Eclipse Balloons To Study Effect Of Mars-Like Environment On Life

Steps forward in the search for life beyond Earth can be as simple as sending a balloon into the sky. In one of the most unique and extensive eclipse observation campaigns ever attempted, NASA is collaborating with student teams across the U.S. to do just that.

A larger initiative, NASA’s Eclipse Balloon Project, led by Angela Des Jardins of Montana State University, is sending more than 50 high-altitude balloons launched by student teams across the U.S. to livestream aerial footage of the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse from the edge of space to NASA’s website.

“Total solar eclipses are rare and awe-inspiring events. Nobody has ever live-streamed aerial video footage of a total solar eclipse before,” said Angela Des Jardins. “By live-streaming it on the Internet, we are providing people across the world an opportunity to experience the eclipse in a unique way, even if they are not able to see the eclipse directly.”

A research group at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley, is seizing the opportunity to conduct a low-cost experiment on 34 of the balloons. This experiment, called MicroStrat, will simulate life’s ability to survive beyond Earth—and maybe even on Mars.

“The August solar eclipse gives us a rare opportunity to study the stratosphere when it’s even more Mars-like than usual,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “With student teams flying balloon payloads from dozens of points along the path of totality, we’ll study effects on microorganisms that are coming along for the ride.”

NASA will provide each team with two small metal cards, each the size of a dog tag. The cards have harmless, yet environmentally resilient bacteria dried onto their surface. One card will fly up with the balloon while the other remains on the ground. A comparison of the two will show the consequences of the exposure to Mars-like conditions, such as bacterial survival and any genetic changes.

The results of the experiment will improve NASA’s understanding of environmental limits for terrestrial life, in order to inform our search for life on other worlds.

Mars’ atmosphere at the surface is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s, with cooler temperatures and more radiation. Under normal conditions, the upper portion of our stratosphere is similar to these Martian conditions, with its cold, thin atmosphere and exposure to radiation, due to its location above most of Earth’s protective ozone layer. Temperatures where the balloons fly can reach minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit (about minus 37 Celsius) or colder, with pressures about a hundredth of that at sea level.

During the eclipse, the similarities to Mars only increase. The Moon will buffer the full blast of radiation and heat from the Sun, blocking certain ultraviolet rays that are less abundant in the Martian atmosphere and bringing the temperature down even further.

“Performing a coordinated balloon microbiology experiment across the entire continental United States seems impossible under normal circumstances,” said David J. Smith of Ames, principal investigator for the experiment and mentor for the Space Life Science Training Program, the intern group developing flight hardware and logistics for this study. “The solar eclipse on August 21st is enabling unprecedented exploration through citizen scientists and students. After this experiment flies, we will have about 10 times more samples to analyze than all previously flown stratosphere microbiology missions combined.”

Student Teams Observing the Eclipse

Beyond the opportunity for NASA to conduct science, this joint project provides the opportunity for students as young as 10 years old to be exposed to the scientific method and astrobiology—research about life beyond Earth. Since ballooning is such an accessible and low-cost technique, the project has attracted student teams from Puerto Rico to Alaska.

The data collected by the teams will be analyzed by NASA scientists at Ames and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California; collaborators at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; scientists funded by the National Science Foundation and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration; faculty members and students at the teams’ institutions, as well as the public.

“This project will not only provide insight into how bacterial life responds to Mars-like conditions, we are engaging and inspiring the next generation of scientists,” said Green. “Through this exciting ‘piggyback’ mission, NASA is collaborating with scientists of the future to take a small step in the search for life beyond our planet.”

European Space Agency Gives Go-Ahead For LISA Mission for 2034

After years of delays and sluggish development process, the highly ambitious Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission has finally received authorization from the European Space Agency (ESA), confirmed an official announcement.

The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) is a proposed mission of the European Space Agency which is intended to find out and precisely measure the enigmatic gravitational waves – the tiny ripples located in the material of space-time. With the help of astronomical sources, the LISA mission will help astronauts learning more about the gravitational waves, Earth-like planets, and deep-space cataclysms. LISA is also the very first dedicated mission to detect the space-based gravitational waves. By employing the technique of laser interferometers, LISA will collect information about the mysterious objects and topics of the celestial realm.

Years back, the LISA project was commenced as a collaborative mission between National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). However, in 2011, because of the limitations in funding, NASA stepped back from the mission, and since then, the project was on the backburner. However, after almost six years, in a bid to take the long-standing project forward, the panel of ESA has given the LISA project “Go-Ahead” label, confirmed a senior official of ESA – Mark McCaughrean.

As said by Mark McCaughrean, the senior adviser of ESA for science & exploration, “There is a mixed feeling of super-enthusiasm and “at last”. We’re finally standing at the starting line of LISA, and the green light for the mission is already on – it’s so great.”

As per the official source, the design of LISA consists of three indistinguishable satellites which will orbit the Sun in a triangle motion. Each satellite will move at 2.5 million kilometers away from the next. The side layers of the triangle, made of satellites will be powerful enough to bounce the lasers to and from the spacecraft. Whenever any large celestial objects like black holes pass through space, they will create gravitational waves, and following the event, satellites of LISA will track down how these gravitational wields distort space through infinitesimal alterations in the distance covered by the laser beams.

As ESA said, for detecting these minuscule alterations, on a scale of lower than a trillionth of a metre, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna satellite will pay no heed to cosmic rays as well as those tiny particles and light, emitted by the Sun.

Being a truly large-scale space mission, LISA project will help scientists learning more about one of the world’s most indefinable astronomical phenomena – gravitational waves. With LISA, astronomers will be capable of observing the entire cosmos directly with the enigmatic gravitational waves. Apart from this, the mission will also help them learn about the configuration of stellar evolution, formation of galactic structures and galaxies, the early universe, and the arrangement and qualities of space-time itself.

BREAKING NEWS: New Study Suggests Electric Discharge Between Earth’s Core and Magnetic Field

This news release highlights the observation of charged particles in the form of what is sometimes described as “sprites”, which is an electrical discharge which surges from “below” to “above”. It is similar to the mechanics of a local lightening/thunderstorm we witness here on Earth. To the typical observer, it appears that lightening comes down from the heavens and strikes the Earth; however, it is the intense impulse of charge which comes from the ground which produces high voltage.

The existence of these upper atmosphere sprites has been reported by pilots for years sparking a healthy debate as to their cause and how they exist. ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen during his mission on the International Space Station in 2015 was asked to take pictures over thunderstorms with the most sensitive camera on the orbiting outpost to look for these brief features.

Denmark’s National Space Institute has now published the results of photos taken by ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, of upper atmosphere discharges, sometimes referred to as blue lightening or ‘sprites’. The video taken by Mogensen were from the (ISS) International Space Station. (shown below)

The cause or effects of these charged particle events are not well understood. Researched data does suggest a connection between Earth’s magnetic field and Earth’s core. With this hypothesis as a foundation, my personal research suggest a continued conjunction goes beyond our Heliosphere and into our galaxy Milky Way.

The blue discharges and jets are examples of a little-understood part of our atmosphere called the heliosphere. The Heliosphere is the outer atmosphere of the Sun and marks the edge of the Sun’s magnetic influence in space. The solar wind that streams out in all directions from the rotating Sun is a magnetic plasma, and it fills the vast space between the planets in our solar system.

The magnetic plasma from the Sun does not conjoin with the magnetic plasma between the stars in our galaxy, allowing the solar wind carves out a bubble-like atmosphere that shields our solar system from the majority of galactic cosmic rays.

Andreas concludes, “It is not every day that you get to capture a new weather phenomenon on film, so I am very pleased with the result – but even more so that researchers will be able to investigate these intriguing thunderstorms in more detail soon.”

Both Push and Pull Drive Our Galaxy’s Race Through Space

Although we can’t feel it, we’re in constant motion: the earth spins on its axis at about 1,600 km/h; it orbits around the Sun at about 100,000 km/h; the Sun orbits our Milky Way galaxy at about 850,000 km/h; and the Milky Way galaxy and its companion galaxy Andromeda are moving with respect to the expanding universe at roughly 2 million km/h (630 km per second). But what is propelling the Milky Way’s race through space?

Until now, scientists assumed that a dense region of the universe is pulling us toward it, in the same way that gravity made Newton’s apple fall to earth. The initial “prime suspect” was called the Great Attractor, a region of a half dozen rich clusters of galaxies 150 million lightyears from the Milky Way. Soon after, attention was drawn to an area of more than two dozen rich clusters, called the Shapley Concentration, which sits 600 million lightyears beyond the Great Attractor.

Now researchers led by Prof. Yehuda Hoffman at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem report that our galaxy is not only being pulled, but also pushed. In a new study in the forthcoming issue of Nature Astronomy, they describe a previously unknown, very large region in our extragalactic neighborhood. Largely devoid of galaxies, this void exerts a repelling force on our Local Group of galaxies.

“By 3-d mapping the flow of galaxies through space, we found that our Milky Way galaxy is speeding away from a large, previously unidentified region of low density. Because it repels rather than attracts, we call this region the Dipole Repeller,” said Prof. Yehuda Hoffman. “In addition to being pulled towards the known Shapley Concentration, we are also being pushed away from the newly discovered Dipole Repeller. Thus it has become apparent that push and pull are of comparable importance at our location.”

The presence of such a low density region has been suggested previously, but confirming the absence of galaxies by observation has proved challenging. But in this new study, Hoffman, at the Hebrew university’s Racah Institutes of Physics, working with colleagues in the USA and France, tried a different approach.

Using powerful telescopes, among them the Hubble Space Telescope, they constructed a 3-dimensional map of the galaxy flow field. Flows are direct responses to the distribution of matter, away from regions that are relatively empty and toward regions of mass concentration; the large scale structure of the universe is encoded in the ?ow ?eld of galaxies.

They studied the peculiar velocities – those in excess of the Universe’s rate of expansion – of galaxies around the Milky Way, combining different datasets of peculiar velocities with a rigorous statistical analysis of their properties. They thereby inferred the underlying mass distribution that consists of dark matter and luminous galaxies—over-dense regions that attract and under-dense ones that repel.

By identifying the Dipole Repeller, the researchers were able to reconcile both the direction of the Milky Way’s motion and its magnitude. They expect that future ultra-sensitive surveys at optical, near-infrared and radio wavelengths will directly identify the few galaxies expected to lie in this void, and directly confirm the void associated with the Dipole Repeller.

Fermi Sees Gamma Rays from ‘Hidden’ Solar Flares

An international science team says NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has observed high-energy light from solar eruptions located on the far side of the Sun, which should block direct light from these events. This apparent paradox is providing solar scientists with a unique tool for exploring how charged particles are accelerated to nearly the speed of light and move across the Sun during solar flares.

“Fermi is seeing gamma rays from the side of the Sun we’re facing, but the emission is produced by streams of particles blasted out of solar flares on the far side of the Sun,” said Nicola Omodei, a researcher at Stanford University in California. “These particles must travel some 300,000 miles within about five minutes of the eruption to produce this light.”

Omodei presented the findings on Monday, Jan. 30, at the American Physical Society meeting in Washington, and a paper describing the results will be published online in The Astrophysical Journal on Jan. 31.

Fermi has doubled the number of these rare events, called behind-the-limb flares, since it began scanning the sky in 2008. Its Large Area Telescope (LAT) has captured gamma rays with energies reaching 3 billion electron volts, some 30 times greater than the most energetic light previously associated with these “hidden” flares.

Thanks to NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft, which were monitoring the solar far side when the eruptions occurred, the Fermi events mark the first time scientists have direct imaging of beyond-the-limb solar flares associated with high-energy gamma rays.

“Observations by Fermi’s LAT continue to have a significant impact on the solar physics community in their own right, but the addition of STEREO observations provides extremely valuable information of how they mesh with the big picture of solar activity,” said Melissa Pesce-Rollins, a researcher at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Pisa, Italy, and a co-author of the paper.

The hidden flares occurred Oct. 11, 2013, and Jan. 6 and Sept. 1, 2014. All three events were associated with fast coronal mass ejections (CMEs), where billion-ton clouds of solar plasma were launched into space. The CME from the most recent event was moving at nearly 5 million miles an hour as it left the Sun. Researchers suspect particles accelerated at the leading edge of the CMEs were responsible for the gamma-ray emission.

Large magnetic field structures can connect the acceleration site with distant part of the solar surface. Because charged particles must remain attached to magnetic field lines, the research team thinks particles accelerated at the CME traveled to the Sun’s visible side along magnetic field lines connecting both locations. As the particles impacted the surface, they generated gamma-ray emission through a variety of processes. One prominent mechanism is thought to be proton collisions that result in a particle called a pion, which quickly decays into gamma rays.

In its first eight years, Fermi has detected high-energy emission from more than 40 solar flares. More than half of these are ranked as moderate, or M class, events. In 2012, Fermi caught the highest-energy emission ever detected from the Sun during a powerful X-class flare, from which the LAT detected high­energy gamma rays for more than 20 record-setting hours.

Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope Discovers Most Extreme Blazars Yet

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has identified the farthest gamma-ray blazars, a type of galaxy whose intense emissions are powered by supersized black holes. Light from the most distant object began its journey to us when the universe was 1.4 billion years old, or nearly 10 percent of its present age.

“Despite their youth, these far-flung blazars host some of the most massive black holes known,” said Roopesh Ojha, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “That they developed so early in cosmic history challenges current ideas of how supermassive black holes form and grow, and we want to find more of these objects to help us better understand the process.”

Ojha presented the findings Monday, Jan. 30, at the American Physical Society meeting in Washington, and a paper describing the results has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Blazars constitute roughly half of the gamma-ray sources detected by Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT). Astronomers think their high-energy emissions are powered by matter heated and torn apart as it falls from a storage, or accretion, disk toward a supermassive black hole with a million or more times the sun’s mass. A small part of this infalling material becomes redirected into a pair of particle jets, which blast outward in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. Blazars appear bright in all forms of light, including gamma rays, the highest-energy light, when one of the jets happens to point almost directly toward us.

Previously, the most distant blazars detected by Fermi emitted their light when the universe was about 2.1 billion years old. Earlier observations showed that the most distant blazars produce most of their light at energies right in between the range detected by the LAT and current X-ray satellites, which made finding them extremely difficult.

Then, in 2015, the Fermi team released a full reprocessing of all LAT data, called Pass 8, that ushered in so many improvements astronomers said it was like having a brand new instrument. The LAT’s boosted sensitivity at lower energies increased the chances of discovering more far-off blazars.

The research team was led by Vaidehi Paliya and Marco Ajello at Clemson University in South Carolina and included Dario Gasparrini at the Italian Space Agency’s Science Data Center in Rome as well as Ojha. They began by searching for the most distant sources in a catalog of 1.4 million quasars, a galaxy class closely related to blazars. Because only the brightest sources can be detected at great cosmic distances, they then eliminated all but the brightest objects at radio wavelengths from the list. With a final sample of about 1,100 objects, the scientists then examined LAT data for all of them, resulting in the detection of five new gamma-ray blazars.

Expressed in terms of redshift, astronomers’ preferred measure of the deep cosmos, the new blazars range from redshift 3.3 to 4.31, which means the light we now detect from them started on its way when the universe was between 1.9 and 1.4 billion years old, respectively.

“Once we found these sources, we collected all the available multiwavelength data on them and derived properties like the black hole mass, the accretion disk luminosity, and the jet power,” said Paliya.

Two of the blazars boast black holes of a billion solar masses or more. All of the objects possess extremely luminous accretion disks that emit more than two trillion times the energy output of our sun. This means matter is continuously falling inward, corralled into a disk and heated before making the final plunge to the black hole.

“The main question now is how these huge black holes could have formed in such a young universe,” said Gasparrini. “We don’t know what mechanisms triggered their rapid development.”

In the meantime, the team plans to continue a deep search for additional examples.

“We think Fermi has detected just the tip of the iceberg, the first examples of a galaxy population that previously has not been detected in gamma rays,” said Ajello.