“If you say, ‘We have evidence for Planet X,’ almost any astronomer will say, ‘This again? These guys are clearly crazy.’ I would, too,” said co-author of the study Mike Brown. “Why is this different? This is different because this time we’re right.”
The story of “Planet X” is a long one. Time after time scientists have put out studies claiming to have evidence for a new outer planet, but none have come to fruition. But now a group of scientists truly believe they have found firm evidence for a ninth planet of the Solar System, way beyond the orbit of Neptune. The planet, estimated to be about ten times more massive than Earth, orbits around twenty times further out from the Sun that the current outermost planet Neptune does.
Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), have produced a study that concludes that “Planet X” probably exists. The strong belief they have that such a planet orbits on the outskirts of the Solar System is based on models produced of Kuiper Belt Objects and their orbital properties.
The Kuiper Belt is an icy region of the Solar System beyond the orbit of Neptune. There are six Kuiper Belt objects in particular that researchers are focused on, one of which being the minor planet Sedna. The objects all orbit the Sun in elliptical paths of the same direction, and share the same 30 degree tilt relative to the plane of the planets of the Solar System. It is believed the odds that this is purely a coincidence is 0.007%.
“Basically, it shouldn’t happen randomly,” said Brown. “So we thought something else must be shaping these orbits.”
“We realised the only way we could get them to swing in one direction is if there is a massive planet, also very distant in the Solar System, keeping them in place while they all go around the Sun,” explained Brown.
However, planetary scientist David Jewitt believes this not to be the case. The renowned professor of astronomy says that a 3-sigma percentage based on just six KBOs strongly weakens their case.
“I worry that the finding of a single new object that is not in the group would destroy the whole edifice,” says Jewitt, who is at UC Los Angeles. “It’s a game of sticks with only six sticks.”
Regardless, Brown and Batygin now believe that they have a rough idea as to where to look for the mysterious planet. No doubt, in the next few weeks, months and years astronomers around the world will be pointing their telescopes towards this region of the sky in the hunt for the ninth planet.
“There are many telescopes on the Earth that actually have a chance of being able to find it,” said Brown. “And I’m really hoping that as we announce this, people start a worldwide search to go find this ninth planet.”
Indeed, Brown and Batygin plan to also join the hunt using Japan’s Subaru 8-meter telescope based in Hawaii. The telescope has the light-gathering ability to detect an object as faint as “Planet X” and has an enormous field of view, ideal for covering large areas of the night sky. Brown believes that it will take around 5 years for a full scan on the region to be completed.
Primary source: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/0004-6256/151/2/22/meta
The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft is one of the great collaborations in spaceflight history, with the combination of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency proving to be a resounding success. The mission is considered by most in the field of space and astronomy to be one of the greatest scientific endeavours in space, giving us a greater knowledge of the ringed gas giant Saturn and its intriguing moons. The Huygens lander visited the surface of Titan in 2005 and Cassini has orbited the ringed planet since arriving in 2004, collecting valuable data for scientists back on Earth.
The spacecraft was launched on October 15, 1997 by the Titan-IVB/Centaur rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. In order to reduce the fuel required, the spacecraft used a number of gravity assists to increase velocity and extend its orbit around the Sun further out. Cassini flew past Venus twice (in April 1998 and June 1999), once by Earth (in August 1999) and finally Jupiter (in December 2000). In July 2004 the spacecraft at last arrived at the ringed gas giant Saturn.
In December the Huygens probe was ejected from the spacecraft and set on a trajectory towards Titan. The probe arrived at Saturn’s largest moon in January and began descending through Titan’s atmosphere on January 14, 2005. The probe revealed an unprecedented view of a mysterious world as it descended through the moon’s atmosphere. Huygens survived for 72 minutes on the surface, before the batteries ran out and data ceased to be sent back to Earth.
Cassini has maintained orbit around Saturn and its moon since its arrival in 2004. It carries 12 scientific instruments able to carry out scientific measurements such as examining the gravitational field of Saturn and its moons, determining structural and chemical composition of surfaces and atmospheres of the Saturn system, and much, much more. The probe is powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), designed to power the probe for way over a decade. Cassini communicates with scientists back on Earth using three microwave antennas. The large white dish located at the head of the spacecraft is the high-gain antenna, making it the fastest antenna to send and receive data with. This is used to send back the incredible images we stare in awe at.
Like all good things, they must come to an end. Indeed, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will complete its mission in 2017. The Cassini probe will carry out daring new orbits, known as proximal orbits, in 2016 as NASA scientists aim to gather as much data with the remaining fuel available. Assuming all goes to plan, the Cassini spacecraft will plunge into Saturn’s gaseous atmosphere to a fiery finale, marking the end of one of the greatest missions in spaceflight.
Following the successful launch of the Soyuz rocket and a six hour journey to the ISS, the Soyuz capsule carrying astronauts Tim Peake, Tim Kopra and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko has arrived at the Space Station. The docking occurred at a slightly later time than expected of 17:33 GMT (12:33 ET) due to an issue with the automatic docking system.
The launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan took place earlier in the day at 11:03 GMT (06:03 ET). The Soyuz capsule containing three new crew members were lifted away from Earth by the tireless workhorse that is the Soyuz rocket. The Russian rocket is considered to be the most reliable and successful rockets ever built and flown, with over 1500 flights and numerous human launches. It took just 8 minutes and 48 seconds for the Soyuz capsule to reach orbit and for the capsule to be put on path for an encounter with the ISS just six hours later.
The six hour travel time to the ISS is the shortest time possible to get to the ISS from Baikonur Cosmodrome. In order for the travel time to be achieved, the launch must occur precisely on time and no problems can occur in orbit. In cases where problems do occur, the travel time to the ISS is extended to two days, a long time for astronauts in the highly enclosed Soyuz spacecraft.
Following four orbits of Earth, final approach began approximately 15 minutes prior to docking. The Russian spacecraft lined up with the Rassvet docking port and approached it at a very slow speed relative to the ISS, minimising any risk of a high-speed impact. However, just 20 metres from the Space Station, the Soyuz suffered KURS failure ending the possibility of an automatic docking. Instead, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, the most experienced of the three crew members onboard the Soyuz, manually docked the spacecraft over India at 17:33 GMT (12:33 ET).
The Tim Peake, Tim Kopra and Yuri Malenchenko later disembarked the capsule and were greeted by Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov in the ISS. The occasion is particularly monumental for Tim Peake, as he is the first British astronaut to live onboard the Space Station. The new crew members will spend some time getting used to living in space, before work begins on scientific experiments which will dominate their next six months on the ISS. Meanwhile, the Soyuz capsule will remain attached to the ISS and serve as an emergency escape vehicle during their stay.
Up until very recently the icy rock has been a mystery, but since the flyby of New Horizons, more information than ever before is now known about Pluto. The flyby was long awaited, as the distant dwarf planet Pluto was first discovered by Clyde Tombaugh eighty-five years earlier in 1930.
Despite the discovery of Neptune in 1846, the irregularities in the orbit of Uranus remained unexplained. A number of astronomers speculated that a ninth planet was the cause of this. First attempts to find a possible ninth planet were made by founder of the Lowell Observatory, Percival Lowell, from 1905 to 1909. Using data from the observations of Uranus’ orbit, Lowell was able to estimate where in the sky the ninth planet could be. Using a number of different telescopes, Lowell searched the sky for Planet X. He estimated locations of the planet and published them in the ‘Memoir on a Trans-Neptunian Planet’ in 1915. A year later he passed away, with no sighting of the mysterious planet.
Eleven years later the search resumed. Percival’s brother Abbott Lowell took control of the search, and hired Clyde Tombaugh to operate the new 13-inch telescope. Tombaugh began searching in 1929 for the ninth planet in the region that Lowell had identified, but was unable to locate the mystery planet. Tombaugh decided that Lowell’s predictions were wrong, and began scanning the entire sky for movements indicative of a planet. On February 19, 1930, Tombaugh discovered Pluto, finally putting an end to the work that Lowell had started 25 years earlier.
Following the discovery of the ninth planet, astronomers around the world were in celebration. Using the findings, orbits were calculated and the planet’s place in our Solar System was understood. Names began flooding in, with Lowell’s wife Constance suggesting it be named after her husband. In the end, the name Pluto was chosen, after a suggestion by Venetia Burney, an eleven year old schoolgirl from England. Pluto is the Greek god of the underworld, which was considered appropriate for the dark, mysterious world on the edge of the Solar System. It was officially proposed on May 1, 1930.
The first moon of Pluto to be discovered was Charon in 1978. The moon, which measures 648 miles (1043 km) in diameter, orbits just 12,200 miles (19,640 km) from Pluto. Charon’s orbit around Pluto takes the same amount of time as one Pluto rotation. This means that Charon always hovers over the same spot on the surface of Pluto, and the same side of Charon is always facing Pluto – tidal locking. Pluto’s four other moons were discovered by Hubble in the last decade. Nix and Hydra were discovered in 2005 by scientists in preparation of the New Horizons mission, and the smallest moons Kerberos and Styx were discovered in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
It was only until July 2015 that the Pluto system was finally revealed, with the flyby of the NASA spacecraft New Horizons. The mission brought an end to the mystery which shrouded the dwarf planet’s existence, and uncovered incredible information about Pluto and its five moons.
Feature Article: Launch Complex 40
Space Launch Complex 40 is located at the northern end of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launchpad is currently home to the Falcon 9 rocket, delivering both commercial and NASA payloads to low Earth orbit and beyond.
LC-40 was first used in 1965 with the maiden flight of the Titan IIIC. Between 1965 and 2005 there were 30 Titan IIC, 8 Titan 34D and 17 Titan IV launches. Notable payloads include the failed Mars Observer spacecraft, launched in 1992, and the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, which launched in 1997 and arrived at the gas giant Saturn in 2004.
Since 2007 the launchpad has been leased to commercial launch provider SpaceX for their Falcon 9 rocket. The pad has conducted thirteen Falcon 9 launches from 2010 to 2015. Among these launches there have been several successful missions to the International Space Station with the Dragon cargo spacecraft and a number of commercial satellite missions to both low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit. The only failure to note was the CRS-7 mission in June, where the Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated shortly after lift-off. The catastrophe resulted in the loss of the Dragon spacecraft and its cargo, and has forced SpaceX to stand down for several months in order to fix the issues with the rocket and produce a full report to the authorities.
SpaceX plan to retain the launchpad for many years to come. Although SpaceX are currently upgrading LC-39A, the launchpad will only be used for Falcon Heavy and commercial crew flights.
The Commercial Crew Program was first announced in December 2009. The objectives of the program set out by NASA was to stimulate the commercial space industry; facilitate commercial demonstration of crew transportation abilities; and achieve safer, more reliable, more cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit. Following the finale of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, the program became even more significant as a gap appeared where no human spaceflight would launch from American soil for several years.
The program utilised a multi-phase approach to reduce the competitors to a final selection of just two companies.
The first phase was known as CCDev 1, where five companies received a portion of $50 million. In total, NASA received proposals from thirty-six companies. The chosen five consisted of Blue Origin ($3.7 million for innovative LAS), Boeing ($18 million for CST-100 development), Paragon Space Development Corporation ($1.4 million for plug-and-play life support system), Sierra Nevada Corporation ($20 million for Dream Chaser development), and United Launch Alliance ($6.7 million for an Emergency Detection System).
A second set of proposals were received in 2011. NASA awarded almost $270 million to four companies for developing human-rated space vehicles that would fly astronauts to the ISS from American soil once more, following the end of the Space Shuttle Program. The four companies who were awarded money were Blue Origin ($22 million), Sierra Nevada Corporation ($80 million for continued development of the Dream Chaser), SpaceX ($75 million for an integration launch abort system for the Dragon spacecraft), and Boeing ($92.3 million for continued development of CST-100).
The process continued into 2012, with even more money being given to the leading companies. Sierra Nevada Corporation received $212.5 million for further development on Dream Chaser, SpaceX received $440 million for further development of both the Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket, and Boeing received $460 million for further development of the CST-100 spacecraft.
On September 16 2014, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX received contracts for the transportation of crew to the ISS. Boeing were given $4.2 billion and SpaceX were given $2.6 billion. The contract offered asks both companies to develop, test and certify their space vehicles, then fly up to six operational flights to the ISS. The unfortunate loser of this fantastic advancement in commercial spaceflight was Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. Despite a protest, the company were unable to achieve any further funding and will have to further develop their winged vehicle with their own cash.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon
Crew Dragon is the second version of the Dragon spacecraft. First revealed in May 2014, the spacecraft will be human-rated, performing crew transport between Earth and the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft will fly atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. Up to seven astronauts will be able to ride aboard what Elon Musk calls a 21st Century space vehicle.
The launch pad abort test of the Crew Dragon occurred on May 6 2015. This tested the spacecraft’s ability to quickly leave a rocket disaster and therefore keep the crew alive. The Crew Dragon could make its first flight as early as late 2016, where an unmanned test flight to the ISS would occur. However, this date is not set in stone. Similarly, if all goes to plan the first manned mission of the spacecraft could occur as soon as late 2017.
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner
The Boeing Crew Space Transportation system will also be transporting crew to the International Space Station from 2017. The space capsule can transport up to seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, to low-Earth orbit. The vehicle will have flight compatibility with rockets Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon 9 and the planned Vulcan rocket announced in 2015. The vehicle will have the ability to stay in orbit for up to seven months, and could be reused up to ten times.
Unlike SpaceX, Boeing are leaving their pad abort test until just months before the debut launch. Currently scheduled for February 2017, the capsule will be expected to prove that it can escape a catastrophic issue with the rocket. If successful, an unscrewed test mission will launch to the ISS in April 2017 and a crewed version in July. However, these dates are optimistic and are likely to change.
There are a plethora of companies currently aiming for asteroid mining. As the resources on Earth run dry, it is only a matter of time until space mining becomes essential for the continuation of the human race. As for the private companies targeting this emerging industry, this is potentially their gateway into unprecedented levels of future riches. The main question they face is, is it legal?
The “Space Act of 2015” bill has now officially passed in the US senate with a unanimous vote in its favour. This will give the spacecraft companies more power and cause them to be subjected to far less government oversight. They will be able to conduct spacecraft trials along with develop both their companies and their technologies further with next to no government interference. That is just the tip of the iceberg however, once this bill is signed by US President Barack Obama, it will give companies the right to own all of the resources they extract from asteroids, this includes platinum and even water. Quoting Planetary Resources Co-Chairman Eric Anderson, “Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species”.
The bill states: “A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States. The term ‘space resource’ means an abiotic resource in situ in outer space."
This is quite interesting since with this, private companies can essentially own asteroids whilst due to the “Outer Space Treaty”, most nations including the US, Russia, China and even the UK cannot themselves legally own celestial bodies in space, this includes asteroids. This is expected to cause severe controversy, since the US itself isn't allowed to own any celestial body, can they give private companies the right to own them? The Outer Space Treaty was both signed and made effective in 1967 however due to the significant advances in both technology and our knowledge of space since then, it has become quite outdated. This leaves many ambiguities such as whether any of the laws apply to private companies, the US seems to be using these ambiguities to its favour since they can pass this bill without technically breaking the treaty.
There are many questions left to answer in regards to the extent of the power being handed to these private companies however at the very least we can all rest assured that if any private company happens to find any alien life form, they cannot legally claim or own them and will be forced to pass them on to the government. What the government will do with them or whether the government can legally keep the alien presenting it to other nations remains unknown.
For now there are two main companies to keep an eye on in the space mining sector, “Deep Space Industries” and “Planetary Resources” since the sole purpose of the existence of the companies is to mine asteroids. Both of these have several spacecraft trials planned in the years to come with Planetary Resources having a trial underway right now. Earlier this year, they launched a trial vehicle from the International Space Station to test their avionics and control systems which they hope will one day be used in the first spacecraft to venture into the depths of the solar system to mine an asteroid.
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For the first time ever, flowers are being grown on the International Space Station. The crop of choice is the Zinnia flower, a plant native to parts of North and South America. If all goes to plan, the flowers are expected to bloom just after the turn of the year.
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren began the experiment on November 16th. The Zinnai seeds are contained within pillows, as part of the Veggie plant growth system. The Veggie system was developed by Orbital Technologies Corp. (ORBITEC) and launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the third CRS mission in April 2014. Veggie provides lighting and nutrient delivery, but utilises the cabin environment for temperature control and as a source of carbon dioxide to promote plant growth.
Lindgren will be in charge of running the experiment. He will turn on the red, blue and green LEDs, activate the water system, and provide nutrients to the flowers. Lindgren will also be responsible for monitoring plant growth throughout the 60 day growing time, a growth time that is two times longer than that of red lettuce already grown in the Veggie system.
“Growing a flowering crop is more challenging than growing a vegetable crop such as lettuce,” said Gioia Massa, NASA's Kennedy Space Center payload scientist for Veggie. “Lighting and other environmental parameters are more critical.”
So what’s the point in all this? Well, for starters a flower has never bloomed in 0 g, so it's effects are unknown. Secondly, the process of growing a plant in space is paramount to future long-term space exploration. For a trip to Mars, astronauts would be expected to grow their own food. Already lettuce has been grown and eaten in space, but many fruits and vegetables flower in their growth cycle, so understanding how to grow flowers is very important.
"Growing the Zinnia plants will help advance our knowledge of how plants flower in the Veggie growth system, and will enable fruiting plants like tomatoes to be grown and eaten in space using Veggie as the in-orbit garden," said Trent Smith, Veggie program manager.
Researchers on Earth are hoping data collected from this experiment will give a further insight into long-duration seed stow and germination, whether pollen could cause problems, and the impacts on crew morale. This information is required for the tomato growing experiment set to begin in 2017.
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) is a particle physics module mounted on the ISS. It is designed to detect and measure antimatter in cosmic rays and search for evidence of dark matter.
The instrument has been called “the most sophisticated particle detector ever sent into space”, and is considered by many to have the best chance of discovering evidence for the existence of dark matter. Dark matter is invisible matter that although cannot be directly detected, is believed to make up 23% of the Universe. Along with dark energy, it means that just 4-5 percent of the Universe is made up of visible matter, like the stars we see at night.
The 14,809 lb (6717 kg) module was launched by the Space Shuttle Endeavour for STS-134 on May 16 2011 and installed 3 days later on the 19th. AMS-02 is located on top of the Integrated Truss Structure, on a section known as USS-02. The mission has so far lasted almost 4 and a half years, and is expected to last for at least another five years, bring a full mission duration to a decade.
Following a year of data collection the AMS-02 had recorded over 18 billion cosmic ray events. One of the key results produced from this data has been the theory that positrons originate from the annihilation of dark matter particles in space. However, Professor Samuel Ting warned that although this theory is consistent with the data collected, it is “not yet sufficiently conclusive to rule out other explanations”. The experiment is just one example of many that proves the ISS is an incredible scientific outpost that is beneficial for the advancement of scientific discoveries.
On October 28 astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren conducted a spacewalk to install a new thermal cover for the AMS. The covers provide thermal performance for parts of the system that have been operating for longer than their life span of 3 years.
SpaceX select ORBCOMM for RTF mission
SpaceX have selected ORBCOMM-2 as the payload for the first flight of the Falcon 9 rocket since the CRS-7 failure in late June. Expected to take flight in early to mid-December, the upgraded rocket will lift a group of 11 mini-satellites to low Earth orbit.
As you may recall, on June 28 the Falcon 9 rocket suffered a catastrophic anomaly that resulted in the disintegration of the launch vehicle and a premature end to the mission. It had been hoped the rocket would deliver the Dragon spacecraft to orbit, where it would rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station.
Following the failure, the bright minds at SpaceX worked day and night to come up with a credible cause of the catastrophe. Initial findings pointed towards an overpressure event in the second stage of the Falcon 9. These initial findings held strong, as a couple of weeks later a preliminary report was produced which specified a failed strut that released a helium bottle, causing an overpressure event in the tank and a failure of the stage and rocket. This explanation has remained the primary cause of the failure and SpaceX are now going through the steps in order to formalise it, with the FAA currently reviewing the evidence.
The return to flight has been long awaited. Prior to the mishap it was hoped that the Falcon 9 rocket would lift around a 6 more payloads to space in the second half of 2015, including NASA payload Jason-3, a couple of CRS missions, and a number of commercial satellites. The failure of CRS-7 has stalled this progress, meaning just a couple of missions are possible, with SpaceX aiming for early December and late December launches of two missions, ORBCOMM-2 and SES-9. With a short turnaround time in which to launch these payloads, delays are likely.
SpaceX will use this flight as a test ahead of SES-9. Once the ORBCOMM satellites have been safely deployed in their specified orbits, SpaceX plan to relight the second stage . This is useful ahead of the SES-9 flight as it will require a second firing of the Merlin Vacuum engine.
In a statement SpaceX said, “This on-orbit test, combined with the current qualification program to be completed prior to launch, will further validate the second stage relight system and allow for optimization of the upcoming SES 9 mission and following missions to geosynchronous transfer orbit.”
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