Category: Science

Interviews, spotlights and essays from the brightest minds in the world.

FeaturedScienceTechnology

A closer look at distant nebulas

Emission nebulae often have dark areas in them which result from clouds of dust which block the light. Many nebulae are made up of both reflection and emission components.

An emission nebula is a nebula formed of ionized gases that emit light of various colors. The most common source of ionization is high-energy photons emitted from a nearby hot star. Among the several different types of emission nebulae are H II regions, in which star formation is taking place and young, massive stars are the source of the ionizing photons; and planetary nebulae, in which a dying star has thrown off its outer layers, with the exposed hot core then ionizing them.

Usually, a young star will ionize part of the same cloud from which it was born although only massive, hot stars can release sufficient energy to ionize a significant part of a cloud. In many emission nebulae, an entire cluster of young stars is doing the work.

The nebula’s color depends on its chemical composition and degree of ionization. Due to the prevalence of hydrogen in interstellar gas, and its relatively low energy of ionization, many emission nebulae appear red due to the strong emissions of the Balmer series. If more energy is available, other elements will be ionized and green and blue nebulae become possible. By examining the spectra of nebulae, astronomers infer their chemical content. Most emission nebulae are about 90% hydrogen, with the remainder helium, oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements.

PoliticsScience

Getting NASA back on its feet

Apollo set major milestones in human spaceflight. It stands alone in sending manned missions beyond low Earth orbit, and landing humans on another celestial body. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the United States government agency responsible for the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

Since that time, most US space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the Space Launch System and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches.

The first person to stand on the Moon was Neil Armstrong, who was followed by Buzz Aldrin, while Michael Collins orbited above. The first person to stand on the Moon was Neil Armstrong, who was followed by Buzz Aldrin, while Michael Collins orbited above. Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. Throughout these six Apollo spaceflights, twelve men walked on the Moon. These missions returned a wealth of scientific data and 381.7 kilograms of lunar samples. Topics covered by experiments performed included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismology, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind. The Moon landing marked the end of the space race; and as a gesture, Armstrong mentioned mankind when he stepped down on the Moon.

Apollo set major milestones in human spaceflight. It stands alone in sending manned missions beyond low Earth orbit, and landing humans on another celestial body. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit another celestial body, while Apollo 17 marked the last moonwalk and the last manned mission beyond low Earth orbit to date. The program spurred advances in many areas of technology peripheral to rocketry and manned spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers. Apollo sparked interest in many fields of engineering and left many physical facilities and machines developed for the program as landmarks. Many objects and artifacts from the program are on display at various locations throughout the world, notably at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museums.

ScienceTechnology

James Webb Space Telescope

In contrast to other proposed observatories, the JWST telescope is the last big NASA astrophysics mission of its generation to be built. The James Webb Space Telescope, previously known as Next Generation Space Telescope, is a space observatory under construction and scheduled to launch in October 2018. The JWST will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from long-wavelength visible to the mid-infrared, and is a successor instrument to the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope. The telescope features a segmented 6.5-meter diameter primary mirror and will be located near the Earth–Sun L2 point. A large sunshield will keep its mirror and four science instruments below 50 K. JWST’s capabilities will enable a broad range of investigations across the fields of astronomy and cosmology.

One particular goal involves observing some of the most distant objects in the Universe, beyond the reach of current ground and space based instruments. This includes the very first stars, the epoch of reionization, and the formation of the first galaxies. Another goal is understanding the formation of stars and planets. This will include imaging molecular clouds and star-forming clusters, studying the debris disks around stars, direct imaging of planets, and spectroscopic examination of planetary transits.

In gestation since 1996, the project represents an international collaboration of about 17 countries led by NASA, and with significant contributions from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It is named after James E. Webb, the second administrator of NASA, who played an integral role in the Apollo program.

ScienceTechnology

Curiosity mission extended indefinitely

Curiosity‍‍’​‍s design will serve as the basis for the planned Mars 2020 rover. In December 2012, Curiosity‍‍’‍s two-year mission was extended indefinitely.

Curiosity is a car-sized robotic rover exploring Gale Crater on Mars as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission. Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011, at 15:02 UTC aboard the MSL spacecraft and landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on Mars on August 6, 2012, 05:17 UTC. The Bradbury Landing site was less than 2.4 km (1.5 mi) from the center of the rover’s touchdown target after a 563,000,000 km journey.

The rover’s goals include: investigation of the Martian climate and geology; assessment of whether the selected field site inside Gale Crater has ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life, including investigation of the role of water; and planetary habitability studies in preparation for future human exploration.

As established by the Mars Exploration Program, the main scientific goals of the MSL mission are to help determine whether Mars could ever have supported life, as well as determining the role of water, and to study the climate and geology of Mars. The mission will also help prepare for human exploration. To contribute to these goals, MSL has eight main scientific objectives.

Biological

  • Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds
  • Investigate the chemical building blocks of life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur)
  • Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes (biosignatures and biomolecules)

Geological and geochemical

  • Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials
  • Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils

Planetary process

  • Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) Martian atmospheric evolution processes
  • Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide

Surface radiation

  • Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic and cosmic radiation, solar proton events and secondary neutrons. As part of its exploration, it also measured the radiation exposure in the interior of the spacecraft as it traveled to Mars, and it is continuing radiation measurements as it explores the surface of Mars. This data would be important for a future manned mission.

ScienceTechnology

United States enters the space race

The Space Race has left a legacy of Earth communications and weather satellites, and continuing human space presence on the International Space Station. It has also sparked increases in spending on education and research and development, which led to beneficial spin-off technologies. The Space Race was a 20th-century (1955–1972) competition between two Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US), for supremacy in spaceflight capability. It had its origins in the missile-based nuclear arms race between the two nations that occurred following World War II, enabled by captured German rocket technology and personnel. The technological superiority required for such supremacy was seen as necessary for national security, and symbolic of ideological superiority. The Space Race spawned pioneering efforts to launch artificial satellites, unmanned space probes of the Moon, Venus, and Mars, and human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and to the Moon.
The competition began on August 2, 1955, when the Soviet Union responded to the US announcement four days earlier of intent to launch artificial satellites for the International Geophysical Year, by declaring they would also launch a satellite “in the near future”. The Soviet Union beat the US to this, with the October 4, 1957 orbiting of Sputnik 1, and later beat the US to the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. The Space Race peaked with the July 20, 1969 US landing of the first humans on the Moon with Apollo 11.

The Space Race has left a legacy of Earth communications and weather satellites, and continuing human space presence on the International Space Station. It has also sparked increases in spending on education and research and development, which led to beneficial spin-off technologies.

On April 2, 1958, President Eisenhower reacted to the Soviet space lead in launching the first satellite, by recommending to the US Congress that a civilian agency be established to direct nonmilitary space activities. Congress, led by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, responded by passing the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which Eisenhower signed into law on July 29, 1958. This law turned the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It also created a Civilian-Military Liaison Committee, chaired by the President, responsible for coordinating the nation’s civilian and military space programs.

First Human in space

Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, 1961. By 1959, American observers believed that the Soviet Union would be the first to get a human into space, because of the time needed to prepare for Mercury’s first launch. On April 12, 1961, the USSR surprised the world again by launching Yuri Gagarin into a single orbit around the Earth in a craft they called Vostok 1. They dubbed Gagarin the first cosmonaut, roughly translated from Russian and Greek as “sailor of the universe”.

Although he had the ability to take over manual control of his spacecraft in an emergency by opening an envelope he had in the cabin that contained a code that could be typed into the computer, it was flown in an automatic mode as a precaution; medical science at that time did not know what would happen to a human in the weightlessness of space. Vostok 1 orbited the Earth for 108 minutes and made its reentry over the Soviet Union, with Gagarin ejecting from the spacecraft at 7,000 meters (23,000 ft), and landing by parachute. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (International Federation of Aeronautics) credited Gagarin with the world’s first human space flight, although their qualifying rules for aeronautical records at the time required pilots to take off and land with their craft.

ScienceTechnology

Hubble Space Telescope turns 25

The Hubble Space Telescope is a space telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, and remains in operation. With a 2.4-meter (7.9 ft) mirror, Hubble’s four main instruments observe in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared spectra. The telescope is named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Hubble’s orbit outside the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere allows it to take extremely high-resolution images with negligible background light. Hubble has recorded some of the most detailed visible-light images ever, allowing a deep view into space and time. Many Hubble observations have led to breakthroughs in astrophysics, such as accurately determining the rate of expansion of the universe.

Hubble’s Impressive Shots

Although not the first space telescope, Hubble is one of the largest and most versatile, and is well known as both a vital research tool and a public relations boon for astronomy. The HST was built by the United States space agency NASA, with contributions from the European Space Agency, and is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute. The HST is one of NASA’s Great Observatories, along with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Hubble is the only telescope designed to be serviced in space by astronauts. After launch by Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990, four subsequent Space Shuttle missions repaired, upgraded, and replaced systems on the telescope.

Space telescopes were proposed as early as 1923. Hubble was funded in the 1970s, with a proposed launch in 1983, but the project was beset by technical delays, budget problems, and the Challenger disaster. When finally launched in 1990, Hubble’s main mirror was found to have been ground incorrectly, compromising the telescope’s capabilities. The optics were corrected to their intended quality by a servicing mission in 1993.