After a one-day delay, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched its CHEOPS mission last week, on the morning of December 18, 2019, from the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. CHEOPS is the first ESA mission dedicated to studying exoplanets, those distant worlds orbiting other stars. NASA’s planet-hunting space missions, first Kepler and now TESS, have been finding new exoplanets. CHEOPS will study hundreds of exoplanets already known to exist – out of 4,000-plus now confirmed – to determine their sizes, masses, densities and possible atmospheres.
In this way, CHEOPS will take us some steps along the road of finding out what many exoworlds are actually like, not an easy task.
CHEOPS stands for CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite. The telescope will reside in a sun-synchronous orbit around Earth at an altitude of more than 400 miles (700 km). Kate Isaak, CHEOPS project scientist, said in a statement:
We are very excited to see the satellite blast off into space. There are so many interesting exoplanets and we will be following up on several hundreds of them, focusing in particular on the smaller planets in the size range between Earth and Neptune. They seem to be the commonly found planets in our Milky Way galaxy, yet we do not know much about them. CHEOPS will help us reveal the mysteries of these fascinating worlds, and take us one step closer to answering one of the most profound questions we humans ponder: are we alone in the universe?
Watch the launch below:
Heike Rauer, Director of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, said:
More than 4000 exoplanets have been discovered in the Milky Way, yet we still know far too little about these distant worlds in our cosmic neighborhood. We are all eager to see which ‘faces’ the planets characterized by CHEOPS will show us.
So how does CHEOPS observe these planets?
Like some other telescopes, it will watch as the planets transit in front of their stars, as seen from Earth. As Juan Cabrera Perez, Head of the Extrasolar Planets and Atmospheres Department at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, explained:
We could describe this fluctuation in brightness as a ‘mini stellar eclipse’, as the transiting exoplanet reduces the intensity of the light from the star for a short time. This fluctuation can be measured and analyzed – an area in which we can contribute suitable tools and many years of experience.
CHEOPS will focus on some of the most common exoplanets discovered so far, ranging in size from Earth to Neptune, or about approximately 6,000 to 30,000 miles (10,000 to 50,000 km) in diameter. Using data from the transits, CHEOPS can determine the size, mass and density of the planets. All of these are important in order for scientists to figure out the planets’ compositions. Some will be rocky like Earth, while others will have deep, gaseous atmospheres like Neptune or even Jupiter or Saturn. Knowing this will also help scientists determine which of these worlds might be potentially habitable. Of course, rocky planets similar in size to Earth, or a bit larger – super-Earths – would be the most interesting in this regard. Nicola Rando, CHEOPS project manager, said:
Both CHEOPS instrument and spacecraft are built to be extremely stable, so as to measure the incredibly small variations in the light of distant stars as their planets transit in front of them. For a planet like Earth, this amounts to the equivalent of watching the sun from a distant star and measuring its light dim by a tiny fraction of a percent. Now we are looking forward to the first part of the operational activities, making sure that the satellite and instrument perform as expected, ready for scientists to perform their world-class science.
CHEOPS will also be able to find out which of these planets do have atmospheres and whether they have clouds. This will help differentiate between deep, gaseous primordial atmospheres with no real solid surface beneath them, and thinner atmospheres like those on terrestrial planets such as Earth, Venus or Mars.
CHEOPS is just the first of three planned ESA missions to study exoplanets.
The Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) space telescope, expected to launch in 2026, will focus on searching for “Earth-like” planets, ones that are rocky and about the same size as Earth orbiting in their stars’ habitable zones. So far, most such worlds have been found orbiting red dwarf stars, the most common type of star in our galaxy. CHEOPS, however, will look for these planets around sun-like stars. It will also be able to determine the age of these planetary systems with more accuracy than possible before.
A couple of years later, in 2028, ESA will launch the Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey (ARIEL) mission, which will study the atmospheres of exoplanets. As well as atmospheric composition, this will help scientists develop a comprehensive catalog of exoplanetary orbits, radii, masses, densities and ages.
All three of these exciting missions, and others, will greatly increase our knowledge of these exotic, far-off worlds.
As Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, said:
CHEOPS will take exoplanet science to a whole new level. After the discovery of thousands of planets, the quest can now turn to characterization, investigating the physical and chemical properties of many exoplanets and really getting to know what they are made of and how they formed. CHEOPS will also pave the way for our future exoplanet missions, from the international James Webb Telescope to ESA’s very own PLATO and ARIEL satellites, keeping European science at the forefront of exoplanet research.
The CHEOPS mission is a partnership between ESA and Switzerland with additional contributions from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. More than 100 scientists and engineers are involved. The nominal mission is expected to last 3 1/2 years. While the CHEOPS science team has the bulk of observation time, 20% of the time is reserved for other scientists from around the world.
CHEOPS and the coming follow-up missions will open an exciting new chapter in exoplanetary study. What fascinating discoveries will they make?
Bottom line: ESA has successfully launched its CHEOPS space telescope to study hundreds of exoplanets in more detail than ever before.
NASA Declares The Mars InSight Digger Dead After Two Years! – Mashable India
NASA announced on Thursday that a “mole” on Mars has ended its mission after landing on the Red Planet nearly two years ago.
The mole — also called a digger, drill, and probe — was built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and deployed by NASA’s InSight lander. Its purpose was to drill 16 feet into Martian soil to take its temperature and…well, it never managed to do that.
The digger had drilled down merely 14 inches before getting stuck in the first month of its mission. Months later in Oct. 2019, NASA engineers made a plan to put the digger back on track by using a robotic scoop to help refill the 14 inches and support the digger in its next attempt at burrowing down 16 feet. The team at NASA was confident that the probe was finally ready to go, but they were wrong.
NASA’s next idea, in Feb. 2020, was to direct the InSight lander to push on the probe with its robotic arm.
That didn’t work, either. After attempting to use the scoop on InSight’s robotic arm once again on Jan. 9, 2021, the probe made 500 additional hammer strokes with no progress. At that point, the team declared the probe dead.
“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said DLR’s Tilman Spohn in NASA’s announcement.
There is good news, however. Spohn said that the work on this probe will benefit future missions, as they’ve learned a lot about the surface of Mars.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA’s Washington headquarters, said he was proud of the mission’s team — and that their work was purposeful. “This is why we take risks at NASA — we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
“In that sense, we’ve been successful: We’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions to Mars and elsewhere,” Zurbuchen continued, “and we thank our German partners from DLR for providing this instrument and for their collaboration.”
Study highlights human activity in Tanzania 2 million years ago – SlashGear
A new study was recently published by principal investigators from Canada and Tanzania working with partners in Africa, North America, and Europe. The entire team is working together to describe a large assemblage of stone tools, fossil bones, and chemical proxies obtained from dental and plant materials. Researchers on the study also examined tiny microscopic bits of silica left by plants, ancient pollen, and airborne charcoal resulting from natural fires retrieved from an ancient riverbed and Lake outcrops on the Serengeti plains.
Scientists say that the data gathered presents the earliest evidence for human activity in the Olduvai Gorge, dating back to about 2 million years ago. Researchers say their study is an important step in filling the gap between fossils and environmental context, and cultural items left by extinct humans. The data used in the study was obtained during a survey of an unexplored western portion of the ancient basin in a locality called Ewass Oldupa.
Stone tools were uncovered at the site belonging to a culture identified by archaeologists as Oldowan. The discovery shows that ancient humans were using tools millions of years ago. Concentrations of both stone tools and animal fossils showed that humans and fauna were gathering around water sources. The study found that early humans carried rocks with them that they used as tools that were obtained from distant sources across the basin at a distance of 12 kilometers east.
These ancient humans also have the flexibility to survive in changing environments. Research showed that humans continued to come to Ewass Oldupa to use local resources for over 200,000 years despite significant and rapid changes to the landscape. Artifacts discovered at the site are dated to the Early Pleistocene era about 2 million years ago. Researchers note that it’s not clear which species made the tools, and no hominid fossils were discovered in the study. However, younger sediments from a site 350 meters away did have Homo habilis fossils.
NASA Test of Mega Moon Rocket Engines Cut Short Unexpectedly – Gadgets 360
NASA’s deep space exploration rocket built by Boeing briefly ignited all four engines of its behemoth core stage for the first time on Saturday, cutting short a crucial test to advance a years-delayed US government programme to return humans to the moon in the next few years.
Mounted in a test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the Space Launch System’s (SLS) 212-foot tall core stage roared to life at 4:27pm local time (3:57am IST) for just over a minute — well short of the roughly four minutes engineers needed to stay on track for the rocket’s first launch in November this year.
“Today was a good day,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference after the test, adding “we got lots of data that we’re going to be able to sort through” to determine if a do-over is needed and whether a November 2021 debut launch date is still possible.
The engine test, the last leg of NASA’s nearly year-long “Green Run” test campaign, was a vital step for the space agency and its top SLS contractor Boeing before a debut unmanned launch later this year under NASA’s Artemis programme, the Trump administration’s push to return US astronauts to the moon by 2024.
It was unclear whether Boeing and NASA would have to repeat the test, a prospect that could push the debut launch into 2022. NASA’s SLS program manager John Honeycutt, cautioning the data review from the test is ongoing, told reporters the turnaround time for another hot fire test could be roughly one month.
To simulate internal conditions of a real liftoff, the rocket’s four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines ignited for roughly one minute and 15 seconds, generating 1.6 million pounds of thrust and consuming 700,000 gallons of propellants on NASA’s largest test stand, a massive facility towering 35 stories tall.
The expendable super heavy-lift SLS is three years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion (roughly Rs. 22,000 crores) over budget. Critics have long argued for NASA to retire the rocket’s shuttle-era core technologies, which have launch costs of $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,300 crores) or more per mission, in favor of newer commercial alternatives that promise lower costs.
By comparison, it costs as little as $90 million to fly the massive but less powerful Falcon Heavy rocket designed and manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and some $350 million (roughly Rs. 2,600 crores) per launch for United Launch Alliance’s legacy Delta IV Heavy.
While newer, more reusable rockets from both companies – SpaceX’s Starship and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan – promise heavier lift capacity than the Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy potentially at lower cost, SLS backers argue it would take two or more launches on those rockets to launch what the SLS could carry in a single mission.
Reuters reported in October that President-elect Joe Biden’s space advisers aim to delay Trump’s 2024 goal, casting fresh doubts on the long-term fate of SLS just as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin scramble to bring rival new heavy-lift capacity to market.
NASA and Boeing engineers have stayed on a ten-month schedule for the Green Run “despite having significant adversity this year,” Boeing’s SLS manager John Shannon told reporters this week, citing five tropical storms and a hurricane that hit Stennis, as well as a three-month closure after some engineers tested positive for the coronavirus in March.
© Thomson Reuters 2020
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