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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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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It’s a year since NASA’s Orion capsule entered record books | Digital Trends

It’s a year since NASA’s Orion capsule entered record books | Digital Trends

On November 16 last year, NASA achieved the first-ever launch of its next-generation lunar rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), in the Artemis I mission.

The rocket carried to space the new Orion capsule, which journeyed all the way to the moon — and then beyond — in a crewless flight to test its systems.

Ten days after launch — and a year ago this week — the crewless Orion spacecraft broke the existing 248,655-mile record for the furthest distance traveled from Earth by a crew-capable spacecraft, set by Apollo 13 in 1970.

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And just a few days after that, Orion set a new distance record by a crew-capable spacecraft when it reached a distance of 268,553 miles from Earth, which also put it 43,051 miles from the moon.

The successful voyage ended with the Orion splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11, and paved the way for the Artemis II mission, which is scheduled to take place in exactly a year from now.

Unlike Artemis I, Artemis II will carry a crew of four astronauts. The Orion carrying the Artemis II crew will follow the same route as Artemis I, coming to within about 80 miles of the lunar surface while also heading past the moon to a distance similar to that reached by the spacecraft last year.

Following Artemis II, NASA is aiming to land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface in the Artemis III mission, currently set for 2025.

In that mission, Orion will not land on the moon but instead rendezvous with Starship HLS, a lSpaceX-built lander that’s based on the design of its Starship spacecraft. The Orion astronauts will transfer to the Starship HLS, which will transport them to the lunar surface for a historic landing.

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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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Stunning James Webb image shows the heart of our Milky Way | Digital Trends

Stunning James Webb image shows the heart of our Milky Way | Digital Trends

A new image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows the heart of our galaxy, in a region close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*. The image shows a star-forming region where filaments of dust and gas are clumping together to give birth to new baby stars.

The image was captured using Webb’s NIRCam instrument, a camera that looks in the near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum with shorter wavelengths shown in blue and cyan and longer wavelengths shown in yellow and red.

The full view of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument reveals a 50 light-years-wide portion of the Milky Way’s dense center. An estimated 500,000 stars shine in this image of the Sagittarius C (Sgr C) region, along with some as-yet-unidentified features. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, S. Crowe (UVA)

This region is called Sagittarius C, and is located around 300 light-years away from the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*. For reference, Earth is located much further away from the galactic center, at a distance of around 26,000 light years from Sagittarius A*.

There are thought to be as many as 500,000 stars in the Sagittarius C region, including many young protostars, some of which will go on to become main-sequence stars like our sun. As stars form, they give off powerful stellar winds which blow away nearby material and prevent more stars from forming very close to them.

These outflows are illuminated in the infrared wavelength, and the cyan-colored patches in the image are created by ionized gas. The young stars give off a great deal of energy, which ionizes the hydrogen gas around them and makes them glow in the infrared.

However, there are actually even more stars in this area than can be seen in the image. The pockets of darkness scattered throughout the image aren’t blank but are dense clouds that are dark in the infrared, including a large dense area in the heart of the region.

There are still some surprises to be found in the image too, with some features that scientists need to study in more depth. “Researchers say they have only begun to dig into the wealth of unprecedented high-resolution data that Webb has provided on this region, and many features bear detailed study,” Webb scientists write. “This includes the rose-colored clouds on the right side of the image, which have never been seen in such detail.”

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Webb investigates super puffy exoplanet where it rains sand | Digital Trends

Webb investigates super puffy exoplanet where it rains sand | Digital Trends

Exoplanets come in many forms, from dense, rocky planets like Earth and Mars to gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. But some planets discovered outside our solar system are even less dense than gas giants and are a type known informally as super-puff or cotton candy planets. One of the least dense exoplanets known, WASP-107b, was recently investigated using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the planet’s weather seems to be as strange as its puffiness.

The planet is more atmosphere than core, with a fluffy atmosphere in which Webb spotted water vapor and sulfur dioxide. Strangest of all, Webb also saw silicate sand clouds, suggesting that it would rain sand between the upper and lower layers of the atmosphere. The planet is almost as big as Jupiter but has a tiny mass similar to that of Neptune.

Artistic concept of the exoplanet WASP-107b and its parent star. Even though the rather cool host star emits a relatively small fraction of high-energy photons, they can reach deep into the planet’s fluffy atmosphere. Illustration: LUCA School of Arts, Belgium/ Klaas Verpoest; Science: Achrène Dyrek (CEA and Université Paris Cité, France), Michiel Min (SRON, the Netherlands), Leen Decin (KU Leuven, Belgium) / European MIRI EXO GTO team / ESA / NAS

“JWST is revolutionizing exoplanet characterization, providing unprecedented insights at remarkable speed,“ says lead author of the study, Leen Decin of KU Leuven, in a statement. “The discovery of clouds of sand, water, and sulfur dioxide on this fluffy exoplanet by JWST’s MIRI instrument is a pivotal milestone. It reshapes our understanding of planetary formation and evolution, shedding new light on our own solar system.”

Understanding the planet’s formation and evolution is important because it seems impossible that it could have formed in its current location. It is thought to have formed further out in the star system and migrated inward over time. That could allow for its extremely low density. Its close orbit to its star means it has a very high temperature, with its outer atmosphere reaching 500 degrees Celsius. But those temperatures are not normally hot enough to form clouds of silicate, which would be expected to form in lower layers where the temperatures are higher.

The researchers theorize that the sand rain is evaporating in the lower, hotter layers and the silicate vapor moves upwards in the atmosphere before recondensing to form clouds and falling as rain, similar to the water cycle on Earth.

“The value of JWST cannot be overstated: wherever we look with this telescope, we always see something new and unexpected,” said fellow researcher Paul Mollière from the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy. “This latest result is no exception.”

The research will be published in the journal Nature.

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How to watch the Leonids meteor shower this weekend | Digital Trends

How to watch the Leonids meteor shower this weekend | Digital Trends

The Leonids — one of the most famous annual meteor showers — is about to peak, giving keen skywatchers the chance to enjoy some free nighttime entertainment.

Like any meteor shower, the Leonids offer a great opportunity to witness dramatic bright lights streaking across the sky as dust particles from a comet — in this case Tempel-Tuttle — collide with Earth’s atmosphere.

Your best chance of seeing the so-called “shooting stars” is on Friday night or early Saturday morning, and EarthSky predicts that under a dark sky you may be able to see up to 15 meteors an hour burning up in the atmosphere. If you’re busy doing other things this weekend, you can also look out for the Leonids every night until December 2.

“Leonids tend to be bright, with many producing long trains that persist for a few seconds after the initial flash of light,” NASA says. And you don’t need to direct your gaze at any particular part of the sky for the Leonids. Just look straight up and wait for a streak of light to catch your eye.

So long as you have a cloudless or mostly cloudless sky, the best way to view a meteor shower is to find a location well away from any light pollution such as city lights.

To give yourself the best chance of witnessing as many meteor burn-ups as possible, try to find a viewing spot with a broad view of the sky, in other words, unobscured by things like trees, buildings, and mountains.

If you’re planning to stay outside for a while, be sure to wear warm clothing, and also take with you blankets, hot drinks, and snacks so that you’ll feel nice and comfortable during what will hopefully be a memorable light show.

Also, to save yourself from straining your neck and spending the next few days walking around like Frankenstein, take a chair with a portable reclining seat if you happen to have one, or, failing that, something warm to lie on so that you can look straight up with ease.

Finally, if you don’t fancy heading out into the cold, or if there’s too much cloud cover where you are, then try the live stream (top) of Japan’s Subaru Telescope located at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

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