It’s the universe as we’ve never experienced it before. The James Webb Space Telescope is sending back incredible images of deep space so advanced scientists believe it’s going to “change astronomy forever.”
It’s not only that we can see into space and time billions of years ago. The magic is that we can see anything at all.
Although its predecessor the Hubble Space Telescope offered up some incredible sights, Webb, which was developed in partnership with NASA and the Canadian and European space agencies, is able to look even further back in time and show us more detail about what lies beyond planet Earth.
Take the recent release of the Pillars of Creation which was first captured in 1995 by Hubble. In the original image from the area, which is considered to be a star-making part of the galaxy, pillars of gaseous clouds that look like long fingers are reaching up to the sky.
What we couldn’t see before, and what is now revealed by the Webb telescope, are all the stars hidden behind the gas.
That’s because Webb sees infrared light, which is ordinarily invisible to humans.
By picking up infrared light, Webb can see objects that are so far away, the light they emit takes over 13.5 billion years to reach Earth. That means Webb is also like a time machine in that it can see what the universe looked like back when the earth and sun were formed.
However, what Webb is sending back is invisible to humans because we aren’t able to see infrared light.
So it’s the job of Joe DePasquale and Alyssa Pagan, science visuals developers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, to translate the information from Webb into something visible.
Joe DePasquale, senior science visuals developer, creates images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
“We can’t see in the infrared. So there has to be some level of translation here. But we use physical meaning like true physical science in order to represent the colour,” Pagan told Global’s The New Reality.
With the help of NASA scientists, Pagan and DePasquale break down the images into wavelengths. “We apply colour according to those wavelengths. And so the shortest wavelength filters that we have, we use blue for those. And as we move into longer and longer wavelengths, we go to greens and then reds,” DePasquale says.
The end result is eyepopping images like the mountainous-looking cosmic cliffs of the Carina Nebula captured by Webb.
“What we’re seeing when we look at these images is the raw material for life,” DePasquale says.
“We’re understanding the universe. We’re understanding ourselves. It’s so intriguing to get this new perspective, this bigger picture. A lot of people can be like, ‘Oh, it makes me feel small,’ but I think for a lot of people it actually makes you feel unified, connected, part of something that’s so grand and so beautiful. So you are a part of something that’s awesome.”
In their own right, these images are showstoppers, yet a Canadian scientist is now adding another level of emotion to it all.
Matt Russo, a University of Toronto physicist and a sonificiation specialist, is working with musician and friend Andrew Santaguida to add sound to the universe.
“The whole process felt really natural because we’re combining things that we’re passionate about: music, astronomy, math, computer programming, science, communication — all of these things wrapped up into one bundle,” Russo says.
Matt Russo, a University of Toronto physicist and sonification specialist, creates sounds for the Webb images.
Their first effort at sonifying an image was with the Trappist-1 solar system, first captured by NASA’S Spitzer Space Telescope in 2017.
“[It] is an amazing solar system with seven earth-sized planets. But they also happened to be locked in a musical pattern called an orbital resonance. And so that made it really natural to convert their motions into musical rhythms and pitches,” Russo says.
They did the sonification of Trappist for pure enjoyment — then NASA took notice.
“We kind of just on our own, (started) sonifying different things (NASA) had released and we would send to them and they would just start posting it on their own. And then eventually that led to us working for them professionally.”
Some of the sonifications have been met with skepticism from the public, like when they did the sound for a black hole.
“There’s a real soundwave detected in space in a galaxy cluster. And we were able to see the waves in the image, which means we can extract them and re-synthesize a sound,” Russo says.
“Some outlets would say it’s an actual recorded sound of a black hole, as if you had a microphone in space, which we know would not work for several reasons. So it’s important when we do sonification to present it for exactly what it is: that it’s data converged into sound.”
Now Russo and Santaguida are working on the latest imagery from the James Webb telescope.
They’re taking the spectacular images DePasquale and Pagan have created and putting them through a software system that Russo designed.
According to Russo sometimes the sound from the data can be a pleasant surprise. Other times they need to get a bit more creative to figure out how best to represent something in the image. Russo says they always try to be as scientifically accurate as possible.
“Where we have a little more musical input, we have to decide, for instance, which musical instrument is going to be triggered by stars,” he adds. “People seem to have an intuition that stars would make kind of a bell or chime sound.”
Their sonifications of the Webb images are now allowing people to see — and hear — the universe.
The sonifications are providing those living with visual impairments the chance to experience new insights into what’s out there.
“The whole goal is to communicate those interesting features in the image, through sound,” Russo says.
Christine Malec, a member of the visually impaired community in Toronto and an arts and culture consultant, says the sonifications by Russo and Santaguida allow her to conceptualize the images from the telescope, even though she is not able to see them.
“I had never imagined experiencing astronomy in that way,” she tells The New Reality.
Christine Malec, is a member of the visually impaired community, helping NASA make Webb images more accessible.
“When I experienced the sonification for the first time, I felt it in a way that was not intellectual; it was sensory and visceral. So I sometimes wonder if it’s what sighted people experience looking up at the night sky,” Malec says.
She now works regularly with Russo, Santaguida and NASA to help best translate the images from Webb for the benefit of people living with visual impairments.
Malec is excited about the future of space exploration and is hopeful for the future of accessible content in the science field.
“I wonder if I was a child now and came across things like sonification and image descriptions and astronomical stuff, would a career in STEM make more sense? Would it be more appealing? And I think the answer to that is yes. So I think that reason is a really good one for blind and low vision kids today to grow up with this as normal, I think it’s incredibly valuable.”
Space Atomic Clocks Could Unravel the Nature of Dark Matter – AZoQuantum
Analyzing an atomic clock onboard a spacecraft within the orbit of Mercury and very close to the Sun could be the trick to revealing the nature of dark matter according to a new research article published in the December 5th issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.
Dark matter composes over 80% of the mass in the universe, but it has thus far dodged detection on Earth, regardless of decades of experimental endeavors. A core component of these hunts is a hypothesis regarding the local density of dark matter, which establishes the number of dark matter particles moving via the detector at all times and thus the experimental sensitivity.
In a few models, this density can be a lot higher than is typically supposed, and dark matter can become more intense in certain regions than in others.
One vital group of experimental searches is those using nuclei or atoms because these have realized extraordinary sensitivity to signals of dark matter. This is conceivable, in part, because when dark matter particles have extremely small masses, they prompt oscillations in the very constants of nature.
These oscillations, for example the interaction strength of the electromagnetic force or in the mass of the electron, alter the transition energies of nuclei and atoms in foreseeable ways.
An international group of scientists, Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU) Project Researcher Joshua Eby, University of California, Irvine, Postdoctoral Fellow Yu-Dai Tsai, and University of Delaware Professor Marianna S. Safronova, recognized the potential in these oscillating signals.
They stated that in a specific region of the Solar System, between the orbit of Mercury and the Sun, the dark matter’s density could be exceptionally large, which would mean extraordinary sensitivity to the oscillating signals.
These signals could be captured by atomic clocks, which work by meticulously measuring the frequency of photons discharged in transitions of various states in atoms. Ultralight dark matter in the region of the clock experiment could alter those frequencies as the oscillations of the dark matter marginally increase and decrease the photon energy.
The more dark matter there is around the experiment, the larger these oscillations are, so the local density of dark matter matters a lot when analyzing the signal.
Joshua Eby, Project Researcher, Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe
While the accurate density of the dark matter near the Sun is not established, the scientists debate that even a comparatively low-sensitivity search could deliver crucial information.
The density of dark matter is just constrained in the Solar System by information concerning planet orbits. In the region between the Sun and Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, there is nearly no constraint. Therefore, a measurement onboard a spacecraft could rapidly expose world-leading restrictions on dark matter in these models.
The technology to test their theory is already present. Eby says the NASA Parker Solar Probe, which has been functioning since 2018 with the help of shielding, has moved closer to the Sun than any manmade craft in history and is at present working within the orbit of Mercury, with plans to travel even closer to the Sun in a year.
Atomic clocks in space are already established for numerous reasons other than hunting for dark matter.
Long-distance space missions, including possible future missions to Mars, will require exceptional timekeeping as would be provided by atomic clocks in space. A possible future mission, with shielding and trajectory very similar to the Parker Solar Probe, but carrying an atomic clock apparatus, could be sufficient to carry out the search.
Joshua Eby, Project Researcher, Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe
Tsai, Y-D., et al. (2022) Direct detection of ultralight dark matter bound to the Sun with space quantum sensors. Nature Astronomy. doi.org/10.1038/s41550-022-01833-6.
After lunar flyby, NASA’s Orion spacecraft is set to splashdown on Sunday – Ars Technica
The Orion spacecraft swung by the Moon on Monday, flying to within 130 km of that world’s surface as it set course for a return to Earth this weekend.
In making this “powered flyby burn” to move away from the Moon, Orion’s service module performed its longest main engine firing to date, lasting 3 minutes and 27 seconds. After successful completion of the maneuver, NASA’s mission management team gave the “go” to send recovery teams out into the Pacific Ocean, where Orion is due to splashdown on Sunday, during the middle of the day.
By getting into an orbit around the Moon, and back out of it again during its deep space mission, Orion has now completed four main propulsive burns. This completes a big test of the spacecraft and its propulsive service module, which was built by the European Space Agency. Although a boilerplate version of Orion made a flight in 2014, it did so without a service module.
As part of this Artemis I mission, NASA is now three weeks into a 25.5-day test flight of the Orion spacecraft. The goal is to validate the spacecraft’s capabilities ahead of a human flight of the vehicle in about two years’ time, the Artemis II mission.
Orion has met most of its main objectives to date, with only the entry, descent, and splashdown part of its mission ahead of it. The spacecraft’s heat shield must demonstrate its ability to survive reentry at a velocity of 39,400 kph. This big test will come Sunday during a fiery reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
A minor power issue
So far, Orion’s test flight has gone remarkably well. Typically, with new spacecraft, there are issues with thrusters, navigation, or onboard avionics and more. However, Orion has had no major issues. The only real troubleshooting has involved a problem with power systems on the vehicle.
The issue has occurred with four “latching current limiters” that help route power to propulsion and heating systems on Orion. For some reason, automated controllers on Orion commanded the four current limiters to “open” when no such command was supposed to be sent. “We’re not exactly sure on the root cause of the problem, but teams are doing tests on the ground,” said Debbie Korth, the Orion Program deputy manager, during a briefing on Monday evening at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
This system is somewhat like a circuit breaker box in a home, and for some reason four of the breakers were opened when they were not supposed to be. This did not pose a threat to Orion, as there are backup power systems. Had a crew been on board it would have required a minor procedure to account for the problem.
In an interview after the news briefing, Korth said she did not think the glitch would have an impact on the service module that will be used for the Artemis II mission. This hardware is already built and being tested in the United States.
“I think it’s probably too early to say for sure, but ideally we will not want to perturb the Artemis II service module,” she said. “This may very well be something we can handle with software.”
Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft aced its test flight but still hasn't tested life support – Space.com
The Europe-built service module powering the Orion spaceship during the Artemis 1 mission is nailing its debut lunar round trip, but a key system for keeping future human crews alive is not being tested during the flight.
The Orion capsule, which commenced the return leg of its groundbreaking journey on Thursday (Dec. 1), is currently not filled with breathable air, European aerospace giant Airbus told Space.com. According to Airbus, which built Orion’s service module, the capsule’s life support system will only be fully put through its paces in ground-based labs before the first flight with astronauts in 2024.
The Europe-built service module, responsible for propulsion and navigation, is the part of the spacecraft that sustains livable conditions inside Orion’s crew compartment. The service module carries water the astronauts will need during the flight and generates breathable air by mixing oxygen and nitrogen that are stored in separate tanks.
During the Artemis 1 mission, however, engineers are only testing the nitrogen delivery system, but fortunately, neither Shaun the Sheep, the plush toy sent for the mission by the European Space Agency (ESA), nor the three dummies occupying the Orion cockpit, mind this fact.
“The oxygen and nitrogen delivery systems are very similar,” Airbus spokesperson Ralph Heinrich told Space.com in an email. “We carry nitrogen on board Artemis 1 and will be testing the nitrogen delivery system during the flight that’s ongoing at the moment. As the oxygen and nitrogen systems carry the same components, the test on the nitrogen distribution system will cover by similarity the oxygen delivery system. Furthermore, the oxygen system is being tested extensively on ground.”
For Airbus, the Artemis 1 mission represents a major victory. The company was awarded a contract to develop the service module, a key component of the Orion spacecraft, by ESA, based on their previous experience building the Automated Transfer Vehicle, a cargo spacecraft which used to supply the International Space Station between 2008 and 2014. During its lunar sorties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, NASA built all of the required technology at home in the United States and didn’t include any international partners.
The Artemis 1 service module is a culmination of ten years of work, and the Airbus team is delighted to see the craft performing with flying colors. So far, the service module has completed all of its key tasks flawlessly, including three engine burns, which first helped Orion to enter orbit around the moon, and then to subsequently leave lunar orbit to head back to Earth.
In a post-launch press conference, NASA admitted it detected 13 anomalies during the early phase of Orion’s flight, including erratic readings from star trackers that the space capsule uses to navigate.
“Engineers will be looking into the data that’s coming back from Orion so that every single system, every single component on board of the spacecraft can be tested in one way or another before the next mission,” Sian Cleaver, the European Service module project manager at Airbus told Space.com in an interview. “So far, everything is going well. Of course, there’ll be things that can be improved or changed. There were a few things that didn’t work exactly as planned, but none of them were major issues.”
Airbus engineers are receiving a stream of data from the spacecraft including “pressure, temperature, valve position data and currents and voltages” to monitor its health, Airbus wrote in an email.
“We look at all the data throughout the whole mission, and especially during major events, like main engine firings,” Airbus wrote. “[We] make sure the system is operated within its expected and qualified range. The data is also being stored continuously, to allow post flight analyses and prepare for the next Artemis missions.”
Airbus has already delivered the next service module to NASA for testing and mating with the crew compartment for the Artemis 2 mission,which will take humans to orbit around the moon for the first time since the final Apollo flight in 1972. That mission is expected to launch no earlier than 2024, if all goes according to plan. The company has also nearly completed the assembly of the third service module, which will power the Artemis 3 mission that is expected to involve a lunar landing no earlier than 2025.
The bones of the fourth service module have also been put together and plans are in place to begin work on the fifth specimen later this month. These service modules will cover Artemis missions 4 and 5, which are expected to take off to the moon toward the end of this decade. By that time, the Lunar Gateway space station will be put together in orbit around the moon, opening a new era of regular human visits to Earth’s companion.
“It really feels like a bit of a production line going on now at our facility,” Cleaver said. “It’s really exciting. The program is really, really moving now. We have a plan for the next 10 years, and there are also clear messages from NASA and ESA that the moon is only the first step and that the technology will be used to eventually go to Mars.”
Airbus is under contract to build the service module number six and is currently negotiating another batch of three. The service modules are single-use only and will detach from the crew capsule before it enters Earth’s atmosphere during its return.
The Artemis 1 mission lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 16. The mission was a debut not only for Orion, but also for the Space Launch System mega rocket that lofted it into space. During the mission, Orion passed only 80 miles (130 kilometers) above the moon’s surface, and also broke a record for the greatest distance from Earth ever achieved by a human-rated spacecraft. By getting as far as 270,000 miles (435,000 km) from the planet, Orion surpassed the previous maximum held by the Apollo 13 mission. That mission, however, only got that far as part of a rescue operation designed to bring it back home after an onboard explosion crippled the spacecraft.
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