samedi 13 février 2021

AEgIS on track to test free fall of antimatter


CERN - European Organization for Nuclear Research logo.

Feb. 13, 2021

New technique for producing antihydrogen atoms is important milestone for measuring influence of gravity on antimatter

Image above: The AEgIS experiment is built around two powerful superconducting solenoids. (Image: CERN).

It’s a fundamental law of physics that even the most ardent science-phobe can define: matter falls down under gravity. But what about antimatter, which has the same mass but opposite electrical charge and spin? According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity should treat matter and antimatter identically. Finding even the slightest difference in their free-fall rate would therefore lead to a revolution in our understanding. While the free fall of matter has been measured with an accuracy of around one part in 100 trillion, no direct measurement for antimatter has yet been performed due to the difficulty in producing and containing large quantities of it.

In a paper recently published in the journal Nature Communications Physics, the AEgIS collaboration at CERN’s Antiproton Decelerator (AD) reports a major milestone towards this goal. Using new techniques developed in 2018, the team demonstrated pulsed production of antihydrogen atoms, which allows the time at which the antiatoms are formed to be pinned down with high accuracy.

“This is the first time that pulsed formation of antihydrogen has been established on timescales that open the door to simultaneous manipulation, by lasers or external fields, of the formed atoms, as well as to the possibility of applying the same method to pulsed formation of other antiprotonic atoms,” says AEgIS spokesperson Michael Doser of CERN. “Knowing the moment of antihydrogen formation is a powerful tool.”

CERN is the only place in the world where antihydrogen can be produced and studied in detail. Antihydrogen is an ideal system in which to test the gravitational free fall and other fundamental properties of antimatter because it has a long lifetime and is electrically neutral. The first production of low-energy antihydrogen, reported in 2002 by the ATHENA and ATRAP collaborations at the AD, involved the “three-body” recombination of clouds of antiprotons and positrons. Since then, steady progress by the AD’s ALPHA collaboration in producing, manipulating and trapping ever larger quantities of antihydrogen has enabled spectroscopic and other properties of antimatter to be determined in exquisite detail.

Whereas three-body recombination results in an almost continuous antihydrogen source, in which it is not possible to tag the time of the antiatom formation, AEgIS has employed an alternative “charge-exchange” process whereby the formation of antihydrogen atoms is triggered by a precise laser pulse. This allows the time at which 90% of the atoms are produced to be determined with an uncertainty of around 100 ns.

Several further steps are required before AEgIS can measure the influence of gravity on antimatter, including the formation of a pulsed beam, greater quantities of antihydrogen, and the ability to make it colder. “With only three months of beam time this year, and lots of new equipment to commission, most likely 2022 will be the year in which we establish pulsed-beam formation, which is a prerequisite for us to perform a gravity measurement,” explains Doser.

Following a proof-of-principle measurement by the ALPHA collaboration in 2013, ALPHA, AEgIS and a third AD experiment called GBAR are all planning to measure the free fall of antiatoms at the 1% level in the coming years. Each uses different techniques, and all three have recently been hooked up to the new ELENA synchrotron, which enables the production of very low-energy antiprotons.

Given that most of the mass of antinuclei comes from the strong force that binds quarks together, physicists think it unlikely that antimatter experiences an opposite gravitational force to matter. Nevertheless, precise measurements of the free fall of antiatoms could reveal subtle differences that would open an important crack in our current understanding.

Read the CERN Courier article on this topic:


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.

Related links:

Nature Communications Physics:


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

Image (mentioned), Text, Credits: CERN/By Matthew Chalmers.

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vendredi 12 février 2021

NASA's TESS Discovers New Worlds in a River of Young Stars


NASA - TESS Mission patch.

Feb 12, 2021

Using observations from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), an international team of astronomers has discovered a trio of hot worlds larger than Earth orbiting a much younger version of our Sun called TOI 451. The system resides in the recently discovered Pisces-Eridanus stream, a collection of stars less than 3% the age of our solar system that stretches across one-third of the sky.

Image above: This illustration sketches out the main features of TOI 451, a triple-planet system located 400 light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. Image Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The planets were discovered in TESS images taken between October and December 2018. Follow-up studies of TOI 451 and its planets included observations made in 2019 and 2020 using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which has since been retired, as well as many ground-based facilities. Archival infrared data from NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite – collected between 2009 and 2011 under its previous moniker, WISE – suggests the system retains a cool disk of dust and rocky debris. Other observations show that TOI 451 likely has two distant stellar companions circling each other far beyond the planets.

“This system checks a lot of boxes for astronomers,” said Elisabeth Newton, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, who led the research. “It’s only 120 million years old and just 400 light-years away, allowing detailed observations of this young planetary system. And because there are three planets between two and four times Earth’s size, they make especially promising targets for testing theories about how planetary atmospheres evolve.”

A paper reporting the findings was published on Jan. 14 in The Astronomical Journal and is available online.

Stellar streams form when the gravity of our Milky Way galaxy tears apart star clusters or dwarf galaxies. The individual stars move out along the cluster’s original orbit, forming an elongated group that gradually disperses.

In 2019, a team led by Stefan Meingast at the University of Vienna used data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to discover the Pisces-Eridanus stream, named for the constellations containing the greatest concentrations of stars. Stretching across 14 constellations, the stream is about 1,300 light-years long. However, the age initially determined for the stream was much older than we now think.

Later in 2019, researchers led by Jason Curtis at Columbia University in New York City analyzed TESS data for dozens of stream members. Younger stars spin faster than their older counterparts do, and they also tend to have prominent starspots – darker, cooler regions like sunspots. As these spots rotate in and out of our view, they can produce slight variations in a star’s brightness that TESS can measure.

Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)

The TESS measurements revealed overwhelming evidence of starspots and rapid rotation among the stream’s stars. Based on this result, Curtis and his colleagues found that the stream was only 120 million years old – similar to the famous Pleiades cluster and eight times younger than previous estimates. The mass, youth, and proximity of the Pisces-Eridanus stream make it an exciting fundamental laboratory for studying star and planet formation and evolution.

“Thanks to TESS’s nearly all-sky coverage, measurements that could support a search for planets orbiting members of this stream were already available to us when the stream was identified,” said Jessie Christiansen, a co-author of the paper and the deputy science lead at the NASA Exoplanet Archive, a facility for researching worlds beyond our solar system managed by Caltech in Pasadena, California. “TESS data will continue to allow us to push the limits of what we know about exoplanets and their systems for years to come.”

The young star TOI 451, better known to astronomers as CD-38 1467, lies about 400 light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. It has 95% of our Sun’s mass, but it is 12% smaller, slightly cooler, and emits 35% less energy. TOI 451 rotates every 5.1 days, which is more than five times faster than the Sun.

TESS spots new worlds by looking for transits, the slight, regular dimmings that occur when a planet passes in front of its star from our perspective. Transits from all three planets are evident in the TESS data. Newton’s team obtained measurements from Spitzer that supported the TESS findings and helped to rule out possible alternative explanations. Additional follow-up observations came from Las Cumbres Observatory – a global telescope network headquartered in Goleta, California – and the Perth Exoplanet Survey Telescope in Australia.

Even TOI 451’s most distant planet orbits three times closer than Mercury ever approaches to the Sun, so all of these worlds are quite hot and inhospitable to life as we know it. Temperature estimates range from about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 degrees Celsius) for the innermost planet to about 840 F (450 C) for the outermost one.

TOI 451 b orbits every 1.9 days, is about 1.9 times Earth’s size, and its estimated mass ranges from two to 12 times Earth’s. The next planet out, TOI 451 c, completes an orbit every 9.2 days, is about three times larger than Earth, and holds between three and 16 times Earth’s mass. The farthest and largest world, TOI 451 d, circles the star every 16 days, is four times the size of our planet, and weighs between four and 19 Earth masses.

Astronomers expect planets as big as these to retain much of their atmospheres despite the intense heat from their nearby star. Different theories of how atmospheres evolve by the time a planetary system reaches TOI 451’s age predict a wide range of properties. Observing starlight passing through the atmospheres of these planets provides an opportunity to study this phase of development and could aid in constraining current models.

Image above: The Pisces-Eridanus stream spans 1,300 light-years, sprawling across 14 constellations and one-third of the sky. Yellow dots show the locations of known or suspected members, with TOI 451 circled. TESS observations show that the stream is about 120 million years old, comparable to the famous Pleiades cluster in Taurus (upper left). Image Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“By measuring starlight penetrating a planet’s atmosphere at different wavelengths, we can infer its chemical composition and the presence of clouds or high-altitude hazes,” said Elisa Quintana, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “TOI 451’s planets offer excellent targets for such studies with Hubble and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.”

Observations from WISE show that the system is unusually bright in infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes, at wavelengths of 12 and 24 micrometers. This suggests the presence of a debris disk, where rocky asteroid-like bodies collide and grind themselves to dust. While Newton and her team cannot determine the extent of the disk, they envision it as a diffuse ring of rock and dust centered about as far from the star as Jupiter is from our Sun.

The researchers also investigated a faint neighboring star that appears about two pixels away from TOI 451 in TESS images. Based on Gaia data, Newton’s team determined this star to be a gravitationally bound companion located so far from TOI 451 that its light takes 27 days to get there. In fact, the researchers think the companion is likely a binary system of two M-type dwarf stars, each with about 45% of the Sun’s mass and emitting only 2% of its energy.    

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 Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian 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.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California manages NEOWISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, built the spacecraft. Science data processing takes place at IPAC at Caltech in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Related links:

Las Cumbres Observatory:

Perth Exoplanet Survey Telescope:


Spitzer Space Telescope:

TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite):

Images (mentioned), Animation, Text, Credits: NASA/GSFC/Claire Andreoli/By Francis Reddy.


Resupply Rocket Rolls Out to Pad, Crew Keeps up Space Studies


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Feb. 12, 2021

The next rocket to launch a resupply ship to the International Space Station rolled out to its launch pad on the other side of the world this morning. Back on the orbiting lab, the seven-member Expedition 64 crew kept up its space studies while servicing U.S. spacesuits.

Russia’s ISS Progress 77 cargo craft is standing atop its rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan. It is counting down to liftoff on Sunday at 11:45 p.m. EST to deliver just over one ton of nitrogen, water and propellant to the station. It will dock Tuesday at 1:20 a.m. EDT to the Pirs docking compartment.

Image above: Russia’s ISS Progress 77 space freighter stands at the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Image Credit: Roscosmos.

The Progress 77 will later detach Pirs from the station readying the Zvezda service module’s port for a new module. Pirs will then be replaced with the Nauka multipurpose laboratory module to be delivered on a Proton rocket. The Pirs undocking occurs a few days after Nauka’s launch to enable Russian flight controllers to confirm a good vehicle in orbit heading to the station.

In the meantime, science is the main mission aboard the station. Microgravity research has the potential to reveal new insights and potential therapies that otherwise wouldn’t be possible on Earth due to gravity’s interference.

NASA Flight Engineers Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover partnered up on Friday for a pair of different experiments. The duo demonstrated how hydroponics may support space agriculture then explored how the human nervous system adapts to weightlessness.

Progress MS-16 ready for launch

Video above: A Soyuz-2.1a launch vehicle will launch the Progress MS-16 spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station (ISS Progress 76 mission) on 15 February 2021, at 04:45 UTC (09:45 local time; 14 February, 23:45 EST) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Video Credit: Roscosmos.

Astronauts Kate Rubins of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of JAXA joined each other for maintenance work inside the Tranquility module. Rubins also collected microbe samples to understand how they survive and adapt on the station. NASA Flight Engineer Shannon Walker spent the day working on batteries that keep life support systems powered inside U.S. spacesuits.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

Cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov continued studying how the lack of gravity impacts the effectiveness of a workout. Ryzhikov also checked seating inside the Soyuz MS-17 crew ship as Kud-Sverchkov worked on ventilation and radiation hardware.

Related links:

Expedition 64:

Pirs docking compartment:

Zvezda service module:

Microgravity research:


Human nervous system:

Tranquility module:

Microbe samples:

Effectiveness of a workout:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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

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InSight Is Meeting the Challenge of Winter on Dusty Mars


NASA - InSight Mars Lander Mission patch.

Feb 12, 2021

As dust collects on the solar panels and winter comes to Elysium Planitia, the team is following a plan to reduce science operations in order to keep the lander safe.

Image above: This illustration shows NASA's InSight spacecraft with its instruments deployed on the Martian surface. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

NASA’s InSight lander recently received a mission extension for another two years, giving it time to detect more quakes, dust devils, and other phenomena on the surface of Mars. While the mission team plans to continue collecting data well into 2022, the increasing dustiness of the spacecraft’s solar panels and the onset of the Martian winter led to a decision to conserve power and temporarily limit the operation of its instruments.

InSight was designed to be long-lasting: The stationary lander is equipped with solar panels, each spanning 7 feet (2 meters) across. InSight’s design was informed by that of the solar-powered Spirit and Opportunity rovers, with the expectation that the panels would gradually reduce their power output as dust settled on them but would have ample output to last through the two-year prime mission (completed in November 2020).

Additionally, InSight’s team chose a landing site in Elysium Planitia, a windswept plain on the Red Planet’s equator that receives lots of sunlight. It was hoped that passing dust devils might clean off the panels, which happened many times with Spirit and Opportunity, allowing them to last years past their design lifetime.

But despite InSight detecting hundreds of passing dust devils, none has been close enough to clean off those dinner-table-size panels since they unfurled on Mars in November 2018. Today, InSight’s solar arrays are producing just 27% of their dust-free capacity. That power has to be shared between science instruments, a robotic arm, the spacecraft’s radio, and a variety of heaters that keep everything in working order despite subfreezing temperatures. Since the windiest season of the Martian year has just ended, the team isn’t counting on a cleaning event in the coming months.

Mars is currently moving toward what’s called aphelion, the point in its orbit when it’s farthest away from the Sun. That means the already-weak sunlight on the Martian surface is growing even fainter, reducing power when InSight most needs its heaters to stay warm. Mars will start approaching the Sun again in July 2021, after which the team will begin to resume full science operations.

“The amount of power available over the next few months will really be driven by the weather,” said InSight’s project manager, Chuck Scott of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “As part of our extended-mission planning, we developed an operations strategy to keep InSight safe through the winter so that we can resume science operations as solar intensity increases.” JPL leads the InSight mission, though the spacecraft and its solar panels were built by Lockheed Martin Space of Denver, Colorado.

Over the coming weeks and months, InSight scientists will be carefully selecting which instruments need to be switched off each day to preserve power for heaters and energy-intensive activities like radio communication. InSight’s weather sensors are likely to remain off much of the time (resulting in infrequent updates to the mission’s weather page), and all the instruments will have to be powered off for some period around aphelion.

InSight Mars Lander. Animation Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Currently, power levels look strong enough to take the lander through the winter. But solar power generation on Mars is always a little uncertain. The Opportunity rover was forced to shut down after a series of dust storms darkened the Martian sky in 2019, and Spirit did not survive the Martian winter in 2010. If InSight were to run out of power due to a sudden dust storm, it is designed to be able to reboot itself when the sunlight returns if its electronics survived the extreme cold.

Later this week, InSight will be commanded to extend its robotic arm over the panels so a camera can take close-up images of the dust coating. Then the team will pulse the motors that unfurled each panel after landing to try to can disturb the dust and see if the wind blows it away. The team considers this to be a long shot but worth the effort.

“The InSight team has put together a strong plan to safely navigate through winter and emerge on the other side ready to complete our extended science mission through 2022,” said Bruce Banerdt of JPL, InSight’s principal investigator. “We’ve got a great vehicle and a top-notch team; I’m looking forward to many more new discoveries from InSight in the future.”

More About the Mission

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

A number of European partners, including France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument to NASA, with the principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Significant contributions for SEIS came from IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom; and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors.

Related links:

Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS):

Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3):

InSight Mars Lander:

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/Alana Johnson/Grey Hautaluoma/JPL/Andrew Good.


Space Station Science Highlights: Week of February 8, 2021


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Feb 12, 2021

The week of Feb. 8, crew members aboard the International Space Station conducted a number of scientific investigations including mapping microbes on the station and studying plant growth in space. Crew members also began preparations for the arrival of new supplies and scientific experiments aboard the NG-15 cargo craft, scheduled to launch Feb. 20.

Image above: The Earth's horizon is visible behind a cloudy Pacific Ocean as the International Space Station orbits 271 miles above off the coast of southern Chile in South America. Image Credit: NASA.

The seven crew members currently inhabiting the station include four from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, providing increased crew time for science activities on the orbiting lab. The space station has been continuously inhabited by humans for 20 years and has supported many scientific breakthroughs during that time. The station provides a platform for long-duration research in microgravity and for learning to live and work in space, experience that supports Artemis, NASA’s program to go forward to the Moon and on to Mars.

Here are details on some of the microgravity investigations currently taking place:

Keeping it clean and healthy

Surfaces throughout the space station contain microbes and associated biomolecules that they excrete. The 3D Microbial Monitoring investigation conducts a series of sample collections and uses DNA sequencing and other analyses to construct a three dimensional map of these bacteria and bacterial products. The team also plans to characterize how these microbes respond at a molecular level to specific stress conditions, including altered gravity and atmospheric composition. Results could help identify risks to human health and environmental systems. During this week, the crew collected swab samples from Node 1.

Studying plants in space

Animation above: NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins takes photographs of the Plant Water Management investigation, which tests using surface tension, wetting, and other concepts of capillary fluidics to deliver adequate water and nutrients to plants. Animation Credit: NASA.

A number of investigations aboard the space station have looked at how plants grow in microgravity with the aim of developing ways to produce fresh food on future long-duration missions. During the week, crew members worked on several current experiments supporting these efforts, Veg-03 and Plant Water Management. Veg-03 cultivates various plants using low-mass modules that require little energy and maintenance called plant pillows. The crew installed Root Mats and Plant Pillows and primed the pillows with water during the week. Crew members also completed questionnaires that evaluate their moods and assess any psychological benefits from interacting with plants during their flight.

Microgravity makes it challenging to provide adequate fluid and nutrition for plant growth. The Plant Water Management investigation tests using concepts of capillary fluidics – such as surface tension, wetting, and geometry – to deliver adequate water and nutrients to plants. The crew set up the experiment and took images during a 48-hour session.  

Motion-free metal melting

All metals are made of small grains and the properties and performance of metallic parts are affected by the size and shape of these grains. Grain structure forms while a liquid or molten metal solidifies in a mold. The SUBSA-CETSOL investigation examines gravity’s effects on a complex physical phenomenon that occurs during metal alloy solidification known as columnar-to-equiaxed transition (CET). Understanding this phenomenon better could help predict and control properties of metal alloys, including aluminum alloys. The investigation melts and solidifies samples in the space station’s SUBSA furnace, which uses automatic baffles to minimize motion caused by spacecraft vibration. The crew exchanged samples for runs of the investigation during the week.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: ESA

Other investigations on which the crew performed work:

- Bacterial Adhesion and Corrosion tests an antimicrobial coating on materials used to represent typical surfaces on the space station, which could provide insight into better ways to control and remove resistant biofilms for long-duration spaceflight.

- Antimicrobial Coatings tests a coating to control microbial growth on several different materials that represent high-touch surfaces. Some microbes change characteristics in microgravity, which could create new risks to crew health and spacecraft.

- Food Physiology characterizes how an enhanced spaceflight diet affects immune function, the gut microbiome, and nutritional status. Results could help define targeted, efficient dietary interventions to maintain crew health and performance.

- APM measures and quantifies the concentration of both small and large particles in cabin air as part of efforts to maintain air quality in the occupied environment on station, vital for the crew’s health.

- AstroRad Vest tests a wearable vest designed to protect astronauts from radiation caused by unpredictable solar particle events. Astronauts provide input on how easy the garment is to put on, how it fits and feels, and the range of motion it allows.

- VECTION, a Canadian Space Agency investigation, determines to what extent microgravity disrupts an astronaut's ability to visually interpret motion, orientation, and distance as well as how those abilities may adapt in space and change again upon return to Earth.

Image above: NASA astronaut Victor Glover conducts a session for GRIP, an ESA (European Space Agency) investigation examining how subjects regulate the force of their hand grip and the trajectory of upper limbs while manipulating objects in microgravity. Image Credit: NASA.

- GRIP, an ESA (European Space Agency) investigation, studies the ability of subjects to regulate the force of their hand grip and the trajectory of upper limbs while manipulating objects.

- ISS Ham Radio gives students an opportunity to talk directly with crew members via ham radio, engaging and educating students, teachers, parents, and other members of the community in science, technology, engineering, and math.

- FLARE, a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) investigation, explores the flammability of materials in microgravity and could significantly improve fire safety aboard spacecraft on future missions.

Space to Ground: Riding with the Rover: 02/12/2021

Related links:

Expedition 64:

Commercial Crew Program:

3D Microbial Monitoring:


Plant Water Management:



ISS National Lab:

Spot the Station:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Animations (mentioned), Video (NASA), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/John Love, ISS Research Planning Integration Scientist Expedition 64.

Best regards,

Tianwen-1 Mars Orbit Insertion


CNSA - Tianwen-1 (天問-1) Mission to Mars logo.

Feb. 12, 2021

Tianwen-1 Mars Orbit Insertion

The Tianwen-1 mission successfully entered on an elliptical orbit around Mars on 10 February 2021. Tianwen-1 (天问一号) is China’s first Mars exploration mission with an orbiter, a lander and a rover.

Tianwen-1 Mars Orbit Insertion

The name Tianwen (天问, Questions to Heaven) comes from a poem written by the Chinese poet Qu Yuan.

Tianwen-1’s view of Mars during orbit insertion

Tianwen-1’s view of Mars during orbit insertion on 10 February 2021. Yang Yuguang, professor, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, explains the difficulties of the manoeuvre.

Tianwen-1 (天問-1) Mars lander. Image Credit: CNSA

Tianwen-1 (天问一号) is China’s first Mars exploration mission with an orbiter, a lander and a rover. Called "Tianwen" ("Questions in heaven"), the Chinese mission has three objectives: to place a probe in Martian orbit, to make it land on the red planet, then to remote-control a robot on the surface to conduct analyzes.

Related article:

China in turn (after UAE) begins its journey to Mars

For more information about China National Space Administration (CNSA), visit:

Images, Videos, Text, Credits: China Central Television (CCTV)/China National Space Administration (CNSA)/SciNews/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.


Is Brunt on the brink?


ESA - Copernicus logo.

Feb. 12, 2021

In early 2019, all eyes were fixed on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica, where a massive iceberg, around the size of Greater London, appeared poised to break off. Almost two years later, the berg is desperately clinging on, although current data indicate calving is imminent. A new crack, spotted in images captured by the Copernicus Sentinel missions, now suggests the potential for calving of multiple bergs.


For years, glaciologists have been tracking a number of cracks in the Brunt Ice Shelf, which borders the Coats Land coast in the Weddell Sea sector of Antarctica. The lengthening of two main cracks in the ice shelf, separated only by a few kilometres, have been closely monitored by satellite imagery. Chasm 1, the large crack running northwards from the southernmost part of Brunt, has been set in place for more than 25 years, while the Halloween crack was first spotted on 31 October 2016.


A more recent, unnamed crack was first noticed in observations from the Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission in late-2019, recently extending by more than 20 km in length. Satellite data has also been used to track the movement and measure the resulting strain in the ice shelf. The map below shows the ice surface velocity on the Brunt and Stancomb-Wills Ice Shelf complex, derived by comparing two Sentinel-1 acquisitions captured on 5 January and 17 January 2021.

Ice velocity map of the Brunt and Stancomb-Wills Ice Shelf

The data indicate the region of the floating ice shelf, to the north of the new crack, to be the most unstable, with an approximate movement of almost 5 m per day. The central portion has an average velocity ranging from 2 to 2.5 m per day, while the lower area (visible in blue) suggests a more stable zone of the ice shelf.

“Though appearing poised to calve in 2019, the south westernmost region of the Brunt Ice Shelf tenaciously resisted separation,” noted ESA’s Mark Drinkwater. “Since then, Sentinel-1 data indicate the nose of the ice shelf to be pivoting clockwise around the McDonald Ice Rumples region in which point the shelf ice is grounded on shallow underwater topography.”

“Meanwhile, the strong gradient in ice velocity towards the faster moving Stancomb-Wills ice stream, and ice shelf in the north, has activated a new rift which now threatens the release of a second large iceberg.”

New crack in the Brunt Ice Shelf

Routine monitoring from satellites offer unprecedented views of events happening in remote regions, and show how ice shelves are responding to changes in ice dynamics, air and ocean temperatures. Since Antarctica is in the dark winter months, radar images are indispensable because, apart from the region being remote, radar continues to deliver images regardless of the dark weather.

Mark Drinkwater continued, “With today’s Copernicus monitoring system, we are far better equipped not only to observe events in remote places like Antarctica in near real time, but more importantly, to turn this scientific data into theoretical understanding of complex ice fracture processes.”

Location of the Brunt Ice Shelf

History shows that the last major event took on the Brunt Ice Shelf took place in 1971, when a portion of ice calved north of the area known as the McDonald Ice Rumples in what appears to be replicated by today’s Halloween Crack.

With the ice shelf deemed unsafe due to the encroaching cracks in 2017, the British Antarctic Survey closed up their Halley VI research station, and re-positioned south of Halloween Crack to a more secure location. Operational since 2012, Halley VI is made up of eight interlinked pods built on skis. This allows the pods to be easily moved in case of unstable ice and cracks on the ice shelf.

Related links:

Halley VI research station:

Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission:

Observing the Earth:




Images, Text, Credits: ESA/Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2021), CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO (Data sources: JAXA/University of Bremen/BAS).


jeudi 11 février 2021

Goddard’s Core Flight Software Chosen for NASA’s Lunar Gateway


NASA Goddard Space Flight Center logo.

Feb 11, 2021

NASA is improving a flight software system to help create and certify essential software for the lunar Gateway.

As part of the Artemis program, NASA will send astronauts to the Moon and establish a sustained lunar presence by the end of the decade. The Gateway will provide a waypoint for lunar exploration and allow astronauts to live and work in lunar orbit as well as host science instruments and experiments.

While Gateway will not be continuously inhabited like the International Space Station, every system onboard must be at a high standard that guarantees astronaut safety. Class A certification assures that all of Gateway’s systems meet these rigorous requirements.

Image above: This illustration shows the Gateway lunar platform orbiting the Moon. Image Credit: NASA.

NASA, industry partners, and international space agencies are working together to develop Gateway. Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is collaborating with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to Class A certify the core Flight System (cFS).

The cFS will be essential to Gateway’s day-to-day operations, and provides the foundation for Gateway flight software, including the Vehicle System Manager, which manages spacecraft instruments and systems while maintaining core functions.

Gateway’s software builds on cFS’s dynamic development environment and component-based, adaptable design. Its flexible, layered architecture allows engineers to rapidly assemble significant portions of a software system for new missions. This results in cost and time savings, as mission teams can avoid developing brand new software for each mission.

Conceived in 2004, the open-sourced cFS software has been improved both internally and through recommendations from independent developers around the world. “We’re working on making it easier to test, easier to trace requirements from mission applications, and easy to adapt,” said Jacob Hageman, team lead for the ongoing certification effort for Gateway’s cFS. “The Artemis program provides resources to help us improve the product, which benefits everyone who uses it.”

Goddard developers envisioned an independent, reusable software framework for routine spacecraft tasks, including telemetry, health and safety, and stored commanding. In 2008, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched, operating on the core Flight Executive – a plug-and-play foundation for what would become cFS.

Goddard flight software architect Jonathan Wilmot has worked on cFS from its beginning, when the idea was born out of a need for efficiency. “We had two big missions at Goddard at one time, the Solar Dynamics Observatory and the Global Precipitation Measurement,” he said. “There wasn’t enough staff to do both independently, so we worked with Goddard’s software and mission teams to establish a set of requirements.”

Lunar Gateway. Animation Credit: ESA

This experienced team defined the software framework and application suite that was common to NASA missions so that future missions would just have to add their mission-unique functions. Since then, NASA has employed cFS on missions like the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission, Orion’s Ascent Abort – 2 Flight Test, and more.

In July 2020, cFS was named NASA’s Software of the Year for its combination of “app store” delivery of solutions, stability, and adaptability. “One of the great things about cFS is that it’s always evolving,” said Hageman. “We work on maybe two or three missions a year, but outside of NASA, people are trying it out, finding new ways to use it and making suggestions for improvement.”

Currently, the Goddard software development team is certifying the cFS by testing it to ensure it meets the requirements set forth by the agency for Gateway. After testing at Goddard, it will be delivered to Johnson for additional testing, possible modifications for Gateway-specific features, final implementation, and human rating certifications.

The first elements of the Gateway are anticipated to launch together in 2024 and will allow NASA greater access to the lunar surface. The Class A-certified flight software for Gateway will ensure all systems operate properly and that NASA’s astronauts have a safe environment to live and work.

Related links:

Core Flight System (cFS):

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO):

Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO):

Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM):

Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE):

Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS):

Moon to Mars:

Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC):

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/GSFC/By Katherine Schauer and Karl Hille.

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Crew Preps New Airlock and Studies Variety of Space Phenomena


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Feb. 11, 2021

The Expedition 64 crew continued setting up a new science and cargo airlock for operations today since its installation last year on the International Space Station. The orbital residents also researched how microgravity affects humans, plants and physics.

The station’s Tranquility module was expanded in December with the addition of the new NanoRacks Bishop airlock. Flight Engineer Kate Rubins is finalizing its configuration today by connecting cables and installing components so Bishop can begin service. She was assisted by fellow NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Victor Glover who began stowing cargo inside Bishop for the first time.

Image above: Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins works on hydroponics components for the Plant Water Management study. Image Credit: NASA.

Glover started the morning with NASA Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins inside Europe’s Columbus laboratory module researching how the human nervous system adapts to weightlessness. The duo took turns seated in a specialized chair performing a series of dexterous manipulation tasks for the GRIP study. Insights may help engineers and doctors develop better spacecraft interfaces and treat neurological conditions on Earth.

Hopkins then spent the afternoon demonstrating hydroponics for the Plant Water Management study as a way to sustain plants in microgravity from germination through harvest. JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi jotted down his meals for the Nutrition study before swapping samples for a crystal growth/semiconductor study.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA

Cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov were back on exercise research today studying how the lack of gravity impacts the effectiveness of a workout. The duo strapped sensors to themselves measuring their heart and breathing rate as they jogged on the Zvezda service module’s treadmill.

Related links:

Expedition 64:

Tranquility module:

Columbus laboratory module:

GRIP study:

Plant Water Management:


Crystal growth/semiconductor:

Zvezda service module:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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


Hubble Uncovers Concentration of Small Black Holes


NASA / ESA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

11 February 2021

Hubble's view of dazzling globular cluster NGC 6397

Scientists were expecting to find an intermediate-mass black hole at the heart of the globular cluster NGC 6397, but instead they found evidence of a concentration of smaller black holes lurking there. New data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have led to the first measurement of the extent of a collection of black holes in a core-collapsed globular cluster.

Globular clusters are extremely dense stellar systems, in which stars are  packed closely together. They are also typically very old — the globular cluster that is the focus of this study, NGC 6397, is almost as old as the Universe itself. It resides 7800 light-years away, making it one of the closest globular clusters to Earth. Because of its very dense nucleus, it is known as a core-collapsed cluster.

Callout of the Black Hole Concentration in NGC 6397 (Artist's Impression)

When Eduardo Vitral and Gary A. Mamon of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris set out to study the core of NGC 6397, they expected to find evidence for an “intermediate-mass” black hole (IMBH). These are smaller than the supermassive black holes that lie at the cores of large galaxies, but larger than stellar-mass black holes formed by the collapse of massive stars. IMBH  are the long-sought “missing link” in black hole evolution and their mere existence is hotly debated, although a few candidates have been found (see [1], for example).

To look for the IMBH, Vitral and Mamon analysed the positions and velocities of the cluster’s stars. They did this using previous estimates of the stars’ proper motions [2] from Hubble images of the cluster spanning several years [3], in addition to proper motions provided by ESA’s Gaia space observatory, which precisely measures the positions, distances and motions of stars. Knowing the distance to the cluster allowed the astronomers to translate the proper motions of these stars into velocities.

Artist’s Impression of the Black Hole Concentration in NGC 6397

“Our analysis indicated that the orbits of the stars are close to random throughout the globular cluster, rather than systematically circular or very elongated,” explained Mamon.

“We found very strong evidence for invisible mass in the dense central regions of the cluster, but we were surprised to find that this extra mass is not point-like but extended to a few percent of the size of the cluster,” added Vitral.

Ground-based Image of Globular Cluster NGC 6397

This invisible component could only be made up of the remnants (white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes) of massive stars whose inner regions collapsed under their own gravity once their nuclear fuel was exhausted. The stars progressively sank to the cluster’s centre after gravitational interactions with nearby less massive stars, leading to the small extent of the invisible mass concentration. Using the theory of stellar evolution, the scientists concluded that the bulk of the unseen concentration is made of stellar-mass black holes, rather than white dwarfs or neutron stars that are too faint to observe.

Two recent studies had also proposed that stellar remnants and in particular, stellar-mass black holes, could populate the inner regions of globular clusters.

Wide-Field View of Globular Cluster NGC 6397

“Our study is the first finding to provide both the mass and the extent of what appears to be a collection of mostly black holes in a core-collapsed globular cluster,” said Vitral.

Callout of the Black Hole Concentration in NGC 6397 (Artist’s Impression)

“Our analysis would not have been possible without having both the Hubble data to constrain the inner regions of the cluster and the Gaia data to constrain the orbital shapes of the outer stars, which in turn indirectly constrain the velocities of foreground and background stars in the inner regions,” added Mamon, attesting to an exemplary international collaboration.

Artist’s Impression of the Black Hole Concentration in NGC 6397

The astronomers also note that this discovery raises the question of whether mergers of these tightly packed black holes in core-collapsed globular clusters may be an important source of gravitational waves recently detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment.


[1] In 2020, new data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope provided the strongest evidence to date for a mid-sized black hole. Read the full press release on this result here:

[2] Proper motion describes how fast objects move in the sky.

[3] The Hubble data for this study were provided by A. Bellini, who measured the proper motions for over 1.3 million stars in 22 globular clusters, including NGC 6397.

More information:

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

The team of astronomers in this study consists of E. Vitral and G. A. Mamon. The results have been published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.


Space Sparks Episode 1:

Images of Hubble:

HubbleSite release:

Science paper:

Related link:

ESA’s Gaia space observatory:

Images: NASA, ESA, and T. Brown and S. Casertano (STScI)/Acknowledgement: NASA, ESA, and J. Anderson (STScI)/ESA/Hubble, N. Bartmann/D. Verschatse (Antilhue Observatory, Chile)/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin/Vidoes: ESA/Hubble, N. Bartmann/Text: ESA/Hubble/Bethany Downer/Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris/Dr. Gary A. Mamon/Eduardo Vitral.

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New Research Launching to Space Station Aboard Northrop Grumman’s 15th Resupply Mission


Northrop Grumman - Cygnus NG-15 Mission patch.

Feb. 11, 2021

Experiments that use worms to study muscle loss, examine how astronauts sleep, and test high-powered computers in space, along with more scientific studies and supplies, are ready for launch to the International Space Station on a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft. The spacecraft is targeted to launch at 12:36 p.m. EST on Feb. 20 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Cygnus space cargo arrival to ISS. Image Credit: NASA

Many of the experiments carried by this spacecraft build on previous studies conducted during the more than 20 years of continuous human habitation of the International Space Station, helping us explore farther into space and benefiting humans back on Earth.

Here are details on some of the scientific investigations that Northrop Grumman’s 15th commercial resupply services mission (NG CRS-15) is delivering to the space station:

Space worms to the rescue

Animation above: An adult worm moves around small pillars inside of a microscope slide. This same process will be observed in microgravity by the Micro-16 research team to study the links between gene expression and muscle strength.
Animation Credit: Texas Tech University.

Tiny worms could help us determine the cause of muscle weakening that astronauts can experience in microgravity. Astronauts work out more than two hours a day aboard the space station to prevent bone and muscle loss caused by living in a microgravity environment during long-duration missions. Thanks to a new device for measuring the muscle strength of tiny C. elegans worms, researchers with the Micro-16 study can test whether decreased expression of muscle proteins is associated with this decreased strength. The device consists of a small microscope slide filled with little rubber pillars. The strength of the worms is measured by how much force the worms apply to the pillars as they move around the slide.

“Results from this study could provide insights into mechanisms causing muscle strength decline in the elderly since physiological changes occurring in spaceflight mimic accelerated aging,” says professor of Chemical Engineering at Texas Tech University Siva Vanapalli, Ph.D. These results may support new therapies to combat the effects of age-related muscle loss on Earth.

A new vision

Image above: Researchers move the CubeLab containing a new LambdaVision study, which evaluates a manufacturing system using a light-activated protein that replaces the function of damaged cells in the eye in an artificial retina. Image Credit: Lambda Vision.

Millions of people on Earth suffer from retinal degenerative diseases. These conditions have no cure, although treatments can slow their progression. Artificial retinas or retinal implants may provide a way to restore meaningful vision for those affected. In 2018, startup LambdaVision sent their first experiment to the space station to determine whether the process used to create artificial retinal implants by forming a thin film one layer at a time may work better in microgravity.

A second experiment by LambdaVision launching on NG CRS-15, Protein-Based Artificial Retina Manufacturing, builds on the first project, evaluating a manufacturing system that uses a light-activated protein to replace the function of damaged cells in the eye. This information may help LambdaVision uncover whether microgravity optimizes production of these retinas, and could assist people back on Earth.

“Each flight is iterative and an important part of the research and development process,” says Nicole Wagner, Ph.D., president and CEO of LambdaVision. “This flight will allow us to continue to gather critical information on the overall design of the system and influence of microgravity on the layering process, as well as the necessary controls required to support good manufacturing processes.”

I dream of space

Image above: ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti floats inside a sleeping bag in her personal crew quarters on the International Space Station in 2014. The new ESA Dreams experiment will provide a closer look at astronaut sleep in microgravity. Image Credit: NASA.

Strapped inside sleeping bags, astronauts often report getting a better night’s sleep during their stays aboard the space station than when lying on a bed on Earth. The ESA (European Space Agency) Dreams experiment will provide a quantitative look at these astronaut sleep reports. When crew members get ready for bed, they will add another step: donning a sleep monitoring headband. The investigation serves as a technology demonstration of the Dry-EEG Headband in microgravity while also monitoring astronaut sleep quality during a long-duration mission. Raw data will be available to scientists for analysis, and the crew can input direct feedback on their sleep via an application on a tablet. Sleep is central to human health, so a better understanding of sleep in space provides a more comprehensive picture of human health in microgravity.

Preparing for the Moon

Image above: The moon rising over the southern Pacific Ocean is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 40 crew member on the International Space Station. Experiments such as A-HoSS help refine technologies that are helping us return to the Moon as part of the Artemis program. Image Credit: NASA.

The International Space Station serves as a testing ground for technologies we plan to use on future Artemis missions to the Moon. The NASA A-HoSS investigation puts to the test tools planned for use on the crewed Artemis II mission that will orbit the Moon. Built as the primary radiation detection system for the Orion spacecraft, the Hybrid Electronic Radiation Assessor (HERA) was modified for operation on the space station.

“The A-HoSS operations and data from the space station will provide direct experience with the Artemis HERA system as well as insight for flight control teams to more effectively utilize the information provided by the instrument,” says A-HoSS Project Lead Nicholas Stoffle at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Verifying that HERA can operate without error for 30 days validates the system for crewed Artemis mission operations. A related investigation, ISS HERA, flew in 2019 aboard the space station. ISS HERA provided data and operational feedback in preparation for the Orion spacecraft’s uncrewed Artemis I mission that will launch in 2021.

A life support upgrade

The Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) is a crucial element of regenerative life support hardware that provides clean air and water to the space station crew. Current systems enable recovery of about 93% of the water and water vapor on the station. The system will get an upgrade thanks to the Exploration ECLSS: Brine Processor System. This investigation demonstrates technology to recover additional water from the Urine Processor Assembly. The brine processor’s dual membrane bladder allows water vapor to pass through while filtering out the brine and the majority of contaminants. Long-duration crewed exploration missions require about 98% water recovery, and this technology demonstration in brine processing will help achieve this goal. This Brine Processor System plans to close this gap for the urine waste stream of the space station.

Crystal clear

Image above: Aeropyrum pernix Flap Endonuclease-1 (FEN-1) protein crystals are shown grown under Earth gravity conditions. FEN-1 will serve as the experimental protein for the Real Time Protein Crystal Growth 2 study. Image Credit: University of Toledo.

There are more than 100,000 proteins in the human body. Every structure is different, and each one of them holds important information related to our health. Each protein has a unique and complicated structure that is closely related to its function. Therefore, revealing a protein’s structure leads to an understanding of its function. However, it is difficult to analyze protein structures here on Earth, where gravity interferes with optimal growth. Previous research has shown that microgravity produces high-quality protein crystals that can be analyzed to identify possible targets for drugs to treat disease.

The Real-Time Protein Crystal Growth 2 study plans to produce high-quality protein crystals for up to eight proteins that will undergo detailed analysis back on Earth.

“Real-Time Protein Crystal Growth 2 affords us the opportunity to grow, monitor, and optimize protein crystal growth in microgravity through real-time communication with space station crew members,” says University of Toledo Ph.D. candidate Victoria Drago.

Astronauts will check the crystals, report on their growth, and then make changes based on initial observations.

Science Launching on Northrop Grumman's 15th Resupply Mission

Video above: Experiments using worms to study muscle weakening, examining how astronauts sleep, and testing high-powered computers in space will be launching, along with more scientific experiments and supplies, to the International Space Station on a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft. This Cygnus is named the S.S. Katherine Johnson, after the NASA mathematician whose calculations were critical to the success of our early human spaceflight missions. Video Credit: NASA.

Related links:

Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft:


Protein-Based Artificial Retina Manufacturing:




Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS):

Exploration ECLSS: Brine Processor System:

Real-Time Protein Crystal Growth 2:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

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

Best regards,