Apocalypse News: Sun’s Magnetive Field about to Flip

sun_magneticfieldThe sun is set to reverse its polarity in the next few months, something that occurs at the height of every Solar Cycle. The resulting ripple effect will be felt all across the Solar System and will even be detectable by the far-away Voyager probes. However, scientists are telling us not to fret, as this event will not lead to the end of the world.

In truth, the Sun’s reversal of polarity is something that occurs every 11 years. And the shift won’t spark an increase in powerful solar storms or other events that could have a damaging effect on Earth and its inhabitants, say the researchers. One such researcher is Phil Scherrer, a solar physicist at Stanford University, who insisted “The world will not end tomorrow.”

NASAsolar_radiationIn addition, from a human perspective, the effects of the field shift will likely be slight and even beneficial. For example, the polarity reversal will cause the “current sheet” – an enormous surface extending out from the solar equator on which the sun’s rotating magnetic field has induced an electric current – to become much wavier.

This crinkled current sheet, in turn, will provide a better barrier against galactic cosmic rays, high-energy particles that are accelerated to nearly the speed of light by faraway star explosions. Galactic cosmic rays can damage spacecraft and hurt orbiting astronauts who don’t get to enjoy the protection of Earth’s thick atmosphere. So for space exploration, at any rate, this is certainly good news.

Sun's Heliospheric-current-sheetAccording to Todd Hoeksema, director of Stanford’s Wilcox Observatory, a drop in galactic cosmic ray levels could also have a subtle impact on weather here on Earth.

One of the things that helps clouds form and lightning to flash is cosmic-ray ionization of things in the Earth’s atmosphere. So when the cosmic-ray intensity is lower, it means you have fewer places where lightning will occur, and so the storms will probably be a little less intense.

He added, however, that it’s pretty much a speculative endeavor at this point, as no conclusive link has ever been demonstrated between cosmic rays and the weather.

In any case, during a reversal, the sun’s polar magnetic fields weaken all the way down to zero, then bounce back with the opposite polarity. Researchers will keep a keen eye on just how strong this recovery is over the next two years or so. The sun has been quiet during its current 11-year activity cycle, which is known as Solar Cycle 24. So it would be particularly interesting to see a strong field emerge after the impending flip.

sun_magneticfield1Dean Pesnell, a project scientist for the space agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Sun’s latest field is likely to be a good indicator of what the next solar cycle is going to do. During its most recent cycle, known as Solar Cycle 24, the sun was rather quiet, so what happens next ought to be interesting:

If it quickly goes to a high value, then that tells us the next cycle will be high. We’ve had several of these solar minimums, and each time the polar field has been weaker. And each time, the next cycle has been a little bit weaker. So it would be nice to see one where the polar field strength was higher, and the next cycle was higher as well.

So rest easy, folks. No apocalyptic scenarios are likely to result from this latest, all-too-common solar phenomena. If anything, it will provide research benefits for scientists and aid in space exploration – especially for companies looking to mount missions to Mars in the next 11 years and trying to figure out a way around that tricky radiation problem.

As for the rest of us, we’re likely to maybe get a little break on the weather front. Maybe not. Kind of disappointing when you think about it…

But at least there’s a helpful video provided by Space.com. Enjoy!


News From Space: Penetrators to Explore Space

space_penetrator1As space exploration goes, we can do quite a bit within our own Solar System. We can land people on the Moon, rovers on Mars, and put satellites in orbit around the inner and outer planets. We even have the means of placing astronauts on Mars, presumably. But the cost are still prohibitively high, and when it comes to reaching distant celestial bodies, we remain pretty powerless.

Hence the new “space penetrator” program being contemplated by the European Space Agency. Basically, this amounts to a space missile that is fired in the direction of a celestial body, and which delivers a payload of sensors and equipment upon arrival on the surface. Classified as a “hard lander”, this program has been under development for ten years and offers many advantages over the standard soft lander.

space_penetratorFor starters, a soft lander not only has to slow down before landing (which requires rockets and a payload of fuel), but has to be built to land rather than just crash into the ground. And if a soft lander wants to collect subsurface samples or conduct readings, it requires additional equipment to drill and scoop. By contrast, a penetrator can simply smash through a planet’s surface layer, and requires no additional fuel or landing gears.

Of course, a space penetrator also comes with its share of issues, like ensuring that its payload survives the hard landing. This requires that a special spring mechanism be included in the outer shell that cushions the payload from impact. This “suspension system” is made out of Torlon polymer, which is able to provide a 2mm gap of insulation during a high deceleration. A retrorocket will be employed in order to soften the blow a bit as well.

space_penetrator2In order to rest the impact, the designers who built the steel penetrator fired it directly into a 10-ton block of ice. The missile traveled at 340m/s, just under the speed of sound, and turned the block into powder. But the penetrator’s casing and internal instruments remained intact and functional. Thanks to onboard sensors, the test impact will provide the developers of the missile, Rapid Space Technologies, with more information.

The space penetrator is intended to do more than just collect subsurface soil samples. Once in use, it will also help look for alien life by busting through icy surfaces, such as on Jupiter’s famous moon Europa. For years, scientists have suspected that the planet may support aquatic life beneath its icy surface. With the help of radio signals, the on-board sensors could send information up to an orbiting satellite, which could in turn relay that information back to Earth.

converted PNM fileThe European Space Agency has funded the project, but has not yet decided if it would ultimately use the space penetrator. Currently, the system isn’t designed to be launched from Earth, but rather a satellite or spaceship. There’s no telling if it will be used anytime soon, but it does present scientists and astronomers with an viable option for future interstellar exploration.

And there is huge potential as far as the exploration of Europa is concerned. Ever since it was postulated that subsurface oceans exist there – ones that are warm enough to support life – the Jovian moon has served as a source of inspiration for astronomers and science fiction writers alike. I for one am interested to see what resides underneath all that ice, provided we don’t disturb it too much!

And of course, there’s a video of the space penetrator test taking place. Check it out:

extremetech.com, bbc.co.uk

News from Space: The Canadarm2!

Astronaut Steve K. Robertson during STS-114
Astronaut Steve K. Robertson during STS-114

For decades, the Canadian Space Agency has been building the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) – also known as the Canadarm. Since 1981, aboard the shuttle STS-2 Columbia, this model of robotic arm has come standard on all NASA shuttles and was used as its main grasper. However, due to the progress made in the field of robotics over the past thirty years and the need for equipment to evolve to meet new challenges, the Canadarm was retired in 2011.

Luckily, the CSA is busy at work producing its successor, the Mobile Service System – aka. Canadarm2. The latest versions are in testing right now, and their main purpose, once deployed, will be to save satellites. Currently, an earlier version of this arm serves as the main grasper aboard the ISS, where it is used to move payloads around and guide objects to the docking port.

canadarm2However, the newest models – dubbed Next Generation Canadarm (NGC) – are somewhat different and come in two parts. First, there is the 15 meter arm that has six degrees of freedom, extreme flexibility, and handles grappling and heavy lifting. The second is a 2.58 meter arm that comes attached to the larger arm, is similarly free and flexible, and handles more intricate repair and replacement work.

This new model improves upon the old in several respects. In addition to being more intricate, mobile, and handle a wider array of tasks, it is also considerably lighter than than its predecessor. When not in use, it is also capable of telescoping down to 5 meters of cubic space, which is a huge upshot for transporting it aboard a shuttle craft. All of this is expected to come in handy once they start the lucrative business of protecting our many satellites.

canadarm2_missioncontrolIt’s no secret that there is abundance of space junk clogging the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This moving debris is a serious danger to both manned and unmanned missions and is only expected to get worse. Because of this, the ability to repair and retool satellites to keep them in operation longer is of prime importance to space agencies.

Naturally, every piece of equipment needs to undergo rigorous testing before its deployed into space. And the Canadarm2 is no exception, which is currently being put through countless simulations. This battery of tests allows operators to guide dummy satellites together for docking using the arms in both full manual and semi-autonomous mode.

canadarm2_chrishadfieldNo indication on when they will be ready for service, but it seems like a safe bet that any manned missions to Mars will likely feature a Canadarm2 or two. And as you can see, Chris Hadfield – another major Canadian contribution to space – is on hand to help out. Maybe he and the new arm can perform a duet together, provided it can handle a guitar!

And be sure to check out this video of the NGC Canadarm2 in action, courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency:


News From Space: Meteors Hits Saturns’ Rings

Saturn_with_aurorasFor some time, scientists have been aware of the fact that Earth, the Moon, and every body in our Solar System is subject to impacts by meteors, asteroids and comets. And sometimes, on rare occasions, we get to watch it happen, and its a pretty spectacular sight.  Now, for the first time ever, the Cassini spacecraft has provided direct evidence of small meteoroids crashing into Saturn’s rings.

In addition to being a pretty spellbinding site, studying the impact rate of meteoroids from outside the Saturnian system presents scientists with the opportunity to study how planets in our Solar System are formed. This is due to Saturn’s rings, which act a very effective detector of surrounding phenomena, including the interior structure of the planet and the orbits of its moons.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, spoke on record about the observed impacts:

These new results imply the current-day impact rates for small particles at Saturn are about the same as those at Earth — two very different neighborhoods in our solar system — and this is exciting to see. It took Saturn’s rings acting like a giant meteoroid detector — 100 times the surface area of the Earth — and Cassini’s long-term tour of the Saturn system to address this question.

asteroid_belt1In the past, changes in the disposition of Saturn’s rings indicated that impacts were taking place. One such example came in 1983, when an extensive corrogation of 19,000 km (12,000 miles) across the innermost rings told of a very large meteoroid impact. And after the Saturnian equinox back in summer of 2009, astronomers were able to detect a great deal of debris left behind by several meteoroids striking the rings.

However, as Matt Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist at Cornell University explains, this was the first time the impacts were observed directly:

We knew these little impacts were constantly occurring, but we didn’t know how big or how frequent they might be, and we didn’t necessarily expect them to take the form of spectacular shearing clouds. The sunlight shining edge-on to the rings at the Saturnian equinox acted like an anti-cloaking device, so these usually invisible features became plain to see.

Comet1What’s more, Tiscareno and his colleagues were also to come up with some rather new and interesting theories about Saturn itself and how it came to be. Jeff Cuzzi, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist specializing in planetary rings and dust at NASA’s Ames Research Center, explains:

Saturn’s rings are unusually bright and clean, leading some to suggest that the rings are actually much younger than Saturn. To assess this dramatic claim, we must know more about the rate at which outside material is bombarding the rings. This latest analysis helps fill in that story with detection of impactors of a size that we weren’t previously able to detect directly.

Meteoric impacts and asteroids have been taking place since the formation of our Solar System. In addition to having a serious impact (no pun) on the formation of the planets, they have also played a prominent role in the evolution of life here on planet Earth. And with the expansion in space exploration afforded to us by space probes, satellites, and planetary rovers, we can expect to witness more of these events firsthand.

Source: universetoday.com

Space Junk: The of Bane of the Space Age

janitorOneSpace, or at least the portion which sits in low orbit around our planet, is quite literally a junkyard. Currently, it is estimated that there over 500,000 bits of debris floating above our world, which takes the form of satellite and rocket components, as well as broken down satellites that ceased functioning long ago. Naturally, these objects pose hazards for space flight, and collisions between objects have been known to occur.

In fact, just three years ago, a U.S. and Russian satellite collided over Siberia, generating an estimated 1,000 pieces of new debris at least 4 inches across. In addition, the International Space Station has to periodically adjust its orbit just to get out of the way of traffic. And since exploration and commercial travel to and from the Moon is expected within the near future, something needs to be done to take the garbage out.

cubesatAnd that’s where CleanSpace One comes into play, a janitor satellite that the Swiss Space Center in the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) began developing last year. Specifically designed to target derelict satellites that threaten our communications and information networks. The satellite has a price tag of 11 million dollars, and is expected to be deployed in three to five years.

Naturally, the task before it is a tricky one. In order to do a “launch and seize” operation, the satellite would have to get onto the same orbital plane as its target, latch onto it at high speed, and then de-orbit it. To do this, EPFL is working on an “ultra-compact motor” to get the janitor onto the right track, as well as a grasping mechanism to grab hold of the space junk once its aligned and within distance of it.

And then there’s the efficiency factor. As it stands, a vessel like the CleanSpace One is a one-shot deal design. Once it’s latched onto space junk, it essentially re-enters the atmosphere with it and drops it below, meaning it is unable to gather up multiple pieces of debris and dispose of them discreetly. As such, it would take even a large fleet of janitor satellites quite a long time before they made a dent in all the space junk.

Luckily, there’s another option that has been on the table even longer than the janitor satellite. The reasoning behind this concept is, if you don’t the means to de-orbit all that space junk, just hit it with some photons! When you consider all the debris in orbit and the havoc it plays with the space lanes, not to mention how its only getting worse, a “targeted” approach may just be what the doctor ordered.

space_laserBack in 2011, James Mason, a NASA contractor at the Universities Space Research Association in Moffett Field, Calif., and his colleagues presented a paper claiming that an anti-collision laser system which would target space debris was feasible. Although they acknowledged that more study was required before it could be implemented, they also claimed that lab simulations suggested that the idea would work in practice.

The idea would center around the deployment of a medium-powered laser of 5 to 10 kilowatts to essentially nudge debris off a potential collision course. Rather than eradicate the junk that clutters up the space lanes, this system would be responsible for anticipated crashes and preventing them by ensuring space junk didn’t cross paths with the ISS, satellites, or orbiting shuttles.

space_debrisAnd even that doesn’t represent the entirety of proposed solutions. In addition to janitor satellites and laser, the Russian Space Agency has also been batting around an idea for an orbital pod that would sweep away satellite debris. Details remain sketchy and little information has been released to the public, but the RSA has claimed that they hope to have such a craft ready to go no later than 2023.

Yes, it seems we as a species are entering into phase two of the Space Age. And in this segment of things, orbital pods, offworld habitations, and exploration into the outer Solar System may very well be the shape of things to come. As such, we’re going to need clearer skies above our heads if anything hopes to make it off of Earth without a series fender bender!


Sources: news.cnet, cbsnews.com

Exploring the Universe with Robotic Avatars and Holodecks

holodeck_nasaSpace exploration is littered with all kinds of hazards. In addition to the danger of dying from decompression, mechanical failures, micro-meteoroids or just crashing into a big ball of rock, there are also the lesser-known problems created by low-gravity, time dilation, and prolonged isolation. Given all that, wouldn’t it just be easier to send probes out to do the legwork, and use virtual technology to experience it back home?

That’s the idea being presented by Dr. Jeff Norris, one of the scientists who works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In a recent presentation that took place at Pax Prime last year – entitled “NASA’s Got Game” – he spoke of the agency’s plans for telexploration – the process of exploring the universe using robotic avatars and holodecks, rather than sending manned flights into deep space.

avatar_imageIn the course of making this presentation, Norris noted several key advantages to this kind of exploration. In addition to being safer and cheaper, its also more readily available. Whereas deep space exploration involving space ships with FTL engines – the Alcubierre Drive they are currently working on – will eventually be available, robot space probes and advanced telecommunications technology are available right now.

At the same time, telexploration is also more democratic. Whereas conventional space travel involves a select few of highly-trained, eminently qualified people witnessing the wonders of the universe, robotic avatars and holographic representations bring the experience home, where millions of people can experience the awe and wonder for themselves. And when you think about it, it’s something we’re already doing, thanks to the current generation of space probes, satellites and – of course! – the Curiosity Rover.

Curiosity_selfportraitBasically, rather than waiting for the warp drive, Norris believes another Star Trek technology – the holodeck – will be the more immediate future of space exploration, one that we won’t have to wait for. Yes, there are more than a few Star Trek motifs going on in this presentation, and a little Avatar too, but that’s to be expected. And as we all know, life can imitate art, and the truth is always stranger than fiction!

Check out the video of the presentation below:

And remember…