The dwarf planet Ceres keeps looking better and better as a possible home for alien life.
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has spotted organic molecules — the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it — on Ceres for the first time, a study published today (Feb. 16) in the journal Science reports.
And these organics appear to be native, likely forming on Ceres rather than arriving via asteroid or comet strikes, study team members said.
“Because Ceres is a dwarf planet that may still preserve internal heat from its formation period and may even contain a subsurface ocean, this opens the possibility that primitive life could have developed on Ceres itself,” Michael Küppers, a planetary scientist based at the European Space Astronomy Centre just outside Madrid, said in an accompanying “News and Views” article in the same issue of Science.
“It joins Mars and several satellites of the giant planets in the list of locations in the solar system that may harbor life,” added Küppers, who was not involved in the organics discovery.
The $467 million Dawn mission launched in September 2007 to study Vesta and Ceres, the two largest objects in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Dawn circled the 330-mile-wide (530 kilometers) Vesta from July 2011 through September 2012, when it departed for Ceres, which is 590 miles (950 km) across. Dawn arrived at the dwarf planet in March 2015, becoming the first spacecraft ever to orbit two different bodies beyond the Earth-moon system.
During its time at Ceres, Dawn has found bizarre bright spots on crater floors, discovered a likely ice volcano 2.5 miles (4 km) tall and helped scientists determine that water ice is common just beneath the surface, especially near the dwarf planet’s poles.
The newly announced organics discovery adds to this list of achievements. The carbon-containing molecules — which Dawn spotted using its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer instrument — are concentrated in a 385-square-mile (1,000 square km) area near Ceres’ 33-mile-wide (53 km) Ernutet crater, though there’s also a much smaller patch about 250 miles (400 km) away, in a crater called Inamahari.
And there could be more such areas; the team surveyed only Ceres’ middle latitudes, between 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south.
“We cannot exclude that there are other locations rich in organics not sampled by the survey, or below the detection limit,” study lead author Maria Cristina De Sanctis, of the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Space Planetology in Rome, told Space.com via email.
Dawn’s measurements aren’t precise enough to nail down exactly what the newfound organics are, but their signatures are consistent with tar-like substances such as kerite and asphaltite, study team members said.
“The organic-rich areas include carbonate and ammoniated species, which are clearly Ceres’ endogenous material, making it unlikely that the organics arrived via an external impactor,” co-author Simone Marchi, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement.
In addition, the intense heat generated by an asteroid or comet strike likely would have destroyed the organics, further suggesting that the molecules are native to Ceres, study team members said.
The organics might have formed via reactions involving hot water, De Sanctis and her colleagues said. Indeed, “Ceres shows clear signatures of pervasive hydrothermal activity and aqueous alteration,” they wrote in the new study.
Such activity likely would have taken place underground. Dawn mission scientists aren’t sure yet how organics generated in the interior could make it up to the surface and leave the signatures observed by the spacecraft.
“The geological and morphological settings of Ernutet are still under investigation with the high-resolution data acquired in the last months, and we do not have a definitive answer for why Ernutet is so special,” De Sanctis said.
It’s already clear, however, that Ceres is a complex and intriguing world — one that astrobiologists are getting more and more excited about.
“In some ways, it is very similar to Europa and Enceladus,” De Sanctis said, referring to ocean-harboring moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively.
“We see compounds on the surface of Ceres like the ones detected in the plume of Enceladus,” she added. “Ceres’ surface can be considered warmer with respect to the Saturnian and Jovian satellites, due to [its] distance from the sun. However, we do not have evidence of a subsurface ocean now on Ceres, but there are hints of subsurface recent fluids.”
An international team of scientists tasked with fleshing out the main goals of the mission, which is known as Venera-D, is wrapping up its work and will deliver its final report to NASA and the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute by the end of the month, said David Senske, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“Is this the mission that’s going to fly? No, but we’re getting there,” Senske, the U.S. co-chair of this “joint science-definition team,” told Space.com last month at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco.
Venera-D is led by Russia, which has been developing the project for more than a decade. The mission would mark a return to once-familiar territory for the nation; Russia’s forerunner state, the Soviet Union, launched a number of probes to Venus from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s, as part of its Venera and Vega programs. (“Venera” is the Russian name for Venus.)
“Russia has always been interested in going back to Venus,” Senske said.
NASA got involved about three years ago, when Russia asked if the U.S. space agency would be interested in collaborating on the mission, Senske added.
The joint science-definition team arose out of those initial discussions. The team stood down shortly thereafter; Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted NASA to suspend most cooperation with Roscosmos, Russia’s federal space agency (with activities involving the International Space Station being the most prominent exception).
But the collaboration was up and running again by August 2015, Senske said, and the team met in Moscow that October. More meetings are planned, including a workshop this May that will inform decisions about the mission’s scientific instruments, he added.
Venera-D is a large-scale mission, comparable in scope to NASA “flagship” efforts such as the $2.5 billion Curiosity Mars rover, Senske said. The baseline concept calls for an orbiter that will study Venus from above for at least three years, plus a lander that will operate for a few hours on the planet’s surface.
Mission planners said they had originally hoped the lander could survive for 30 days; the “D” in Venera-D stands for “dolgozhivushaya,” which means “long lasting” in Russian. But this goal was ultimately deemed too difficult and costly, given the blistering temperatures on Venus’ surface, according to RussianSpaceWeb.com (which outlines the mission’s tortuous history in rich detail).
Data gathered by the orbiter should help scientists better understand the composition, structure and dynamics of Venus’ atmosphere, including why the planet’s air rotates so much faster than the surface does, a mysterious phenomenon known as super-rotation, Senske said.
The lander will collect further atmospheric information while descending, then study the composition and morphology of the Venusian surface after touching down.
Venera-D could incorporate additional components as well. Some ideas on the drawing board include a handful of small, relatively simple ground stations that would gather surface data for a month or so (putting the “D” back in Venera-D) and a solar-powered, uncrewed aerial vehicle that would ply the Venusian skies.
The surface of Venus is far too hot to support life as we know it, but temperatures are much more hospitable at an altitude of 31 miles (50 kilometers) or so. Furthermore, the planet’s atmosphere sports mysterious dark streaks that some astronomers have speculated might be signs of microbial life. The UAV could hypothetically investigate this possibility, sampling the air while cruising along.
Engineers have already been thinking about how to build such an aircraft. For example, the U.S. aerospace company Northrop Grumman and partner L’Garde Inc. have been researching a concept vehicle called the Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform (VAMP) for several years now.
It’s still too early to know exactly what Venera-D will look like, what it will do or when the mission will launch. A liftoff in 2025 or 2026 is possible under an “aggressive” time line, Senske said. “It depends when the Russians can get this into their federal space budget,” he said.
Some things are known, however. For instance, Russia will build the orbiter and the lander, and Venera-D will launch atop Russia’s in-development Angara A5 rocket, Senske said. If NASA remains involved in the mission — which is far from a given at this point — the U.S. space agency will likely contribute smaller items, such as individual scientific instruments.
“Russia is definitely in the driver’s seat,” Senske said. “NASA is the junior partner.”
Planetary Resources deployed its first spacecraft from the International Space Station last month, and the Washington-based asteroid-mining company aims to launch a series of increasingly ambitious and capable probes over the next few years.
The goal is to begin transforming asteroid water into rocket fuel within a decade, and eventually to harvest valuable and useful platinum-group metals from space rocks.
“We have every expectation that delivering water from asteroids and creating an in-space refueling economy is something that we’ll see in the next 10 years — even in the first half of the 2020s,” said Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources president and chief engineer Chris Lewicki.
“After that, I think it’s going to be how the market develops,” Lewicki told Space.com, referring to the timeline for going after asteroid metals.
“If there’s one thing that we’ve seen repeat throughout history, it’s, you tend to overpredict what’ll happen in the next year, but you tend to vastly underpredict what will happen in the next 10 years,” he added. “We’re moving very fast, and the world is changing very quickly around us, so I think those things will come to us sooner than we might think.”
Planetary Resources and another company, Deep Space Industries, aim to help humanity extend its footprint out into the solar system by tapping asteroid resources. (Both outfits also hope to make a tidy profit along the way, of course.)
This ambitious plan begins with water, which is plentiful in a type of space rock known as carbonaceous chondrites. Asteroid-derived water could do far more than simply slake astronauts’ thirst, mining advocates say; it could also help shield them from dangerous radiation and, when split into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, allow voyaging spaceships to fill up their fuel tanks on the go.
The technology to detect and extract asteroid water is not particularly challenging or expensive to implement, Lewicki said. Scientific spacecraft routinely identify the substance on celestial bodies, and getting water out of an asteroid could simply involve bagging up the space rock and letting the sun heat it up.
Carbonaceous chondrites also commonly contain metals such as iron, nickel and cobalt, so targeting these asteroids could allow miners to start building things off Earth as well. That’s the logical next step beyond exploiting water, Lewicki said.
The “gold at the end of the rainbow,” he added, is the extraction and exploitation of platinum-group metals, which are rare here on Earth but are extremely important in the manufacture of electronics and other high-tech goods.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is create a space-based business that is an economic engine that really opens up space to the rest of the economy,” Lewicki said.
Developing off-Earth resources should have the effect of opening up the final frontier, he added.
“Every frontier that we’ve opened up on planet Earth has either been in the pursuit of resources, or we’ve been able to stay in that frontier because of the local resources that were available to us,” Lewicki said. “There’s no reason to think that space will be any different.”
Planetary Resources isn’t mining asteroids yet, but it does have some hardware in space. The company’s Arkyd-3R cubesat deployed into Earth orbit from the International Space Station last month, embarking on a 90-day mission to test avionics, software and other key technology.
Incidentally, the “R” in “Arkyd-3R” stands for “reflight.” The first version of the probe was destroyed when Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket exploded in October 2014; the 3R made it to the space station aboard SpaceX’s robotic Dragon cargo capsule in April. [Antares Rocket Explosion in Pictures]
Planetary Resources is now working on its next spacecraft, which is a 6U cubesat called Arkyd-6. (One “U,” or “unit,” is the basic cubesat building block — a cube measuring 4 inches, or 10 centimeters, on a side. The Arkyd-3R is a 3U cubesat.)
The Arkyd-6, which is scheduled to launch to orbit in December aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, features advanced avionics and electronics, as well as a “selfie cam” that was funded by a wildly successful Kickstarter project several years ago. The cubesat will also carry an instrument designed to detect water and water-bearing minerals, Lewicki said.
The next step is the Arkyd 100, which is twice as big as the Arkyd-6 and will hunt for potential mining targets from low-Earth orbit. Planetary Resources aims to launch the Arkyd-100 in late 2016, Lewicki said.
After the Arkyd 100 will come the Arkyd 200 and Arkyd 300 probes. These latter two spacecraft, also known as “interceptors” and “rendezvous prospectors,” respectively, will be capable of performing up-close inspections of promising near-Earth asteroids in deep space.
If all goes according to plan, the first Arkyd 200 will launch to Earth orbit for testing in 2017 or 2018, and an Arkyd 300 will launch toward a target asteroid — which has yet to be selected — by late 2018 or early 2019, Lewicki said.
“It is an ambitious schedule,” he said. But such rapid progress is feasible, he added, because each new entrant in the Arkyd series builds off technology that has already been demonstrated — and because Planetary Resources is building almost everything in-house.
“When something doesn’t work so well, we don’t have a vendor to blame — we have ourselves,” Lewicki said. “But we also don’t have to work across a contractural interface and NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] and those sorts of things, so that we can really find a problem with a design within a week or two and fix it and move forward.”
For its part, Deep Space Industries is also designing and building spacecraft and aims to launch its first resource-harvesting mission before 2020, company representatives have said.
Extracting and selling asteroid resources is in full compliance with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, Lewicki said.
But there’s still some confusion in the wider world about the nascent industry and the rights of its players, so he’s happy that the U.S. Congress is taking up the asteroid-mining issue. (The House of Representatives recently passed a bill recognizing asteroid miners’ property rights, and the Senate is currently considering the legislation as well.)
“I think it’s more of a protection issue than it is an actual legal issue,” Lewicki said. “From a lawyer’s interpretation, I think the landscape is clear enough. But from an international aspect, and some investors — I think they would like to see more certainty.”
The space agency is using glasses from Osterhout Design Group (ODG), a San Francisco-based company that develops wearables for enterprises and government use. NASA engineers and astronauts are set to test the company’s smart glasses, which are equipped with augmented reality and virtual reality technologies. The glasses are being tested using NASA applications and software.
“The intended purpose and usefulness of glasses like this are unlimited,” said Jay Bolden, a NASA spokesman, in an email to Computerworld. “Advanced glasses could aid in navigation, where cockpit displays are broadcast on the goggles in much the same way fighter pilot heads up displays operate today.”
Bolden also noted that astronauts on a journey to an asteroid or Mars could use the smart glasses to access chart, map and technical information, instead of having to carry many pounds of technical journals and papers with them.
“For a two-hour flight on a 737 from Cleveland to Dallas, each pilot carries 15 pounds of manuals and that weight isn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme,” he noted. “However, for a multiple-week mission to an asteroid or the moon, or a multi-year mission to Mars, every pound saved means additional life-critical supplies — food, water, oxygen, or fuel — can be shipped in their place.”
The smart glasses also could give more information to NASA engineers and scientists working on Earth.
“Real time applications also include the ability for ground support teams to see first hand what astronauts discover and video,” Bolden said. “Instead of bringing a 50-pound boulder back for ground analysis, the astronaut can use glasses to scan, measure and catalog where it was found and then chip off a 5-pound sample for ground analysis.”
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.”