The white spot on Ceres in a series of new photos taken on Jan. 13 by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is rapidly approaching the round dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. But when the initial photo release on Monday (Jan. 19), the Dawn scientists gave no indication of what the white dot might be.
“Yes, we can confirm that it is something on Ceres that reflects more sunlight, but what that is remains a mystery,” Marc Rayman, mission director and chief engineer for the Dawn mission, told Space.com in an email.
The new images show areas of light and dark on the face of Ceres, which indicate surface features like craters. But at the moment, none of the specific features can be resolved, including the white spot.
“We do not know what the white spot is, but it’s certainly intriguing,” Rayman said. “In fact, it makes you want to send a spacecraft there to find out, and of course that is exactly what we are doing! So as Dawn brings Ceres into sharper focus, we will be able to see with exquisite detail what [the white spot] is.”
Ceres is a unique object in our solar system. It is the largest object in the asteroid belt and is classified as an asteroid. It is simultaneously classified as a dwarf planet, and at 590 miles across (950 kilometers, or about the size of Texas), Ceres is the smallest known dwarf planet in the solar system.
The $466 million Dawn spacecraft is set to enter into orbit around Ceres on March 6. Dawn left Earth in 2007 and in the summer of 2011, it made a year-long pit stop at the asteroid Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt.
While Vesta shared many properties with our solar system’s inner planets, scientists with the Dawn mission suspect that Ceres has more in common with the outer most planets. 25 percent of Ceres’ mass is thought to be composed of water, which would mean the space rock contains even more fresh water than Earth. Scientists have observed water vapor plumes erupting off the surface of Ceres, which may erupt from volcano-like ice geysers.
The mysterious white spot captured by the Dawn probe is one more curious feature of this already intriguing object.
A NASA probe is about to get the first up-close look at a potentially habitable alien world.
In March 2015, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres is a relatively warm and wet body that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Jovian moon Europa and the Saturn satellite Enceladus, both of which may be capable of supporting life as we know it, some researchers say.
“I don’t think Ceres is less interesting in terms of astrobiology than other potentially habitable worlds,” Jian-Yang Li, of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said Thursday (Dec. 18) during a talk here at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
Life as we know it requires three main ingredients, Li said: liquid water, an energy source and certain chemical building blocks (namely, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur).
The dwarf planet Ceres — which is about 590 miles (950 kilometers) wide — is thought to have a lot of water, based on its low overall density (2.09 grams per cubic centimeter; compared to 5.5 g/cubic cm for Earth). Ceres is likely a differentiated body with a rocky core and a mantle comprised of water ice, researchers say, and water-bearing minerals have been detected on its surface.
Indeed, water appears to make up about 40 percent of Ceres’ volume, Li said.
“Ceres is actually the largest water reservoir in the inner solar system other than the Earth,” he said. However, it’s unclear at the moment how much, if any, of this water is liquid, he added.
As far as energy goes, Ceres has access to a decent amount via solar heating, since the dwarf planet lies just 2.8 astronomical units (AU) from the sun, Li said. (One AU is the distance between Earth and the sun — about 93 million miles, or 150 million km). Europa and Enceladus are much farther away from our star — 5.2 and 9 AU, respectively.
Both Europa and Enceladus possess stores of internal heat, which is generated by tidal forces. This heat keeps the ice-covered moons’ subsurface oceans of liquid water from freezing up, and also drives the eruption of water-vapor plumes on Enceladus (and probably Europa as well; researchers announced last year that NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope spotted water vapor erupting from the Jupiter moon in December 2012).
Intriguingly, scientists announced the discovery of water-vapor emission from Ceres — which may also possess a subsurface ocean — earlier this year.
Ceres’ plumes may or may not be evidence of internal heat, Li said. For example, they may result when water ice near Ceres’ surface is heated by sunlight and warms enough to sublimate into space.
“Right now, we just don’t know much about the outgassing on Ceres,” Li said.
Dawn should help bring Ceres into much clearer focus when it reaches the dwarf planet this spring. The spacecraft, which orbited the huge asteroid Vesta from July 2011 through September 2012, will map Ceres’ surface in detail and beam home a great deal of information about the body’s geology and thermal conditions before the scheduled end of its prime mission in July 2015.
Ground-based instruments should also play a role in unveiling Ceres. For example, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA — a huge system of radio dishes in Chile — has the ability to probe deeper than Dawn, going into Ceres’ subsurface and shedding more light on the dwarf planet’s composition and thermal properties, Li said.
“This is highly complementary to the Dawn mission,” he said.
Ceres’ relative proximity to Earth also makes it an attractive target for future space missions, Li added.
The oceans soured into a deadly sulfuric-acid stew after the huge asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, a new study suggests.
Eighty percent of the planet’s species died off at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65.5 million years ago, including most marine life in the upper ocean, as well as swimmers and drifters in lakes and rivers. Scientists blame this mass extinction on the asteroid or comet impact that created the Chicxulub crater in the Gulf of Mexico.
A new model of the disaster finds that the impact would have inundated Earth’s atmosphere with sulfur trioxide, from sulfate-rich marine rocks called anhydrite vaporized by the blast. Once in the air, the sulfur would have rapidly transformed into sulfuric acid, generating massive amounts of acid rain within a few days of the impact, according to the study, published today (March 9) in the journal Nature Geoscience.
The model helps explain why most deep-sea marine life survived the mass extinction while surface dwellers disappeared from the fossil record, the researchers said. The intense acid rainfall only spiked the upper surface of the ocean with sulfuric acid, leaving the deeper waters as a refuge. The model could also account for another extinction mystery: the so-called fern spike, revealed by a massive increase in fossil fern pollen just after the impact. Ferns are one of the few plants that tolerate ground saturated in acidic water, the researchers said.
The Chicxulub impact devastated the Earth with more than just acid rain. Other killer effects included tsunamis, a global firestorm and soot from burning plants. [The 10 Best Ways to Destroy Earth]
The ocean-acidification theory has been put forth before, but some scientists questioned whether the impact would have produced enough global acid rain to account for the worldwide extinction of marine life. For example, the ejected sulfur could have been sulfur dioxide, which tends to hang out in the atmosphere instead of forming aerosols that become acid rain.
Lead author Sohsuke Ohno, of the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan, and his co-authors simulated the Chicxulub impact conditions in a lab, zapping sulfur-rich anhydrite rocks with a laser to mimic the forces of an asteroid colliding with Earth. The resulting vapor was mostly sulfur trioxide, rather than sulfur dioxide, the researchers found. In Earth’s atmosphere, the sulfur trioxide would have quickly combined with water to form sulfuric acid aerosols. These aerosols played a key role in quickly getting sulfur out of the sky and into the ocean, the researchers said. The tiny droplets likely stuck to pulverized silicate rock debris raining down on the planet, thus removing sulfuric acid from the atmosphere in just a matter of days.
“Our experimental results indicate that sulfur trioxide is expected to be the major sulfide component in the sulfur oxide gas released during the impact,” Ohno told Live Science in an email interview. “In addition to that, by the scavenging or sweeping out of acid aerosols by coexisting silicate particles, sulfuric acid would have settled to the ground surface within a very short time,” Ohno said.
In an effort to advance technologies needed to get astronauts to an asteroid orMars , NASA wants to get back to the moon. The space agency needs robotic technology to help them get there.
The robotic machine NASA wants to build must be able to ferry cargo weighing 66 pounds to 1,102 pounds to various lunar sites.
The space agency is seeking proposals from the private sector and plans to create a partnership to build robotic a lunar lander..
The program is dubbed Lunar CATALYST, for Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown.
“As NASA pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, U.S. industry will create opportunities for NASA to advance new technologies on the moon,” said Greg Williams, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “[This] will help us advance our goals to reach farther destinations.”
NASA noted that, in a partnership, the agency would be able to contribute the technical expertise of NASA staff, access to NASA center test facilities, equipment loans, and software for lander development and testing.
NASA will host a pre-proposal teleconference on Jan. 27 to giving companies a chance to ask questions about the program.
Proposals are due by March 17. The winners are expected to be announced in April.
A NASA asteroid-hunting spacecraft has opened its eyes in preparation for a renewed mission, beaming home its first images in more than 2.5 years.
The Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft, or NEOWISE, has taken its first set of test images since being reactivated in September after a 31-month-long hibernation, NASA officials announced today (Dec. 19). The space agency wants NEOWISE to resume its hunt for potentially dangerous asteroids, some of which could be promising targets for future human exploration.
“The spacecraft is in excellent health, and the new images look just as good as they were before hibernation,” Amy Mainzer, principal investigator for NEOWISE at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. [Photos: Asteroids in Deep Space]
“Over the next weeks and months we will be gearing up our ground-based data processing and expect to get back into the asteroid-hunting business, and acquire our first previously undiscovered space rock, in the next few months,” Mainzer added.
NEOWISE began its scientific life as WISE, which launched to Earth orbit in December 2009 on a 10-month mission to scan the entire sky in infrared light. WISE catalogued about 560 million celestial objects, ranging from faraway galaxies to nearby asteroids and comets, NASA officials have said.
WISE ran out of hydrogen coolant in October 2010, making two of its four infrared detectors inoperable. But NASA didn’t shut the probe down at this point; rather, the agency granted a four-month mission extension known as NEOWISE, which focused on hunting asteroids. (The satellite could still spot nearby objects with its other two detectors, which did not have to be super-cooled).
NEOWISE discovered more than 34,000 asteroids and characterized 158,000 space rocks before being shut down in February 2011, NASA officials said.
And the spacecraft is now gearing up for another three-year space-rock hunt, partly to help find potential targets for NASA’s ambitious asteroid-capture project. This “Asteroid Initiative,” which was announced in April, seeks to drag a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon, where it would be visited by astronauts using the agency’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew vehicle.
The plan represents a way to meet a major goal laid out by President Barack Obama, who in 2010 directed NASA to get astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, then on to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s.
NEOWISE employs a 16-inch (40 centimeters) telescope and infrared cameras to find previously unknown asteroids and gauge the size, reflectivity and thermal properties of space rocks, NASA officials said.
“It is important that we accumulate as much of this type of data as possible while the spacecraft remains a viable asset,” said Lindley Johnson, NASA’s NEOWISE program executive in Washington. “NEOWISE is an important element to enhance our ability to support the [asteroid] initiative.”
Saturn’s iconic rings likely formed about 4.4 billion years ago, shortly after the planet itself took shape, a new study suggests.
The origin of Saturn’s ring system has long been the subject of debate, with some researchers arguing that it’s a relatively young structure and others holding that it coalesced long ago, at roughly the same time as the gas giant’s many satellites.
The new study, conducted using data gathered by NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft, strongly supports the latter scenario, researchers said here Tuesday (Dec. 10) at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. [Photos: Saturn's Glorious Rings Up Close]
Cassini’s measurements imply that “the main rings would be [extremely] old, rather than hundreds of millions of years old,” Sascha Kempf, of the University of Colorado in Boulder, said.
Saturn’s main ring system is huge but razor-thin, measuring about 175,000 miles (280,000 kilometers) across but just 33 feet (10 meters) or so in the vertical direction. The rings are composed primarily of water ice, but they contain small amounts of rocky material contributed by micrometeoroid bombardment.
Kempf and his colleagues used Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer instrument to measure just how frequently such tiny particles cruise through the Saturn system.
They found that a surprisingly small amount of dusty material comes into contact with the rings. On average, just 0.0000000000000000001 grams — or, in scientific notation, 10^-19 g — of dust per square centimeter zooms through space every second at a distance of five to 50 Saturn radii from the planet.
Having measured this low rate of dust recruitment, the team then calculated that the rings have likely existed for about 4.4 billion years.
“It would be consistent with an old ring system,” Kempf said.
Kempf and his colleagues were also able to reconstruct the orbits of many of these particles, finding that the lion’s share likely come from the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit. However, some of the dust probably hails from the even more distant Oort Cloud and some from interstellar space, Kempf said.
That makes the Saturn-area dust quite different from the stuff seen near Earth and other parts of the inner solar system — a situation caused by Jupiter and its huge gravitational pull.
“Jupiter is basically splitting the solar system with respect to the dust into an inner and an outer system,” Kempf said.
The $3.2 billion Cassini mission launched in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004. The mission’s operations have been extended through 2017, when the spacecraft will end its life with a dramatic plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.
The dwarf planet Ceres, which orbits the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is a unique body in the solar system, bearing many similarities to Jupiter’s moon Europaand Saturn’s moon Enceladus, both considered to be potential sources for harboring life.
“I think of Ceres actually as a game changer in the solar system,” Schmidt said.
“Ceres is arguably the only one of its kind.”
The innermost icy body
When Ceres was discovered in 1801, astronomers first classified it as a planet. The massive body traveled between Mars and Jupiter, where scientists had mathematically predicted a planet should lie. Further observations revealed that a number of small bodies littered the region, and Ceres was downgraded to just another asteroid within the asteroid belt. It wasn’t until Pluto was classified as a dwarf planetin 2006 that Ceres was upgraded to the same level.
Ceres is the most massive body in the asteroid belt, and larger than some of the icy moons scientists consider ideal for hosting life. It is twice the size of Enceladus, Saturn’s geyser-spouting moon that may hide liquid water beneath its surface.
Unlike other asteroids, the Texas-sized Cereshas a perfectly rounded shape that hints toward its origins.
“The fact that Ceres is so round tells us that it almost certainly had to form in the early solar system,” Schmidt said. She explained that a later formation would have created a less rounded shape.
The shape of the dwarf planet, combined with its size and total mass, reveal a body of incredibly low density.
“Underneath this dusty, dirty, clay-type surface, we think that Ceres might be icy,” Schmidt said. “It could potentially have had an ocean at one point in its history.”
“The difference between Ceres and other icy bodies [in the solar system] is that it’s the closest to the sun,” Castillo-Rogez said.
Less than three times as far as Earth from the sun, Ceres is close enough to feel the warmth of the star, allowing ice to melt and reform.
Investigating the interior of the dwarf planet could provide insight into the early solar system, especially locations where water and other volatiles might have existed.
“Ceres is like the gatekeeper to the history of water in the middle solar system,” Schmidt said.
Studying the surface
As large as Ceres is, its distance has made it a challenge to study from Earth. Images taken by the space-based Hubble Space Telescope provided some insight to its surface, but to be sighted, features could be no larger than 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) in diameter.
Several round circular spots mar the terrain, features which Schmidt said could be any one of a number of geologic terrains, including potentially impact basins or chaos terrains similar to those found on Europa. The largest of these, named Piazzi in honor of the dwarf planet’s discoverer, has a diameter of about 250 km (155 miles). If this feature is an impact basin, it would have been formed by an object approximately 25 km (15.5 miles) in size.
But for Schmidt, this is another possible indication about the dwarf planet’s surface.
“It doesn’t mean that Ceres hasn’t been hit by something bigger than 25 kilometers,” she said. “It just means that whatever is going on on Ceres has totally erased [the topographic signature of that event].”
Ceres may have suffered major impacts, especially during periods of heavy bombardment early in the solar system’s history. If the surface contained ice, however, those features may have been erased.
Telescopes on Earth have also been able to study the light reflecting from the planet and read its spectra.
“The spectrum is telling you that water has been involved in the creation of materials on the surface,” Schmidt said.
The spectrum indicates that water is bound up in the material on the surface of Ceres, forming a clay. Schmidt compared it to the recent talk of mineralsfound by NASA’s Curiosityon the surface of Mars. [The Search for Life on Mars (A Photo Timeline)]
“[Water is] literally bathing the surface of Ceres,” she said.
In addition, astronomers have found evidence of carbonates, minerals that form in a process involving water and heat. Carbonates are often produced by living processes.
The original material formed with Ceres has mixed with impacting material over the last 4.5 billion years, creating what Schmidt calls “this mixture of water-rich materials that we find on habitable planets like the Earth and potentially habitable planets like Mars.”
A prime site for life?
Water is considered a necessary ingredient for the evolution of life as we know it. Planets that may have once contained water, such as Mars, as well as moons that could contain it today, like Enceladus and Europa, are all thought to be ideal for hosting or having once hosted life.
Because of its size and closeness, Schmidt calls Ceres “arguably more interesting than some of these icy satellites.”
“If it’s icy, it had to have an ocean at some point in time,” she said.
Castillo-Rogez compared Earth, Europa, and Ceres, and found that the dwarf planet bore many similarities to Earth, perhaps more than Jupiter’s icy moon. Both Earth and Ceres use the Sun as a key heat source, while Europa takes its heat from its tidal interaction with Jupiter. In addition, the surface temperature of the dwarf planet averages 130 to 200 degrees Kelvin, compared to Earth’s 300 K, while Europa is a frosty 50 to 110 K.
“At least at the equator where the surface is warmer, Ceres could have preserved a liquid of sorts,” Castillo-Rogez said.
Liquid water could exist at other points on the dwarf planet known as cold traps, shadowed areas where frozen water could remain on the surface. Such icy puddles have been found on Earth’s moon. [Photos: Europa, Mysterious, Icy Moon of Jupiter]
“The chemistry, thermal activity, the heat source, and the prospect for convection within the ice shell are the key ones that make us think that Ceres could have been habitableat least at some point in its history,” Castillo-Rogez said.
The future of Ceres
As scientists develop more information about Europa and Enceladus, there has been a greater call to investigate the two prime sites for life. But Schmidt and Castillo-Rogez think that Ceres could also be a great boon for astrobiology and space exploration.
“It’s not a difficult environment to investigate,” she said. “As we think about the future of landed missions for people and rovers, why not go to Ceres?”
Though it would be more challenging to drill into than Europa, which boasts an icy surface layer, the dwarf planet would make a great site to rove around on. Schmidt also noted that it could make a great launching point when it comes to reaching the outer solar system. Its smaller mass would make it easier to land on — and leave — than Mars, which could make it a good site for manned missions.
“We have such a big planet bias, we have such a bias for things that look exactly like us,” Schmidt said.
“In this kind of special place in the solar system, we have a very unique object that might be telling us a lot about what we don’t know about building a habitable planet.”
NASA’s Dawn mission launched September 27, 2007. It traveled to the asteroid Vesta, where it remained in orbit from July 2011 to July 2012 before heading to Ceres. It is slated to spend five months studying the dwarf planet, though Schmidt expressed hope that the craft would continue working beyond the nominal mission, allowing the team to study the icy body even longer.
Castillo-Rogez pointed out that not only will Dawn reach Ceres in 2015, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft will be escorting the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko around the sun that year, while NASA’s New Horizons mission will be reaching Pluto and its moon Charon.
“’15 is going to be a great year for icy bodies,” Castillo-Rogez said.
“I think when we get to Ceres, it’s just going to be an absolute game changer, a new window into the solar system that we wouldn’t have without going there,” Schmidt said.
The space agency announced on Thursday that it’s teaming with Worcester Polytechnic Institute to challenge teams from academia and industry to build a smart robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples while maneuvering over rugged terrain on an asteroid or Mars.
Registration is open for the competition that will be judged in June 2014. For the challenge, dubbed the Sample Return Robot, NASA is putting up the $1.5 million in prize money, which will be dispersed among teams who complete certain levels of the competition. More information is available from the WPI website.
“The objective of the competition is to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies that NASA could incorporate into future missions,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, in a statement. “Innovations stemming from this challenge may improve NASA’s capability to explore an asteroid or Mars, and advance robotic technology for use in industries and applications here on Earth.”
This isn’t the first time NASA has looked outside its own walls for robotic assistance. Earlier this year, the space agency awarded $5,000 to Team Survey of Los Angeles for successfully completing a 2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge. NASA noted that it expects the 2014 challenge will advance progress already made and expand the field of competing teams.
NASA wants to advance its robotics technology, which has been behind much of its exploration of Mars.
3D printing could help the asteroid-mining industry get off the ground.
Billionaire-backed asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources is teaming up with 3D Systems, whose 3D printing technology will help craft components for the Arkyd line of prospecting spacecraft, officials announced Wednesday (June 26).
The collaboration should help Planetary Resources build certain parts of its Arkyd 100, 200 and 300 probes more cheaply and efficiently, officials said. [Planetary Resources' Asteroid Mining Plan (Photos)]
“We are excited to work very closely with Planetary Resources’ engineering team to use advanced 3D printing and manufacturing technologies to increase functionality while decreasing the cost of their Arkyd spacecraft,” 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental said in a statement.
“In success, we will create the smartphone of spacecraft and transform what has been an old-style, labor-intensive process into something very scalable and affordable that will democratize access to space, the data collected from space and off-Earth resources for scientists and the public,” Reichental added.
Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis said that the use of 3D printing in the production of the Arkyd spacecraft series could help the company achieve its lofty goals.
“We are absolutely thrilled to partner with 3D Systems, the world’s pioneer and leader in 3D printing and advanced manufacturing, as we pursue our vision to expand the resource base beyond Earth,” Diamandis said in a statement. “3D Systems has a long history of inventing, advancing and democratizing manufacturing – and our vision of mass producing the Arkyd 100, 200 and 300 line will greatly benefit from their thinking and technology.”
Planetary Resources officials hope to launch a series of robotic spacecraft into Earth orbit and, eventually, to near-Earth asteroids in order to mine them for resources such as precious metals and water.
The company, which counts Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt among its investors, hopes its efforts help open up the solar system to further human exploration.
The Arkyd 200 and 300 spacecraft will be able to both search for asteroids and fly toward promising targets for closer inspections. Once an asteroid is spotted, Planetary Resources plans to send a group of about five Arkyds out to the space rock, Diamandis said during a recent Google+ Hangout.
The Arkyd 100, on the other hand, will scout for space rocks from Earth orbit.
The first Arkyd 100 is expected to launch in 2015. Planetary Resources has pledged to make one of these satellites the first publicly accessible space telescope ever sent into orbit. The telescope will search for asteroids and take “space-selfies” crafted from user-submitted photos.
Nearly 15,000 people have contributed more than $1.2 million to help build Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 100 through the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 100 Kickstarter campaign ends on June 30 at 10 p.m. EDT (0200 July 1 GMT). To mark the end if the Kickstarter campaign, Planetary Resources will hold a three-hour webcast Sunday beginning at 6 p.m. EDT (3 p.m. PDT/2200 GMT) to present its asteroid-mining efforts to the public.
If the campaign reaches $1.7 million, Planetary Resources has pledged to create an “Asteroid Zoo” project in cooperation with Zooniverse, a citizen-science website that helps connect the public with projects in different fields. According to the company, the Asteroid Zoo is envisioned to be “a program to allow students, citizen scientists and space enthusiasts to find potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) at home and help train computers to better find them in the future.”
“Planetary Resources values the power of the connected mind; when working together, we can accomplish much more than any of us can do alone,” Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer for Planetary Resources, said in a statement. “We’re creating this program to harness the public’s interest in space and asteroid detection, while providing a very real benefit to our planet.”
The existence of the distant exoplanets, called Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, was unveiled during a NASA press conference on April 18th. The two worlds are perhaps the most promising life-hosting candidates yet found beyond our solar system, their discoverers said. Computer models suggest both planets are covered by uninterrupted oceans, which could theoretically support a wealth of aquatic lifeforms.
“Look at our own ocean — it is just absolutely full of life,” said Bill Borucki of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., leader of the team that discovered the two exoplanets. “We think, in fact, life [on Earth] might have begun there.” [Habitable Super-Earths Ideal for Life (Gallery)]
Borucki is science principal investigator of NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which spotted Kepler-62e and f. The two alien worlds are 1.6 and 1.4 times bigger than Earth, respectively, and orbit in their star’s habitable zone — the just-right range of distances that can support liquid water on a planet’s surface.
The five-planet Kepler-62 system lies 1,200 light-years away, making it much too distant for current instruments to study in detail. So any talk of potential life on Kepler-62e and f, if it exists at all, is just speculation for now, Borucki stressed.
But such speculation is hard to resist. For example, Borucki raised the possibility that the newfound “super-Earths” — worlds just slightly bigger than our own planet — could host winged organisms, even if both planets are indeed water worlds.
“At least in our ocean, we have flying fish. They ‘fly’ to get away from predators,” Borucki said.
“So we might find that they have evolved — birds — on this ocean planet,” he added, referring to Kepler-62e.
Water worlds are unlikely to host technologically advanced civilizations like our own, Borucki and other researchers said, because any lifeforms that take root there would not have easy access to electricity or fire for metallurgy.
But if Kepler-62e or f has some dry land, Borucki said, the story could be different. The relatively high gravity of both exoplanets, however, might make the evolution of large bipedal organisms such as humans unlikely.
“We might not have gotten off four legs” if our ancestors had evolved on Kepler-62e or f, Borucki said. Still, the gravity isn’t too oppressive; we’d be able to walk around on Kepler-62f’s surface if transported there today, he added.
We’d have to take some special life-support gear if we made that 1,200-light-year journey. While Kepler-62e is likely hot and muggy all the way up to the polar regions, Kepler-62f orbits a bit farther away from the host star and is probably cooler.
In fact, a thick atmosphere with lots of heat-trapping carbon dioxide may be required to keep Kepler-62f’s surface water liquid. Such an atmosphere would be tough for humans to handle.
“If you want to write a science-fiction story, and you land on both [planets], at least be sure that on f you don’t want to take your mask thingy off,” said modeling-study lead author Lisa Kaltenegger, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Kepler-62e and f are part of a trove of seven newfound planets announced today. Kepler spotted three other planets in the Kepler-62 system as well, all of them too hot to support life. The other two worlds are in the Kepler-69 system, which lies about 2,700 light-years from Earth.
The newly discovered Kepler-69c, which is 1.7 times larger than Earth, may also be capable of supporting life, researchers said.
It is time for the private sector to aid in the search for potentially city-destroying asteroids and meteors, lawmakers said during a hearing Wednesday (April 10).
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology made the call while hearing from NASA scientists and private-sector asteroid hunters during a hearing entitled “Threats from Space,” with both groups agreeing that something more needs to be done.
“Detecting asteroids should not be the primary mission of NASA,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said at the hearing. “No doubt the private sector will play an important role as well. We must better recognize what the private sector can do to aid our efforts to protect the world.” [Meteor Streaks over Russia, Explodes (Photos)]
The meeting Wednesday was the second of three aimed at understanding the threat to Earth posed by asteroids in space. The first hearing took place in late March, and addressed the ways governmental entities, like NASA and the Air Force, are mitigating the risks posed by close-flying space rocks. The meetings were scheduled in response to a surprise meteor explosion over Russia and the close flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14 — both of which occurred on Feb. 15.
Astronomers have mapped the orbits of more than 90 percent of the potentially world-ending asteroids in close proximity to the Earth; however, tracking anything smaller than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) in diameter is more difficult, said Ed Lu, the CEO of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit organization in the early stages of building a near-Earth-object-hunting space telescope scheduled for launch in 2018.
“NASA has not even come close to finding and tracking the 1 million smaller asteroids that might only just wipe out a city, or perhaps collapse the world economy if they hit in the wrong place,” Lu said at the hearing.
B612′s space telescope, dubbed Sentinel, will be built to aid in the search for smaller asteroids near Earth. Less than 10 percent of asteroids measuring around 459 feet (140 meters) in diameter have been found, while only 1 percent of all asteroids measuring around 131 feet (40 meters) — or “city killer” range — have been tracked, Lu said.
These city-destroying asteroids are notoriously difficult to track with the ground-based methods used by NASA today because the space rocks are relatively small and dark, said Don Yeomans, the head of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program.
“A dramatic increase in near-Earth asteroid-discovery efficiencies is achievable using space-based infrared telescopes,” Yeomans said at the hearing.
Searching for space rocks in infrared light — as the $240 million Sentinel is expected to do — could allow astronomers to find a larger number of smaller objects that are too dark to be seen in visible light, Yeomans said.
A space-based asteroid hunter is also helpful because it can seek out space rocks at all hours of the day, as opposed to just at night, Yeomans added.
All of these hunting efforts should be put in place to find near-Earth objects well before they could hit the Earth, the panelists said.
At the moment, we have the technology to deflect an asteroid, but scientists won’t be able to use those methods without ample time to implement them, Michael A’Hearn, an astronomer working with the National Research Council, said at the hearing.
But first, the asteroids have to be found, Lu said.
“You can’t deflect an asteroid that you haven’t yet tracked,” Lu said. “Our technology is useless against something we haven’t yet found.”
NASA’s bold plan to drag an asteroid into orbit around the moon may sound like science fiction, but it’s achievable with current technology, experts say.
President Barack Obama’s 2014 federal budget request, which will be unveiled today (April 10), likely includes about $100 million for NASA to jump-start an asteroid-capture mission, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said last week.
The plan aims to place a roughly 23-foot-wide (7 meters) space rock into a stable lunar orbit, where astronauts could begin visiting it as soon as 2021 using NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, Nelson said.
While challenging, the mission is definitely doable, said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of billionaire-backed asteroid-mining firm Planetary Resources. [NASA's Asteroid-Capture Plan (Video)]
“Return of a near-Earth asteroid of this size would require today’s largest launch vehicles and today’s most efficient propulsion systems in order to achieve the mission,” Lewicki, who served as flight director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and surface mission manager for the agency’s Phoenix Mars lander, wrote in a blog post Sunday (April 7).
“Even so, capturing and transporting a small asteroid should be a fairly straightforward affair,” Lewicki added. “Mission cost and complexity are likely on par with missions like the [$2.5 billion] Curiosity Mars rover.”
Spurring solar system exploration
NASA’s idea is similar to one proposed last year by scientists based at Caltech’s Keck Institute for Space Studies in Pasadena.
The Keck study estimated that a robotic spacecraft could drag a 23-foot near-Earth asteroid (NEA) — which would likely weigh about 500 tons — into a high lunar orbit for $2.6 billion. The returns on this initial investment are potentially huge, the researchers said.
“Experience gained via human expeditions to the small returned NEA would transfer directly to follow-on international expeditions beyond the Earth-moon system: to other near-Earth asteroids, [the Mars moons] Phobos and Deimos, Mars and potentially someday to the main asteroid belt,” the Keck team wrote in a feasibility study of their plan.
The mission would also help develop asteroid-mining technology, advocates say, and advance scientists’ understanding of how our solar system took shape more than 4.5 billion years ago.
Asteroids “probably represent samples of the earliest matter that was made available to form our solar system and our Earth,” Caltech’s Paul Dimotakis, a member of the Keck study team, told SPACE.com in February.
“We learned a lot about the moon by analyzing the moon rocks that Apollo astronauts brought back,” he added. [NASA's 17 Apollo Moon Missions in Pictures]
Asteroids are fascinating for lots of reasons. They contain a variety of valuable resources and slam into our planet on a regular basis, occasionally snuffing out most of Earth’s lifeforms. How much do you know about space rocks?
Unmanned probes have successfully rendezvoused with asteroids in deep space multiple times. Japan’s Hayabusa craft even snagged pieces of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa in 2005, sending them back to our planet for study.
But bagging an entire asteroid and dragging it to our neck of the cosmic woods is unprecedented, and it presents several daunting challenges.
For example, the target asteroid will be spinning, which doesn’t make for a smooth ride to lunar orbit. After the spacecraft captures the asteroid and brings it into a hold of sorts, the space rock will have to be de-spun, likely with thrusters, Dimotakis said.
“You might use reaction jets to take out most of it [the spin],” he said. “You would give you yourself a lot of time to do this, because there’s no second chance in any of this.”
Further, bringing the asteroid onboard greatly increases the spacecraft’s mass, making propulsion and navigation much more difficult. And precise navigation will definitely be required to deliver the space rock to its desired orbit, Dimotakis said (though he also stressed that any asteroid chosen would pose no danger to humanity even if it somehow struck our planet).
But ion thrusters like the ones powering NASA’s Dawn mission to the huge asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres should be muscular enough to make the journey, likely taking a few years to reach the asteroid and somewhat longer to come back. And the asteroid-laden probe could probably still be guided with great care, he added.
“My guess is that all of these are not insurmountable challenges, and you would be able to calibrate yourself after you snagged it and adjust your controls,” Dimotakis said.
Choosing a target
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the entire mission is picking a suitable space rock to retrieve, Lewicki wrote in his blog post.
The Keck study recommends going after a carbonaceous asteroid packed full of water and other volatiles. Carbonaceous asteroids can be very dark, and it’s tough to spot and characterize a 23-foot asteroid in the vast depths of space whatever its color.
So both Lewicki and Dimotakis stressed the importance of searching for potential asteroid targets sooner rather than later. Planetary Resources plans to begin launching a line of small prospecting space telescopes in 2014 or 2015, and these “Arkyd-100″ craft could aid NASA’s mission, Lewicki wrote.
Dimotakis, for his part, is engaged in a follow-up to the Keck study that’s looking for potential targets in observations made by current telescopes.
“We are developing software in collaboration with JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory] that is going to exploit the observational digital record and essentially flag things that could be of interest and might be in this class,” he said. “This has never happened before.”
Still, mission scientists and engineers shouldn’t just sit on their hands until an asteroid selection is made, he added.
It’s important “to start developing the spacecraft before you even know where you’re going,” Dimotakis said. “If you do these things in parallel, then the mission timeline shrinks.”
Mars is farther away than any near-Earth asteroid that NASA would target, but this disadvantage may be outweighed by the greater knowledge scientists have gained of the Red Planet thanks to the many Mars missions that have launched over the years, experts say.
Further, mapping out an asteroid mission is nearly impossible at this point, since NASA does not yet know where it’s going.
“There are still no good asteroid targets for such a mission, a necessary prerequisite for determining mission length and details such as the astronauts’ exposure to radiation and the consumables required,” states a December 2012 report from the U.S. National Research Council (NRC). [How NASA Will Explore Asteroids (Gallery)]
The road to Mars
Landing astronauts on Mars has been the long-term goal of NASA’s human spaceflight program for decades, but the agency’s vision of how to get there was shaken up recently.
NASA had viewed the moon as a stepping stone, working to get humans to Earth’s natural satellite by 2020 under a program called Constellation, which was initiated during the presidency of George W. Bush. But President Barack Obama cancelled Constellation in 2010, after an independent review panel found it to be significantly under-funded and behind schedule.
instead directed NASA to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, then on to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s. The agency is developing a new crewed capsule called Orion and a huge rocket called the Space Launch System to make it all happen.
The new “asteroid-next” plan has not been enthusiastically embraced by NASA or the broader space community, the NRC report concluded.
“Despite isolated pockets of support for a human asteroid mission, the committee did not detect broad support for an asteroid mission inside NASA, in the nation as a whole or from the international community,” write the authors of the report, which is called “NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus.”
A tough proposition
The NRC report was based on research, interviews, site visits and analysis conducted by a 12-member independent committee over the course of about five months in 2012.
One of the people the study team met with was Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.
Gerstenmaier “talked about how NASA had discovered, in the two years that had elapsed by the time he was speaking to us, just how hard [a manned asteroid mission] was,” committee member and space policy expert Marcia Smith said during a presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations working group on Jan. 30.
“He said in many respects, it’s easier to go to Mars, because we know a lot about Mars,” Smith added. “We know where it is, and we’ve done all these reconnaissance missions already, so we have a knowledge base from which to work in terms of sending humans, whereas no particular asteroid has been selected yet.”
While sending astronauts to an asteroid has never been done before, unmanned probes have successfully rendezvoused with the objects in deep space multiple times.
For example, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbited the protoplanet Vesta — the second-largest body in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — for more than a year before departing to head to the belt’s largest denizen, Ceres, last September. And in 2005, Japan’s Hayabusa probe plucked some pieces off the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, sending them back to Earth for analysis.
NASA plans to launch its own asteroid-sampling mission, called Osiris-Rex, in 2016. And two private companies — Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries — intend to loft reconnaissance spacecraft over the next few years, kicking off an ambitious efforts to mine water, metals and other resources from asteroids.
Though NASA is devoting many of its exploration resources to Mars these days, the agency still has its eye on an icy moon of Jupiter that may be capable of supporting life as we know it.
Last week, NASA officials announced that they plan to launch a $1.5 billion rover to Mars in 2020, adding to a string of Red Planet missions already on the docket. The Curiosity rover just landed this past August, for example, and an orbiter called Maven and a lander named InSight are slated to blast off in 2013 and 2016, respectively.
But NASA is also thinking about ways to investigate the possible habitability of Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon. One concept that may be gaining traction is a so-called “clipper” probe that would make multiple flybys of the moon, studying its icy shell and suspected subsurface ocean as it zooms past.
“We briefed [NASA] headquarters on Monday, and they responded very positively,” mission proponent David Senske, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said here Dec. 7 at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. [Photos: Europa, Mysterious Icy Moon of Jupiter]
The $2 billion unmanned Europa Clipper, which could be ready to launch by 2021 or so, would also do vital reconnaissance work for a potential lander mission in the future, Senske told SPACE.com.
Astrobiologists regard Europa, which is about 1,900 miles (3,100 kilometers) wide, as one of the best bets in our solar system to host life beyond Earth.
The moon is believed to harbor a large ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. Further, this ocean is likely in direct contact with Europa’s rocky mantle, raising the possibility of all sorts of interesting chemical reactions, Senske said.
The irradiation of Europa’s surface and tidal heating of its interior also mean the moon likely has ample energy sources — another key requirement for life as we know it.
NASA has long been interested in exploring the icy moon and its ocean. Several years back, the agency drew up an ambitious mission concept called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO), which would have made detailed studies of Europa and the incredibly volcanic Jupiter moon Io.
The science returns from such a mission would have been impressive, according to the 2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey, which outlined the scientific community’s goals in the field over the coming decade.
The decadal survey ranked JEO as the second-highest priority among large-scale missions, just behind Mars sample-return. But the report said its $4.7 billion price tag was just too high.
“The recommendation was, immediately go and do a de-scope,” said Senske, who was also involved in JEO. “They loved the science; the science was great. But focus it.” [6 Most Likely Places to Find Alien Life in the Solar System]
Paring it down
So researchers got to work developing a leaner, cheaper Europa mission that would fit under a firm $2 billion cost cap. They came up with two main options: the clipper and a Europa orbiter (a lander was ruled out as premature).
Because of the intense radiation environment around Europa, the orbiter would have to be heavily shielded, adding weight and cost. Even with this armor, the concept initially called for a nominal design life at Europa of just 30 days, with later versions boosting that up to 109 days, Senske said.
While the orbiter would gather a great deal of interesting and valuable information, it falls short of what the flyby concept could deliver on a dollar-to-dollar basis, Senske said. For example, a $2 billion orbiter would not be able to carry an instrument that could investigate the composition and chemistry of Europa’s surface and atmosphere (and, by extension, its ocean).
“In terms of an apples-to-apples comparison, Clipper really does rise to the top,” Senske said.
The Europa Clipper
The Clipper would carry a number of scientific instruments, including ice-penetrating radar, a topographical imager, a magnetometer, an infrared spectrometer, a neutral mass spectrometer and a high-gain antenna.
To squeeze all of this gear aboard and still stay under the $2 billion cap, Clipper may need to be powered by solar arrays rather than advanced stirling radioisotope generators as originally envisioned, Senske said. Solar panels are considerably cheaper than ASRGs, which convert the heat from plutonium-238′s radioactive decay into eletricity.
NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno probe also sports solar arrays, so there is precedent for sending a solar-powered spacecraft so far from the sun. But a Europa mission would present some additional challenges to address, including eclipses and radiation doses about two times higher than Juno will receive.
“We have some things that we need to test,” Senske said.
The Clipper would enter into orbit around Jupiter, then study Europa during dozens of flybys over the course of 2.3 years. On its closest passes, it would come within just 15 miles (25 km) of the moon’s frozen surface.
These close encounters should help the probe crack some of Europa’s most intriguing mysteries, such as the thickness of its ice shell and the saltiness and approximate depth of its ocean (as well as confirming that the ocean exists), Senske said.
This information, along with the spacecraft’s detailed imagery of the moon’s surface, could help guide a potential lander mission that would search for signs of Europan life sometime down the road.
The Clipper could probably be ready to launch between 2020 and 2022, Senske said. Its journey to Europa would take about six years.
The Europa Clipper is not on NASA’s books yet, but agency higher-ups and advisory committees both inside and outside the agency have given it high marks thus far, Senske said.
He and the rest of the team will continue developing the mission concept and see what happens.
“In April, we want to do what we’re calling a preliminary concept review, start working out the bugs, and then working with headquarters to define when we would have what’s known as a mission concept review that would start getting us on the road as a full-up mission,” Senske said.
Some scientists who want close-up studies of potentially habitable moons such as Europa and the Saturn satellite Enceladus were disappointed that NASA selected another Mars rover mission for 2020. But Senske said the agency’s mounting successes at the Red Planet — and the public interest missions such as Curiosity have generated — could eventually make more far-flung exploration efforts possible.
“It could potentially be the tide that raises all ships,” Senske said.
Missions hoping to explore the huge subsurface ocean thought to exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa may have to dig deep — really deep.
Water stays in a liquid state near Europa’s surface for just a few tens of thousands of years or so, new research suggests. That’s a blink of an eye in geological terms, since our solar system is more than 4.5 billion years old.
“A global water ocean may be present, but relatively deep below the surface — around 25 to 50 kilometers,” Klára Kalousová, of France’s University of Nantes and Charles University in Prague, said in a statement today (Sept 24).
“There could be areas of liquid water at much shallower depths, say around 5 kilometers, but these would only exist for a few tens of thousands of years before migrating downwards,” Kalousová added. [Gallery: Photos of Europa]
Many researchers think Europa, which is about 1,900 miles (3,100 km) wide, harbors an enormous global ocean beneath its shell of ice. While Europa’s surface is frigid, heat generated in the moon’s interior by Jupiter’s gravitational pull keeps this ocean — which may be 60 miles (100 km) deep — from freezing solid.
Here on Earth, life thrives wherever liquid water is found. So Europa is an intriguing target for future missions seeking signs of life elsewhere in the solar system.
But scientists don’t know how difficult it would be for a future Europa probe to access the moon’s ocean, because they’re not sure how deep beneath the crust it lies. Some researchers have speculated that pockets of liquid water may persist just a few miles below the surface, but the new study throws cold water on that prospect.
Kalousová mathematically modeled how mixtures of liquid water and solid ice behave in a variety of conditions. She found that differences in density and viscosity, along with several other factors, probably cause water near Europa’s surface to migrate downward rapidly through partially melted ice to meet up with the larger ocean.
Europa isn’t the only moon in the solar system that may have an underground ocean. Fellow Jovian moons Callisto and Ganymede might have one, for example, and so might Saturn’s icy satellite Enceladus.
The new study could help scientists better understand these frigid worlds, as well as Saturn’s huge moon Titan, which has a hydrocarbon-based weather system, Kalousová said.
“As well as helping us to better understand Europa’s water cycle, this research could provide insight into icy moons that are geologically active, such as Enceladus, and worlds that have cycles connecting the interior with a surface atmosphere, such as Titan,” she said.
Kalousová will present the research at the European Planetary Science Congress in Madrid on Tuesday (Sept. 25).