Topic space

Growing evidence supports the existence of a hypothetical Planet Nine

in space on (#1SJW7)
The case for Planet Nine's existence keeps getting stronger. Astronomers have discovered several more objects in the extreme outer solar system whose orbital characteristics hint at the existence of an unseen "perturber" in the dark depths far from the sun - a hypothetical world larger than Earth that scientists are calling Planet Nine. "If you want to put a number on it, I'd be somewhere like 80 percent sure that there's a Planet [Nine] out there," said Scott Sheppard.

In their 2014 study, Sheppard and Trujillo noted that several extremely distant objects share certain orbital characteristics, and suggested that these bodies' paths around the sun may have been shaped by a large planet in the region. This hypothesis was bolstered earlier this year. Computer simulations suggested that the gravitational influence of a roughly 10-Earth-mass planet about 600 AU from the sun could indeed explain the odd "clustering" in the orbits of Sedna, 2012 VP113 and a handful of other distant objects.

Finding Planet Nine via a blind search would be incredibly difficult and time-consuming. The putative world, while big, would also be quite faint because of its immense distance from the sun. The planet's huge and as-yet-undetermined orbital path also means it could be hiding anywhere along a large swath of sky. But Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology has said that Planet Nine may well be visible through powerful telescopes, provided astronomers point them in the right direction at the right time.

Dark matter detection experiment comes up empty-handed

in space on (#1RQW8)
After 20-month search period, a key dark matter detection experiment has officially come up empty-handed, casting doubt on the existence of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPS), which have been far and away the leading explanation for one of the biggest mysteries in astrophysics.

Scientists "have pushed the sensitivity of the instrument to a final performance level that is four times better than the original project goals. It would have been marvelous if the improved sensitivity had also delivered a clear dark matter signal. However, what we have observed is consistent with background alone." The LHC, meanwhile, is conducting experiments that should produce cross-sections of particles that may point to the presence of WIMPs, but it has so far come up empty-handed as well.

Besides WIMPs, there are other candidates for dark matter, including MACHOS (dim stars or black holes that give off little or no radiation), axions (theorized chargeless, very low mass particles), sterile neutrinos, and gravitinos. WIMPs are favored, however as they are predicted by Supersymmetry, and might solve a great deal of astrophysical mysteries-from explaining the apparent weakness of the gravitational force to the existence of the Higgs boson.

Low earth orbit Is getting crowded and no one is directing traffic

in space on (#1NF9E)
story imageCompanies around the globe are launching an increasing number of satellites, crowding Earth's orbit in an effort to satisfy the ravenous on-demand desire for more broadband, satellite television and communications, but there's nobody directing the traffic. Although the Pentagon tracks objects orbiting the globe and warns of close approaches, some members of Congress say a civilian agency, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, should be made responsible for managing satellite traffic.

There have only been three relatively minor collisions from space junk in the last 20 years, and only once have two intact satellites crashed into one another by accident. The problem is expected to get worse as more companies scramble to expand their fleets of satellites. For example, Boeing filed an application last month with the FCC that would allow it to send up nearly 3,000 satellites for broadband services.

In an effort to help manage the rapid expansion of satellites, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) has introduced legislation that would give the FAA authority to monitor objects in space and play the role of traffic cop. "As space becomes more congested and contested and competitive, there needs to be an agency with unambiguous authority that can compel somebody to maneuver," Bridenstine said. Douglas Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, agrees: "It's clear that we're going to need a way to regulate that traffic just as we have a way to regulate air traffic," he said.

What Is A Red Sprite?

in space on (#QFDW)
Two mysterious red hazes hovered over Earth on August 10. Astronauts onboard the International Space Station snapped a picture of the first one as it passed over the Midwest--either Illinois or Missouri. And yesterday NASA's Earth Observatory announced that a second one was spotted just minutes later over Mexico.These jellyfish-shaped streaks in the sky that reach into space are called red sprites, and they're considered to be rare phenomena-or at least elusive to human eyes.

Red sprites were first photographed in 1989. Since then they've been seen from various aircrafts, the space shuttle, and the ISS, usually about 50 miles high in the atmosphere. Yet red sprites remain mysterious-they flash for just fractions of a second, leaving scientists little time to gather data. However, scientists have a few ideas about what they are and how they form. Red sprites are thought to be caused by a rare but intense form of lightning called positive lightning. Whereas most cloud-to-ground lightning has a negative electric charge,. It makes up less than 5 percent of lightning, and it is up to 10 times stronger than negative lightning.

That flash of lightning is so strong that it breaks apart molecules in the atmosphere into ions, forming a cold plasma cloud that can be tens of miles across. The sprites' red color likely comes from those ions smashing into molecules in the air. Similar to the aurora, the charged particles excite nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. The gases eventually settle down and release that energy, some of it in the form of pretty colors.

Boeing patents weird cargo-grabbing plane

in space on (#QB79)
Cargo containers streamlined and revolutionized freight. Their uniform, boxy shape and sharp edges make them instantly stackable, but not terribly aerodynamic. For transport by air, that usually means fitting square pegs into round planes. A new plane design by Boeing, granted a patent this week, could change that. Instead of slotting cargo containers into a round tube, the Boeing plane would line them up longwise in a neat row, then lower its aerodynamic body on top.

The plane as sketched out is largely empty body, with four power prop engines mounted on top of the wings. Its body looks like nothing so much as a giant pink eraser, with a little bubble of a cockpit added to the front. The plane's landing gear are spaced wide enough apart that it can simply roll over its cargo containers before lowering down onto them.

Boeing imagines the plane at operating at altitudes less than 18,000 feet, so that the cargo doesn't need to be pressurized. Boeing envisions such a plane as an alternative to the slow but cost-efficient shipment of low-priority bulk cargo on boats, trains, and trucks, and the light loads of fast but expensive cargo aircraft shipments. By flying shipping containers, a plane like this could deliver large quantities very quickly, where previously price made that impossible.

Where's a Zeppelin when you need one?

Aeroscraft shows off its giant airship

in space on (#Q6XQ)
Lighter than air vehicles are, for the most part, relics of a distant past. Despite the past century of flight mostly belonging to airplanes and helicopters, there's been a slight resurgence of dirigibles this century. Not least among them is the Dragon Dream, by the Aeroscraft Corporation. This is only half the size of their planned airship...

Rather than the slow-moving luxury cruisers of old, the Aeroscraft is a working vehicle designed to carry 66 tons of cargo reliably to parts of the world without runways. The 555-foot-long craft is at a design freeze. Aeroscraft thinks they have the vehicle they want, and to meet deadlines on time, they're going to stop tinkering with the design and just make the dang thing.

The Aeroscraft is just one of a small new world of gigantic lumbering dirigibles. In 2013, the U.S. Army canceled its LEMV surveillance zeppelin, but the project has since been revived in the United Kingdom as a working machine, and Goodyear is looking at replacing its soft-bodied blimps with more durable rigid airframes.

NASA discover Earth's twin 1,400 light-years away

in space on (#NS4P)
The Kepler mission has found the first near-Earth-size planet - called Kepler-452b - in the "habitable zone" around a G2 star much like our own sun. Kepler-452b is 60 percent larger in diameter than Earth and is considered a super-Earth-size planet. Its 385-day orbit is only 5 percent longer as the planet is 5 percent farther from its parent star. That star, Kepler-452, is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our sun, has the same temperature, and is 20 percent brighter and has a diameter 10 percent larger. The Kepler-452 system is located 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

"We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth's evolving environment," said Jenkins. "It's awe-inspiring to consider that this planet has spent 6 billion years in the habitable zone of its star; longer than Earth. That's substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet."

SpaceX rocket grounded for a 'couple more months'

in space on (#MA9G)
SpaceX plans to keep its Falcon 9 rocket grounded longer than planned following a launch accident in June that destroyed a space station cargo ship. "We're taking more time than we originally envisioned, but I don't think any one of our customers wants us to race to the cliff and fail again," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said. The cause of the June accident is "an easy problem to go fix," Shotwell said, adding the company would take extra time to "make sure we're not seeing something like that anywhere throughout the vehicle or the supply chain."

The June 28 accident is believed to have been triggered by a flawed support strut in the rocket's upper-stage engine. The metal strut broke about two minutes after the rocket lifted off from Florida, releasing a bottle of helium that caused the second-stage engine to become over-pressurized. Seconds later, the rocket exploded over the Atlantic Ocean. A Dragon cargo ship was destroyed when it hit the water. The accident, along with the failed Oct. 28 launch of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket, has left NASA dependent on Russia and Japan to resupply the $100 billion International Space Station

SpaceX has a backlog of nearly 60 launches, worth more than $7 billion, on its schedule. SpaceX also has been cleared to compete against industry stalwart United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, to fly U.S. military satellites.

NASA to 'lasso' a comet to hitchhike across the solar system

in space on (#KARV)
Traveling around space can be hard and require a lot of fuel, which is part of the reason NASA has a spacecraft concept that would hitch a free ride on one of the many comets and asteroids speeding around our solar system at 22,000 miles per hour (on the slow end). Comet Hitchhiker, developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, would feature a reusable tether system to replace the need for propellant for entering orbit and landing on objects.

The spacecraft would first cast an extendable tether toward the object and attach itself using a harpoon attached to the tether. Next, it would reel out the tether while applying a brake that harvests energy while the spacecraft accelerates. This allows Comet Hitchhiker to accelerate and slowly match the speed of its ride, and keeping that slight tension on the line harvests energy that is stored on-board for later use, reeling itself down to the surface of the comet or asteroid. A comet hitchhiker spacecraft can obtain up to ~10 km/s of delta-V by using a carbon nanotube (CNT) tether, reaching the current orbital distance of Pluto (32.6 AU) in just 5.6 years.

New Horizons to be first spacecraft to visit icy Kuiper Belt after historic Pluto mission

in space on (#JYWP)
The New Horizons spacecraft - currently 3 billion miles [4.9 billion kilometers] from Earth - is just starting to transmit the bulk of the images and other data, stored on its digital recorders, from its historic July encounter with the Pluto system. Now, NASA scientists have revealed plans to send the spacecraft on another survey mission to a distant and small Kuiper Belt object (KBO), dubbed 2014 MU69, around one billion miles away from Pluto.

Unlike asteroids, KBOs have been heated only slightly by the Sun, and are thought to represent a well preserved, deep-freeze sample of what the outer solar system was like following its birth 4.6 billion years ago. 'The detailed images and other data that New Horizons could obtain from a KBO flyby will revolutionize our understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs.' A visit to the Kuiper Belt will take the spacecraft truly into the unknown. Little is understood about the mysterious dots of light that orbit out there.

It will become the first spacecraft to visit one of the icy blocks encircling our solar system in the ring of debris called the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons will perform a series of four maneuverers in late October and early November to set its course toward 2014 MU69, which it expects to reach on January 1, 2019. Any delays from those dates would cost precious fuel and add mission risk. After that, the spacecraft will continue to glide out beyond our solar system into the galaxy almost unchanged for eternity, but it will only be possible to maintain contact and perform observations with it while its nuclear power source lasts, which could be another 20 years.

There is now a public campaign to push NASA to into allocating the funds necessary to extend the New Horizons mission by writing to members of congress. Campaigners have calculated that it costs $0.15 per American per year for the New Horizons mission.

Previous story: