Thursday, July 31, 2014

Fermi satellite detects gamma-rays from exploding novae

This picture is an artist's conception of the explosion of V407 Cygni. 

It shows the white dwarf exploding inside the outer layers of its nearby companion star. 

Credit: Photo by: David A. Hardy /

The Universe is home to a variety of exotic objects and beautiful phenomena, some of which can generate almost inconceivable amounts of energy.

ASU Regents' Professor Sumner Starrfield is part of a team that used the Large Area Telescope (LAT) onboard NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope satellite to discover very high energy gamma rays (the most energetic form of light) being emitted by an exploding star.

Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope satellite
The surprising discovery dispels the long-held idea that classical nova explosions are not powerful enough to produce such high-energy radiation.

In March 2010, scientists using the LAT reported a surprising discovery: detection of gamma rays that appeared to come from a nova, V407 Cygni.

The LAT, in orbit around the Earth, views ∼20% of the sky instantaneously and the entire sky every three hours.

It is the most sensitive gamma-ray space telescope ever flown.

A nova is observed as a sudden, short-lived rapid increase in the brightness of an otherwise inconspicuous star.

It results from runaway thermonuclear explosions that typically take place in a binary system on the surface of a white dwarf fueled by mass from a companion star.

The outburst occurs when a white dwarf erupts in an enormous thermonuclear explosion.

The explosion is equivalent to about 100,000 times the energy that the sun gives off every year. Unlike supernovas, novae do not result in the destruction of their stars.

Although novae produce bright optical events, they had not previously been considered as potential sources of high energy gamma rays since they are not predicted to accelerate particles to the required energies (very nearly the speed of light).

Few cosmic marvels can accelerate particles to the energies required to generate gamma rays, billions of times more energetic than the type of light visible to our eyes.

Researchers had expected and seen X-rays from the resulting waves of expanding gas in prior novae.

The finding overturned the notion that novae explosions lack the power to emit such high-energy radiation.

Expose-R2 experment: Exploring Mars in low Earth orbit

The Expose-R2 experment on the outside of the Zvezda module of the International Space Station (ISS). 

Credit: DLR

In their quest to understand life's potential beyond Earth, astrobiologists study how organisms might survive in numerous environments, from the surface of Mars to the ice-covered oceans of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

For now, Earth is our only example of an inhabited planet, and studying the limits of habitability on Earth is a major component of astrobiology research.

For this reason, scientists collect data from places on our planet where life is pushed to the absolute limits of adaptability, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, and from smoldering thermal vents to highly acidic rivers.

But locations like the Antarctic Dry Valleys or deep-sea vents in the Pacific aren't the only places in which astrobiologists study life as we know it. Low Earth orbit provides an opportunity to observe Earth-life in the harsh conditions of space.

In the early hours of July 24th, 2014, a new astrobiology experiment began its journey from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station (ISS).

BIOMEX (Biology and Mars Experiment) launched onboard a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft and is one of four experiments that make up the EXPOSE-R2 facility, which will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS Zvezda module.

Just six hours after launch, the cargo ship successfully docked with the ISS.

Life on the Station
BIOMEX contains twelve different experimental packages that are designed to help determine life's potential on Mars.

The Institute of Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is coordinating BIOMEX, but the project involves 25 participating institutions from around the world.

BIOMEX contains numerous chambers that are filled with biomolecules and organisms that include bacteria, archaea, algae, fungi, lichens and mosses.

Replicate samples spread across the compartments are subjected to a range of environmental conditions.

Some samples of each biomolecule or organism are embedded in a simulant Mars soil (ranging from just a single layer of soil to multiple layers), and other samples are left on their own to face the space environment without protection.

Various filters are also being used on the sample chambers to test exposure to different levels of radiation.

By doing this, scientists are able to simulate the solar radiation present at the martian surface. Some of the sample chambers are even pumped full of a simulated Mars atmosphere that is rich in carbon dioxide and pressurized to replicate conditions on Mars.

"To gain real insights into the behavior of biomolecules within a martian environment, we have to check the different parameters we might encounter on Mars," explained Dr. Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the principle investigator for BIOMEX.

"This means we will approach, as much as possible on the ISS, martian conditions, including extreme temperature regimes, martian atmosphere by using Mars-like gases in the compartments of EXPOSE-R2, and the radiation regime, which we can never simulate in the labs on Earth."

The samples will spend up to one and a half years outside the space station, and the organisms inside will be monitored with temperature sensors and dosimeters, which monitor radiation exposure.

The goal is to see how exposure to these varied environmental pressures affects the survival of the organisms and the stability of important cellular components like membrane lipids, pigments, proteins and DNA.

The results of BIOMEX will help astrobiologists understand whether or not these biological materials can cope with conditions in the space environment and on Mars, and if being buried in martian soil might aid in their survival.

Tools for the Future
While the samples in BIOMEX are attached to the outside of the station, scientists on Earth will be working with replicate samples in the lab.

Here they will simulate martian conditions as best they can in the controlled environment of the laboratory and monitor the Earth-bound samples with a number of instruments.

View of a Progress vehicle connected to the Zvezda module of the ISS. 

The Zvezda Service Module was the first fully Russian contribution to the International Space Station. 

The module provides station living quarters, life support systems, electrical power distribution, data processing systems, flight control systems and propulsion systems. 

Credit: NASA

At the completion of the experiment, BIOMEX samples will be returned to Earth where scientists will take a close look at the results. In the laboratory, they will examine the stability of biomolecules after they have been exposed to the conditions in low Earth orbit.

This includes studying the signatures they leave behind in the sample chambers, which could be useful on future life-detection missions on Mars.

"BIOMEX is investigating the capacity of instruments to detect selected biosignatures (pigments, membrane composites, lipids etc.) in a Mars-like environment before and after space experiments, and also during Mars simulations in the lab," de Vera told reporters.

The set of spectroscopic instruments they are using on Earth are similar to those currently being eyed for Mars missions in the near future.

They include Raman, IR and UV/VIS spectroscopes. Initial tests in the lab have already turned up some interesting results.

Studies at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne and Berlin indicate that biosignatures are altered by temperature and radiation.

This causes their appearance to differ from the signatures we normally observe in Earth conditions.

Beyond Astrobiology
Data from BIOMEX could also have some important applications beyond the realm of astrobiology according to Dr. de Vera.

Studying how biosignatures survive in a simulated Mars regolith might have lessons for archaeology experts on Earth who are looking for radiation-independent (e.g. not carbon 14-dating) methods to study ancient wooden objects.

In particular, the thermogravimetric methodology, which is used by de Vera and his team to test the bounded and remaining water in BIOMEX samples after they have faced the conditions of space, is of special interest for archaeologists.

Raman spectroscopy is also a technique that is growing in prominence for biological studies in numerous fields.

"Raman spectroscopy is used more and more in microbiology, pharmacology and medicine," said de Vera.

"The Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, which is cooperating with us, uses this method (coupled with other methods) to characterise microorganisms that can be harmful to health, and they have to be detected very fast to find out if there could be a risk of an epidemic."

The studies of biofilms in space could have some interesting implications for the health of astronauts and humans on Earth.

On Earth, biofilms are used in some health drinks to trigger the immune system. Studying biofilms in space can help determine whether or not these drinks might be safe for astronauts to consume in orbit, or if the space environment will cause biofilm cultures to rapidly mutate in such a way as to become harmful for consumption.

"Desiccation [removal of water] and radiation protection is also a very important issue," noted de Vera.

"Studies on the exposed samples might give more information about how the most resistant microorganisms are able to shield themselves efficiently, and which substances are responsible for their resistance.

The cosmetic and food industries are interested in these results."

In fact, the Fraunhofer Institute IZI for Cell Therapy and Immunology in Potsdam, Germany is already working with two of the organisms that de Vera and his team are studying.

One is a highly resistant cyanobacteria, and the other is a green algae. Thanks to BIOMEX, these organisms now have a home in low Earth orbit, clinging to the outside of the International Space Station.

The Mars Simulation Facility Laboratory. 

Credit: DLR

Further afield BIOMEX will help astrobiologists understand the potential for habitability on Mars.

If life ever originated on Mars, and if that life operated under the same biological principles as on Earth, could those organisms have adapted to survive on Mars in the present day?

By exploring this question, BIOMEX could help shape the future of Mars exploration, providing guidelines for where robotic explorers might search for signs of life on present-day Mars or signs of ancient life preserved in the regolith.

"With the data obtained by the selected biomolecules as potential biosignatures and which are exposed to the Mars-like conditions in space, we are building up a database that might have significant relevance for future exploration missions to Mars," said de Vera.

"This database might serve as back-up, or a systematically generated reference list that takes into account the martian environmental conditions that might influence the signatures of minerals, and possible fossils or biomolecules from potential extant life forms."

UWISH-2 Survey: Numerous unknown jets from young stars and planetary nebulae

The area shown here was part of the very first image taken for the UWISH2 survey

It shows on the top a region of massive star formation (called G35.2N) with two spectacular jets. 

On the bottom an intermediate mass young stellar cluster (Mercer14) can be seen. 

Several jets are visible in its vicinity, as well as a region of photo-ionized material surrounding a young massive star. 

Credit: University of Kent

For many years astronomers have known that young 'protostars' drive supersonic jets of gas from their north and south poles. However, this is the first time that so many of them have been detected at once.

The results come from a five year survey undertaken with the UK Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT) and are expected to prompt significant changes in the understanding of the planetary nebulae population in the Galaxy, as well as the properties of jets ejected from young forming stars.

By examining images of excited hydrogen molecules at infrared wavelengths, scientists have been able to see through the gas and dust in the Milky Way to observe more distant targets.

These targets are normally hidden from view and many of them have never been seen before.

The entire survey area covers approximately 1450 times the size of the full moon, or the equivalent of a 95 GigaPixel image.

The survey reveals jets from protostars and planetary nebulae, as well as supernova remnants, the illuminated edges of vast clouds of gas and dust, and the warm regions that envelope massive stars and their associated clusters of smaller stars.

Based on current estimates using these data, the project expects to identify about 1000 unique jets from young stars, at least 90% of these are new discoveries, as well as 300 planetary nebulae, with almost half of them unknown.

This is a text-book example of triggered star formation. 

There is the outline of a molecular cloud, which is illuminated by ionizing radiation of massive stars situated off the bottom of the image. 

The radiation pressure has compressed the cloud and started the process of star formation.

The forming stars can be identified by reflection nebulae surrounding them, or by their jets. 

Models of the process of triggered star formation predict an age gradient of the forming stars with younger objects further inside, away from the source of the ionizing radiation.

The object shown here is a prime example that confirms this scenario with reflection nebulae ranging in colours from blue, near the tip of the molecular cloud, to green and yellow further inside.

The colour change towards red indicates the objects are further embedded in their parental cloud core and thus younger. 

The youngest object is completely invisible even at these infrared wavelengths, and can only by identified by the jet it is launching (top of image). 

Credit: University of Kent

Dr Dirk Froebrich of the University of Kent's Centre for Planetary Science said: "These discoveries are very exciting."

"We will ultimately have much better statistics, meaning we will be able to investigate the physical mechanisms that determine the jet lengths, as well as their power."

"This will bring us much closer to answering some of the fundamental questions of star formation: How are these jets launched and how much energy, mass and momentum do they feed back into the surrounding interstellar medium."

To mark the 5th anniversary of the start of the observations of the survey on 27 August, the project has released a number of images taken with the UK Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT), based in Hawaii and used for the research.

This image shows a field that contains a newly discovered photogenic planetary nebulae. 

Internally dubbed by the research team as the "Jelly-Fish PN" it shows an almost circular ring of emission from molecular hydrogen with a variety of structure in the ring itself and inside. 

The central ionizing source responsible for the radiation is a white dwarf, which is too faint at the near infrared wavelengths to be visible in the image. 

Credit: University of Kent

The project has been led by Dr Dirk Froebrich from the Centre for Planetary Sciences at the University of Kent, in collaboration with Dr Chris J. Davis from the Astrophysics Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores University.

ESA Ariane 5 ES launches ATV-5 Georges Lemaître en route to the ISS

no alt
Europe’s ATV-5 cargo ship has set sail on a 14 day journey to the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday.

The final ATV mission began when the vehicle’s Ariane 5 ES carrier rocket launched the “Georges Lemaître” from the Guiana Space Centre, in Kourou, French Guiana at 23:47 UTC.

Arianespace’s latest ATV mission in support of International Space Station operations was designated as Flight VA219 in the company’s numbering system, and utilised an Ariane 5 ES version of the heavy-lift workhorse.

ATVAs the ATV has the largest cargo carrying capability of all the ISS Visiting Vehicles (VVs), it also has the ability to perform ISS reboosts.
Z7645The ATV is named after Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître, carrying on the naming tradition of the European cargo hauler that began with “Jules Verne” in March 2008, which was followed by “Johannes Kepler” in February 2011, “Edoardo Amaldi” in March 2012, and last June’s flight with “Albert Einstein.”

ATV Georges Lemaître is Europe’s fifth, and final, Automated Transfer Vehicle for servicing of the crewed orbital facility.

It is also the heaviest-ever payload orbited by Ariane 5, with a liftoff mass greater than 20 metric tons.

ATV-5 is carrying a large load of both internal (dry) and propellant (wet) cargo. Specifically, the pressurized Integrated Cargo Carrier (ICC) section will carry around 2,600kg of cargo, including food, crew provisions, and scientific hardware.

The Service Module (SM) is carrying 570kg of water, 100kg of gas (air and oxygen), 2,230kg of propellants available for ISS reboosts, and 860kg of propellants for transfer to the Russian Segment (RS).

Auroras Over Earth: Amazing Northern Lights Photos from Space

The Aurora Australis or Southern Lights, photographed by one of the Expedition 37 crew members on the International Space Station as the orbital complex flew over Tasmania on Oct. 30, 2013.
The Expedition 32 crew onboard the International Space Station, flying an altitude of approximately 240 miles, recorded a series of images of Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, on July 15, 2012.
This picture, recorded by one of the Expedition 31 crew members aboard the International Space Station, features Aurora Australis with star streaks while the vehicle was over the South Pacific Ocean. Image taken on May 22, 2012.
Aurora Australis, seen at right on Earth's horizon, and daybreak (left) highlight this photograph taken by one of the Expedition 30 crew members on March 6, 2012 aboard the International Space Station.
The northern lights are a spectacular night sky phenomenon when viewed from Earth, but from space they transform into something truly amazing.

See amazing photos of the Earth's auroras as seen by astronauts on the International Space Station in these images released by NASA.

You can see the original NASA aurora gallery here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Early Earth: A Battered, Hellish World with Water Oases for Life

Asteroids and comets that repeatedly smashed into the early Earth covered the planet's surface with molten rock during its earliest days, but still may have left oases of water that could have supported the evolution of life, scientists say.

The new study reveals that during the planet's infancy, the surface of the Earth was a hellish environment, but perhaps not as hellish as often thought, scientists added.

Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The first 500 million years of its life are known as the Hadean Eon.

Although this time amounts to more than 10 percent of Earth's history, little is known about it, since few rocks are known that are older than 3.8 billion years old.

An artistic conception of the early Earth-moon system showing the Earth's surface after being bombarded with large impacts, causing magma extrusion on the surface, though some liquid water was retained. Image released on July 30, 2014. 

Credit: Simone Marchi

Earth's violent youth
For much of the Hadean, Earth and its sister worlds in the inner solar system were pummeled with an extraordinary number of cosmic impacts.

"It was thought that because of these asteroids and comets flying around colliding with Earth, conditions on early Earth may have been hellish," said lead study author Simone Marchi, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Simone Marchi
This imagined hellishness gave the eon its name, Hadean comes from the word Hades, the lord of the underworld in Greek mythology.

However, in the past dozen years or so, a radically different picture of the Hadean began to emerge.

Analysis of minerals trapped within microscopic zircon crystals dating from this eon "suggested there was liquid water on the surface of the Earth back then, clashing with the previous picture that the Hadean was hellish," Marchi said.

This could explain why the evidence of the earliest life on Earth appears during the Hadean, maybe the planet was less inhospitable during that eon than previously thought.

This artist's illustration shows a close-up of the early Earth, revealing magma extrusion on the surface and the scars from severe cosmic bombardment. Image released on July 30, 2014.

Credit: Simone Marchi

Cosmic bombardment history
The exact timing and magnitude of the impacts that smashed Earth during the Hadean are unknown.

To get an idea of the effects of this bombardment, Marchi and his colleagues looked at the moon, whose heavily cratered surface helped model the battering that its close neighbour Earth must have experienced back then.

"We also looked at highly siderophile elements (elements that bind tightly to iron), such as gold, delivered to Earth as a result of these early collisions, and the amounts of these elements tells us the total mass accreted by Earth as the result of these collisions," Marchi said.

Prior research suggests these impacts probably contributed less than 0.5 percent of the Earth's present-day mass.

The researchers discovered that "the surface of the Earth during the Hadean was heavily affected by very large collisions, by impactors larger than 100 kilometers (60 miles) or so, really, really big impactors," Marchi said.

"When Earth has a collision with an object that big, that melts a large volume of the Earth's crust and mantle, covering a large fraction of the surface," Marchi added.

These findings suggest that Earth's surface was buried over and over again by large volumes of molten rock, enough to cover the surface of the Earth several times. This helps explain why so few rocks survive from the Hadean, the researchers said.

However, although these findings might suggest that the Hadean was a hellish eon, the researchers found that "there were time gaps between these large collisions," Marchi said.

"Generally speaking, there may have been something on the order of 20 or 30 impactors larger than 200 km (120 miles) across during the 500 million years of the Hadean, so the time between such impactors was relatively long," Marchi said.

Any water vapourised near these impacts "would rain down again," Marchi said, and "there may have been quiet tranquil times between collisions, there could have been liquid water on the surface."

The researchers suggested that life emerging during the Hadean was probably resistant to the high temperatures of the time.

Marchi and his colleagues detailed their findings in the July 31 issue of the journal Nature.

More Information: Widespread mixing and burial of Earth’s Hadean crust by asteroid impacts. - Authors: S. Marchi, W. F. Bottke, L. T. Elkins-Tanton, M. Bierhaus, K. Wuennemann, A. Morbidelli & D. A. Kring - doi:10.1038/nature13539

ESO ALMA Observatory: Young binary star system form planets with weird and wild orbits

This is ALMA data of HK Tau shown in a composite image with Hubble infrared and optical data. 

Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); K. Stapelfeldt et al. (NASA/ESA Hubble)

Unlike our solitary Sun, most stars form in binary pairs, two stars that orbit a common center of mass.

Though remarkably plentiful, binaries pose a number of questions, including how and where planets form in such complex environments.

While surveying a series of binary stars with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers uncovered a striking pair of wildly misaligned planet-forming disks in the young binary star system HK Tau.

These results provide the clearest picture ever of proto-planetary disks around a double star and could reveal important details about the birth and eventual orbit of planets in a multiple star system.

"ALMA has given us an unprecedented view of a main star and its binary companion sporting mutually misaligned protoplanetary disks," said Eric Jensen, an astronomer at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

"In fact, we may be seeing the formation of a solar system that may never settle down."

The two stars in this system, which is located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus, are less than 5 million years old and separated by about 58 billion kilometers, or 13 times the distance of Neptune from the Sun.

This system's companion star, dubbed HK Tau, appears fainter to astronomers on Earth because its disk of dust and gas blocks out much of the starlight.

The disk itself, however, can be easily observed by the starlight that it scatters at optical and near-infrared wavelengths.

The key velocity data taken with ALMA that helped the astronomers determine that the disks in HK Tau were misaligned. 

The red areas represent material moving away from Earth and the blue indicates material moving toward us. 

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC); ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

The disk around the main star, HK Tau A, is tilted in such a way that the light from its host star shines through unobscured, making it difficult for astronomers to see the disk optically.

This is not a problem for ALMA, however, which can readily detect the millimeter-wavelength light emitted by the dust and gas that comprise the disk.

With its unprecedented resolution and sensitivity, ALMA was able to fully resolve the rotation of HK Tau A's disk for the first time.

This clearer picture enabled the astronomers to calculate that the disks were misaligned, meaning they were out of sync with the orbit of their host stars, by as much as 60 degrees or more.

Rachel Akeson
"This clear misalignment has given us a remarkable look at a young binary star system," said Rachel Akeson of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NEXSCI) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

"Though there have been hints before that this type of misaligned system exists, this is the cleanest and most striking example."

Stars and planets form out of vast clouds of dust and gas. As material in these clouds contracts under gravity, it begins to rotate until most of the dust and gas falls into a flattened proto-planetary disk swirling around a growing central protostar.

Despite forming from a flat, regular disk, planets can end up in highly eccentric orbits, and may be misaligned with the star's equator.

One theory for how planets can migrate to these unusual orbits is that a binary companion star can influence them, but only if its orbit is initially misaligned with the planets.

This is an artist's impression of the misaligned protoplanetary disks around the binary stars in HK Tau. 

Credit: R. Hurt (NASA/JPL-Caltech/IPAC)

"Our results demonstrate that the necessary conditions exist to modify planetary orbits and that these conditions are present at the time of planet formation, apparently due to the binary formation process," noted Jensen.

"We can't rule other theories out, but we can certainly rule in that a second star will do the job."

Since ALMA can see the otherwise invisible dust and gas of protoplanetary disks, it allowed for never-before-seen views of this young binary system.

"Because we're seeing this in the early stages of formation with the protoplanetary disks still in place, we can see better how things are oriented," noted Akeson. "You can simply see gas better than you can see planets."

Looking forward, the researchers want to determine if this type of system is typical or not. They note that this is a remarkable individual case, but additional surveys are needed to determine if this sort of arrangement is common throughout our Galaxy.

More information: Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature13521

NASA JWST NIRSpec: Next Generation Microshutter Array Technology

The image shows a close-up view of the next-generation microshutter arrays, designed to accommodate the needs of future observatories, during the fabrication process.

Image Credit: NASA/Bill Hrybyk

The microshutters are a new technology that was developed for the Webb telescope mission.

The microshutter device is a key component Webb's Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec).

NIRSpec is a powerful instrument that will record the spectra of light from distant objects.

The microshutter device only lets light in from selected objects to shine through NIRSpec.

NASA technologists have hurdled a number of significant challenges in their quest to improve a revolutionary observing technology originally created for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Determined to make the Webb telescope's microshutter technology more broadly available, a team of technologists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center spent the past four years experimenting with techniques to advance this capability.

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Mirror Array
One of the first things the team did was eliminate the magnet that sweeps over the shutter arrays to activate them, replacing it with electrostatic actuation.

Just as significant is the voltage needed to actuate the arrays.

By last year, the team had achieved a major milestone by activating the shutters with just 30 volts.

The team used atomic layer deposition, a state-of-the-art fabrication technology, to fully insulate the tiny space between the electrodes to eliminate potential electrical crosstalk that could interfere with the arrays’ operation.

They also applied a very thin anti-stiction coating to prevent the shutters from sticking when opened.

The "CanJam" manipulator allows a user to steer satellites using a wheel with three degrees of freedom, tilting forward and backward, swiveling left and right, and pivoting side to side.

Gyroscope-aided bikes and cars may one day rule the road but before the technology reaches the ground, a University at Buffalo research team will test similar equipment in outer space.

The Canfield joint actuation manipulator, nicknamed "CanJam" by the researchers, was selected by NASA to join the first commercial research flight on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.

The tennis-ball sized device was designed by Manoranjan Majji, lead researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

"CanJam" can automatically control a satellite using a Canfield joint, a spherical joint that can point anywhere on a hemisphere, and an automated program that stabilizes the device when disturbed and a wheel.

The manipulator allows a user to steer satellites using a wheel with three degrees of freedom, tilting forward and backward, swiveling left and right and pivoting side to side.

Unlike traditional joints, the device also contains three motors as a failsafe in the chance one motor fails.

Traditional technologies used by NASA and other agencies occasionally don't produce the necessary torque to rotate aircrafts, also known as singularities, which make it difficult to build attitude control systems.

Due to its design, the "CanJam" system doesn't create singularities, simplifying attitude control, says Majji.

If the NASA test flight is successful, the Canfield joint actuation manipulator designed by Manoranjan Majji could be useful in directing the flight of satellites or helicopters by replacing the wheel with propellers. 

Credit: Douglas Levere

The UB project was chosen along with 11 other experiments through NASA's Flight Opportunities Program, which works with commercial companies, universities and government organizations to test innovative space technologies. NASA funded research and development of the designs.

"Projects like this enable us to build the next generation of agile space systems and aircraft," says Majji.

"In addition to aerospace systems, this technology has spill-over effects into the automobile industry. The future generation of cars and bikes are going to have control moment gyroscopes, and we're at the core of fundamental research that enables that sort of technology."

Majji's CanJam design was inspired by use of the Canfield joint in space thrusters. In his device, gyroscopic forces generated when the joint shifts create reaction torques that cause inverted satellite movement.

In the NASA flight test, once the spacecraft reaches microgravity, the device will point to a designated direction and a linear actuator will repeatedly push the manipulator out of place, destabilizing it.

The device will then automatically stabilise itself, correcting the pointing errors. Flight computers will record the accuracy of the manipulator after disturbances.

If successful, the manipulator could be useful for directing the flight of satellites or helicopters by replacing the wheel with propellers. Eventually, the technology will find its way onto cars and bikes, says Majji.

Research conducted through Majji's lab also focuses on designing aerospace vehicle sensors and actuators, and developing autopilot and tracking programs for unmanned aerial vehicles.

NASA's Messenger: Mercury's magnetic field reveals its interior is different from Earth's

Earth and Mercury are both rocky planets with iron cores, but Mercury's interior differs from Earth's in a way that explains why the planet has such a bizarre magnetic field, UCLA planetary physicists and colleagues report.

Measurements from NASA's Messenger spacecraft have revealed that Mercury's magnetic field is approximately three times stronger at its northern hemisphere than its southern one.

In the current research, scientists led by Hao Cao, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar working in the laboratory of Christopher T. Russell, created a model to show how the dynamics of Mercury's core contribute to this unusual phenomenon.

The magnetic fields that surround and shield many planets from the sun's energy-charged particles differ widely in strength.

While Earth's is powerful, Jupiter's is more than 12 times stronger, and Mercury has a rather weak magnetic field.

Venus likely has none at all. The magnetic fields of Earth, Jupiter and Saturn show very little difference between the planets' two hemispheres.

Within Earth's core, iron turns from a liquid to a solid at the inner boundary of the planet's liquid outer core; this results in a solid inner part and liquid outer part.

The solid inner core is growing, and this growth provides the energy that generates Earth's magnetic field. Many assumed, incorrectly, that Mercury would be similar.

"Hao's breakthrough is in understanding how Mercury is different from the Earth so we could understand Mercury's strongly hemispherical magnetic field," said Russell, a co-author of the research and a professor in the UCLA College's department of Earth, planetary and space sciences.

"We had figured out how the Earth works, and Mercury is another terrestrial, rocky planet with an iron core, so we thought it would work the same way but it's not working the same way."

Mercury's peculiar magnetic field provides evidence that iron turns from a liquid to a solid at the core's outer boundary, say the scientists, whose research currently appears online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and will be published in an upcoming print edition.

"It's like a snow storm in which the snow formed at the top of the cloud and middle of the cloud and the bottom of the cloud too," said Russell.

"Our study of Mercury's magnetic field indicates iron is snowing throughout this fluid that is powering Mercury's magnetic field."

The research implies that planets have multiple ways of generating a magnetic field.

Hao and his colleagues conducted mathematical modeling of the processes that generate Mercury's magnetic field.

In creating the model, Hao considered many factors, including how fast Mercury rotates and the chemistry and complex motion of fluid inside the planet.

The cores of both Mercury and Earth contain light elements such as sulfur, in addition to iron; the presence of these light elements keeps the cores from being completely solid and "powers the active magnetic field–generation processes," Hao said.

Hao's model is consistent with data from Messenger and other research on Mercury and explains Mercury's asymmetric magnetic field in its hemispheres.

He said the first important step was to "abandon assumptions" that other scientists make.

"Planets are different from one another," said Hao, whose research is funded by a NASA fellowship. "They all have their individual character."

More Information: 'A dynamo explanation for Mercury's anomalous magnetic field.' Authors: Hao Cao, Christopher Russell, et al. - Article first published online: 19 JUN 2014 DOI: 10.1002/2014GL060196

Breathing Silk leaf maker claims material will aid space journeys - Video

Julian Melchiorri, a graduate of the Royal College of Art has developed a synthetic biological leaf.

Potential applications range from the material being used on buildings' facades, or even for support on space journeys for oxygen.

Julian Melchiorri said Silk Leaf, a man-made, biological leaf involves a material extracted directly from the fibers of silk.

Julian Melchiorri
Melchiorri said the synthetic biological leaf he developed, which absorbs water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, is like a real leaf, and could enable long-distance space travel, according to a report in Dezeen.

This material, he said, has an amazing property.


"I extracted choloroplasts from plant cells, and placed them inside this silk material."

The material work and breathes as a leaf does. "It's very light…low energy-consuming." He also said, "My idea was to use the efficiency of nature in a man-made environment."

The synthetic leaf could, among other applications, be used to make long-distance space travel that much more imaginable.

The Dezeen report includes pictures of the leaf transformed into lighting and building applications.

He said he thought about applications on smaller and larger scales.

He imagined its being used as a free surface in interior design, or for outdoor applications.

"So facades, ventilation programs…You can soak up air from outdoors, pass it by way of these biological filters and then carry oxygenated air inside."

Artist Impression of Silk Leaf City
He also noted the leaf material may be applicable to space travel.

"NASA is researching different ways to produce oxygen for long-distance space journeys to let us live in space," he said.

"This material could allow us to explore space much further than we can now."

A CNET article called it "an oxygen factory for space travel."

Writing in CNET, Eric Mack brought the significance of the NASA idea to light in asking, "what if we could take those biological oxygen factories into space with us, but without all the land, sun, water, soil, and gravity that forests tend to require?"

The Silk Leaf project was developed by Melchiorri as part of the Royal College of Art's Innovation Design Engineering course in collaboration with Tufts University silk lab.

ESA Pharao space clock delivered to ISS - Video

ESA has welcomed the arrival of Pharao, an important part of ESA's atomic clock experiment that will be attached to the International Space Station in 2016.

Delivered by France's CNES space agencyPharao is accurate to a second in 300 million years, which will allow scientists to test fundamental theories proposed by Albert Einstein with a precision that is impossible in laboratories on Earth.

Time is linked to gravity and, for example, passes faster at the top of Mount Everest than at sea level.

These effects have been proved in experiments on Earth but the Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space, ACES, will make more precise measurements as it flies 400 km high on humanity's weightless laboratory.

Comparing clocks under different gravity levels allows researchers to test Einstein's theories on space-time and other theories in fundamental physics.

To achieve its accurate timekeeping, the Pharao space clock uses lasers to cool caesium atoms down to -273 C, close to absolute zero.

Internet of clocks
Accurate timekeeping is vital for pinpointing our location, secure banking and fundamental science, but it is not easy to compare data from the many atomic clocks on Earth.

ACES is more than just one clock in space. Pharao will be accompanied by the Space Hydrogen Maser, which uses a different technique to keep track of time.

This clock uses hydrogen atoms as a frequency reference and offers better stability but for a shorter time.

By coupling the two clocks, ACES will provide the scientists with a unique, highly stable time reference in space.

The project will link together atomic clocks in Europe, USA, Japan and Australia with their space counterparts via microwave and optical links to create an 'internet of clocks' and to deliver precise timekeeping.

Connecting all these clocks is a significant part of ACES, with France's Cadmos User Support and Operations Centre taking responsibility for operating the instruments on the Station.

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet will be on the orbital outpost when ACES arrives in 2016. Using the Station's robotic arm, the 375 kg payload will be installed on a platform outside Europe's Columbus space laboratory.

Black holes exploding into 'white holes'

The collapse of a star into a black hole could be a temporary effect that leads to the formation of a 'white hole', suggests a new model based on a theory known as loop quantum gravity.

A new scientific theory suggests that when black holes reach the end of their lifespan, they explode into "white holes" and release all of their matter into space.

If true, the theory could help put to rest the debate over whether or not black holes actually destroy the matter they end up devouring.

As noted by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, when a dying star ends up collapsing under its own weight, at some point the collapse becomes irreversible, resulting in a black hole that consumes light and anything else within its surrounding area.

Although black holes do slowly leak radiation over time, ultimately draining the black hole completely, this doesn't account for all the other matter that the dying star has consumed.

Since quantum theory does not allow for the possibility that information can be lost, though, two researchers from France's Aix-Marseille University believe they've discovered an explanation for this so-called "information paradox."

Carlo Rovelli
According to physicists Carlo Rovelli and Hal Haggard, a black hole eventually reaches a point where it cannot collapse any further and the internal pressure begins to push outwards.

This essentially turns the black hole inside out and expels everything it once consumed back into space.

Notably, the scientists believe that these white holes are created not long after the black hole's original formation, and we humans can't see it because gravity dilates time and makes the black hole's lifespan seem to last for billions or trillions of years.

Their current calculation is that it only takes a few thousandths of a second for a black hole to turn into a white hole.

Hal Haggard
Importantly, the process is very long seen from the outside, but is very short for a local observer at a small radius," the researchers wrote in a paper on the subject.

Ron Cowen, a science writer at Nature, explained further.

If the authors are correct, tiny black holes that formed during the very early history of the Universe would now be ready to pop off like firecrackers and might be detected as high-energy cosmic rays or other radiation.

In fact, they say, their work could imply that some of the dramatic flares commonly considered to be supernova explosions could in fact be the dying throes of tiny black holes that formed shortly after the Big Bang.

Although Rovelli and Haggard aren't completely dismissing the idea that black holes leak radiation, they said the trickles of energy would not be sufficient enough to deplete the dying stars of all the energy they've consumed.

Radiation may very well seep out, but their work is primarily concerned with discovering what happens inside a black hole.

Both Rovelli and Haggard admitted that their theory needs to be tested further with more comprehensive calculations.

If research confirms their ideas, however, theoretical physicist Steven Giddings of the University of California Santa Barbara says, "It would be important. Understanding how information escapes from a black hole is the key question for the quantum mechanics of black holes, and possibly for quantum gravity itself."

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge, UK, has recently suggested that true event horizons would be incompatible with quantum physics.

More Information: Black hole fireworks: quantum-gravity effects outside the horizon spark black to white hole tunneling - Authors: Hal M. Haggard, Carlo Rovelli - arXiv:1407.0989

ESA BepiColombo Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) Integration Testing Completed

ProtoFlight Models (PFM) of the BepiColombo Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) [foreground] and the Mercury Transfer Module (MTM) [background], during the press event at Thales Alenia Space Turin, 4 July 2014.

Integration and functional testing activities for the protoflight models of the BepiColombo Mercury Planetary OrbiterMercury Transfer Module, and Magnetospheric Orbiter Sunshield and Interface Structure have now been completed at the Thales Alenia Space facility in Turin, Italy.

All the mission components have been, or will soon be, delivered to ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, where additional integration tasks and an environmental testing campaign will be performed.

On 4 July 2014, a press event was held at the Turin facility of Thales Alenia Space (TAS-I) to mark the completion of a shipment readiness review held before the ProtoFlight Models (PFMs) of the BepiColombo Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO)Mercury Transfer Module (MTM), and Magnetospheric Orbiter Sunshield and Interface Structure (MOSIF) were prepared for transport to ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

At ESTEC, final integration tasks and then environmental testing will be performed.

The MTM and MOSIF left Turin on the evening of 7 July and arrived at ESTEC during the night of 10/11 July. The MPO is scheduled to leave on 4 August and arrive on 7/8 August.

Mercury Transfer Module (MTM)
Mercury Transfer Module
The MTM was delivered to TAS-I by Astrium UK (now EADS Airbus Defence and Space).

As supplied, it consisted of the mechanical spacecraft bus and the chemical propulsion system.

The MTM radiator panels were removed from the central structure and the module has been equipped with the rest of its subsystems while in Turin.

However, for the electrical propulsion subsystem, the relevant high voltage harness and electronic units are still representative dummy models, used to confirm the routing of the harness.

While the spacecraft is at ESTEC, these will be replaced with the flight units and the four electric thrusters will be installed on the thruster pointing mechanisms already integrated on the MTM thruster floor.

Once this has been completed, the thermal blankets will be fitted, prior to a Thermal Balance/Thermal Vacuum (TB/TV) test in ESTEC's Large Space Simulator (LSS) during the first half of 2015.

Magnetospheric Orbiter Sunshield and Interface Structure
Magnetospheric Orbiter Sunshield And Interface Structure
Integration of the MOSIF structure and harness has been completed in Turin.

The thermal protection will be integrated while it is at ESTEC, in readiness for testing as part of the complete spacecraft stack.

Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO)
Mercury Planetary Orbiter
Last year, the MPO was transported to TAS-I from ESTEC, where it had been baked out to remove potential contaminants after having been assembled by Astrium UK.

As delivered, it consisted of the spacecraft mechanical bus with the heat pipes and chemical propulsion system installed.

Nearly all of its other subsystems and payload components have been integrated and tested while it has been in Turin.

Once it arrives back at ESTEC next month, some final integration tasks will be completed and installation of the thermal blankets will be finalised. Later this year, it will undergo TB/TV testing in the LSS.