NASA’s Mars helicopter back in the air after a long break | Digital Trends

NASA’s Mars helicopter back in the air after a long break | Digital Trends

NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, has taken to the skies again following a month-long break in communications with Earth.

The drone-like flying machine flew for 393 meters and stayed in the air for more than two minutes. Showing no signs of trouble following its extended period on the ground, the helicopter also reached an altitude of 39 feet (11.9 meters) and hit a top speed of 11.9 mph (5,4 meters per second).

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates Ingenuity, revealed news of the aircraft’s 67th flight in a post on social media:

The suspension of flights was due to a break in communications between the Ingenuity team and the helicopter, caused by the sun coming between Earth and Mars.

The so-called “solar conjunction” happens every couple of years, and so this is the second time for it to affect NASA’s latest Mars mission, which also includes the Perseverance rover. NASA’s other Mars vehicles — the Curiosity rover and three Mars orbiters — have been operation on and near to the planet for much longer and so have experienced multiple solar conjunctions.

Ingenuity has performed way beyond initial expectations since becoming the first aircraft to perform powered, controlled flight on a planet other than Earth in April 2021.

In fact, it’s impressed NASA so much that it wants to design more advanced aircraft for future missions on Mars and other planets.

Ingenuity arrived on Mars as a technology demonstration, but after proving itself, the JPL team deployed it for gathering aerial imagery of the martian surface using the aircraft’s on-board camera. This imagery has been used to help map safe and efficient routes for the ground-based Perseverance rover, an advantage not available to earlier Mars missions such as Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity.

Perseverance continues to explore the martian surface for evidence of ancient microbial life, with scientists aiming to send some of the rover’s collections of rock and soil to Earth for closer analysis.

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James Webb captures dramatic image of newborn star | Digital Trends

James Webb captures dramatic image of newborn star | Digital Trends

A new image of a Herbig-Haro object captured by the James Webb Space Telescope shows the dramatic outflows from a young star. These luminous flares are created when stellar winds shoot off in opposite directions from newborn stars, as the jets of gas slam into nearby dust and gas at tremendous speed. These objects can be huge, up to several light-years across, and they glow brightly in the infrared wavelengths in which James Webb operates.

This image shows Herbig-Haro object HH 797, which is located close to the IC 348 star cluster, and is also nearby to another Herbig-Haro object that Webb captured recently: HH 211.

The NASA/European Space Agency/Canadian Space Agency’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals intricate details of Herbig Haro object 797 (HH 797). Herbig-Haro objects are luminous regions surrounding newborn stars (known as protostars), and are formed when stellar winds or jets of gas spewing from these newborn stars form shock waves colliding with nearby gas and dust at high speeds. ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, T. Ray (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)

The image was taken using Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument, which is particularly suited to investigating young stars, Webb scientists explain in a statement, : “Infrared imaging is a powerful way to study newborn stars and their outflows, because the youngest stars are invariably still embedded within the gas and dust from which they are formed. The infrared emission of the star’s outflows penetrates the obscuring gas and dust, making Herbig-Haro objects ideal for observation with Webb’s sensitive infrared instruments.

“Molecules excited by the turbulent conditions, including molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide, emit infrared light that Webb can collect to visualize the structure of the outflows. NIRCam is particularly good at observing the hot (thousands of degree Celsius) molecules that are excited as a result of shocks.”

This particular Herbig-Haro object is unusual in that scientists originally believed that it was created from a single young star, as most such objects are. But these detailed observations reveal that there are actually two sets of outflows, coming from a pair of stars at the center.

In addition to the bright ripples of the Herbig-Haro object in the lower half of the image, there are also thought to be more new stars being born in the upper half of the image. The bright smudge in shades of yellow and green is believed to host two young protostars.

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Mars Odyssey pulls a sideways maneuver to capture horizon | Digital Trends

Mars Odyssey pulls a sideways maneuver to capture horizon | Digital Trends

A new image from a NASA orbiter shows an unusual view of Mars that captures the planet’s horizon complete with clouds. It is similar to the kinds of views of Earth that astronauts get from the International Space Station, showing what Mars would look like if seen from a similar vantage point.

The image was taken by NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since 2001. In its over 20 years of operations, the orbiter made key discoveries, including some of the first detections of subsurface ice on the planet. It has also created a global map of the planet’s surface using its Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument.

This unusual view of the horizon of Mars was captured by NASA’s Odyssey orbiter using its THEMIS camera via an operation that took engineers three months to plan. It’s taken from about 250 miles above the Martian surface – about the same altitude at which the International Space Station orbits Earth. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

“If there were astronauts in orbit over Mars, this is the perspective they would have,” said Jonathon Hill of Arizona State University, operations lead for Odyssey’s THEMIS camera, in a statement. “No Mars spacecraft has ever had this kind of view before.”

The THEMIS instrument is the same one that was used to capture this image from around 250 miles above the planet’s surface. The spacecraft took a series of 10 images that show the planet’s horizon from beneath the cloud layer, which was a difficult feat that took months of planning to achieve. A big challenge for capturing this image was dealing with the THEMIS camera, which is attached to the spacecraft and points straight down toward the surface.

“I think of it as viewing a cross-section, a slice through the atmosphere,” said Jeffrey Plaut, Odyssey’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “There’s a lot of detail you can’t see from above, which is how THEMIS normally makes these measurements.”

To capture a better view of the atmosphere that included layers of clouds and dust, the entire spacecraft needed to roll over onto its side while still keeping its solar panels pointed toward the sun. In order to get into the right position, the spacecraft’s communication antenna had to be pointed away from Earth, so the team was out of communication with the craft throughout the maneuver.

The spacecraft spent an entire orbit rolled onto its side, and during this time it also captured images of one of Mars’ two small moon, Phobos.

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NASA’s skywatching tips for December include a meteor shower | Digital Trends

NASA’s skywatching tips for December include a meteor shower | Digital Trends

What’s Up: December 2023 Skywatching Tips from NASA

NASA has shared its top picks for what to look out for in the night sky in the final month of the year.

Highlights include excellent views of the moon with various planets, a chance to see the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, and a rare opportunity to witness an asteroid passing by Earth.

Moon and planets

Check out the crescent moon appearing to get close with the planet Venus and the bright Spica star between December 7 and 10.

A week later, on December 17, you’ll see the moon hanging just below Saturn for the first few hours following sunset. Peering through binoculars will reveal the moon and the planet in the same field of view. At the same time, NASA also suggests trying to spot Saturn’s giant moon Titan as a faint dot just off to the side of Saturn.

On December 21 and 22, the moon appears close to Jupiter, which is easy to spot as it’s one of the brightest planets in the night sky.

Meteor shower

Pexels/Neale LaSalle

Following November’s Leonid meteor shower, this month it’s the turn of the Geminids. Described by NASA as “the year’s most reliable meteor shower,” with skywatchers potentially able to see as many as one meteor every minute.

The Geminids meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13 and the following morning. Viewers in the Northern Hemisphere can look for meteors as early as 9 or 10 p.m. on December 13, with the greatest number of meteors streaking across the sky between midnight and morning twilight.

Southern Hemisphere skywatchers will also have a view of the Geminids, but they’ll appear in the middle of the night and at about a quarter of the rate viewed in the Northern Hemisphere.


Last but not least, December offers a chance to see an asteroid zipping by Earth. NASA said there’s a chance you’ll be able to spot it with the naked eye, though a pair of binoculars or a telescope will offer a much better chance of tracking it down.

This month, asteroid Vesta is viewable from around 10 p.m. nightly, though the best chance to see it will come at around 1 or 2 in the morning when it’ll appear about halfway up the eastern sky, NASA says.

You’ll be able to spot Vesta in between the raised arm of Orion and the leg of Castor in Gemini. Around December 8, Vesta will appear between Betelgeuese and Propus. Watch NASA’s video at the top of this page for more information on how to track down Vesta.

For further help with understanding what you’re looking at in the night sky, be sure to try one of these astronomy apps for iOS and Android.

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Unique star system with six planets in geometric formation | Digital Trends

Unique star system with six planets in geometric formation | Digital Trends

Astronomers have discovered a rare star system in which six planets orbit around one star in an elaborate geometrical pattern due to a phenomenon called orbital resonance. Using both NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite (CHEOPS), the researchers have built up a picture of the beautiful, but complex HD110067 system, located 100 light-years away.

The six planets of the system orbit in a pattern whereby one planet completes three orbits while another does two, and one completes six orbits while another does one, and another does four orbits while another does three, and so one. The six planets form what is called a “resonant chain” where each is in resonance with the planets next to it.

A rare family of six exoplanets has been unlocked with the help of the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS mission.  ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

It is this chain of resonances that makes the system so unusual. “Amongst the over 5,000 exoplanets discovered orbiting other stars than our sun, resonances are not rare, nor are systems with several planets. What is extremely rare though, is to find systems where the resonances span such a long chain of six planets,” explained one of the researchers, Hugh Osborn of the University of Bern, in a statement.

An astronomical waltz reveals a sextuplet of planets

The planets in this system are all of a type called sub-Neptunes, which are planets smaller than Neptune that are unlike any of the planets in our solar system, but are thought to be some of the most common exoplanets. Planets are thought to often form in resonance, due to the gravitational forces involved, however, this delicate balance is easily thrown out by perturbations such as a passing star or an impact from a large asteroid or comet.

Orbital geometry of HD110067: Tracing a link between two neighbour planets at regular time intervals along their orbits, creates a pattern unique to each couple. The six planets of the HD110067 system together create a mesmerising geometric pattern due to their resonance-chain.
Tracing a link between two neighbor planets at regular time intervals along their orbits, creates a pattern unique to each couple. The six planets of the HD110067 system together create a mesmerizing geometric pattern due to their resonance-chain. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, Thibaut Roger/NCCR PlanetS

Researchers are keen to investigate systems like HD110067 because it can show what a system might look like if it does not experience any of these dramatic events.

“We think only about 1% of all systems stay in resonance,” said researcher Rafael Luque of the University of Chicago. “It shows us the pristine configuration of a planetary system that has survived untouched.”

The research is presented in the journal Nature.

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Rocky planets could form in extreme radiation environment | Digital Trends

Rocky planets could form in extreme radiation environment | Digital Trends

It takes a particular confluence of conditions for rocky planets like Earth to form, as not all stars in the universe are conducive to planet formation. Stars give off ultraviolet light, and the hotter the star burns, the more UV light it gives off. This radiation can be so significant that it prevents planets from forming from nearby dust and gas. However, the James Webb Space Telescope recently investigated a disk around a star thatseems like it could be forming rocky planets, even though nearby massive stars are pumping out huge amounts of radiation.

The disk of material around the star, called a protoplanetary disk, is located in the Lobster Nebula, one of the most extreme environments in our galaxy. This region hosts massive stars that give off so much radiation that they can eat through a disk in as little as a million years, dispersing the material needed for planets to form. But the recently observed disk, named XUE 1, seems to be an exception.

This is an artist’s impression of a young star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk in which planets are forming. ESO

The researchers used James Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to identify water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, and acetylene in the disk. Those are some of the building blocks for rocky planets and show that the disk is similar to other planet-forming disks, despite the high amount of UV radiation.

“We were surprised and excited because this is the first time that these molecules have been detected under these extreme conditions,” said one of the authors, Lars Cuijpers of Radboud University, in a statement.

The problem for this disk is that there are a number of nearby massive stars, so the disk is being bombarded by UV radiation from several sources. The disk does seem to be a bit smaller than expected, but it still appears that it could be capable of forming rocky planets. That means that rocky planets could form even in very extreme environments, if this particular disk is not an outlier.

“XUE 1 shows us that the conditions to form rocky planets are there, so the next step is to check how common that is,” said lead researcher María Claudia Ramírez-Tannus of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. “We will observe other disks in the same region to determine the frequency with which these conditions can be observed.”

The research is published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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Hubble Space Telescope is in safe mode due to a gyro problem | Digital Trends

Hubble Space Telescope is in safe mode due to a gyro problem | Digital Trends

The Hubble Space Telescope has experienced a problem with its hardware and is currently in safe mode, with science operations paused until the fault can be corrected. The problem is with one of the telescope’s three operational gyros, which are used to control the direction in which the telescope points. When a fault like this is detected, the telescope automatically goes into a safe mode in which it performs only essential operations to prevent any damage to its hardware.

“The telescope automatically entered safe mode when one of its three gyroscopes gave faulty readings,” NASA wrote in a statement. “The gyros measure the telescope’s turn rates and are part of the system that determines which direction the telescope is pointed. While in safe mode, science operations are suspended, and the telescope waits for new directions from the ground.”

The telescope went briefly into safe mode on November 19, when the fault was detected, but engineers were able to get it operational again the next day. However, the fault with the gyro persisted, and the same thing happened on November 21 and November 23. Since then, the telescope has stayed in safe mode while the engineers work out how to fix the issue.

Although any problem with the telescope hardware isn’t great, this problem isn’t a threat to the life of the telescope. NASA says that Hubble could operate with just one of its gyros if necessary, though this would require reconfiguration and would be less efficient than using all three of the gyros, so fixing the faulty gyro would be preferable. The gyros were installed in 2009 during a servicing mission, and originally there were six of them. Now, three of them remain operational.

Images of spiral galaxy M100 show the improvement in Hubble’s vision between the Wide Field/Planetary Camera and its replacement instrument, the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. NASA, STScI

The servicing missions were necessary because when Hubble was launched in 1990, the images that it sent to Earth were blurry due to a tiny flaw in its primary mirror. A series of Space Shuttle missions took astronauts to the telescope between 1993 and 2009, at which times they made adjustments and repairs to keep the telescope operating. Hubble has now been active for over three decades.

Today, December 2, is the 30th anniversary of the first of these servicing mission, when a crew of seven worked to install a new camera and other components that turned Hubble’s images from blurry smears to the beautiful images we still see today.

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NASA astronauts sign their moon rocket | Digital Trends

NASA astronauts sign their moon rocket | Digital Trends

It’s surely the least important part of their preparations, but this week the four Artemis II astronauts had the pleasure of signing their names on a section of the launch vehicle that will blast them toward the moon in a year from now.

NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Reid Wiseman, and Christina Koch, and CSA (Canadian Space Agency) astronaut Jeremy Hansen, signed the stage adapter for the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, earlier this week.

The stage adapter is the topmost portion of the SLS rocket and sits just below the Orion spacecraft that will carry the four astronauts to within about 80 miles of the lunar surface in what will be the first crewed lunar trip since the Apollo missions five decades ago.

During the Artemis II launch, the stage adapter’s diaphragm will serve as a barrier to prevent harmful gases created during launch from entering the spacecraft.


In the image above, you can see the precise location of the the “Orion stage adapter” just above the SLS rocket’s interim cryogenic propulsion stage. The adapter is five feet tall and weighs 1,800 pounds, which NASA says makes it the “smallest major element of the SLS rocket.”

As with last year’s Artemis I test mission, the adapter will be jettisoned in the early stages of the mission and will fall back to Earth.

Glover, Wiseman, Koch, and Hansen are now undergoing extensive training for next year’s 10-day mission, which will take them not only right up close to the moon’s surface, but also further from Earth than any human has ever traveled before.

In August, the four astronauts were given their first close look at the actual Orion spacecraft that will be taking them on their epic journey.

A successful mission will pave the way for the first lunar landing since 1972 when NASA plans to put the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface in the Artemis III mission, currently slated for 2025. The long-term goals of the Artemis program include building a moon base for long-duration stays, exploring more of the lunar surface, and using the moon as a launchpad for the first crewed mission to Mars.

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China shows off entirety of new space station for first time | Digital Trends

China shows off entirety of new space station for first time | Digital Trends

China’s Tiangong space station shown from above. CMSA

China has released a set of images that show for the first time the entirety of its new Tiangong space station.

Released this week by the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the images were captured from a few hundred meters above the structure by the Shenzhou 16 crew as they left the station to return to Earth at the end of last month.

China's Tiangong space station shown from above.
China’s Tiangong space station shown from above. CMSA

The images show the core Tianhe module at the center and two laboratory modules, Mengtian and Wentian, either side of it. Also visible are the Shenzhou 17 spacecraft and Tianzhou 6 cargo ship that are currently docked with the core module.

The numerous dark rectangles are the solar arrays that help to power the 90-ton Tiangong, which translates as “Heavnely Palace.” The structure bears a strong resemblance to the International Space Station (ISS), though the latter is considerably larger and heavier.

That could change, however, as according to the South China Morning Post, China plans to expand the Tiangong from a three-module, T-shaped facility to a six-module, cross-shaped one.

China's Tiangong space station shown from above.
China’s Tiangong space station shown from above. CMSA

The first module of the Tiangong station was sent to space in April 2021 and since then China has conducted several additional launches to gradually build it out. It orbits at about 230 miles above Earth, slightly lower than the ISS, which is positioned around 250 miles above our planet.

And just like the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS, Chinese taikonauts staying on the Tiangong facility spend much of their time carrying out scientific research in the unique microgravity conditions.

The Tiangong is part of China’s broader space ambitions, which include a plan to land astronauts on the moon before 2030. It’s already successfully deployed a rover on Mars and brought back a sample of lunar soil from our nearest neighbor.

NASA and its partners are planning to decommission the aging ISS in 2031, and if it doesn’t have a privately funded replacement in orbit before then, China’s facility will become the only permanently crewed station in space.

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Dr. Dara Norman Wants to Bring More People Into Science

Dr. Dara Norman Wants to Bring More People Into Science

When Dr. Norman was taking a sabbatical at Howard University in 2015, she got a crash course in just how different access can be at a smaller institution, versus the national observatories she was used to. “I was going to look at these images that a collaboration of mine had recently gotten. These images are really big; each one was like a gigabyte. And if you’re going to do research, you have to reduce the data, get multiple images, stack the images.”

But she ran into infrastructure roadblocks when she had trouble downloading the images to her computer because of internet reliability and speed. “I realized the environment at Howard was much less privileged,” she says. “Just trying to bring in the images—like, I wasn’t going to bring it in over Wi-Fi, right? No way that was going to happen.”

“So this was a real aha moment for me, not just about the technical and resource limitations, but the access limitations, the advisory limitations that people experience when they’re at smaller institutions”—and that’s just what Dr. Norman has been trying to change over the years.

“One thing I’ve really started doing here at NOIRLab, but also when I talk to people at other observatories, NASA, and other places, is suggesting that they try to identify people interested doing work, even if they’re not doing it, who are interested in being involved in projects. They can explain to you what the barriers are, because if you haven’t lived it, you have no idea.”

It’s a valuable way that Dr. Norman uses her background and training in her everyday work. “You have to understand what the science is, how to do the science, and where the different pressure points are of being able to do the science.”

Changing the Culture of STEM

In the end, what’s important to Dr. Norman is changing the culture of astronomy and STEM to be more inclusive. “I want to ask people to think about how we think about scientific merit in our fields,” she says. “I want to help make that change, where how we do the science is as important as what science we’re doing.”

“Currently, at least in the physical sciences, we might judge the merit of a scientific project by its science goals, right?” she continues. “And the technical analysis and other methods you’re going to use to achieve those goals. When people are applying for telescope time or for grants or other resources, that’s how we consider the scientific merit of what they’re doing. But I’m really trying to push us to consider the human factor of how we’re achieving those scientific goals.”

“I use the fact that I am in the field to inform the ways in which you can move things forward,” she muses. “What I’d like to be remembered for is pushing that boundary of how we think about scientific merit.”