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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Super high energy particle falls to Earth, source a mystery | Digital Trends

Super high energy particle falls to Earth, source a mystery | Digital Trends

Researchers have detected one of the highest-energy particles ever falling to Earth. Cosmic rays are high-energy particles that come from sources in space such as the sun, but this recent detection is more powerful than anything that can be explained by known sources in our galaxy or even beyond. The particle had an energy of 2.4 x 1020eV, which is millions of times the energy of the particles produced in a particle collider.

Artist’s illustration of ultra-high-energy cosmic ray astronomy to clarify extremely energetic phenomena. Osaka Metropolitan University/Kyoto University/Ryuunosuke Takeshige

The detection was made in May 2021 using a facility called the Telescope Array, located near Salt Lake City in Utah. It has 500 surface detectors which are spread over 300 square miles of desert, designed to detect cosmic ray events. It has observed more than 30 ultra-high-energy cosmic rays since 2007, but this was the most powerful one detected so far.

It is the second most powerful cosmic ray ever detected, only beaten out by one detected in 1991 which was named the Oh-My-God particle. The strange thing about these events is that the researchers have no idea where they are coming from.

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“The particles are so high energy, they shouldn’t be affected by galactic and extra-galactic magnetic fields. You should be able to point to where they come from in the sky,” said one of the researchers, John Matthews of the University of Utah, in a statement. “But in the case of the Oh-My-God particle and this new particle, you trace its trajectory to its source and there’s nothing high energy enough to have produced it. That’s the mystery of this—what the heck is going on?”

Even a big event like a supernova would be nowhere near powerful enough to produce particles like this, and the particle seemed to come from an empty area of space on the edge of the Milky Way called the Local Void. “These events seem like they’re coming from completely different places in the sky. It’s not like there’s one mysterious source,” said another of the researchers, John Belz. “It could be defects in the structure of spacetime, colliding cosmic strings. I mean, I’m just spit-balling crazy ideas that people are coming up with because there’s not a conventional explanation.”

The researchers hope to use upcoming facilities like an expansion to the Telescope Array to find and study more of these events and learn about their possible source. “It’s a real mystery,” said Belz.

The research is published in the journal Science.

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Juice spacecraft gears up for first Earth-moon gravity boost | Digital Trends

Juice spacecraft gears up for first Earth-moon gravity boost | Digital Trends

The European Space Agency (ESA)’s Juice mission is heading to Jupiter, but it isn’t traveling all that way in a straight line. Instead, like most solar system missions, the spacecraft makes use of the gravity of other planets to give it a push on its way.

But Juice will be making an unusual maneuver next year, carrying out the first gravity assist flyby around both Earth and the moon. This week, the spacecraft made its longest maneuver yet to get into position ahead of the first of its kind flyby in 2024.

Artist’s impression of ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) approaching Earth. ESA/Lightcurve Films/R. Andres

On November 17, the Juice spacecraft burned 10% of its fuel on a 43-minute-long maneuver, adjusting its trajectory so that it is in place for an encounter with Earth and the moon next year. The spacecraft will perform a second part of this maneuver which will bring it back towards Earth in August, first passing by the moon and then passing by Earth.

By using the gravity of both of these bodies, the gravity assist will be even more effective. Spacecraft often use Earth flybys to get a boost, but this is the first time a spacecraft will use the moon as well.

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“It was the first part of a two-part maneuver to put Juice on the correct trajectory for next summer’s encounter with Earth and the Moon. This first burn did 95% of the work, changing Juice’s velocity by almost 200 m/s,” said Julia Schwartz, Flight Dynamics Engineer at ESA’s ESOC mission control center, in a statement.

“Juice is one of the heaviest interplanetary spacecraft ever launched, with a total mass of around 6000 kg, so it took a lot of force and a lot of fuel to achieve this. In a few weeks, once we’ve analyzed Juice’s new orbit, we will carry out the second, much smaller part of the maneuver. Splitting the maneuver into two parts allows us to use the second firing of the engine to iron out any inaccuracies of the first.”

Firing the spacecraft’s main engine uses up a lot of fuel, so the hope is that after the second part of the maneuver, Juice won’t need to fire its main engine again until it has to slow down and enter the orbit of Jupiter. Smaller adjustments along the way will be made with its smaller thrusters, which are a more efficient use of precious fuel.

After performing the Earth-moon flyby, the spacecraft’s path includes several other flybys of Earth and Venus, gradually increasing its energy to send it away from the sun’s gravity and toward Jupiter.

Juice is scheduled to arrive at Jupiter in 2031, and you can follow along with its journey on the Where is Juice now? webpage.

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James Webb detects methane in the atmosphere of an exoplanet | Digital Trends

James Webb detects methane in the atmosphere of an exoplanet | Digital Trends

One of the amazing abilities of the James Webb Space Telescope is not just detecting the presence of far-off planets, but also being able to peer into their atmospheres to see what they are composed of. With previous telescopes, this was extremely difficult to do because they lacked the powerful instruments needed for this kind of analysis, but scientists using Webb recently announced they had made a rare detection of methane in an exoplanet atmosphere.

Scientists studied the planet WASP-80 b using Webb’s NIRCam instrument, which is best known as a camera but also has a slitless spectroscopy mode which allows it to split incoming light into different wavelengths. By looking at which wavelengths are missing because they have been absorbed by the target, researchers can tell what an object — in this case, a planetary atmosphere — is composed of.

An artist’s rendering of the warm exoplanet WASP-80 b whose color may appear bluish to human eyes due to the lack of high-altitude clouds and the presence of atmospheric methane identified by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, similar to the planets Uranus and Neptune in our own solar system. NASA

Even with Webb’s sensitive instruments, it’s still difficult to detect an exoplanet though. That’s because planets are so much smaller and dimmer than stars, which makes them almost impossible to view directly. Instead, researchers often detect them by observing the stars around which they orbit, using techniques like the transit method which measures the dip in a star’s brightness that occurs when a planet moves in front of it.

“Using the transit method, we observed the system when the planet moved in front of its star from our perspective, causing the starlight we see to dim a bit,” one of the study’s authors, Luis Welbanks of Arizona State University, explained in a statement. “It’s kind of like when someone passes in front of a lamp and the light dims. During this time, a thin ring of the planet’s atmosphere around the planet’s day/night boundary is lit up by the star, and at certain colors of light where the molecules in the planet’s atmosphere absorb light, the atmosphere looks thicker and blocks more starlight, causing a deeper dimming compared (with) other wavelengths where the atmosphere appears transparent. This method helps scientists like us understand what the planet’s atmosphere is made of by seeing which colors of light are being blocked.”

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When the authors used this method on WASP-80b, they found evidence of both water and methane in the planet’s atmosphere. Planets in our solar system like Jupiter and Saturn have methane in their atmospheres too, but this planet is much warmer, with a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Finding methane in a planet of this type, called a warm Jupiter, is exciting because it can help scientists learn about planetary atmospheres and also because despite it being commonly found in planetary atmospheres in our solar system, it is rarely detected in exoplanet atmospheres.

It could also be relevant for the hunt for life beyond our planet. “Not only is methane an important gas in tracing atmospheric composition and chemistry in giant planets, it is also hypothesized to be, in combination with oxygen, a possible signature of biology,” Wellbanks said. “One of the key goals of the Habitable Worlds Observatory, the next NASA flagship mission after JWST and Roman, is to look for gases like oxygen and methane in Earth-like planets around sun-like stars.”

The research is published in the journal Nature.

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