is video shows a simulation of the space environment all the way out to Pluto in the months surrounding New Horizons’ July 2015 flyby. At the time, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, worked with the New Horizons team to test how well their models—and other models contributed by scientists around the world—predicted the space environment at Pluto. Understanding the environment through which our spacecraft travel can ultimately help protect them from radiation and other potentially damaging effects. Visualizers at Goddard recently updated the movie of the model, creating this new release.
Though the vacuum of space is about a thousand times emptier than a laboratory vacuum, it’s still not completely empty. The sun releases a constant stream of particles called the solar wind—as well as occasional denser clouds of particles known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs—both containing embedded magnetic fields. The density, speed, and temperature of these particles, as well as the direction and strength of the embedded magnetic fields, make up the space environment.
To map the space environment at Pluto, scientists combined the predictions of several models—and looked at events that had long since passed Earth.
"We set the simulation to start in January of 2015, because the particles passing Pluto in July 2015 took some six months to make the journey from the sun," said Dusan Odstrcil, a space weather scientist at Goddard who created the Enlil model. The Enlil model, named for the Sumerian god of the wind, is one of the primary models used to simulate the space environment near Earth and is the basis for the New Horizons simulation.
The new, combined model tracks CMEs longer than ever before. Because particles must travel for many months before reaching Pluto, the CMEs eventually spread out and merge with other CMEs and the solar wind to form larger clouds of particles and magnetic field. These combined clouds stretch out as they travel away from the sun, forming thin ring shapes by the time they reach Pluto—quite different from the typical balloon shape of CMEs seen here at Earth.
Source: NASA press release
The seafaring explorers of the 16th century famously found many new homes for humanity in faraway, unknown corners of the world. While it may seem that such colonisation has since ground to a halt, some have argued it is only a matter of time before humans start moving to “exoplanets” in foreign star systems. But how close are we to such an expansion?
In February of 2017, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of seven rocky planets around the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1. Not only was this the largest number of Earth-like planets discovered in a single star system to date, the news was also bolstered by the fact that three of these planets were found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone.
The study of extra-solar planets has turned up some rather interesting candidates in the past few years. As of August 1st, 2017, a total of 3,639 exoplanets have been discovered in 2,729 planetary systems and 612 multiple planetary systems. Many of these discoveries have challenged conventional thinking about planets, especially where their sizes and distances from their suns are concerned.
Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer astronomers have constructed the most detailed image ever of a star — the red supergiant star Antares. They have also made the first map of the velocities of material in the atmosphere of a star other than the Sun, revealing unexpected turbulence in Antares’s huge extended atmosphere. The results were published in the journal Nature.
How chemical reactions on a lifeless planet floating around in the cold darkness of space can suddenly give rise to living organisms is one of the biggest questions in science. We don’t even know whether the molecular building blocks of life on Earth were created here or whether they were brought here by comets and meteorites.
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.
Decades after Enrico Fermi’s uttered his famous words – “Where is everybody?” – the Paradox that bears his name still haunts us. Despite repeated attempts to locate radio signals coming from space and our ongoing efforts to find visible indications of alien civilizations in distant star systems, the search extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) has yet to produce anything substantive.
In 2013, the European Space Agency launched the Gaia spacecraft. As the successor to the Hipparcos mission, this space observatory has spent the past three and a half years gathering data on the cosmos. Before it retires sometime next year (though the mission could be extended), this information will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D astronomical map ever created.
The Universe is an extremely big place. As astronomers looked farther into space over the centuries, and deeper into the past, they came to understand just how small and insignificant our planet and our species seem by comparison. At the same time, ongoing investigations into electromagnetism and distant stars led scientists to deduce what the the speed of light is – and that it is the fastest speed obtainable.
NASA’s orbiter Cassini will make a series of decreasing orbits that will end in a fiery death dive into Saturn’s atmosphere in September. This deliberate termination of a still serviceable spacecraft is to comply with “planetary protection” protocols, designed to minimise the risk of depositing stowaway Earth microbes into an environment where they might be able to reproduce.