post 8618

Top 10 Sickening Facts About Space Travel


The idea of traveling into space seems cool. Many of us have imagined becoming astronauts—or possibly the first person on Mars—at some point in our lives. Who hasn’t wanted to touch the stars?

However, there are some facts that might have made us reconsider if our dreams hadn’t died off, anyway. From the unfortunate consequences of venturing into a decidedly human-unfriendly environment to the inability of Earth-made products to properly adjust to space, there are many attributes of space travel that you may not have anticipated. Here are ten sickening facts about space travel.

10NASA Doesn’t Know What To Do With Astronauts Who Die In Space

NASA has no concrete plans regarding what to do with the bodies of astronauts who die in space. In fact, NASA doesn’t even expect astronauts to die in space, so it doesn’t train them on what to do in the event of the death of a colleague. But what would happen if an astronaut dies in space? The possibility of this is higher than ever as NASA plans for long-term missions like a trip to Mars.

One option is to release the body into space. However, this isn’t really an option since the United Nations prohibits the dumping of litter, which includes bodies, in space over fears that they might collide with spaceships or contaminate other planets. Another option is to store the body inside the spaceship and bury it upon returning to Earth. Again, this is not an option since it would put the lives of other astronauts at risk. A last option, if man ever gets to colonize Mars, is to use the body as fertilizer. However, it remains in doubt whether humans make good fertilizer.

NASA is currently working with Promessa, a burial company, to develop what it calls “Body Back.” With Body Back, a corpse is sealed inside an airtight sleeping bag and attached to the outside of the spaceship, where it is exposed to the extremely cold temperatures of space. The body freezes, vibrates, and finally shatters into small, fine particles as the spacecraft travels through space. By the time the spaceship returns to Earth, all that that’s left of the dead astronaut would be small, fine, dust-sized particles.

9Astronauts Drink Recycled Urine

Photo credit: NASA

Access to fresh water can be a problem in space. American astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) get most of their water by recycling and recovering it using the Water Recovery System, which NASA introduced in 2009. Just as the name implies, the Water Recovery System allows astronauts to recover most of the water they lose through sweat and urine or while brushing or making coffee.

American astronauts aren’t just recycling their own urine. They’re also recycling the urine of cosmonauts, since the Russians have refused to recycle their own pee. According to Layne Carter, NASA’s water subsystem manager for the ISS, the recycled water tastes just like bottled water.

8Astronauts Lose Muscle And Bone Mass And Suffer From Premature Aging

Photo credit: NASA

The microgravity environment of space causes premature aging in astronauts. Their skin ages faster, becomes drier and thinner, and is prone to itching. As if that isn’t enough, their bones and muscles become weaker. Astronauts lose one percent of their muscle mass and as much as two percent of their bone mass with every month that they spend in space. A four- to six-month trip to the International Space Station would lead to the loss of about 11 percent of the mass of the hip bone.

Even astronauts’ arteries aren’t spared. They become stiffer, as would be expected in people 20 or 30 years older. This makes astronauts susceptible to heart problems and stroke. Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk suffered weakness, fragile bones, and lack of balance after spending six months in space. He said he felt like a senior citizen by the time he returned to Earth. Premature aging is now recognized as one of the side effects of space travel. It remains unpreventable, although astronauts can reduce its effect by exercising for two hours each day.

7Space Travel Might Be Making Astronauts Infertile

There are speculations that long-term space missions are makingastronauts infertile. In one experiment, male rats suspended above the floor during a six-week-long experiment, mimicking the weightlessness of outer space, suffered shrunken testes and severely low sperm count, which made them as good as being infertile. Female rats suffered a similar or even worse fate when they were sent into space. Their ovaries ceased working after just 15 days. By the time they returned to Earth, the gene responsible for producing estrogen (the female hormone) had become redundant, while the cells that produced eggs were dying.

Space travel has also been linked to loss of libido. In one experiment, two male and five female mice sent into space refused to mate. However, some researchers insist that space travel has nothing to do with libido or infertility. Fish and frog eggs sent into space have fertilized, though the frog offspring never developed past tadpoles. Male astronauts have also impregnated their wives days after returning to Earth.

Female astronauts aren’t left out. They have also gotten pregnant soon after returning from space missions, although they have a higher rate of miscarriage. The effects of space travel on reproduction remain debatable, and from the look of things, we’re not finding out soon. NASA has turned down attempts to get the sperm count of its male astronauts returning from space for privacy reasons.

6Most Astronauts Get Space Sick

Despite advancements in space technology, space sickness remains one ofNASA’s biggest headaches.More than half of all astronauts sent into space experience nausea, headache, vomiting, and general discomfort, which are all symptoms of space sickness, also called space adaptation syndrome. One notable astronaut who experienced space sickness is ex-senator Jake Garn, who started showing symptoms even before leaving Earth. By the time he returned, he couldn’t even walk properly.

Garn’s bout of space sickness was so terrible that his name became an informal measurement for the illness. Astronauts can rate their symptoms with phrases like like “one garn,” “two garns,” “three garns,” and so on. While NASA has yet to find a solution for space sickness, it has created an early warning device that lets astronauts know that they’re about to get space sick.

5All Astronauts Wear Diapers

NASA had an oversight in designing the first space suit. Apparently, its scientists forgot that astronauts might need to pee while in their suits. This oversight caused astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, to pee right inside his space suit. This only happened after series of deliberations because NASA scientists feared that the urine might short-circuit the electrical components of the suit.

To prevent similar scenarios during future missions, NASA came up with a condom-like device that astronauts wore while in their space suits. For obvious reasons, this device became a problem by the time women joined the space party in the 1970s, so NASA came up with a urine and fecal management system called the Disposable Absorption Containment Trunk (DACT). DACT was used by both sexes even though it was specifically made for women.

In 1988, NASA replaced DACT with the Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG), which is basically an adult diaper, except that it has been modified to look like shorts. Each astronaut is given three MAGs for every mission. They wear one when going into space and one when returning and keep the third as an extra.

4It Might Be A Good Idea To Masturbate In Space

Astronauts are always at risk of contracting genitourinary illnesses while in space. Males are likely to go down with prostatitis, while females are at risk of urinary tract infections. Between 1981 and 1998, 23 of the 508 astronauts NASA sent into space suffered from genitourinary problems. While this statistic proves that genitourinary illnesses only affect a small percentage of astronauts, they aren’t minor issues and could lead to the termination of space missions.

The Soviet Union found this out the hard way in 1985, when cosmonaut Vladimir Vasyutin was forced to return to Earth after spending only two months out of a planned six-month stay at the Salyut-7 space station. Vladimir had suffered severe prostatitis, which caused fever, nausea, and serious pains whenever he urinated.

Marjorie Jenkins, NASA’s medical advisor, clarified that prostatitis could be one of the effects of decreased ejaculation. When men do not ejaculate enough, bacteria can accumulate in the prostate and cause an infection.

It is unknown whether astronauts are required to masturbate during space missions, but this doesn’t mean they haven’t been doing it. A Russian cosmonaut once admitted that he “makes sex by hand” while in space. In 2012, astronaut Ron Garan also clarified during an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit that astronauts do get some “free time” at the International Space Station. When asked for further clarification, he said, “I can only speak for myself, but we’re professionals.”

3Emergency Medical Services Are Nonexistent In Space

Photo credit: NASA/Randy Bresnik

NASA has no sophisticated medical equipment on board its spacecraft or even the ISS. All it has are drugs and basic equipment that qualify as first aid. This means astronauts cannot be treated for anything other than basic ailments. So, what happens when an astronaut becomes severely sick or even requires surgery?

When such happens, NASA demands that the astronaut is sent back toEarth. NASA has an agreement with the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, to launch emergency Soyuz rockets to recover sick astronauts from the ISS. Besides the sick astronaut, the rocket would return with two extra astronauts since it requires a three-man crew. Such a trip would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and a severely ill astronaut might not even survive the journey.

If NASA goes through all this just to recover a sick astronaut from the “nearby” ISS, what happens when it wants to recover an astronaut fromMars? NASA, through one of its subsidiaries, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) has been funding several agencies to create unique medical equipment that can handle complicated ailments like heart attacks and appendicitis in space.

2Drugs Are Less Effective In Space

Photo credit: NASA

We just mentioned that only medical care immediately available to astronauts in space qualifies as first aid. Even at that, most of the drugs available aren’t as effective as they would be if they were administered here on Earth. During one study, researchers assembled eight first aid kits with 35 different drugs, including sleeping aids and antibiotics. Four of the kits were sent to the International Space Station, while the remaining four were kept in a special chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

After 28 months, the drugs sent to the ISS were found to be less effective than those kept at the space center. Six of the drugs were also found to have either liquefied or changed in color compared to only two kept at the space center undergoing those changes. Researchers believe the loss of effectiveness is caused by the excessive vibration and radiation the drugs receive in the outer space. For now, NASA reduces the severity of this problem by replacing the drugs at the ISS every six months. In the future, it plans to improve the packaging and ingredients used in making drugs sent into space.

1Carbon Dioxide Poisoning Is A Problem

Photo credit: NASA

The ISS has a higher-than-average concentration of carbon dioxide. On Earth, the concentration of CO2 is about 0.3 mm Hg, but it can reach up to 6 mm Hg at the ISS. Unfavorable side effects like headaches, irritation, and sleeping difficulties, which have become a norm among astronauts, are few of the consequences of this higher-than-normal concentration of carbon dioxide. In fact, most astronauts complain of headaches early into their missions.

Unlike on Earth, where carbon dioxide leaving the body disperses into the air, CO2 exhaled by astronauts forms a cloud above their heads. The ISS has special fans on board to blow these clouds away from the heads of the astronauts and disperse it around the facility. NASA has also mandated that the concentration of CO2 in the ISS be reduced to 4 mm Hg. However, this is still higher than the recommended 2.5 mm HG. NASA could reduce it to this level, except that it would wear the fans out faster. Hopefully, NASA will find a solution to this problem before we start traveling to Mars.


This Surreal Shot of Jupiter’s Clouds Is Exactly What We Need Right Now

Post 8614

This Surreal Shot of Jupiter’s Clouds Is Exactly What We Need Right Now


Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/ Seán Doran

Just look at this incredibly detailed photo of Jupiter’s clouds as captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. It’s an otherworldly distraction to keep our minds off all the crap that’s happening here on Earth, at least for a little while.

Juno snapped this photo on October 27th when it was just 11,747 miles (18,906 km) from the tops of Jupiter’s clouds. The scale of this image is 7.75 miles for each pixel, or about 12 km/pixel.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/ Seán Doran

The stunning blue, grey, and white swirls look like drops of oil in a puddle of water, showcasing the complexity of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. Juno captured this image at just the right time when the gas giant’s high altitude clouds were casting a shadow on their surroundings.

Zoomed in view of a particularly striking atmospheric feature. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/ Seán Doran)

This particular region of Jupiter is in the northern hemisphere. Juno was nearly three-fifths of the way from Jupiter’s equator to its north pole, and conducting its ninth close flyby, when the photo was taken.

Before you move on to the next article, take a few moments to enjoy this remarkable view of the Solar System’s largest planet. Good things like this seem scarce these days—and who knows what horror the next click of your mouse might bring.


Aborting a Launch of NASA’S Orion Capsule Sounds Absolutely Horrifying

Post 8601

Aborting a Launch of NASA’S Orion Capsule Sounds Absolutely Horrifying

Credit: NASA/Johnson

NASA is currently developing a space capsule, called Orion, that will eventually carry a crew of four astronauts to Low Earth Orbit and beyond. Should something go catastrophically wrong during launch, an abort system will work to save the lives of the astronauts—but whoa, would they ever be in for a hell of a ride.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV) will be delivered to space on top of NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS)—a monster rocket system capable of producing 8.8 million pounds of thrust. If this thing were to fail before takeoff or during the ascent, the fuel-packed rockets would unleash a massive explosion.

Hopefully this will never happen, but NASA is not taking any chances. As part of the SLS and Orion development process, NASA has scheduled a full stress test of the Launch Abort System (LAS) system for April 2019. That’s a bit earlier than NASA had intended, but it needs to run the test to move things along and help validate computer models of the system’s performance.

In a nutshell, here’s how LAS works: in event of an emergency on the launch pad or during the ascent, the system will separate the Orion crew module from the rocket using a solid rocket-powered launch abort motor (AM). This booster will produce a short, powerful burst of thrust to quickly create distance between the capsule and the falling—and possibly exploding—rocket.

For the test, NASA will use a fully functional LAS and an uncrewed 22,000 pound Orion test vehicle. These components will be placed atop an Orbital ATK-built booster rocket, and will launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Once at an altitude of 32,000 feet, and traveling at Mach 1.3 (that’s over 1,000 miles per hour), the LAS’s powerful reverse-flow abort motor will spring into action, igniting and pushing the Orion test module away from the booster.

So imagine you’re an astronaut, flying faster than the speed of sound, thinking you’re on your way to the Moon or Mars—or at least space—when all of a sudden you’re rudely shoved away from the rocket. Talk about whiplash. It’s probably at that point you’d be given an unwelcome reminder of what you had for lunch.

The falling capsule will not deploy a parachute during the test, as NASA is primarily assessing the performance of the capsule ejection stage.

“This will be the only time we test a fully active launch abort system during ascent before we fly crew, so verifying that it works as predicted, in the event of an emergency, is a critical step before we put astronauts on board,” Don Reed, manager of the Orion Program’s Flight Test Management Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in an agency release. “No matter what approach you take, having to move a 22,000-pound spacecraft away quickly from a catastrophic event, like a potential rocket failure, is extremely challenging.”

The LAS is comprised of two parts, a fairing assembly that protects the capsule from wind, heat, and acoustics of launch, and a launch abort tower, which includes three motors.

Sadly, it’s still going to be a while before we see any of this awesome new space technology applied to actual missions. On Wednesday, NASA announced that the inaugural launch of SLS won’t happen until December 2019, a target date that could easily slip to mid-2020. NASA is currently about a year (or more) behind schedule, citing technical hurdles and unforeseen events, such as a tornado striking the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana in February 2016. More encouragingly, NASA says it’s still on track for the first flight with astronauts, which is scheduled for 2023.

Looks like we’re going to have to patient as we prepare for a crewed mission to Mars and beyond.


Warm Water Has Existed on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus for Potentially Billions of Years

Post 8595

Warm Water Has Existed on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus for Potentially Billions of Years

Enceladus. (Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

If you were to fly over Enceladus’ southernmost regions, you’d witness a remarkable sight. With surprising frequency, this ice-covered moon spurts a plume of water into space—a telltale sign that a global ocean lies underneath. Scientists have struggled to explain how such a tiny moon could sustain enough energy to maintain a liquid ocean, but new research shows that a porous core could do the trick, and that Enceladus has been wet for billions of years—a potential sign of habitability.

New research published in Nature Astronomy is the first to show how Saturn’s moon Enceladus is able to produce sustained hydrothermal activity along its rocky core and maintain a warm subterranean global ocean. Remarkably, the 3D models used for the study indicate that this process, which requires a wet, porous core, has been ongoing for potentially billions of years, an observation that bodes well for astrobiologists in search of microbial alien life.

Enceladus measures about 310 miles (500 km) across and it’s completely covered in an icy shell. At its thickest, this ice runs about 12 to 15 miles (20-25 km) deep, but it thins to just a few miles over the southern polar region. It’s in these southern areas where Enceladus’ geysers can be found, spewing jets of water vapor and icy grains (some containing simple organics) through cracks in the ice.

Enceladus’ plumes. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

This moon is literally blowing its ocean into space, and thanks to the Cassini probe, we know this vapor includes salt and silica dust. But for these ingredients to exist, the temperature at the bottom of the ocean must be exceptionally hot. Because of what Cassini uncovered, we know there are some serious chemical reactions happening along the boundary that separates the moon’s liquid ocean from its warm, rocky core.

“In order to explain these observations, an abnormally high heat power (>20 billion watts) is required, as well as a mechanism to focus endogenic activity [i.e. processes within the core] at the south pole,” write the authors in the new study.

Exactly where Enceladus gets all this crazy amount of energy isn’t immediately obvious. The heat required is about 100 times more than what would be expected through the natural decay of radioactive elements within the core’s rocks. More plausibly, a major part of the process has to do with the moon’s host: Saturn. Enceladus spins around its gas giant along an elliptical orbit, where the constant gravitational pushing and pulling creates a tidal effect. At the core, this tidal effect produces friction, and by consequence warmth. Yet this is still not enough energy to counterbalance the heat bleeding off the ocean. By all accounts, this moon should’ve frozen over after about 30 million years, according to scientists.

But it hasn’t, and because Enceladus is still extremely wet and active, something else must be going on. To find out, a team from the US and Europe, led by Gaël Choblet from the University of Nantes in France, ran a series of 3D simulations to see what’s going on inside this moon.

“Where Enceladus gets the sustained power to remain active has always been a bit of mystery, but we’ve now considered in greater detail how the structure and composition of the moon’s rocky core could play a key role in generating the necessary energy,” says Choblet in a statement.

Interior of Enceladus. (ASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute; interior: LPG-CNRS/U. Nantes/U. Angers)

According to the models, the only way for Enceladus to maintain a liquid ocean is by having a core made up of unconsolidated, easily deformable, porous rock. With a highly permeable rocky core featuring upwards of 20 to 30 percent empty space, cool liquid water can rush in and get warmed by the tidal friction (temperatures at the core can reach as much as 363 Kelvin or 90 degrees Celsius). When the water gets hotter than its surroundings, it rises and gets flushed out of the core via narrow cracks, similar to hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Earth’s oceans. This process repeats itself creating a hydraulic cycle of sorts; every 25 to 250 million years or so, the entire volume of Enceladus’ ocean goes through the moon’s core. Incredibly, this activity can be maintained for billions of years, according to the models.

This study, says NASA Astrobiology Institute scientist Christopher Glein, provides a solution to an important problem: how to make hydrothermal systems inside a small icy moon.

“We are closer than before at bridging observations and theory, and chemistry and physics to arrive at a more complete understanding of how Enceladus works,” explained Glein, who wasn’t involved in the new study, in an email to Gizmodo. “I am very excited by the potential for hydrothermal systems on a world beyond Earth to provide energy and nutrients that could support a form of life. This study advances the case that Enceladus is one of the hottest destinations for this century of space exploration.”

Indeed, in addition to having warm water, organic molecules, and other “building blocks” of life, it’s had an ocean for potentially billions of years—enough time (at least in theory) for simple microbial life to emerge. But we’ll only know by exploring this moon even further.

“These scientists have done great work,” Jonathan Lunine, an astronomer at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science (also not involved in the new study) told Gizmodo. “Tidal heating in a heavily fractured wet core makes sense and enhances ocean heating.”

Likewise, Hunter Waite, the program director for NASA’s Space Science and Engineering Division, says the research makes sense, pointing to a study he co-authored earlier this year. “Dissipation of tidal heating within the rock is an important factor in hydrothermal activity and hydrogen production as discussed in our Science paper on molecular hydrogen production,” he told Gizmodo.

The new study, while it explains Enceladus’ liquid global ocean, internal heating, thinner ice at the south pole, and hydrothermal activity, doesn’t explain why the northern polar region features ancient ice covered in craters. The models predict thinning at both poles, so something else is going on that still needs to be studied.

[Nature Astronomy]

This Is NASA’s New Mars Rover

Post 8588

This Is NASA’s New Mars Rover

Mars 2020’s final design (Image: NASA/JPL)

NASA is racing to finish a new Mars rover, and the mission just got a launch and land date. The new rover will leave Earth by August 2020, and in February of 2021, it will hit the surface of the Red Planet to search for signs of life.

If the unnamed rover—which NASA is temporarily calling Mars 2020—looks familiar, there’s a good reason. It’s modeled on the very successful Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012 and, despite some glitches, has remained in good working order for years longer than expected. Although Mars 2020 looks a lot like Curiosity, there’s plenty under the hood that distinguishes it.

Mars 2020 will have better cameras and microphones as well as thicker wheels to keep it from breaking down like Curiosity’s did. There’s also a new coring drill and a ground-penetrating radar to look below the surface of Mars. Since Mars 2020’s primary objective is to look for signs of life, it will also have features to analyze organic chemicals, including a device that will test the ability to form oxygen on the planet for future colonization efforts. Some rumored features that the researchers considered, however, were ultimately rejected.

“We had been asked to study the possibility of bringing a helicopter with us,” Kenneth Farley, the project scientist for Mars 2020, said. “But Mars 2020 is certainly not going to be flying a drone.”

A model of Mars 2020’s robotic arm (Image: NASA)

Although the design for the 1,050 kilogram rover is finalized, there’s still plenty to do before its ready for launch in four years. Not only do they have to finish construction, NASA also has to select a landing site that will put the rover within range of the most likely hotbeds of previous Martian life.

“There’s a very short [launch] window in 2020,” Farley noted. “If we don’t hit it, we have to wait two years. So we’re working very hard to hit it.”

When the rover finally does hit Mars, the landing is going to be a nail-biter. The rover will enter the planet’s atmosphere at 11,000 mph and will use a combination of a supersonic parachute and above-ground rocket thrusters to brake during its descent. If all goes well, one of the first things the rover will beam back to us is footage of its (hopefully very soft) crash. And then Mars 2020’s real work can begin.

NASA’s Next Mars Rover Is Going to Be Seriously Badass

Post 8587

NASA’s Next Mars Rover Is Going to Be Seriously Badass

Artist’s conceptual image of the 2020 rover. (Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

Should all go according to plan, NASA will launch its next Martian rover in July 2020. The robotic probe is still under construction, but early signs are that the next-gen rover will be equipped with an impressive assortment of high-tech gadgets.

The rover is currently under construction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and doesn’t have a name yet aside from “Mars 2020.” Like its predecessors, the future rover will scour the Red Planet for signs of previous habitability, and conduct scientific analyses of Mars’ geology, atmosphere, and other natural phenomena. But unlike those rovers that came before it, this one has a few more tricks up its metallic sleeve.

As NASA announced earlier this week, the probe will be equipped with no less than 23 different cameras. That’s 13 more than Spirit and Opportunity, and six more than Curiosity. Of its 23 cameras, nine will be dedicated to engineering tasks, seven to science, and another seven for tracking the probe’s entry, descent, and landing. These “eyes” will allow the probe to create sweeping panoramas, uncover obstacles, and study Mars in exquisite detail. Importantly, these cameras will work in tandem with the many scientific instruments onboard.

Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech

During its descent, cameras will snap photos of the parachute unfurling and as it slowly drifts down onto the planet’s red-stained surface. Once it’s out-and-about, an internal camera will peer closely at rock samples. When it’s done playing lab technician, the robot will “cache” the samples and deposit them onto the rocky surface for a future mission to collect (yes, this robot is going to be a litterbug).

The cameras will also provide more color and 3D imaging than previous missions. Whereas Curiosity had the Mastcam, the 2020 version will feature the Mastcam-z, where the “z” stands for “zoom.” The cameras will also be able to support more stereoscopic images, which are good for scanning geological features, assessing distance, and hunting for the next exploration site from far away.

The Navcams and Hazcams on the previous rovers, used for navigating and avoiding hazards, produced 1-megapixel digital images in black and white. The 2020 versions of these cameras will acquire high-rez 20-megapixel images in full color (hallelujah!). These cameras will also be able to reduce motion blurs, which means the robot will be able to snap images while zipping across the Martian surface. And because the lenses will be wider, the 2020 rover will be able to capture a broader view of the landscape.

“Our previous Navcams would snap multiple pictures and stitch them together,” said JPL’s Colin McKinney in an agency release. “With the wider field of view, we get the same perspective in one shot.”

Now, you might be thinking that full color, 3D-images filmed in high-resolution are not a big deal, but it is a big deal for a robot located 34 million miles away. With all these new gadgets comes troves of data, which then have to be beamed back towards Earth. This added equipment represents a frustrating limiting factor.

To address this, the cameras onboard the 2020 rover will compress the data (which Curiosity does as well), but another solution will be to use orbiting spacecraft as data relays. This idea was first tested during the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, where NASA used its Mars Odyssey orbiter as an interplanetary relay station. Who says we’re not living in the future?

“We were expecting to do that mission on just tens of megabits each Mars day, or sol,” said mission scientist Justin Maki. “When we got that first Odyssey overflight, and we had about 100 megabits per sol, we realized it was a whole new ballgame.” By “sol,” Maki is referring to a single Martian day, which is 24 hours and 39 minutes long. For the 2020 mission, NASA is planning to use spacecraft already in Martian orbit, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter.

Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech

And that’s just the cameras. Other proposed scientific instruments include an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to examine Martian surface materials, a radar imager, a microphone, an ultraviolet spectrometer, and even a Mars Helicopter Scout (HMS)—a two pound solar powered drone that would buzz above the rover, helping it to select future exploration targets.

The 2020 rover could be accompanied by this aerial drone, called the Mars Helicopter Scout (HMS). (Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech)

In addition, the new rover will feature wheels that are more durable (Curiosity’s are in bad shape), have better traction, and have a performance-maximizing shape. The 2020 rover will also try to produce oxygen from Mars’ carbon-dioxide atmosphere, which could establish an important precedent for the Red Planet’s first colonists.

As to where the rover will land, that’s still not known. NASA has released a shortlist of landing sites, including Northeast Syrtis (an area once warmed by volcanic activity), the Jezero Crater (the remnant of a Martian lake), and Columbia Hills, which NASA’s Spirit lander explored during the early-to-mid 2000s.

Regardless of the site chosen, the next mission to Mars is going to be absolutely brilliant.


A Nearby Neutron Star Collision Could Cause Calamity on Earth

Post 8581

A Nearby Neutron Star Collision Could Cause Calamity on Earth

Partner Series
A Nearby Neutron Star Collision Could Cause Calamity on Earth

This illustration the hot, dense, expanding cloud of debris stripped from neutron stars just before they collide in a “kilonova,” or an explosion 1,000 times stronger than a typical nova.

Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab

A long time ago in a galaxy far away—NGC 4993, to be exact—two neutron stars collided and created a spectacular light show.

After billions of years spent slowly circling each other, in their last moments the two degenerate stars spiraled around each other thousands of times before finally smashing together at a significant fraction of light-speed, likely creating a black hole. The merger was so violent it shook the universe, emitting some 200 million suns’ worth of energy as perturbations in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves. Those waves propagated out from the merger like ripples on a pond, eventually washing over Earth — and into our planet’s premiere gravitational-wave detectors, the U.S.-built LIGO and European-built Virgo observatories.

Yet gravitational waves were not the merger’s only products. The event also emitted electromagnetic radiation — that is, light — marking the first time astronomers have managed to capture both gravitational waves and light from a single source. The first light from the merger was a brief, brilliant burst of gamma rays, a probable birth cry of the black hole picked up by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. Hours later astronomers using ground-based telescopes detected more light from the merger—a so-called “kilonova”—produced as debris from the merger expanded and cooled. For weeks much of the world’s astronomical community watched the kilonova as it slowly faded from view.

As astronomers studied the merger’s aftermath in various wavelengths of light, they saw signs of countless heavy elements forming instantly. Astronomers had long predicted merging neutron stars may be responsible for forming elements such as gold and titanium, neutron-rich metals that are not known to form in stars. Most everything they saw in the changing light of the merger’s kilonova matched those predictions, although no one definitively, directly saw the merger spewing out gold nuggets by any stretch.

Even seen across its estimated 130 million light-year separation from us, the event was big, bright and glorious. Based on the rarity of neutron stars—let alone ones that happen to merge—it is unlikely we will ever see such a display significantly closer to us. But let’s imagine if we could—if it happened in the Milky Way or one of its several satellite galaxies. Or, heaven forbid, in our immediate stellar neighborhood. What would we see? What effects would it have on our home world? Would the environment, civilization, even humanity, emerge intact?

Although LIGO, by design, can “hear” the mergers of massive objects such as neutron stars and black holes, astronomers were still lucky to detect this particular event. According to Gabriela González, a LIGO team member and astrophysicist at Louisiana State University, if the merger had been three to four times farther away, we would not have heard it at all. Ironically, LIGO’s exquisite tuning for detecting distant black hole mergers could make it miss big ones occurring around the solar system’s nearest neighboring stars. The immense and intense gravitational waves from such a nearby event “would probably be [greater] than the dynamic range of our instrument,” Gonzalez says.

Despite being strong enough to shake the universe, the gravitational waves from even a nearby merger of two large black holes would still be scarcely noticeable, because the shaking manifests on microscopic scales. (If gas, dust or any other matter was very close the merging black holes, however, astronomers might see light emitted from that infalling material as it plunges in.) “The amazing thing to me is that you could be so close to black holes colliding, even as close as just outside the solar system, and you wouldn’t even notice the stretching of spacetime with your eyes,” González says. “You would still need an instrument to see or measure it.”

In contrast, a kilonova from a neutron star merger in our galaxy would probably be quite noticeable. Gonzalez says it could suddenly appear as a bright star in the sky, and would be clearly detectable by LIGO, too. Rather than lasting for a matter of seconds, the gravitational waves heard by LIGO would be drawn out over minutes, even hours, as the neutron stars spiraled ever-closer together before their ultimate coalescence. It would be a bit like tuning into a live Grateful Dead jam instead of a studio version. (And yes, let’s say the song is “Dark Star” for our purposes.)

Even if LIGO tuned in, however, there are ways we might miss seeing much of the light from a nearby neutron star merger and its subsequent kilonova. Kari Frank, an astronomer at Northwestern University, says such a large, luminous event could end up obscured by dust and other stars—at least at visible and infrared wavelengths. In other words, LIGO and telescopes looking in wavelengths such as radio or x-ray might glimpse a nearby kilonova that optical astronomers would miss. “There have been supernovae—at least ones that we know of in our galaxy in the last 100 years or so—for which we didn’t see the explosion at all, we only saw what was left afterward,” Frank says. And a kilonova, for all the punch it packs, is only a fraction of the luminosity of a typical supernova.

Still, astronomers’ responses to any stellar cataclysm in or around the Milky Way would likely be swift. After all, there’s the example of supernova 1987A to consider.

As its name suggests, supernova 1987A occurred in 1987, unfolding in a dwarf galaxy that orbits the Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud. A star about eight times the sun’s mass collapsed in on itself and sent its outer envelope of gas out into interstellar space, forming a nebula of heavy elements and other debris before collapsing into either a neutron star or a black hole. It remains the only nearby supernova astronomers have seen in modern times.

Frank has studied the subsequent global campaign to observe supernova 1987A, focusing on how astronomers organized and executed their observations at a time when the internet was embryonic at best.”Somebody sees something, and they send out notices to everybody,” she says. “The people who first discovered it had to phone whomever they could to tell them that this thing was happening, that they saw this supernova in the sky that was really close by,” Frank says. “They sent these circulars—letters and things to people—and then everyone who could would go to their telescope and point to it.”

For months, astronomers worldwide scrutinized the event, utilizing almost every available telescope. “Everybody wanted to make sure that as many [telescopes] looked at it as possible,” Frank says. Eventually, things settled down, but several researchers—including Frank—are still studying the supernova’s remnants 30 years later. “For some people, it was life-changing, or at least career-changing,” Frank says. “This was the thing in astronomy that year.”

Like LIGO, the observation campaign for supernova 1987A involved thousands of collaborators. But not all of them shared in the glory of co-authoring any of the many resulting studies published in the scientific literature. Consequently, there’s no real head count of how many people participated. Counting collaborators working on the recent neutron star merger is much easier—some 3,000 authors across 67 papers, or an estimated 15 percent of the entire field of astrophysics.

The question of how many astrophysicists would receive credit for another event like supernova 1987A depends, in no small part, on just how close the event would be. If supernova 1987A had occurred much, much closer to Earth—around a nearby star, for instance—the key uncertainty could become not how many scientists observed the event, but how manysurvived it.

According to a 2016 study, supernovae occurring as close as 50 light-years from Earth could pose an imminent danger to Earth’s biosphere—humans included. The event would likely shower us in so much high-energy cosmic radiation that it could spark a planetary mass extinction. Researchers have tentatively linked past instances of spiking extinction rates and plummeting biodiversity to postulated astrophysical events, and in at least one case have even found definitive evidence for a nearby supernova as the culprit. Twenty million years ago, a star 325 light-years from Earth exploded, showering the planet in radioactive iron particles that eventuallysettled in deep-sea sediments on the ocean floor.That event, researchers speculate, may have triggered ice ages and altered the course of evolution and human history.

The exact details of past (and future) astrophysical cataclysms’ impact on Earth’s biosphere depend not only on their distance, but also their orientation. A supernova, for instance, can sometimes expel its energy in all directions—meaning it is not always a very targeted phenomenon. Merging black holes are expected to emit scarcely any radiation at all, making them surprisingly benign for any nearby biosphere. A kilonova, however, has different physics at play. Neutron stars are a few dozen kilometers in radius rather than a few million like a typical stars. When these dense objects merge, they tend to produce jets that blast out gamma rays from their poles.

“[W]hat it looks like to us, and the effect it has on us, would depend a lot on whether or not one of the jets was pointed directly at us,” Frank says. Based on its distance and orientation to Earth, a kilonova’s jets would walk the fine line between a spectacular light show and a catastrophic stripping away of the planet’s upper atmosphere. If a jet is pointed directly at us, drastic changes could be in store. And we probably wouldn’t see them coming. A kilonova begins with a burst of gamma rays—incredibly energetic photons that, by definition, move at light-speed, the fastest anything can travel through the universe. Because nothing else can move faster, those photons would strike first, and without warning.

“What [the gamma rays] would do, probably more than anything else, is dissolve the ozone layer,” says Andrew Fruchter, a staff astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Next, the sky would go blindingly white as the visible light from the kilonova encountered our planet. Trailing far behind the light would be slower-moving material ejected from the kilonova—radioactive particles of heavy elements that, sandblasting the Earth in sufficient numbers, could still pack a lethal punch.

That’s if the kilonova is close, though—within 50 light-years, give or take. At a safer distance, the gamma rays would still singe the ozone layer on the facing hemisphere, but the other side would be shielded by the planet’s bulk. “Most radiation happens very quickly, so half the Earth would be hidden,” Fruchter says. There would still be a momentarily blinding light. For a few weeks, a new star would burn bright in the sky before gradually fading back into obscurity.

Don’t let all this keep you up at night. Kilonovae are relatively rare cosmic phenomena, estimated to occur just once every 10,000 years in a galaxy like the Milky Way. That’s because neutron stars, which are produced by supernovae, hardly ever form as pairs. Usually, a neutron star will receive a hefty “kick” from its formative supernova; sometimes these kicks are strong enough to eject a neutron star entirely from its galaxy to hurtle at high speeds indefinitely through the cosmos. “When neutron stars are born, they’re often high-velocity. For them to survive in a binary is nontrivial,” Fruchter says. And the chances of two finding each other and merging after forming independently are, for lack of a better term, astronomically low.

The binary neutron stars we know of in our galaxy are millions or billions of years away from merging. Any local merger of neutron stars at all would take LIGO by surprise, given that the events are so rare, and astronomers might not even see the resulting kilonova at all. But if one did occur—say, in one of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies—it would be a great reason to run to a telescope to witness the flash and fade of a brief, brilliant new “star.” The dangers would be nearly nonexistent, but not the payoff: Our generation of astronomers would have their own supernova 1987A to dissect. “This is a once-in-many-lifetimes kind of event,” Frank says. Thus, she says, we would need to follow something like it with all the world’s astronomical resources. “We have to remember to think beyond the initial explosion,” she adds. “Stuff might still happen and we have to keep a watch out for that.”

For now astronomers’ attentions are still fixated on the kilonova in NGC 4993. The Earth’s orbital motion has placed the sun between us and the distant galaxy, however, hiding the kilonova’s fading afterglow. When our view clears, in December, many of the world’s telescopic eyes will again turn to the small patch of sky containing the merger. In the meantime papers will be penned and published, careers minted, reputations secured. Science will march on, and wait—wait for the next possible glimpse of a kilonova, the whispers of a neutron star merger or, if we’re lucky, something new altogether.

This article was first published at © All rights reserved Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit for the latest in science, health and technology news.