Astronomy and Astrophysics: 2 weeks in 3 minutes

Astronomy and Astrophysics: 2 weeks in 3 minutes

A selection of interesting developments in astronomy and astrophysics from the past couple of weeks

The Year Ahead in Planetary Exploration

This year is set to be an exciting year for planetary exploration and here is what we have to look forward to throughout the year:

Opportunity Rover
The Opportunity Rover has been on Mars for 11 years now and in that time has characterised soft rocks, providing evidence of water being on Mars at some time in the past. It is currently travelling towards Ulysses crater and Marathon Valley, having travelled a total of 40km. The rover was only planned to be operational for 90 Martian days but has exceeded over 4000. This is quite a testament to the engineers involved in the project.

The Dawn probe
We covered the Dawn probe last time but that makes it no less exciting. In March, it will arrive at the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest known body in the asteroid belt. In addition to the fantastic pictures delivered, water has been discovered on the dwarf planet and the asteroid Vesta. This is a ground-breaking discovery as it were previously thought that asteroids were incapable of retaining water.

MESSENGER
It’s all happening in March this year it seems. MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space, Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging Mission) has not only snapped some incredible pictures of Mercury, but probably grabbed the award for best acronym in space. The orbiter has been speeding around Mercury for over a year now and is due to crash into the planet’s surface in March, ending its mission.

Happy birthday Hubble
Hubble is getting old now but is still giving us an amazing glimpse into space. The telescope will celebrate its 25th birthday this year on April and will operate until 2018 when the James Webb Telescope will be launched as its replacement. We’ll be sad to see it go but James Webb looks set to bring a whole new level to space exploration.

New Horizon
New Horizon is set to fly by Pluto and its largest moon Charon on July 14th, and then head further into the Kuiper belt to observe even more distant objects. The probe has been travelling since 2006 after Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. NASA recently woke the New Horizon probe and began data recording, even at over 200 million kilometres away we were still able to see the dwarf planet and Charons orbit. The series of images showing the orbit was taken with an exposure time of 1/10th of a second, far too short to make Pluto’s 4 smaller moons. It’s fascinating to observe Newton’s laws of gravity in action as the two bodies can be seen orbiting around a common point called a barycentre.

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Elenarts impression of Pluto and Charon

In July, at closest approach, the spacecraft will come with 10,000 km of Pluto and be able to capture details on the surface at a resolution of less than 100m per pixel using LORRI (Long-Range Reconaissance Imager). Using optical navigation surveys, the New Horizons team will design a course to ensure it doesn’t collide with anything; a wise move considering New Horizons will be heading into a region 20 times wider than the asteroid belt, and nearly 200 times as large.

Voyager 2
This year we will say goodbye to Voyager 2 as it follows Voyager 1 past the edge of our solar system. It will, however, continue to broadcast information, so it’s not goodbye for good. Both the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, along with Pioneer 10, are the most distant man made objects in the solar system.

Is CERN ending the world again?
It’s not the 2012 apocalypse but I suppose the 2015 apocalypse will have to do…just kidding. This is because CERN will be reactivated in March of this year, and will be attempting particle collisions of energies of 13 trillion electronvolts (TeV). This means they’ll have to increase their energy output dramatically if they are to re-create the Big Bang. Both Stephen Hawking and Neil de Grasse Tyson have warned this experiment could endanger the planet, but hopefully scientists at CERN have prepped Mars for our immediate departure just in case.

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Merging White Dwarves to prove Supernovae Theory
Two white dwarves have been found orbiting each other in the planetary nebula Henize 2-428 in such a manner that will hopefully prove supernova theory. They are currently moving closer together, and will eventually merge, and then as a newly formed star will collapse as a Type 1a supernovae. This type of supernova is used by astrophysicists as a ‘standard candle’ to measure the luminosity and distances to other galaxies. These stellar explosions are so energetic that they can outshine entire galaxies for a period of time. White dwarves are the cores of massive stars that have rid themselves of their outer layers, these layers of gas will form their surrounding planetary nebula. The combined mass of the stars is between 1.5 and 1.76 solar masses, and will become unstable upon merging. This merger will occur in 700 million years.

Artist’s impression of two white dwarf stars destined to merge and create a Type Ia supernova in 700-million years time. ESO/L. Calçada, CC BY-SA

Artist’s impression of two white dwarf stars destined to merge and create a Type Ia supernova in 700-million years time. ESO/L. Calçada, CC BY-SA

 

Stars predicted to have, on average, 2 planets in the Habitable Zone

A team of astronomers at the Australian National University have predicted that stars average two planets in the habitable zone. The habitable zone or ‘Goldilock’s Zone’ is the region around a star where liquid water can exist, and is therefore an important location for scientists to explore as this zone has the greatest chance of hosting life.

Using Bode’s law which links the distance between a planet’s orbit and the distance away from a star, the team used the Kepler spacecraft to predict the existence of 141 new planets, but have unfortunately only found 5. But at least it’s progress of a kind.

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Mars One: Who will be moving to Mars?

Mars One will soon be starting the next round of selection for the first Mars colony. The interplanetary travel nonprofit are on a quest to find the perfect candidates for the longest one way trip a human will have ever attempted. Only 4 will be selected, and will live and die on the red planet. They will have to understand how to fix computers, fly jets and conduct scientific experiments whilst in in zero or low gravity. They will have to deal with freeze dried food, huge dust storms, freezing temperatures and no Netflix. No one said this would be easy. The trip is planned for 2024.

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Don’t disturb the aliens warns cosmologists

The leading figures of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have proposed METI (Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligence). So instead of passively listening for signs of life from space, we are going to start broadcasting messages towards parts of the galaxy where Earth like exoplanets are thought to be. Some scientists, including Steven Hawking, are afraid that alien civilisations may be drawn to Earth with superior technology. Some argue that the SETI scientists are simply frustrated they haven’t achieved any results in the 50 years they have been looking.

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Sam McMaster

Feature Image: Daniel Wilson

Images: redice.com, Aditya Chopra, Business Insider, the spirit science, redorbit

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