “decays” – nearly instantaneously into lighter particles. The mass measurement was based on two very different transformations of the Higgs boson, namely decays to four leptons via two intermediate Z bosons and decays to pairs of photons. To arrive at the mass value, the scientists combined CMS results of these two decays from two datasets: the first was recorded in 2011 and 2012 while the second came from 2016.

This measurement adds another piece to the puzzle of the exciting world of subatomic particles.

More details on the CMS website:


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.

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Higgs boson:

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Large Hadron Collider (LHC):

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Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

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U.S. Cygnus Cargo Ship Reaches Orbit for Monday Delivery

Northrop Grumman - Antares - NG-12 / S.S. Alan Bean Cygnus Mission patch.

November 2, 2019

On the anniversary of the arrival of the first crew members to live aboard the International Space Station, Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus resupply spacecraft is on its way to the station with nearly 8,200 pounds of science investigations and cargo after launching at 9:59 a.m. EDT Saturday, Nov. 2 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. At the time of lift off, the International Space Station was traveling over the south Atlantic southwest of Cape Town, South Africa, at an altitude of 257 statute miles.

Image above: The Antares rocket lifts off on time from Virginia carrying the Cygnus cargo craft to orbit. Image Credit: NASA TV.

The spacecraft launched on an Antares 230+ rocket from the Virginia Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad 0A at Wallops. Automated command to initiate solar array deploy will begin about 2 hours and 53 minutes after launch (about 12:53 p.m.). Solar array deployment will take about 30 minutes.

Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at the orbiting laboratory around 4:10 a.m. Monday, Nov. 4. Coverage of the spacecraft’s approach and arrival will begin at 2:45 a.m. on NASA Television and the agency’s website. Expedition 61 astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch of NASA will use the space station’s robotic arm to capture Cygnus, while NASA’s Andrew Morgan monitors telemetry. The spacecraft is scheduled to stay at the space station until January.

NG-12: Antares 230+ launches S.S. Alan Bean Cygnus

The Cygnus spacecraft for this space station resupply mission is named in honor of NASA astronaut Alan Bean. The late Apollo 12 astronaut flew to the Moon on Apollo 12 and became the fourth human to walk on the lunar surface. This is Northrop Grumman’s 12th cargo flight to the space station, and the first under its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract with NASA, will support dozens of new and existing investigations.

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Northrop Grumman Cygnus:



Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia/NASA TV/SciNews.


5000 "eyes" to follow the expanding universe

École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne logo.

November 2, 2019

Involving researchers from EPFL, a project to unravel the nature of dark energy is entering its final phase of testing.

Image above: The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) is a project led by the United States to measure the accelerated expansion of the Universe to discover the nature of dark energy. This project, to which EPFL astrophysicists have contributed significantly, is entering its last phase of testing to map the sky.

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) is a project led by the United States to discover the nature of dark energy. This project, to which EPFL astrophysicists have contributed, is entering its last phase of testing. The first results are expected in 2021.

Dozens of millions of galaxies

The DESI was developed to examine the nature of dark energy by measuring in detail the accelerated expansion of the Universe, said Wednesday the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) in a statement. Dark energy is a mysterious element that constitutes about 68% of the mass-energy of the current Universe.

DESI has announced its "first light", entering its final testing and commissioning phase on the Mayall telescope at the Kitt Peak Observatory. This means that the instrument will be ready to begin its scientific observations in early 2020. The first major publication of data is expected by 2021.

Over the next four years, optical spectra of tens of millions of galaxies and quasars will be collected to create a 3D map covering the Near Universe up to 11 billion light-years.

To do this, DESI will use 5000 "eyes" of optical fiber to capture the light of 5000 different objects, mainly galaxies, but also quasars and some stars that will be used mainly to calibrate the instrument.

Distance to the Earth

DESI is designed to automatically point a predetermined series of galaxies, collect their light, and then, thanks to ten spectrographs, separate this light into narrow color bands to represent on a map their distance from the Earth. Scientists will be able to calculate the expansion of the Universe according to the light of the galaxies that has reached our planet.

The Making of the Largest 3D Map of the Universe

Video above: DESI, the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, will mobilize 5,000 swiveling robots - each one pointing to a thin strand of fiber-optic cable - to gather the light from about 35 million galaxies. The little robots are designed to make a series of preselected sky objects that are as distant as 12 billion light-years away.

EPFL scientists have, among other things, helped to determine which galaxies will be observed and to create the robotics system for positioning optical fibers.

The latter was carried out within the framework of the interdisciplinary group Astrobots, which will also participate in the processing of the huge amount of data that DESI will provide. EPFL and the Swiss National Science Foundation contributed nearly one million francs to the project.

Related links:

Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI):


Laboratoire d’astrophysique (LASTRO):


Image, Video, Text, Credits: ATS/EPFL/Berkeley Lab/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.

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vendredi 1 novembre 2019

Japan Cargo Ship Departs, U.S. Resupply Rocket Preps for Launch

ISS - Expedition 61 Mission patch / JAXA - H-II Transfer Vehicle HTV-8 Mission patch.

November 1, 2019

A U.S. cargo craft is poised to resupply the International Space Station just days after a Japanese space freighter departed the orbiting lab Friday afternoon. Meanwhile, the Expedition 61 crew today continued an array of microgravity research and spacewalk preparations.

Flight Engineer Christina Koch with back-up support from NASA astronaut Jessica Meir used the Canadarm2 robotic arm to release Japan’s HTV-8 cargo spacecraft at 1:21 p.m. EDT today. The cargo craft spent five weeks attached to the orbiting lab following a Sept. 24 launch from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.

Image above: Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle-8 (HTV-8) is pictured in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm as the International Space Station flies into an orbital sunrise. Image Credit: NASA.

HTV-8 delivered some five tons of supplies and experiments to the orbital complex as well as new lithium-ion batteries. The batteries were installed in the electronics system of the far port truss of the complex replacing older nickel-hydrogen batteries and upgrading the station’s power supply.

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus resupply ship sits atop an Antares rocket loaded with 8,200 pounds of science experiments and station hardware. Liftoff will take place on Saturday at 9:59 a.m. EDT from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Meir and Koch will be in the cupola Monday morning awaiting the arrival of Cygnus. Meir will command the Canadarm2 to reach out and grapple Cygnus at 4:10 a.m. EST. Koch will back up Meir as astronaut Andrew Morgan of NASA monitors Cygnus’ approach and rendezvous.

Morgan and Commander Luca Parmitano of ESA (European Space Agency) are also getting up to speed with repair techniques for an external cosmic particle detector.  The duo is reviewing procedures to replace the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer’s (AMS) thermal control system during a series of spacewalks tentatively planned for this month. The AMS measures the charge, velocity and mass of cosmic rays in its search for evidence of dark matter and anti-matter.

HTV-8 departure

Morgan also watered plants and set up biology hardware that will house rodents shipped aboard Cygnus. Parmitano monitored the free-flying Astrobee robotic assistant testing its autonomous ability to perform tasks inside the space station’s Kibo laboratory module.

Cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Skripochka focused on Russian spacecraft work and science in their segment of the space station. The duo charged Soyuz crew ship batteries and packed a Progress cargo craft. Skvortsov then studied how pain adjusts to microgravity while Skripochka moved on to plumbing tasks.

Related links:

Expedition 61:


Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer’s (AMS):


Kibo laboratory module:

Pain adjusts to microgravity:


Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia/NASA TV/SciNews.

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Combing Through The "X-Ray Files"

NASA - Chandra X-ray Observatory patch.

November 1, 2019

In its 20 years of operations, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has observed hundreds of thousands of X-ray sources across the Universe. These data are stored in a public archive where anyone can access them a year after the observations, if not sooner.

Chandra X-ray Observatory

Most of the time, the Chandra archive serves the professional astronomical community for their research purposes, but its value extends far beyond. Some members of the public, including amateur astronomers and space enthusiasts, comb through astronomical archives like the one Chandra maintains. Their work has led to the discovery of new objects, investigatations of mysterious phenomena, and the creation of stunning images of cosmic objects.

A sample of composite images -- that is, those that consist of more than one type of light -- using X-ray data from Chandra and optical light from the Hubble Space Telescope is being released today. This image collection, made by “astronomy artist” Judy Schmidt, helps recognize Archive Month, which is celebrated every October in the United States and promotes the contributions of all types of archives. The software tools, instructions, and tutorials on how to make images from Chandra data are free and available in many locations online, including

All of the objects in this new archive collection are located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, or LMC, which is a small satellite galaxy to Milky Way located about 150,000 light years away. The images are:

Top row, from left to right:

N103B: When a thermonuclear explosion destroyed a white dwarf star (the dense final stage in the evolution of a Sun-like star) in a double star system and produced a supernova, it left behind this glowing debris field, called a supernova remnant. The Chandra X-ray data (most clearly visible on the left side of the remnant in red, green and blue) shows multimillion-degree gas that has been heated by a shock wave produced by the explosion that destroyed the star. An optical light image from the Hubble Space Telescope is brightest on the right side of the image, where the overlap with X-rays is mostly in pink and white.

LHA 120-N 44: This region of star formation features a giant bubble that is blowing out from the middle of this image due to winds flowing off young stars. Chandra data (purple and pink) show this superbubble of hot gas, while Hubble data (orange and light blue) reveals the gas and dust in the system.

LMC N63A: After a massive star exploded, it left behind this supernova remnant observed by Chandra and Hubble. The Chandra data (red, green and blue) show multimillion-degree gas and the blast wave from the supernova. The light brown region in the upper right of the remnant is a dense cloud of gas and dust that reflects optical light detected by Hubble.

Bottom row, from left to right:

DEM L71: The Chandra image of this supernova remnant (also known as SNR 0505.7-6752) reveals an inner cloud of glowing iron and silicon (green and blue) surrounded by an outer blast wave (red). The outer blast wave, created during the destruction of the white dwarf star, is also seen in optical data from Hubble (red and white).

DEM L238: Another supernova remnant resulting from the explosion of a white dwarf star is revealed in this image of DEM L238, also known as SNR J0534.2-7033. The Chandra image (yellow, green and bright red) shows multimillion-degree gas and the Hubble image shows cooler gas in the system, near the outer border of the remnant in red.

N132D: This is the brightest supernova remnant in either the LMC or its galactic cousin, the Small Magellanic Cloud. N132D also stands out because it belongs to a rare class of supernova remnants that have relatively high levels of oxygen. Scientists think most of the oxygen we breathe came from explosions similar to this one. Here, Chandra data are shown in purple and green and Hubble data are shown in red.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Chandra X-Ray Observatory:

Image, Animation, Text, Credits: NASA/Jennifer Harbaugh.


A Series of Spacewalks Four Years in the Making Will Attempt to Revive a Scientific Experiment

EVA - Extra Vehicular Activities patch.

November 1, 2019

Many scientists theorize stars, planets and the molecules that comprise them are only less than five percent of the mass-energy content of the universe. The rest is dark matter, invisible matter that cannot be directly detected but can be inferred. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer - 02 (AMS-02) has been looking for evidence of this mysterious substance from the vantage point of the International Space Station since 2011. Designed for a three-year mission of sifting through cosmic ray particles, AMS records the number of particles that pass through all its detectors (over 140 billion particles to date), the type of particle and characteristics such as mass, velocity, charge and their direction of travel. The goal is for scientists to track down their sources to help understand dark matter and the origins of the universe.

AMS has provided hundreds of researchers around the globe with data that can help piece together the puzzle of what the universe is made of and how it began. “None of the AMS results were predicted,” said Nobel Laureate and AMS principal investigator Samuel Ting in a presentation from 2018. He said results so far have provided unique information to physicists and have included the potential detection of rare antimatter that may have traveled from the far reaches of the cosmos. While there have not been definite dark matter findings, AMS has collected a significant amount of data on cosmic rays, how the rays travel through space and what produces them.

Image above: This picture, photographed during the spacewalk conducted on July 12, 2011, shows the International Space Station with space shuttle Atlantis docked at right. In the center foreground is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment installed during the STS-134 mission. Image Credit: NASA.

As with many items that are exposed to the harsh environment of space, it now needs an upgrade to continue its data collection. Over the course of the next few months, a complex series of spacewalks will go into action. The launch of a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft (NG-12) scheduled for launch on Nov. 2 will carry the final supplies needed for the spacewalks. Those supplies include the last tools needed to perform the upgrades.

At more than eight years on the station, AMS-02 has far outlived its expected three-year lifespan. AMS began showing signs of age in 2014. It has four redundant cooling pumps intended to keep the silicon tracker, one of several detectors on AMS, at a constant temperature while in space. With temperatures that fluctuate by hundreds of degrees while orbiting Earth, a functioning thermal control system is required to support the tracker, and data from the tracker is needed in combination with the data from the other instruments to support the AMS research. 

Image above: Tests being conducted in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) pool as part of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) Repair training and planning. Fasteners are being removed as part of the Debris shield Removal Task. Image Credit: NASA.

While only one of these pumps is required to operate at a time, multiple pumps began to fail. In March 2014, one of the cooling pumps stopped working, and another was found to have degraded. In March 2017, researchers switched to the last fully functional pump to keep the science alive. The AMS team realized they would need to take action to keep the scientific instrument going. “A group of us started working on planning the spacewalks to extend the life of AMS and have been now for four years,” said spacewalk task lead Brian Mader.

Fixing something that was never meant to be fixed

AMS was meant to live out its three-year life in space without maintenance and then wind down, having served its purpose. Since AMS was never planned to be serviced, there are no foot restraints nor handrails installed to help astronauts move around the areas to access the cooling system during a spacewalk. It also was not designed with typical spacewalk tools in mind because, at over 300,000 data channels, it was considered too complex to service. “When you put somebody in a big suit with pressurized gloves with limited dexterity, it changes the game entirely. You have to design tools and procedures completely differently,” Mader said.

In addition to the overall complexity of the instrument, astronauts have never before cut and reconnected fluid lines, like those that are part of the thermal control system, during a spacewalk. Scientists and engineers from around the world have been tackling these challenges over the past four years to prepare for the upcoming spacewalks. Now their procedures, tools and training are about to be put to the test.

The plan is to bypass the old thermal control system, attach a new one off the side of AMS and plug it into the existing system. “It sounds easy, especially if you're on the ground and have lots of different tools that you need, but it's not an area that was set up for spacewalking in any manner,” said AMS spacewalk repair project manager Tara Jochim.

Image above: Tests being conducted in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) pool as part of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) Repair training. Activity being performed here is the removal of the fasteners for the Cover Removal Task on the Vertical Support Beam. Image Credit: NASA.

The work to prepare for the spacewalk has involved making, testing and launching more than 20 new tools to the space station. Many are specialized for specific steps of the spacewalk, such as removing the debris shield from AMS or working on the cooling lines. The tools include plumbing instruments to cut into the cooling lines, new screwdriver bits and devices to capture the fasteners the astronauts remove from AMS.

“The basic concept on removing the fasteners is actually something that they used on the Hubble Space Telescope spacewalks,” said Flight Operations Directorate Spacewalk Lead John Mularski. “You use a tool to grab underneath the fastener before you fully remove it.” The Hubble Space Telescope also required a series of spacewalks to extend the life of the telescope.

These tools have gone through years of iterations and tests here on Earth by scientists, engineers and astronauts. Considerable ingenuity was required to develop the perfect tools for the AMS spacewalks’ very specific needs. Repeated designing, prototyping, experimenting and validating was required to create all of the space ready tools. ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Luca Parmitano and NASA astronaut Drew Morgan will perform all of the AMS repair spacewalks, and did many practice runs in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) pool at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Image above: Expedition 60 crew members Luca Parmitano and Andrew Morgan perform a Hardware Review at the NBL. Image Credit: NASA.

Several other members of the astronaut corps also helped perform other tests for tools to be used on the spacewalks. NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen assisted with tool development by carrying out trials in both the NBL and the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS), a facility that simulates reduced gravity environments out of the water.

More to offer

Ting and the researchers using AMS data are hopeful that these spacewalks will enable many more years of data collection for this specialized instrument. “A lot of experiments can measure these cosmic ray particles at low energies. AMS takes it to a much higher energy level and to an unprecedented accuracy,” said AMS Project Manager Ken Bollweg. “In order to continue to improve the accuracy, they have to take data for a longer time.”

This extension of AMS’s life may also allow scientists to get a more complete picture of radiation in space by collecting data over a complete solar cycle—a period of about 11 years during which the Sun’s magnetic field changes, exposing the solar system to different levels of radiation. Collecting information over that entire time could provide more information about the potential radiation exposure for astronauts headed to Mars.

Image above: Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting, principal investigator for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, discusses the investigation during a Johnson Space Center All Hands meeting. Image Credit: NASA.

In addition to revitalizing an important piece of scientific equipment, the process of creating the tools and procedures for these spacewalks is preparing teams for the types of spacewalks that may be required on Moon and Mars missions. “These are the kind of skills that are going to feed into going to a planetary surface,” Jochim said. “Cutting stainless steel tubing and then connecting new tubes on a thermal system during a spacewalk with the user-friendly mechanisms we have developed, all the while keeping it safe for the crew member, are the types of activities that will help create our processes for tomorrow’s spacewalkers.”

AMS is a joint effort between NASA and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and is led by Principal Investigator Samuel Ting, a Nobel laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The AMS team includes some 600 physicists from 56 institutions in 16 countries from Europe, North America and Asia. The contributions from the various participants were integrated when the AMS was built at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) outside of Geneva, Switzerland.

Related links:

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer - 02 (AMS-02):


Northrop Grumman Cygnus:

Switched to the last fully functional pump:

Moon and Mars:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/JSC/nternational Space Station Program Science Office/Erin Winick.


jeudi 31 octobre 2019

Station Crew Readies for Japan, U.S. Cargo Missions

ISS - Expedition 61 Mission patch.

October 31, 2019

A Japanese cargo craft is preparing to end its mission at the International Space Station, as a U.S. resupply ship stands ready to launch to the orbiting lab. The Expedition 61 crew is gearing up for the space traffic while also staying fresh on station emergency procedures.

Japan’s HTV-8 cargo craft, also called Kounotori, will complete its 34-day mission attached to the station’s Harmony module on Friday. NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir are sharpening their Canadarm2 robotic arm skills today as they train to release the Kounotori packed with trash and obsolete gear  at 1:20 p.m. EDT. It will fall to Earth over the Pacific Ocean and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere on Saturday.

Image above: The Northrop Grumman Antares rocket that will launch the Cygnus cargo craft to the space station is seen at its Virginia launch pad. Image Credit: NASA/Northrop Grumman.

The 12th U.S.-made Cygnus resupply ship sits atop an Antares rocket and will blast off Saturday from Virginia at 9:59 a.m. EDT. The space delivery vehicle from Northrop Grumman will arrive Monday, when Meir with Koch as her backup will capture it at 4:10 a.m. EST with the Canadarm2. Robotic controllers on the ground will take over and remotely guide Cygnus and attach it to the Unity module where it will stay for 70 days.

NASA TV will cover all the mission activities live.

Canadarm2. Animation Credit: NASA

Three station crewmates brushed up on their emergency response skills today in the unlikely event they would need to evacuate the station in their Soyuz crew ship. Koch with Commander Luca Parmitano and Flight Engineer Alexander Skvortsov practiced quickly entering their Soyuz and simulated emergency undocking and descent procedures.

Related links:

Expedition 61:



Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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


mercredi 30 octobre 2019

Crop Harvest on Station After Robotics, Human Research Today

ISS - Expedition 61 Mission patch.

October 30, 2019

The Expedition 61 crew harvested a space-grown crop today aboard the International Space Station. The orbital lab residents also tested robotics systems before exploring blood pressure and time perception in microgravity.

Space agriculture aboard the orbiting laboratory has been ongoing for several years to learn how to provide fresh food to space crews. NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan continued that research by cutting Mizuna leaves today for a taste test and stowing the leftovers in a science freezer for scientific analysis.

Image above: NASA astronaut Jessica Meir waters plant pillows where Mizuna mustard greens are raised as part of the Veg-04B experiment. Image Credit: NASA.

Morgan also took turns with Commander Luca Parmitano of ESA (European Space Agency) wearing virtual reality goggles and clicking a trackball for a time perception study. The investigation observes subjective time changes astronauts experience during space missions and back on Earth after missions.

The Astrobee free-flying robotic assistant had a test-run today as Parmitano calibrated the autonomous device’s systems. The ESA astronaut checked Astrobee’s abilities to navigate, dock and visually monitor activities inside the space station’s Kibo laboratory module.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

The Cygnus resupply ship will launch Saturday at 9:59 a.m. EDT atop the Antares rocket from Virginia. Meir and NASA Flight Engineer Christina Koch are practicing robotic techniques to capture Cygnus when it arrives two days later. Meir, with Koch backing her up in the cupola, will command the Canadarm2 robotic arm to reach out and capture Cygnus Monday at 4:10 a.m. EST.

Cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Skripochka spent Wednesday morning exploring how blood pressure responds to the lack of gravity. The duo split up in the afternoon as Skvortsov checked Russian communication and spacecraft systems. Skripochka worked on life support systems and explored how orbiting Earth affects the station’s magnetic field.

Related links:

Expedition 61:

Space agriculture:

Time perception:



Kibo laboratory module:



Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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

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Spitzer Telescope Spots a Ghoulish Gourd

NASA - Spitzer Space Telescope patch.

Oct. 30, 2019

Animation above: This infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space telescope shows a cloud of gas and dust carved out by a massive star. A drawing overlaid on the image reveals why researchers nicknamed this region the "Jack-o'-lantern Nebula." Animation Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A carved-out cloud of gas and dust looks like a celestial jack-o'-lantern in this image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

A massive star — known as an O-type star and about 15 to 20 times heavier than the Sun — is likely responsible for sculpting this cosmic pumpkin. A recent study of the region suggests that the powerful outflow of radiation and particles from the star likely swept the surrounding dust and gas outward, creating deep gouges in this cloud, which is known as a nebula.

Spitzer, which detects infrared light, saw the star glowing like a candle at the center of a hollowed-out pumpkin. The study's authors have fittingly nicknamed the structure the "Jack-o'-lantern Nebula."

A plethora of objects in the universe emit infrared light, often as heat, so objects tend to radiate more infrared light the warmer they are.

Invisible to the human eye, three wavelengths of infrared light compose the multicolor image of the nebula seen here. Green and red represent light emitted primarily by dust radiating at different temperatures, though some stars radiate prominently in these wavelengths as well. The combination of green and red in the image creates yellow hues. Blue represents a wavelength mostly emitted, in this image, by stars and some very hot regions of the nebula, while white regions indicate where the objects are bright in all three colors. The O-type star appears as a white spot in the center of a red dust shell near the center of the scooped-out region.

A high-contrast version of the same image makes the red wavelength more pronounced. Together, the red and green wavelengths create an orange hue. The picture highlights contours in the dust as well as the densest regions of the nebula, which appear brightest.

Spitzer Space Telescope. Image Credits: NASA/JPL

The study that produced these observations appears in the Astrophysical Journal and examined a region in the outer region of the Milky Way galaxy. (Our Sun is halfway to the edge of the disk-shaped galaxy.) Researchers used infrared light to count the very young stars in different stages of early development in this region. They also counted protostars — infant stars still swaddled in the dense dust clouds in which they were born. When combined with tallies of adult stars in these regions, these data will help scientists determine whether the rates of star and planet formation in the galaxy's outer regions differ from the rates in middle and inner regions.

Scientists already know that conditions differ slightly in those outer areas. For example, interstellar clouds of gas and dust are colder and more sparsely distributed there than they are near the center of the galaxy (which may reduce the rate of star formation). Star-forming clouds in those outer areas also contain lower amounts of heavy chemical elements, including carbon, oxygen and other ingredients for life as we know it. Eventually, more studies like this one might also determine whether planets similar in composition to Earth are more or less common in the outer galaxy than in our local galactic neighborhood.

The data used to create this image was collected during Spitzer's "cold mission," which ran between 2004 and 2009.

Astrophysical Journal:

For more information about Spitzer, go to:

Animation (mentioned), Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/JPL/Calla Cofield.


mardi 29 octobre 2019

Spacesuits, Human Research, Robotics Training Ahead of Cargo Missions

ISS - Expedition 61 Mission patch.

October 29, 2019

The six-member Expedition 61 crew juggled spacesuit maintenance and human research activities aboard the International Space Station today. The orbital residents are also getting ready to send off and receive resupply ships.

Two U.S. spacesuits are being serviced ahead of a series of spacewalks planned to repair a cosmic particle detector, also known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). Commander Luca Parmitano of ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan are tentatively scheduled to venture outside the station in November and upgrade the AMS thermal control system.

Image above: NASA astronaut Jessica Meir works to swap out a failed computer hard drive that supports experiments inside the Combustion Integrated Rack aboard the International Space Station’s U.S. Destiny laboratory module. Image Credit: NASA.

Parmitano also tested a device that measures an astronaut’s mass using Newton’s Second Law of Motion. The device applies a known force to an attached astronaut and the resulting acceleration is used to accurately calculate an astronaut’s mass.

NASA Flight Engineers Jessica Meir and Christina Koch shared maintenance duties on a human organ printer, the BioFabrication Facility. Scientists are testing the 3D biological printing facility for its ability to print more cohesive organ structures in microgravity than on Earth.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

Koch and Meir will also be on Canadarm2 robotics duty on Friday and Monday to support a pair of cargo missions. Koch, with Meir backing her up, will command the robotic release of Japan’s HTV-8 resupply ship Friday at 1:20 p.m. EDT. The HTV-8 is wrapping up a 34-day mission attached to the Harmony module.

They will switch roles on Monday when Meir takes charge of the Canadarm2 robotic arm and captures Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo craft at 4:10 a.m. EST. Koch will back her up in the cupola while Morgan monitors the Cygnus’ approach and rendezvous. Cygnus will launch Saturday at 9:59 a.m. atop the Antares rocket from Virginia.

Related links:

Expedition 61:

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS):

Newton’s Second Law of Motion:

BioFabrication Facility:


Harmony module:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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

Best regards,

Jupiter's Cloud Tops: From High to Low

NASA - JUNO Mission logo.

Oct. 29, 2019

This view from NASA's Juno spacecraft captures colorful, intricate patterns in a jet stream region of Jupiter's northern hemisphere known as "Jet N3."

Jupiter's cloud tops do not form a simple, flat surface. Data from Juno helped scientists discover that the swirling bands in the atmosphere extend deep into the planet, to a depth of about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers). At center right, a patch of bright, high-altitude "pop-up" clouds rises above the surrounding atmosphere.

Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter

Citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt created this enhanced-color image using data from the spacecraft's JunoCam imager. The original image was taken on May 29, 2019, at 1:01 a.m. PDT (4:01 a.m. EDT) as the Juno spacecraft performed its 20th close flyby of Jupiter. At the time the image was taken, the spacecraft was about 6,000 miles (9,700 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds, at a latitude of 39 degrees north.


Image, Animation, Credit:NASA/Yvette Smith/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt.


lundi 28 octobre 2019

Crew Gearing Up for U.S. and Japanese Cargo Ship Activities

ISS - Expedition 61 Mission patch.

October 28, 2019

A Japanese cargo vehicle will be departing the International Space Station and a U.S. vehicle beginning its trip there this Saturday. The Expedition 61 crew is getting ready for both missions while staying busy with space research and lab maintenance.

Japan’s HTV-8 resupply ship, also known as Kounotori, will depart the orbiting lab at the end of the week and complete a 34-day cargo mission attached to the Harmony module. NASA Flight Engineers Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan are loading the craft today with trash and obsolete gear. Meir will back up fellow NASA astronaut Christina Koch on Friday when she releases HTV-8 from the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm at 1:20 p.m. EDT.

Image Credits: NASA astronaut Christina Koch performs science operations in the Microgravity Science Glovebox for the Ring Sheared Drop human health and advanced materials investigation. Image Credit: NASA.

The duo is also on robotics training today preparing for the 12th Cygnus resupply mission from Northrop Grumman. Meir, with Koch as her backup, will command the Canadarm2 to grapple Cygnus when it arrives Monday Nov. 2, at 4:10 a.m. The Cygnus cargo craft, named SS Alan Bean for the Apollo and Skylab astronaut, launches Saturday from Virginia at 9:59 a.m. NASA TV will broadcast the spaceship launch and arrival activities to the station live.

Morgan started his workday setting up a laptop computer for science operations in the Japanese Kibo laboratory module’s Cell Biology Experiment Facility. After some life support maintenance, he moved on to botany research before finally moving a science freezer from one research rack to another.

Image above: The H-II Transfer Vehicle-8 (HTV-8) from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is pictured Sept. 29, 2019, attached to the International Space Station's Harmony module as the orbiting complex flies 258 miles above Sudan. Image Credit: NASA.

Commander Luca Parmitano spent a few moments Monday afternoon checking samples for the Ring Sheared Drop human health and advanced materials investigation. The ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut also joined Morgan during the morning and reviewed spacewalk repair procedures for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer.

Cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Skripochka started the morning photographing Russian spacewalk hardware. The duo then split up as Skvortsov tested spacecraft simulation software while Skripochka inspected Russian segment surfaces for moisture and corrosion.

Related links:

Expedition 61:

HTV-8 resupply ship:

Harmony module:

Canadarm2 robotic arm:


Botany research:

Science freezer:

Ring Sheared Drop:

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Catherine Williams.

Best regards,

ESO Telescope Reveals What Could be the Smallest Dwarf Planet Yet in the Solar System

ESO - European Southern Observatory logo.

28 October 2019

SPHERE image of Hygiea

Astronomers using ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) have revealed that the asteroid Hygiea could be classified as a dwarf planet. The object is the fourth largest in the asteroid belt after Ceres, Vesta and Pallas. For the first time, astronomers have observed Hygiea in sufficiently high resolution to study its surface and determine its shape and size. They found that Hygiea is spherical, potentially taking the crown from Ceres as the smallest dwarf planet in the Solar System.

As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass for its own gravity to pull it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea.

SPHERE images of Hygiea, Vesta and Ceres

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” says lead researcher Pierre Vernazza from the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille in France. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

The team also used the SPHERE observations to constrain Hygiea’s size, putting its diameter at just over 430 km. Pluto, the most famous of dwarf planets, has a diameter close to 2400 km, while Ceres is close to 950 km in size.

Surprisingly, the observations also revealed that Hygiea lacks the very large impact crater that scientists expected to see on its surface, the team report in the study published today in Nature Astronomy. Hygiea is the main member of one of the largest asteroid families, with close to 7000 members that all originated from the same parent body. Astronomers expected the event that led to the formation of this numerous family to have left a large, deep mark on Hygiea.

Location of Hygiea in the Solar System

“This result came as a real surprise as we were expecting the presence of a large impact basin, as is the case on Vesta,” says Vernazza. Although the astronomers observed Hygiea’s surface with a 95% coverage, they could only identify two unambiguous craters. “Neither of these two craters could have been caused by the impact that originated the Hygiea family of asteroids whose volume is comparable to that of a 100 km-sized object. They are too small,” explains study co-author Miroslav Brož of the Astronomical Institute of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

The team decided to investigate further. Using numerical simulations, they deduced that Hygiea’s spherical shape and large family of asteroids are likely the result of a major head-on collision with a large projectile of diameter between 75 and 150 km. Their simulations show this violent impact, thought to have occurred about 2 billion years ago, completely shattered the parent body. Once the left-over pieces reassembled, they gave Hygiea its round shape and thousands of companion asteroids. “Such a collision between two large bodies in the asteroid belt is unique in the last 3–4 billion years,” says Pavel Ševeček, a PhD student at the Astronomical Institute of Charles University who also participated in the study.

Impact simulation explaining the origin of Hygiea’s round shape

Studying asteroids in detail has been possible thanks not only to advances in numerical computation, but also to more powerful telescopes. “Thanks to the VLT and the new generation adaptive-optics instrument SPHERE, we are now imaging main belt asteroids with unprecedented resolution, closing the gap between Earth-based and interplanetary mission observations,” Vernazza concludes.

More information:

This research was presented in a paper to appear in Nature Astronomy on 28 October.

The team is composed of P. Vernazza (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France), L. Jorda (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France), P. Ševeček (Institute of Astronomy, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic), M. Brož (Institute of Astronomy, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic), M. Viikinkoski (Mathematics and Statistics, Tampere University, Tampere, Finland), J. Hanuš (Institute of Astronomy, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic), B. Carry (Université Côte d'Azur, Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, CNRS, Laboratoire Lagrange, Nice, France), A. Drouard (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France), M. Ferrais (Space Sciences, Technologies and Astrophysics Research Institute, Université de Liège, Liège, Belgium), M. Marsset (Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA), F. Marchis (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France, and SETI Institute, Carl Sagan Center, Mountain View, USA), M. Birlan (Observatoire de Paris, Paris, France), E. Podlewska-Gaca (Astronomical Observatory Institute, Faculty of Physics, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland, and Institute of Physics, University of Szczecin, Poland), E. Jehin (Space Sciences, Technologies and Astrophysics Research Institute, Université de Liège, Liège, Belgium), P. Bartczak (Astronomical Observatory Institute, Faculty of Physics, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland), G. Dudzinski (Astronomical Observatory Institute, Faculty of Physics, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland), J. Berthier (Observatoire de Paris, Paris, France), J. Castillo-Rogez (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA), F. Cipriani (European Space Agency, ESTEC – Scientific Support Office, The Netherlands), F. Colas (Observatoire de Paris, Paris, France), F. DeMeo (Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA), C. Dumas (TMT Observatory, Pasadena, USA), J. Durech (Institute of Astronomy, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic), R. Fetick (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France and ONERA, The French Aerospace Lab, Chatillon Cedex, France), T. Fusco (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France and and ONERA, The French Aerospace Lab, Chatillon Cedex, France), J. Grice (Université Côte d'Azur, Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, CNRS, Laboratoire Lagrange, Nice, France and Open University, School of Physical Sciences, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK), M. Kaasalainen (Mathematics and Statistics, Tampere University, Tampere, Finland), A. Kryszczynska (Astronomical Observatory Institute, Faculty of Physics, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland), P. Lamy (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France), H. Le Coroller (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France), A. Marciniak (Astronomical Observatory Institute, Faculty of Physics, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland), T. Michalowski (Astronomical Observatory Institute, Faculty of Physics, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland), P. Michel (Université Côte d'Azur, Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, CNRS, Laboratoire Lagrange, Nice, France), N. Rambaux (Observatoire de Paris, Paris, France), T. Santana-Ros (Departamento de Fı́sica, Universidad de Alicante, Alicante, Spain), P. Tanga (Université Côte d'Azur, Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, CNRS, Laboratoire Lagrange, Nice, France), F. Vachier (Observatoire de Paris, Paris, France), A. Vigan (Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, Marseille, France), O. Witasse (European Space Agency, ESTEC – Scientific Support Office, The Netherlands), B. Yang (European Southern Observatory, Santiago, Chile), M. Gillon (Space Sciences, Technologies and Astrophysics Research Institute, Université de Liège, Liège, Belgium), Z. Benkhaldoun (Oukaimeden Observatory, High Energy Physics and Astrophysics Laboratory, Cadi Ayyad University, Marrakech, Morocco), R. Szakats (Konkoly Observatory, Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Hungary), R. Hirsch (Astronomical Observatory Institute, Faculty of Physics, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland), R. Duffard (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Glorieta de la Astronomía S/N, Granada, Spain), A. Chapman (Buenos Aires, Argentina), J. L. Maestre (Observatorio de Albox, Almeria, Spain).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 16 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.


ESOcast 211 Light: ESO Telescope Reveals What Could be the Smallest Dwarf Planet in the Solar System:

Research paper:

Supplementary material:

New SPHERE view of VESTA:

VLT’s SPHERE spies rocky worlds:

SPHERE maps the surface of Ceres:

Photos of the VLT:


ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT):

Images, Text, Credits: ESO/Bárbara Ferreira/Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille/Pierre Vernazza/Charles University/Pavel Ševeček/Miroslav Brož/ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)/Videos: ESO/ Ševeček/Charles University.


Hubble Captures Cosmic Face

ESA - Hubble Space Telescope logo.

28 October 2019

Arp-Madore 2026-424

In celebration of Halloween, this new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captures two galaxies of equal size in a collision that appears to resemble a ghostly face. This observation was made on 19 June 2019 in visible light by the telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Although galaxy collisions are common — especially in the early universe — most are not head-on impacts like the collision that likely created this Arp-Madore system 704 million light-years from Earth. This violent encounter gives the system an arresting ring structure, but only for a short amount of time. The crash has pulled and stretched the galaxies’ discs of gas, dust, and stars outward, forming the ring of intense star formation that shapes the “nose” and “face” features of the system.

Wide-field view of Arp-Madore 2026-424 (ground-based view)

Ring galaxies are rare, and only a few hundred of them reside in our larger cosmic neighbourhood. The galaxies have to collide at just the right orientation so that they interact to create the ring, and before long they will have merged completely, hiding their messy past.

The side-by-side juxtaposition of the two central bulges of stars from the galaxies that we see here is also unusual. Since the bulges that form the “eyes” appear to be the same size, we can be sure that the two galaxies involved in the crash were of equal size. This is different from the more common collisions in which small galaxies are gobbled up by their larger neighbours.

Zooming in on Arp-Madore 2026-424

This galaxy system is catalogued as Arp-Madore 2026-424 (AM 2026-424) in the Arp-Madore “Catalogue of Southern Peculiar Galaxies and Associations”. Astronomer Halton Arp published his compendium of 338 unusual-looking interacting galaxies in 1966. He later partnered with astronomer Barry Madore to extend the search for unique galactic encounters in the southern sky. Several thousand galaxies are listed in this 1987 survey.

Pan of Arp-Madore 2026-424

Hubble observed this unique system as part of a “snapshot” programme that takes advantage of occasional gaps in the telescope’s observing schedule to squeeze in additional pictures. Astronomers plan to use this innovative Hubble programme to take a close look at many other unusual interacting galaxies. The goal is to compile a robust sample of nearby interacting galaxies, which could offer insights into how galaxies grew over time through galactic mergers. By analysing these detailed Hubble observations, astronomers will be able to decide which systems are prime targets for follow-up observations by the upcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2021.

More information:

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


Images of Hubble:

HubbleSite Release:

Images, Text, Credits: ESA/Hubble/Bethany Downer/University of Washington/Ben Williams/Julianne Dalcanton/NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and M. Durbin (University of Washington)/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Videos: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and M. Durbin (University of Washington)/Music: Astral Electronic - Solar Wind.

Best regards,

Stars Pollute, but Galaxies Recycle

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center logo.

Oct. 28, 2019

Galaxies were once thought of as lonely islands in the universe: clumps of matter floating through otherwise empty space. We now know they are surrounded by a much larger, yet nearly invisible cloud of dust and gas. Astronomers call it the circumgalactic medium, or CGM. The CGM acts as a giant recycling plant, absorbing matter ejected by the galaxy and later pushing it right back in.

NASA’s Far-ultraviolet Off Rowland-circle Telescope for Imaging and Spectroscopy, or FORTIS, mission will study this recycling process to help settle several unsolved mysteries. Launching on a sounding rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, FORTIS will observe a nearby galaxy to measure the gases its stars and supernova pump into the surrounding CGM. These observations will shed light on how material circulates in and out of galaxies, fueling star formation and galactic evolution. FORTIS’s launch window opens on Oct. 27.

A case of missing matter

Astronomers who study the life cycle of galaxies have struggled with two major mysteries.

First, to build new stars, galaxies need fuel — gases like hydrogen, helium, and sometimes heavier elements. But many galaxies continue making stars long after astronomers predict their fuel should have been exhausted. Where was the extra gas coming from?

Second, the byproducts of existing stars seemed to be missing. “As stars age, they pollute their surroundings,” said Stephan McCandliss, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and principal investigator for FORTIS. “They take in material around them and blow it right out.”

But scientists found that star-filled galaxies weren’t as polluted with metals — the heavy elements forged as stars burn — as they should have been. Metal-enriched gas was both entering and exiting galaxies, but no one knew how.

The galactical recycling center

Astronomers knew about the existence of CGMs, but most were too dim and spread out to be studied in detail. Then, in 2009, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph was added to the Hubble Space Telescope. The study of the CGM was now open for business.

Two years after the addition, a survey of the CGMs of 42 galaxies revealed they were full of gaseous metals. It was the stock of metals, missing from the galaxy, that astronomers had been looking for.

These metal-enriched gases weren’t just sitting there, either. Instead, the CGM passes them back and forth with the galaxy as part of a continuous recycling process.

“The CGM is critically important to understanding galaxy evolution, since it is the repository for much of the star formation fuel,” said Scott Porter, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Gravity, pulling gases from the CGM towards the galactic center, injects galaxies with fresh fuel for making stars. At the same time, stellar winds and supernova shoot metals back into the CGM, replenishing the supply.

Animation of a gigantic star exploding in a “core collapse” supernova. Supernovae are one way that galaxies eject metal-enriched gases into the circumgalactic medium. Animation Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

How stars and supernovae pollute

The FORTIS mission will quantify how much gas gets pumped into the CGM as part of this recycling process. Specifically, the telescope measures the winds of stars and supernovae to find out how much gas is blown into the CGM — and how much flies right past it.

“If gas is ejected at a very high speed, it’ll escape the galaxy completely,” McCandliss said. Precious metals may be shot through the CGM all the way to intergalactic space, dropping out of the recycling process. “But if they’re ejected at a low speed they’ll circulate around and help enrich the galaxy.”

To this end, FORTIS will fly high on a sounding rocket, a suborbital space vehicle that launches into space for a 15-minute roundtrip before landing back on Earth. FORTIS will aim its instruments at the Triangulum galaxy, also known as M33, 2.7 million light-years away. Triangulum is bright, with many recently formed stars boasting strong stellar winds.

Image above: The Triangulum galaxy, also known as Messier 33 or M33, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, and M. Durbin, J. Dalcanton, and B. F. Williams (University of Washington).

After about a minute observing M33, FORTIS will focus on its brightest clusters of stars and supernovae to measure the speed and composition of their winds. “This will all give us an idea of how that material is circulating and just how much of it is being moved,” McCandliss said.

New tech, new science

Like many sounding rocket missions, FORTIS will pursue these science questions while testing new tools. For this flight, FORTIS is using a next-generation microshutter array that builds on a design used for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The updated instrument will allow FORTIS to measure up to 40 separate targets at a time, in wavelengths of far-ultraviolet light beyond what earlier versions could resolve.

“It’s new science enabled by new technologies,” said McCandliss. “We want to train our workforce into bigger and better missions.”

The FORTIS mission will launch from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on a Black Brant IX sounding rocket. The trajectory peaks at an altitude of approximately 155 miles before falling back to Earth for recovery. The team expects six minutes of observing time, with a total flight time of approximately 15 minutes. The launch window opens on Oct. 27 at 10:30 p.m. MDT.

Related links:

Cosmic Origins Spectrograph:

FORTIS, next-generation microshutter array:




Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, by Miles Hatfield.