An artist’s conception depicts GJ 357 d orbiting its host star. (Cornell University Illustration / Jack Madden) Astronomers are sharing a flood of findings from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, including the detection of a potentially habitable super-Earth far beyond our solar system. The planet is said to circle an M-type dwarf star called GJ 357, about 31 light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra. Known as GJ 357 d, the world is at least six times more massive than Earth — and orbits the star every 55.7 days, at a distance that’s only 20% as far away as Earth is from our own sun. With that orbit, GJ 357 d would be broiling-hot if it were in our solar system. But its parent star is so much dimmer than our sun that the super-Earth could conceivably be just warm enough to have liquid water. That characteristic serves as the definition for habitable zones around alien suns. “This is exciting, as this is humanity’s first nearby super-Earth that could harbor life – uncovered with help from TESS, our small, mighty mission with a huge reach,” astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger, who’s the director of Cornell University’s Carl Sagan Institute, . The findings relating to the GJ 357 system are detailed in research papers published by the journal and the . Detecting GJ 357 d was a complex operation. It started with data from the TESS satellite, which was and scans the skies for the telltale signs of planets crossing in front of their parent stars. The same transit-tracking technique was used by to identify thousands of candidate planets. TESS’ readings indicated that the dwarf star harbored a super-close-in planet dubbed GJ 357 b, which makes a complete orbit in just 3.9 Earth days. Assuming that the planet lacks an atmosphere, scientists estimated GJ 357 b’s equilibrium temperature to be in the range of 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius). “We describe GJ 357 b as a ‘hot Earth,’ ” Enric Pallé, an astrophysicist at the , said in a . “Although it cannot host life, it is noteworthy as the third-nearest transiting exoplanet known to date and one of the best rocky planets we have for measuring the composition of any atmosphere it may possess.” To get a better fix on the toasty planet, astronomers turned to ground-based observations. Those observations were analyzed using a different method, which measures the ever-so-slight wobbles in a star’s position caused by the gravitational tug of its planets. In addition to confirming GJ 357 b’s existence, the analysis determined that two other planets orbited the star in farther-out orbits. One was GJ 357 c, a too-hot planet that’s at least 3.4 times as massive as Earth and orbits the star every 9.1 days. The other was GJ 357 d. If GJ 357 d lacks an atmosphere, its equilibrium temperature would be uncomfortably chilly, around 64 degrees below zero F (-53 degrees C). But if it has an atmosphere, as expected for a rocky planet at that distance, temperatures would be more moderate — and the prospects for life would be much sunnier. “With a thick atmosphere, the planet GJ 357 d could maintain liquid water on its surface like Earth, and we could pick out signs of life with telescopes that will soon be online,” Kaltenegger said. The studies about GJ 357 and its planets were published in conjunction with the , conducted this week at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. The TESS mission is led and operated by MIT, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. More than a dozen other partners contribute to the mission. Earlier in the week, the TESS team reported the detection of three exoplanets circling TOI 270, another M-type dwarf star that’s about 73 light-years away in the constellation Pictor. (For what it’s worth, TOI stands for “TESS Object of Interest.”) The innermost planet, TOI 270 b, appears to be a hot super-Earth that’s similar to GJ 357 b. In a scientists say the other two planets, TOI 270 c and d, are about half the size of Neptune — and are likely to be similar to that gas giant in composition. Such “mini-Neptunes” don’t exist in our solar system. “An interesting aspect of this system is that its planets straddle a well-established gap in known planetary sizes,” said Fran Pozuelos, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Liège in Belgium. “It is uncommon for planets to have sizes between 1.5 and two times that of Earth for reasons likely related to the way planets form, but this is still a highly controversial topic,” Pozuelos . “TOI 270 is an excellent laboratory for studying the margins of this gap and will help us better understand how planetary systems form and evolve.” All this is just the start: TESS’ primary mission is due to last another year, and the data analysis could go on for years longer. In addition to Pozuelos, the authors of the Nature Astronomy paper, are Maximilian Günther and Ian Waite. Pallé and Kaltenegger are among 76 authors of the Astronomy & Astrophysics paper, Principal author is Rafael Luque. In addition to Kaltenegger, Luque and Pallé, the authors of the paper in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, include Jack Madden, Zifan Lin, Sarah Rugheimer, Antigona Segura and Néstor Espinoza.
July 31, 2019
This image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence on July 23. Baja California and Mexico are visible in the background. This image has been de-distorted and color corrected. (Planetary Society Photo / CC BY-NC 3.0) It may be “mission accomplished” for the , but its privately funded LightSail 2 mission is far from over. Five weeks after LightSail 2’s launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the nonprofit membership society celebrated the spacecraft’s ability to raise the highest point of its orbit by a little more than a mile (1.7 kilometers), using the force of sunlight pressing against its 18.4-foot-wide, 4.5-micron-thick reflective Mylar sails. Demonstrating solar sail steerability was the point of the decade-long campaign to build and fly LightSail 2 and its predecessor, . The project’s estimated $7 million cost was covered by contributions from Planetary Society members and other donors. “On behalf of the tens of thousands of people around the world who came together to help the dream of solar sailing move forward, we’re thrilled to declare mission success for LightSail 2,” Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts, who serves as program manager for LightSail, told journalists today at a teleconference. The sail maneuvered itself in response to commands beamed up from Earth to take advantage of the push of the sun’s photons, in a way that’s similar to what sailboats do when they take advantage of the wind. LightSail 2 isn’t the first solar sail to get a push from the sun: That distinction belongs to Japan’s Ikaros spacecraft, which in 2010. But the Planetary Society’s executive director, Bill Nye (the Science Guy), said LightSail 2 showed that the job could be done using a 3U CubeSat spacecraft that’s about the size of a loaf of bread. This image was taken during the LightSail 2 sail deployment sequence on July 23. The sail is almost fully deployed here and appears warped near the edges due to the spacecraft’s 185-degree fisheye camera lens. The image has been color corrected and some of the distortion has been removed. The sun is visible at center. (Planetary Society Photo / CC BY-NC 3.0) If the technology can be perfected, solar sailing could be suitable for a wide range of fuel-free space applications — for example, keeping spacecraft steady above Earth’s poles or at gravitational balance points in deep space. Sail-borne spacecraft could also be directed from one solar system destination to another, or out of the solar system altogether. Nye said his favorite solar sailing destination would be the planet next door. “We’d ferry cargo to Mars and look for signs of life, and change the course of human history. How about that?” he said. Nye noted that the late astronomer Carl Sagan, one of the Planetary Society’s co-founders, promoted the idea of using a solar sail to send a spacecraft to Comet Halley back in the 1970s. Sagan happened to be one of Nye’s mentors. “I’ve been charmed or thrilled by this idea ever since I heard about it 40 years ago,” Nye said. LightSail 2 a week ago, after a series of orbital checkouts. Purdue aerospace engineer David Spencer, LightSail 2’s mission manager, said the orbit was raised in a series of steps. The biggest step lifted the spacecraft a little more than 900 meters (half a mile). Spencer said LightSail 2’s capabilities would undergo further testing during maneuvers that are due to continue through August. But there’s a limit: Every time there’s a rise in the maximum altitude of LightSail 2’s elliptical orbit (known as the apogee) there’s a corresponding drop in the minimum altitude on the other side of the orbit (known as the perigee). “For simplicity, the plan was never to circularize the orbit, only to raise apogee by thrusting on one side of the orbit, which also drops perigee,” the Planetary Society’s Jason Davis . Years of computer simulations. Countless ground tests. They've all led up to now. The Planetary Society's crowdfunded LightSail 2 spacecraft is successfully raising its orbit solely on the power of sunlight. Details at — Planetary Society (@exploreplanets) Eventually, the atmospheric drag at perigee will cancel out LightSail 2’s orbit-raising capability and pull it back toward Earth. The Planetary Society expects the spacecraft to meet its downfall in less than a year. But before it burns up, Spencer wants to do a final experiment. “Once we get down to the point of re-entry, I’d like to see if we can actually control the re-entry point somewhat by changing the orientation of the solar sail,” he told GeekWire. “That’s an experiment that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done before.” There’s more solar sailing on the horizon: NASA plans to put a solar sail on , an asteroid-observing mission that’s due for launch as a secondary payload on the. “The NEA Scout engineers have been working with us,” Spencer said. Meanwhile, the Planetary Society is planning a competition to select its next crowdfunded space mission. “We are involved in other, we believe, game-changing technologies for planetary exploration,” Nye said. As an example, he pointed to the society-supported , which would stir up a sampling of soil from the lunar surface and capture it for chemical analysis. “This international formal proposal competition is what we’re doing next,” he said.
July 31, 2019
Jeff Bezos shows off a mockup of the Blue Moon lunar lander in May. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture, , has been selected to participate in three partnerships with NASA to advance technologies that could come into play for — and eventually for Mars missions as well. The projects were included in a newly released list of public-private partnerships that have been forged with 13 companies under the terms of an , or ACO. NASA issued the announcement last October. The arrangement doesn’t involve the transfer of funds, but rather the sharing of expertise, facilities, hardware and software for technologies that could be the focus of future contracts. “NASA’s proven experience and unique facilities are helping commercial companies mature their technologies at a competitive pace,” Jim Reuter, associate administrator of NASA’s , explained today in a . “We’ve identified technology areas NASA needs for future missions, and these public-private partnerships will accelerate their development so we can implement them faster.” All three of Blue Origin’s partnerships focus on its , which had its and could be in operation on a timetable that’s consistent with . The company, based in Kent, Wash., will collaborate with NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center on a navigation and guidance system for landings at a variety of locations on the moon. It also will partner with Johnson and Glenn Research Center on a fuel cell system that could provide uninterrupted power for the Blue Moon lander during the two-week-long lunar night. In its third partnership, Blue Origin will work with Marshall Space Flight Center and Langley Research Center to evaluate and mature high-temperature materials for liquid rocket engine nozzles that could be used on lunar landers. NASA listed 16 other partnerships involving a dozen other companies: Advanced Communications, Navigation and Avionics Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, will partner with Goddard to advance lunar navigation technologies. The collaboration will help mature a navigation system between Earth and the moon that could supplement NASA’s and support future exploration missions. Vulcan Wireless of Carlsbad, California, will partner with Goddard to test a CubeSat radio transponder and its compatibility with NASA’s . Advanced Materials Aerogel Technologies of Boston will work with Glenn Research Center to improve properties of for rocket fairings and other aerospace applications. The material can result in 25% weight savings over soundproofing materials currently used in rocket fairings. Lockheed Martin of Littleton, Colorado, will work with Langley to test materials made from metal powders using solid-state processing to improve the design of spacecraft that operate in high-temperature environments. Spirit AeroSystem Inc. of Wichita, Kansas, will partner with Marshall to improve the durability of low-cost reusable rockets manufactured using friction stir welding. This welding method, already being used for NASA’s , results in a stronger, more defect-free seal compared to traditional methods of joining materials with welding torches. Entry, Descent and Landing Anasphere of Bozeman, Montana, will partner with Marshall to test a compact hydrogen generator for inflating heat shields, which could help deliver larger payloads to Mars. Bally Ribbon Mills of Bally, Pennsylvania, will perform thermal testing in the at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The facility will be used to test a new seamless weave for a mechanically deployable carbon fabric heat shield. Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nevada, will partner with Langley to capture infrared images of the company’s as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, traveling faster than the speed of sound. Sierra Nevada Corp. will also work with Langley to mature a method to recover the upper stage of a rocket using a deployable decelerator. SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, will work with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to advance their technology to land large rockets vertically on the moon. This includes advancing models to assess engine plume interaction with lunar regolith. In-Space Manufacturing and Assembly Maxar Technologies of Palo Alto, California, will work with Langley to build a breadboard – a base for prototyping electronics – for a deployable, semi-rigid radio antenna. In-orbit assembly of large structures like antennas will enhance the performance of assets in space. Such capabilities could enable entirely new exploration missions that are currently size-constrained and reduce launch costs due to improved packaging. Power Maxar Technologies will test lightweight solar cells for flexible solar panels using facilities at Glenn and Marshall that mimic the environment of space. The technology could be used by future spacecraft to provide more power with a lower mass system. Propulsion Aerojet Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, California, and Marshall will design and manufacture a lightweight rocket engine combustion chamber using innovative processes and materials. The goal of the project is to reduce manufacturing costs and make the chamber scalable for different missions. Some of Aerojet’s engine development work is done in Redmond, Wash. Colorado Power Electronics Inc. of Fort Collins, Colorado, will partner with Glenn to mature power processing unit technology that extends the operating range of , which are primarily used on Earth-orbiting satellites and can also be used for deep-space missions. By integrating their technology with NASA and commercial Hall thrusters, the company expects to provide a propulsion system that can significantly increase mission payload or extend mission durations. SpaceX will work with Glenn and Marshall to advance technology needed to transfer propellant in orbit, an important step in the development of the company’s . Other Exploration Technologies Lockheed Martin will partner with Kennedy to test technologies and operations for autonomous in-space plant growth systems. Integrating robotics with plant systems could help NASA harvest plants on future platforms in deep space.
July 31, 2019
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, at left, discusses the plan to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 as three of his associate administrators — William Gerstenmaier, Jim Reuter and Thomas Zurbuchen — look on during a town hall at NASA headquarters. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky) Will NASA’s fly with Congress? The Artemis program’s implications are still sinking in on Capitol Hill, but there’s already a political problem having to do with where the money’s supposed to come from. Trump administration officials confirmed that the $1.6 billion being sought as a “down payment” for accelerating the push to the moon would be taken from a roughly $8 billion reserve account for the popular Pell Grant program, which funds education for millions of low-income students annually. Due to the economy’s rebound from the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the number of Pell Grant recipients has been declining in recent years, leading to a buildup in reserves. Because of that, taking money from the reserves would not affect current recipients, who will be receiving up to $6,195 for the 2019-2020 academic year.. “This does not cut any spending for Pell Grant programs as the budget continues to ensure all students will get their full Pell Grant and keeps the program on sound fiscal footing,” Office of Management and Budget spokesman Wesley Denton told . However, that glosses over the fact that the carryover reserve is meant to buoy the Pell Grant program through hard times, and avoid the multibillion-dollar shortfalls that were experienced during the last recession. And the White House aims to shift far more than the $1.6 billion. When other reallocations are taken into account, the proposed reallocation adds up to $3.9 billion, which is roughly half of the reserve. Organizations such as the and the were quick to register protests. Jon Fansmith, director of government relations for the American Council on Education, that depleting the reserve would “undercut the stability of a program that’s really critical for helping students afford college.” And in a letter to Senate and House education subcommittee leaders, the APLU said such a move would be “deeply misguided and contrary to the national interest.” “Pell Grants help ensure we have a pipeline of talented students, many of whom will become the next generation of scientists and engineers who strengthen U.S. competitiveness in space and all other areas of scientific discovery and innovation,” . Education advocacy groups aren’t the only ones registering their concern. The proposed funding shift is also getting thumbs-down from some members of the space community, including former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez … I’m all for space travel and returning to the moon but not at the expense of education! If the Pell Grant money is a surplus how about increasing the size of grants so college grads don’t graduate with so much debt? — Jose Hernandez (@Astro_Jose) … And Chris Lewicki, former president and CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources, who stayed on after an acquisition to co-found ConsenSys Space: I was also the beneficiary of a Pell Grant, which directly led to me getting the education necessary to work at NASA. This is not a funding solution. — Chris Lewicki (@interplanetary) Does it have to be Artemis vs. Pell Grants? Not necessarily. As with every other budget proposal from the White House, this week’s supplemental budget requests are subject to the give-and-take of the legislative process. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former GOP congressman from Oklahoma, noted that today during a town-hall meeting at the space agency’s D.C. headquarters. “The way the process works — and I know a little bit about it — is that the administration makes a proposal to Congress. But that’s what it is, it is a proposal,” Bridenstine said. “Then it’s over to Congress to say what they want to accept, what they don’t want to accept, what they want to ‘plus-up.’ ” Congress is already talking about , which could accommodate NASA’s request while leaving the Pell Grants as is. Increasing the caps is the strong preference of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who’s the (and one of the recipients of today’s letter from the APLU). For what it’s worth, the House Appropriations Committee by $150 to try to keep pace with inflation. Even with that boost, the grants’ spending power has declined over the years to the point that it covers less than a third of the price of attending a typical four-year institution. by increasing spending on Pell Grants and other need-based aid programs for students.
May 15, 2019
(RAND Corporation) China has pledged to crack down on the illicit export of the synthetic opioid fentanyl to the US, but a new analysis finds that may be difficult given the way that China regulates its larger drug and chemical industries. The finding are part of a new report that outlines how illicit drug polices across Asia are changing.
May 14, 2019
(Lancaster University) An international team of researchers has discovered a new material made from manganese hydride that would be used to make molecular sieves within fuel tanks - which store the hydrogen and work alongside fuel cells in a hydrogen powered 'system'.The material would enable the design of tanks that are far smaller, cheaper, more convenient and energy dense than existing hydrogen fuel technologies, and significantly out-perform battery-powered vehicles.
May 14, 2019