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Enigmatic Europa gets its extreme closeup from Juno

Over the course of a brief two-hour opportunity, NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured a rare close look at Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that’s thought to harbor a hidden ocean — and perhaps an extraterrestrial strain of marine life.

Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, but this week brought the best opportunity to look at Europa, which is the prime target for investigation by NASA’s Europa Clipper probe in the 2030s.

On Sept. 29, the orbiter buzzed over the moon’s surface at a velocity in excess of 52,000 mph (23.6 km per second), and at an altitude of 352 kilometers (219 miles).

That’s as close as any spacecraft has come to Europa since the Galileo orbiter’s 218-mile flyby in 2000.

Juno view of Europa
This image from NASA’s Juno spacecraft shows an area of Europa’s surface north of the equator. The prominent pit seen in the lower half of the image might be a degraded impact crater. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS)

The spacecraft’s JunoCam imager is designed mostly for public engagement purposes — and over the past six years, image-processing fans have helped NASA bring stunning pictures of Jupiter to the public. Now they’re doing much the same for JunoCam’s photos of Europa.

In the first image sent back by the spacecraft, focusing on an area near Europa’s equator known as Annwn Regio, you can make out the trademark ridges and troughs of Europa’s icy shell. The cracks in the ice are thought to be caused by the tidal forces that are generated as Europa orbits Jupiter.

Scientists expect to use JunoCam’s data to produce some of the sharpest views of Europa seen to date, with a resolution of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) per pixel. And that’s not all: Other instruments captured data on Europa’s ice shell structure, its surface composition, its ionosphere and the moon’s interaction with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

“It’s very early in the process, but by all indications Juno’s flyby of Europa was a great success,” principal investigator Scott Bolton, an astrophysicist at the Southwest Research Institute, said in a news release. “This first picture is just a glimpse of the remarkable new science to come from Juno’s entire suite of instruments and sensors that acquired data as we skimmed over the moon’s icy crust.”

Candy Hansen, a mission co-investigator who’s in charge of JunoCam planning at the Planetary Science Institute, said the new imagery will give scientists a better idea of what’s bubbling up on Europa.

“The science team will be comparing the full set of images obtained by Juno with images from previous missions, looking to see if Europa’s surface features have changed over the past two decades,” Hansen said. “The JunoCam images will fill in the current geologic map, replacing existing low-resolution coverage of the area.”

Those closeups — plus readings from Juno’s Microwave Radiometer — could point to areas where Europa’s surface ice is thinner, and where liquid water may exist in shallow subsurface pockets. That’ll help researchers plan for the Europa Clipper mission to come.

This week’s Europa encounter came a year after Juno made a close flyby of Ganymede, another ice-covered moon of Jupiter (and the largest moon in the solar system). The spacecraft is scheduled to make close flybys of Io, the most volcanically active world in the solar system, in 2023 and 2024.

This report was published on Universe Today with the headline “Mysterious Europa Gets an Extreme Closeup From NASA’s Juno Probe.” Licensed for republication under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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NASA and SpaceX will look into giving Hubble a big boost

NASA and SpaceX say they’ll conduct a feasibility study into a plan to reboost the 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope to a more sustainable orbit, potentially at little or no cost to NASA.

The plan could follow the model set by last year’s Inspiration4 mission, an orbital trip that was facilitated by SpaceX and paid for by tech billionaire Jared Isaacman as a philanthropic venture. Isaacman, who is now spearheading a privately funded space program called Polaris in cooperation with SpaceX, says he’ll participate in the feasibility study.

“We could be taking advantage of everything that’s been developed within the commercial space industry to execute on a mission, should the study warrant it, with little or no potential cost to the government,” Isaacman said at a news briefing.

If the six-month feasibility study turns into an actual mission, a spacecraft could be sent up to Hubble to lift the telescope from its current altitude of 330 miles to the 370-mile orbit it was in when it was deployed in 1990. Patrick Crouse, Hubble project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that could add another 15 to 20 years to the telescope’s life.

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Axiom Space aims to fly first Saudi female astronaut

Axiom Space says it’s working with the Saudi Space Commission to send two spacefliers from the Arab kingdom, including the first Saudi woman to go into orbit, to the International Space Station as early as next year.

The inclusion of a female astronaut is particularly notable for Saudi Arabia — where women were forbidden to drive motor vehicles until 2018, and where the status of women is still a controversial subject.

Houston-based Axiom Space and the Saudi Space Commission announced their partnership today at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris. In a news release, the Saudi commission said its participation in Axiom’s Ax-2 mission is part of the nation’s effort “to conduct scientific experiments and research for the betterment of humanity in priority areas such as health, sustainability and space technology.” It acknowledged that including a woman astronaut “will represent a historical first for the Kingdom.”

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Neptune and its rings glow in Webb Telescope’s portrait

The first picture of Neptune to be taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals the latest, greatest details of the ice giant’s atmosphere, moon and rings in infrared wavelengths.

Some of those details — for example, faint bands of dust that encircle Neptune — haven’t been brought to light since the Voyager 2 probe zoomed past in 1989.

“It has been three decades since we last saw those faint, dusty bands, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” astronomer Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist on the JWST team who specializes in Neptune, said today in a news release. Neptune’s brighter rings stand out even more clearly.

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DNA from Star Trek’s doctor will ride to final frontier

A memorial spaceflight paying tribute to the cast and crew of the original “Star Trek” TV show has just added another star to the passenger list.

DeForest Kelley — who played Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Starship Enterprise’s physician — will be represented by a thimble-sized sample of DNA on next year’s “Enterprise Flight.” Kelley passed away in 1999 at the age of 79, but the DNA was extracted from a hair sample that was preserved after his death.

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A bit of Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols will fly to deep space

Nichelle Nichols, who blazed a trail for Black actors as Lieutenant Uhura on the original “Star Trek,” never got to go to space while she was alive — but her ashes and her DNA are due to reach the final frontier as early as this year.

The symbolic samples are scheduled to fly beyond the moon, along with the ashes of other dearly departed Star Trek pioneers such as James Doohan (“Scotty”); Majel Barrett Roddenberry (“Nurse Chapel”); the TV series’ creator, Gene Roddenberry; and visual-effects wizard Douglas Trumbull.

To top it all off, Nichols’ memorial journey will begin with the launch of a Vulcan rocket. “I’m sure she would have much preferred to go on the shuttle,” said her son, Kyle Johnson, “but this was a pretty close second.”

The “Enterprise” memorial mission is being organized by Houston-based Celestis, which has been making arrangements to fly its customers’ cremated remains for a quarter-century. A gram of Nichols’ ashes, plus DNA samples taken from her and from Johnson, will be among the secondary payloads for United Launch Alliance’s first Vulcan Centaur mission, set for no earlier than December.

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Webb Telescope sees Jupiter and auroras in a new light

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is designed to probe the farthest frontiers of the universe, but newly released images of Jupiter prove that the observatory can also bring fresh perspectives to more familiar celestial sights.

The infrared images reveal Jupiter’s polar auroras and its faint rings as well as two of its moons — plus galaxies in the far background. The planet’s Great Red Spot is there as well, but because it’s seen through three of JWST’s specialized filters, it looks white rather than red.

JWST’s new perspective should give scientists a better sense of how the complex Jupiter system is put together.

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LHC spots exotic particles — and starts hunting for more

Physicists say they’ve found evidence in data from Europe’s Large Hadron Collider for three never-before-seen combinations of quarks, just as the world’s largest particle-smasher is beginning a new round of high-energy experiments.

The three exotic types of particles — which include two four-quark combinations, known as tetraquarks, plus a five-quark unit called a pentaquark — are totally consistent with the Standard Model, the decades-old theory that describes the structure of atoms.

In contrast, scientists hope that the LHC’s current run will turn up evidence of physics that goes beyond the Standard Model to explain the nature of mysterious phenomena such as dark matter. Such evidence could point to new arrays of subatomic particles, or even extra dimensions in our universe.

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No more rehearsals for NASA’s SLS moon rocket

NASA says it’s finished with having to do full-scale dress rehearsals for the first liftoff of its moon-bound Space Launch System rocket. But it’s not finished with having to make fixes.

“At this point we’ve determined that we’ve successfully completed the evaluations and the work that we intended to complete for the dress rehearsal,” Thomas Whitmeyer, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for common exploration systems development, told reporters today.

NASA’s assessment came after a dress rehearsal that reached its climax on June 20 with the loading of the 322-foot-tall rocket’s supercooled propellant tanks. The rehearsal, which followed some less-than-fully-successful trial runs in April, marked a milestone for launch preparations because it was the first time that the team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida had fully loaded all of the tanks and proceeded into the terminal launch countdown.

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NASA sets up independent study on UFO sightings

NASA has dipped into the debate over UFOs for decades, but today the space agency said it’s commissioning an independent study team to survey a wide range of what are now known as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs.

“The most exciting things in science are things we don’t understand, and my starting point — I think all our starting points for this — is that there are phenomena that we don’t understand,” astrophysicist David Spergel, who’ll lead the study team, told reporters.

“How do we start to make progress?” he said. “We have a very limited set of observations right now with these UAPs. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions. So we start by trying to figure out what data is out there. We’re going to be working with government, nonprofits, companies, civilians, and try to identify what data is already there, then start to think about what data should we collect in the future.”

NASA’s independent study will start early in the fall and run in parallel to the Pentagon-led effort to analyze UAP reports from aviators, which was the focus of a congressional hearing last month.