Tag Archives: #space

Astronomers Discover Largest Peptide-like Molecule In Space (Planetary Science)

A team of international astronomers reported the discovery of the propionamide, the largest peptide-like molecule, in space toward Sagittarius B2(N1) at a position called N1E that is slightly offset from the continuum peak. Their study recently appeared in Arxiv.

Proteins are polymers of amino acids joined together by the peptide bond, -NHCO-. Due to the high molecular weight and extremely low gas-phase abundance, detection of proteins in the interstellar medium (ISM) at the current stage of development of observation facilities looks like a formidable task. Therefore, molecules with peptide-like bonds are of particular interest for our understanding of possible routes of protein formation in space. However, the number of peptide-like molecules found so far in space is quite limited.

Now, using the high sensitivity and high angular resolution of the ReMoCA spectral line survey conducted with ALMA toward Sgr B2(N), Chinese astronomers for the first time detected propionamide, C2H5CONH2, the next member of the interstellar amide chemical family after formamide and acetamide.

© Juan Li et al.

They performed a new laboratory measurements of the propionamide spectrum in the 9-461 GHz range, which provide them an opportunity to check directly for the transition frequencies of detected interstellar lines of propionamide.

“By mapping propionamide versus CH13CN, they selected a position 1.5ʹʹ to the east of the hot core Sgr B2(N1) (referred to as Sgr B2(N1E)) where they found propionamide is relatively strong while other molecular emissions are relatively weak.”

— they wrote.

Their observational results indicated that propionamide emission comes from the warm, compact cores in Sagittarius B2, in which massive protostellars are forming. The column density of propionamide toward Sgr B2(N1E) was derived to be 1.5×1016 cm¯2, which is three-fifths of that of acetamide, and one-nineteenth of that of formamide.

“The detection of propionamide in Sgr B2(N) demonstrates that interstellar chemistry can reach sufficient levels of complexity to form relatively large peptide molecules and shows the possible growth of larger amide molecules from smaller ones in a massive star-forming process. It is probable that propionamide might also exist in massive star-forming regions in the Galactic disk, such as Orion KL and NGC 6334.”

— they concluded.

Featured image: Generalized structure and model of propionamide © Juan Li et al.

Reference: Juan Li, Junzhi Wang, Xing Lu, Vadim Ilyushin, Roman A. Motiyenko, Qian Gou, Eugene A. Alekseev, Donghui Quan, Laurent Margules, Feng Gao, Frank J. Lovas, Yajun Wu, Edwin Bergin, Shanghuo Li, Zhiqiang Shen, Fujun Du, Meng Li, Siqi Zheng, Xingwu Zheng, “Propionamide (C2H5CONH2): The largest peptide-like molecule in space”, Arxiv, pp. 1-49, 2021.

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From Atoms To Planets, The Longest-running Space Station Experiment (Astronomy)

As Europe celebrates 20 years of ESA astronauts on the International Space Station, a Russian-European experiment has been running quietly in the weightless research centre for just as long: the Plasma Kristall (PK) suite of investigations into fundamental science.

Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky working on the Plasma Kristall-4 experiment in Europe’s Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station, 18 June 2021. Credit: ESA/NASA–T. Pesquet

Plasma Kristall takes a plasma and injects fine dust particles in weightlessness, turning the dust into highly charged particles that interact with each other, bouncing off each other as their charge causes the particles to attract or repel. Under the right conditions, the dust particles can arrange themselves over time to form organised structures, or plasma crystals.

Visualising the laws of physics
Visualising the laws of physics © ESA

These interactions and forming of three-dimensional structures resemble the workings of our world on the atomic scale, a world so small that we cannot see move even with an electron microscope. Add a laser to the mix and the dust particles can be seen and recorded for observation by scientists on Earth for a sneak peak of the world beyond our eyes.

These surrogate atoms are a way for researchers to simulate how materials form on an atomic scale, and to test and visualise theories. The experiment cannot be run on Earth because gravity only makes sagging, flattened recreations possible; if you want to see how a crystal is constituted you need to remove the force pulling downwards – gravity.

Sergei with original PK-3 experiment on the Space Station in 2001
Sergei with original PK-3 experiment on the Space Station in 2001 © ESA

On 3 March 2001, “PK-3 Plus” was turned on in the Zvezda module, the first physical experiment to run on the Space Station. Led by the German aerospace centre DLR and Russian space agency Roscosmos the experiment was a success and later followed up by a fourth version, installed in 2014 in ESA’s Columbus laboratory, this time as an ESA-Roscosmos collaboration.

Elena installing PK-4 in 2014
Roscosmos cosmonaut Elena Serove installing the Plasma Kristall-4 experiment in Europe’s Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station in 2014. Credit: ESA/NASA
Plasma Kristall-4
Plasma Kristall-4. Credit: Michael Kretschmer

Planet conceptions

By changing the parameters in PK-4, such as adjusting voltage or using larger dust particles, the atom doppelgangers can simulate different interactions. Complex phenomena such as phase transitions, for example from gas to liquid, microscopic motions, the onset of turbulence and shear forces are well known in physics, but not fully understood at the atomic level.

Using PK-4, researchers across the world can follow how an object melts, how waves spread in fluids and how currents change at the atomic level.  

Around 100 papers have been published based on the Plasma Kristall experiments and the knowledge gained is helping understand how planets form too. At its origin our planet Earth was probably two dust particles that met in space and grew and grew into our world. PK-4 can model these origin moments as they are during the conception of planets.

CADMOS during PK-4 operations
CADMOS during PK-4 operations © ESA

The huge amount of data that PK-4 creates is so vast it cannot be downloaded through the Space Station’s communication network, so hard disks are physically shipped to space and back with terabytes of information. The experiment is run from Toulouse, France, at the CNES space agency operating centre Cadmos.

Astrid Orr, ESA’s physical sciences coordinator notes “PK-4 is a great example of fundamental science done on the Space Station; through international collaboration and long-term investment we are learning more about the world around us, on the minute scale as well as on the cosmic scale.

“The knowledge from the PK experiments can be directly applied to research on fusion physics – where dust needs to be removed – and the processing of electronic chips, for example in plasma processes in the semiconductor and solar cell industry. In addition, the miniaturisation of the technology required when developing Plasma Kristal is already being applied in plasma-based medical equipment for hospitals.

“The PK experiments address a large range of physical phenomena, so ground-breaking discoveries can happen at any moment.”

This science news has been confirmed by us from ESA

Provided by ESA

What Happens To Space Time When Cosmic Objects Collide? (Cosmology)

Everything we can observe in the Universe takes place in four dimensions—the three dimensions of space and the dimension of time. This basic system, known as spacetime, can distort in the presence of massive astronomical objects, bending light and even affecting time.

Gravitational Waves and Fluctuations in Spacetime

Based on Albert Einstein’s 1915 General Theory of Relativity, massive objects bend the fabric of spacetime, giving rise to what we know as gravity. But when these objects accelerate, like when two black holes are orbiting each other, they cause tiny disturbances in spacetime, called gravitational waves, that propagate throughout the Universe at the speed of light. 

Gravitational waves are extremely small, roughly one billionth the width of a single atom. As they travel uninterrupted throughout the Universe, they slightly compress and stretch spacetime. We are periodically distorted by gravitational waves, although we cannot sense it. Though the search for gravitational waves has taken decades, technology has only recently advanced to the point where we can directly detect them.

The first directly observed gravitational waves reached Earth on September 14, 2015 after traveling more than a billion light years. By analyzing the signal, astronomers were able to deduce that two black holes were locked in a binary orbit and as they spiraled into each other, they released energy in the form of gravitational waves.

Several more examples of gravitational waves were observed, demonstrating that these events are not that rare in the Universe. Then, on August 17, 2017, a different kind of signal was recorded that corresponded to the merger of two neutron stars, the super dense compact objects created by supernovae. A call went out to the astronomical community, and within hours, an electromagnetic counterpart was discovered.

What We’re Learning

In the few years since the direct detection of gravitational waves, these barely perceptible bends in spacetime have taught us a lot about our Universe.

  • How Old is the Universe? In the case of the neutron star collision, by measuring the strength of gravitational waves, we’re able to compute a distance to the event and its host galaxy, NGC 4993. We know that the further a galaxy is, the faster it moves away. When we measure how the the light from NGC 4993 is stretched, or redshifted, we know how fast it is moving. With these values, we can work backward and calculate the age of the Universe. This novel way of dating the Universe agrees with the currently accepted age of 13.8 billion years.
  • Where Gamma-Ray Bursts Come From. Since the late 60’s, scientists have observed short bursts of high-energy gamma-ray radiation but could not pinpoint their origin. After detecting a gamma-ray burst and the gravitational wave event almost simultaneously and in the same area of the sky, it was determined that neutron star mergers must be the source.
  • Origin of Heavy Elements. Heavy elements like gold and platinum were thought to be created in hot radioactive events, like supernovae explosions. But the amount of these elements observed in supernova remnants was less than sufficient to explain the abundance we see in the Universe. After the 2017 neutron star merger, astronomers saw the radioactive aftermath suggesting that neutron star collisions are the perfect factories for heavy elements. That one collision alone formed several Earth masses of gold and platinum. We now know that these events are responsible for most of the heavy elements in the Universe.
  • Test of Dark Matter. Some theories have attempted to explain the peculiar motion of galaxies and clusters of galaxies without invoking dark matter, the invisible material that makes up 80% of the matter in the Universe. This involved altering the current model of gravity to fit the observations. While the theory of general relativity says that light and gravity travel at the same speed, many of these adjusted models require them to be different. But after traveling 130 million light years, the 2017 gravitational wave arrived 1.7 seconds before the corresponding electromagnetic radiation. This means that the speeds couldn’t differ by more than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000. In other words, they’re pretty much equal.

Of course, we’re not done learning from gravitational waves. By continuing to study these flickers in spacetime, we may be rewarded with the discovery of new particles, new models for what happens to matter at extreme densities, and a deeper understanding of gravity itself. Gravitational waves have opened a new realm of astronomy.

Our Work

1×10-21 meters, Size of the average gravitational wave

The detection of gravitational waves was a testament to incredible engineering and the power of the theory of general relativity. But it also showed what was possible when the astronomical community banded together. Within hours of the August 17, 2017 gravitational wave event, many major observatories were looking for the optical counterpart, with over 70 eventually participating. Since the event occured in the Southern Hemisphere, only certain telescopes could observe that region of the sky.

A few hours after the gravitational wave detection, as night set in Chile, CFA astronomers used the powerful Dark Energy Camera on the Blanco telescope to search the region of sky from which the gravitational waves emanated. In less than an hour they located a new source of visible light in the galaxy NGC 4993.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory tried observing the optical counterpart two days after gravitational waves detected but with no luck. Undeterred, Chandra observed again after another week and discovered X-rays right where they should be.

But the delay was curious. CFA scientists determined, using radio observations with the Very Large Array in New Mexico, that the collision blasted a narrow jet of high energy radiation about 30 degrees away from us. It was only when this energy heated the surrounding medium, around nine days after the collision, that Chandra was able to detect X-rays.

The discovery of a electromagnetic event coupled with a gravitational wave event is a first for “multi-messenger” astronomy. By combining the two messengers, we are learning more about the source than we ever would separately.

Featured image: An artist’s conception of the collision between two neutron stars. These collisions produce phenomenal amounts of energy in the form of gravitational waves, as observed using the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave observatories. Credit: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

Provided by CFA Harvard

Scientists Identify Distinctive Deep Infrasound Rumbles of Space Launches (Astronomy)

Signatures of Space Shuttle, Falcon 9 rocket stages heard by international nuclear test monitoring system

After their initial blast, space rockets shoot away from the Earth with rumbles in infrasound, soundwaves too low to be heard by human ears that can travel thousands of miles.

New research used a system for monitoring nuclear tests to track the infrasound from 1,001 rocket launches. The research identified the distinctive sounds from seven different types of rockets, including the Space Shuttles, Falcon 9 rockets, various Soyuz rockets, the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5, Russian Protons and several types of Chinese Long March rockets.

In some cases, like the Space Shuttle and the Falcon 9, the researchers were also able to identify the various stages of the rockets’ journey.

The new information could be useful for finding problems and identifying the atmospheric re-entry or splashdown locations of rocket stages, according to the new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, AGU’s journal for high-impact, short-format reports with immediate implications spanning all Earth and space sciences.

Infrasound represents acoustic soundwaves below the general threshold of frequency that humans can hear. But while higher frequency noises are louder close to the source of things like nuclear explosions, low-frequency infrasound travels longer distances. Infrasound is produced by natural events as well as technological sources, and has been used to detect remote volcanic eruptions or the hum of the ocean swell.

To listen in on rocket launches, the authors tapped into a global monitoring network. After the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996, scientists set up the International Monitoring System (IMS). This system is currently characterized by a series of 53 certified and operational infrasound stations around the world. Micro barometers at the IMS stations can detect the infrasound released by large nuclear explosions.

These stations also gather the infrasonic sounds released by other large explosions such as volcanic eruptions or space rocket launches. The researchers wanted to see if they could detect and characterize the launch of space rockets around the world.

They examined 7,637 infrasound signatures recorded at IMS stations from 2009 to mid-2020, a period that included 1,001 rocket launches. The team only examined rocket launches that occurred up to 5,000 kilometers from an IMS station, but found the acoustic signals from rocket launches could sometimes be detected up to 9,000 kilometers away, according to author Patrick Hupe, a researcher at the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources.

The researchers found infrasonic signatures for up to 73% of these rockets, or 733. The other 27% of launches they couldn’t detect because the rockets had smaller thrusts or the atmospheric conditions didn’t favor the propagation over long distances.

For the ones they did detect, they could determine the type of rockets launched, everything from the Space Shuttles, the last of which launched in 2011, to Russian Soyuz rockets. In total, they examined the signatures for seven rocket types to derive a relation between the measured amplitude and the rocket thrust: Space Shuttles; Falcon 9s; various Soyuz rockets; the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5; Russian Protons; Chinese Long March 2Cs, 2Ds, 3As, 4Bs, and 4Cs; and Long March 3Bs.

Space Shuttle vs Falcon 9

The researchers also took a closer look at two different rocket types – the Space Shuttle and the Falcon 9.

They found they could identify the infrasonic signals of various stages of flight for these rockets. For the first, a Space Shuttle launched from Kennedy Space Center in November 2009, the team detected the infrasound created by the splash down of the fuel boosters before they detected the acoustic signal of the initial rocket launch because they dropped down closer to the infrasound station than the launch site. In other words, the rocket was faster than sound.

“The rocket was faster than the infrasound propagated through the atmosphere,” Hupe said.

They also examined the launch and descent of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which has a partially reusable rocket that reentered the atmosphere and landed successfully on a drone ship in the ocean in January 2020. Hupe’s team could detect both the takeoff of the rocket and the landing of the first booster.

“By processing the data and also applying different quality criteria to the infrasonic signatures we were able to separate different rocket stages,” Hupe said.

“The ability to detect different types of rockets could be helpful,” said Adrian Peter, a professor of computer engineering and sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology that wasn’t involved in Hupe’s work but who has studied the infrasonic signatures of rockets before.

He said the characterization of different stages of rocket launches could be useful for determining future problems. For example, if a rocket didn’t launch properly or exploded, researchers might be able to detect what went wrong by analyzing the infrasonic signature, especially when the information is correlated with sensor readings from the rockets themselves.

Peter adds that it’s great to see researchers harnessing the information gathered by a monitoring network that was initially only intended to watch for nuclear launches and explosions.

“Now we’re leveraging it for other scientific applications,” he said, adding that there are likely further uses for this type of data.

Featured image: Space Shuttle Atlantis mission STS-129 launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 16 November 2009. More than 900 miles away, the International Monitoring System infrasound station in Bermuda recorded infrasound from the launch and booster splashdown. Credit: NASA/Scott Andrews, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Provided by AGU

Of Mice and Spacemen: Understanding muscle Wasting at the Molecular Level (Astronomy)

Researchers from the University of Tsukuba have sent mice into space to explore effects of spaceflight and reduced gravity on muscle atrophy, or wasting at the molecular level.

Most of us have imagined how free it would feel to float around, like an astronaut, in conditions of reduced gravity. But have you ever considered what the effects of reduced gravity might have on muscles? Gravity is a constant force on Earth which all living creatures have evolved to rely on and adapt to. Space exploration has brought about many scientific and technological advances, yet manned spaceflights come at a cost to astronauts, including reduced skeletal muscle mass and strength.

Conventional studies investigating the effects of reduced gravity on muscle mass and function have used a ground control group that is not directly comparable to the space experimental group. Researchers from the University of Tsukuba set out to explore the effects of gravity in mice subjected to the same housing conditions, including those experienced during launch and landing. “In humans, spaceflight causes muscle atrophy and can lead to serious medical problems after return to Earth” says senior author Professor Satoru Takahashi. “This study was designed based on the critical need to understand the molecular mechanisms through which muscle atrophy occurs in conditions of microgravity and artificial gravity.”

Two groups of mice (six per group) were housed onboard the International Space Station for 35 days. One group was subjected to artificial gravity (1 g) and the other to microgravity. All mice were alive upon return to Earth and the team compared the effects of the different onboard environments on skeletal muscles. “To understand what was happening inside the muscles and cells, at the molecular level, we examined the muscle fibers. Our results show that artificial gravity prevents the changes observed in mice subjected to microgravity, including muscle atrophy and changes in gene expression,” explained Prof. Takahashi. Transcriptional analysis of gene expression revealed that artificial gravity prevented altered expression of atrophy related genes and identified novel candidate genes associated with atrophy. Specifically, a gene called Cacng1 was identified as possibly having a functional role in myotube atrophy.

This work supports the use of spaceflight datasets using 1 g artificial gravity for examining the effects of spaceflight in muscles. These studies will likely aid our understanding of the mechanisms of muscle atrophy and may ultimately influence the treatment of related diseases.

The article, “Transcriptome analysis of gravitational effects on mouse skeletal muscles under microgravity and artificial 1 g onboard environment,” was published in Scientific Reports at DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-88392-4

Featured image: Image by Dima Zel/Shutterstock

Provided by University of Tsukuba

Fifteen Years of Restlessness in the Sky X (Astronomy)

The catalog of the Extras project – a collection accessible to anyone, coordinated by Andrea De Luca of INAF of Milan, of all the X photons collected from 1999 to 2015 by the Epic camera of the Esa space telescope for high energy Xmm-Newton – is from today described in every aspect, from the algorithms developed for data analysis to the products of the same analyzes, in an article published in Astronomy & Astrophysics

The night sky as we are used to looking at it – planes and artificial satellites aside – offers a rather static panorama. There is the apparent motion due to the Earth’s rotation, and the even slower movements of the Moon and the planets. Sure, a meteor passes by every now and then, but stars, nebulae and galaxies seem to have been standing there for millennia. It was not for nothing that the ancients called them fixed stars and considered them immutable. However, it is a false impression, due to our limited sensory abilities. In reality the universe is teeming with events and changes, some periodic and others unpredictable: radio wave beams emitted by pulsars, jets of matter ejected by quasars, neutron stars that merge producing gamma-ray bursts, black holes regurgitating energy for having swallowed too much matter,

Time-varying sources, object of astronomy in the temporal domain, as specialists call it. And it is precisely to look for this variability that from 2014 to 2017 the astrophysicists of the Extras project – coordinated by Andrea De Luca of  INAF of Milan and financed by the European Union with 2.5 million euros – examined the list of all X photons collected over about 15 years by the Epic camera of the European space telescope for high energy Xmm-Newton . The catalog they extracted was put online, available to anyone . And to make it easier for all interested astronomers to use, it is now out onAstronomy & Astrophysics an article that describes it in every aspect, from the algorithms developed for data analysis to the products of the same analyzes, complete with statistical properties, potentials and limits.

Andrea De Luca, astrophysicist at the INAF IASF in Milan, coordinator of the Extras project © INAF

“With the Extras project (acronym for Exploring the X-ray variable and Transient Sky) we have systematically characterized the temporal variability of over 400 thousand X-ray sources revealed by Xmm-Newton from the year of its launch – 1999 – until 2015: phenomena aperiodic, periodic and transient, on a time scale from about one second to several years “, explains De Luca to Media Inaf. “We have produced an enormous amount of results, all available to the astronomical community since the beginning of 2017. By exploring the public archive, with little work, it is possible to find rare phenomena and very peculiar sources, but also to derive the properties of entire already known source classes. Anyone can search for their favorite source. We hope to offer useful information for the study of very different astrophysical problems, but also for the design and implementation of new experiments dedicated to temporal variability studies ».

In addition to sharing all the products (about 20 million) and algorithms developed during the project with the community, Extras has also obtained numerous scientific results. Some examples chosen from those we have also reported on Media Inaf : the detection of pulsating signals from Andromeda , the identification of the most distant and brightest X pulsar known to date, the recent observation of an X flare from a brown dwarf and the discovery of a variable source of X-rays  made together with six high school students during a school-work alternation activity.

Ruben Salvaterra, astrophysicist at the INAF IASF in Milan and member of the Extras team © INAF

“Our search for transient phenomena allowed us to identify even an extremely difficult event to observe: we saw live the explosion of a supernova in another galaxy, more than a billion light-years away from us,” adds another. team astronomer, Ruben Salvaterra, also of the INAF of Milan. “Supernovae are easily observable in the optical band of the electromagnetic spectrum, but it is a deferred vision: several days after the explosion, the radioactive decay of the elements produced in the collapse of the star produces a lot of light in the optical band, which astronomers manage to observe for several weeks. The moment of the explosion, on the other hand, is marked by a very intense flash of radiation in the X-ray band. It is a phenomenon that can give us very valuable information on the mechanism of the explosion. It only lasts a few minutes: to see it, you have to look in the right direction. In fact, a telescope should be aimed before the explosion happens … but we cannot predict supernovae, so the only possibility is that a star explodes right in front of the telescope,target . We need a lot of luck, so far only one has been seen, with the Swift satellite . But when you collect a large amount of data like that of Xmm-Newton, the possibility of finding this phenomenon becomes concrete… and in fact, looking at all the observations, we found it ».

Featured image: Xmm-Newton. Credits: Esa (Image by C. Carreau)

To know more:

  • Read on Astronomy & Astrophysics the article “ The EXTraS Project: Exploring the X-ray transient and variable sky ”, by A. De Luca, R. Salvaterra, A. Belfiore, S. Carpano, D. D’Agostino, F. Haberl, GL Israel, D. Law-Green, G. Lisini, M. Marelli, G. Novara, AM Read, G. Rodriguez-Castillo, SR Rosen, D. Salvetti, A. Tiengo, G. Vianello, MG Watson, C. Delvaux, T. Dickens, P. Esposito, J. Greiner, H. Haemmerle, A. Kreikenbohm, S. Kreykenbohm, M. Oertel, D. Pizzocaro, JP Pye, S. Sandrelli, B. Stelzer, J. Wilms and F. Zagaria

Provided by INAF

Probing Deep Space With Interstellar (Astronomy)

When the four-decades-old Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft entered interstellar space in 2012 and 2018, respectively, scientists celebrated. These plucky spacecraft had already traveled 120 times the distance from the Earth to the sun to reach the boundary of the heliosphere, the bubble encompassing our solar system that’s affected by the solar wind. The Voyagers discovered the edge of the bubble but left scientists with many questions about how our Sun interacts with the local interstellar medium. The twin Voyagers’ instruments provide limited data, leaving critical gaps in our understanding of this region.

NASA and its partners are now planning for the next spacecraft, currently called the Interstellar Probe, to travel much deeper into interstellar space, 1,000 astronomical units (AU) from the sun, with the hope of learning more about how our home heliosphere formed and how it evolves.

“The Interstellar Probe will go to the unknown local interstellar space, where humanity has never reached before,” says Elena Provornikova, the Interstellar Probe heliophysics lead from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Maryland. “For the first time, we will take a picture of our vast heliosphere from the outside to see what our solar system home looks like.”

Provornikova and her colleagues will discuss the heliophysics science opportunities for the mission at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2021.

The APL-led team, which involves some 500 scientists, engineers, and enthusiasts — both formal and informal — from around the world, has been studying what types of investigations the mission should plan for. “There are truly outstanding science opportunities that span heliophysics, planetary science, and astrophysics,” Provornikova says.

Some mysteries the team hopes to solve with the mission include: how the sun’s plasma interacts with interstellar gas to create our heliosphere; what lies beyond our heliosphere; and what our heliosphere even looks like. The mission plans to take “images” of our heliosphere using energetic neutral atoms, and perhaps even “observe extragalactic background light from the early times of our galaxy formation — something that can’t be seen from Earth,” Provornikova says. Scientists also hope to learn more about how our sun interacts with the local galaxy, which might then offer clues as to how other stars in the galaxy interact with their interstellar neighborhoods, she says.

The heliosphere is also important because it shields our solar system from high-energy galactic cosmic rays. The sun is traveling around in our galaxy, going through different regions in interstellar space, Provornikova says. The sun is currently in what is called the Local Interstellar Cloud, but recent research suggests the sun may be moving toward the edge of the cloud, after which it would enter the next region of interstellar space — which we know nothing about. Such a change may make our heliosphere grow bigger or smaller or change the amount of galactic cosmic rays that get in and contribute to the background radiation level at Earth, she says.

This is the final year of a four-year “pragmatic concept study,” in which the team has been investigating what science could be accomplished with this mission. At the end of the year, the team will deliver a report to NASA that outlines potential science, example instrument payloads, and example spacecraft and trajectory designs for the mission. “Our approach is to lay out the menu of what can be done in such a space mission,” Provornikova says.

The mission could launch in the early 2030s and would take about 15 years to reach the heliosphere boundary — a pace that’s quick compared to the Voyagers, which took 35 years to get there. The current mission design is planned to last 50 years or more.

More information

Provornikova will present the latest on the Interstellar Probe heliophysics plan on Monday, 26 April at 14:00 CEST. Immediately following, her APL colleague Pontus Brandt will present more on the mission.

When reporting on this story, please mention the EGU General Assembly, vEGU21: Gather Online, which is taking place from 19-30 April 2021. This paper will be presented in session ST1.1 on Monday, 26 April, 11:00–12:30 CEST and 13:30–15:00 CEST. If reporting online, please include a link to the abstract, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu21-10504.

Featured image: Scientists hope the proposed Interstellar Probe will teach us more about our home in the galaxy as well as how other stars in the galaxy interact with their interstellar neighbourhoods. Credit: Johns Hopkins APL

Reference: Provornikova, E., Brandt, P. C., McNutt, Jr., R. L., DeMajistre, R., Roelof, E. C., Mostafavi, P., Turner, D., Hill, M. E., Linsky, J. L., Redfield, S., Galli, A., Lisse, C., Mandt, K., Rymer, A., and Runyon, K.: Unique heliophysics science opportunities along the Interstellar Probe journey up to 1000 AU from the Sun, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-10504, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu21-10504, 2021. Link

Provided by European Geosciences Union

Artificial Intelligence for Space (Astronomy)

Building a satellite with artificial intelligence on board that is trained in space: For this project, Professor Hakan Kayal from Würzburg is receiving 2.6 million euros from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

Suddenly, circular holes were visible on the surface of Mars that were not there before. On photos of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, geysers were discovered that hurl powerful fountains of steam towards space. And on the images sent to Earth by the Mars rover Curiosity, structures were found that look like fossilised worms.

All these phenomena, some of which appear to be temporary, were discovered by chance. Or because humans took a lot of time to sift through the images from Earth’s neighbouring planets. “Artificial intelligence technologies would make it much easier to detect previously unknown anomalies,” says Hakan Kayal, Professor of Space Technology at Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany.

Science is still at the beginning

Using artificial intelligence (AI) in astronautics? According to Professor Kayal, science in this field is still in its infancy: “There are only a handful of projects on this.”

If an AI is used to detect unknown phenomena, it must first be trained. It has to be “fed” with what is known so that it can recognise the unknown. “There are already satellites that are runned with AI. Their AI is trained on Earth and then sent into orbit. However, we have other plans: We want to train the AI on board of a small satellite under space conditions,” says the JMU professor.

This project is challenging, but feasible: “Miniaturised IT systems are becoming more and more powerful. And we take our time for AI training. So a learning process in orbit can take several days.”

Interplanetary missions as a long-term goal

But why transfer the training of the AI to space, to computers in miniature? Whereas it would be much easier to realise with mainframe computers on Earth? That’s because Hakan Kayal has a clear vision of the future. He wants to use small satellites with AI not only to observe Earth, but also for interplanetary missions – to discover new extraterrestrial phenomena, perhaps even traces of extraterrestrial intelligences.

“As soon as you go interplanetary, communication with the satellite becomes a bottleneck,” says the professor. With increasing distance from Earth, data transfer takes longer, “you can’t keep sending data back and forth. That’s why the AI must be able to learn independently on the satellite. And it must only report relevant discoveries to Earth.”

Launch into orbit expected in 2024

Kayal’s team around project leader Oleksii Balagurin will implement this technology on the small satellite SONATE-2 and test it in orbit. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is funding the project with 2.6 million euros. The project began on 1 March 2021; the satellite is to be launched into orbit in spring 2024. The mission there is designed to last one year.

The small satellite from Würzburg will be about the size of a shoebox (30x20x10 centimetres). Its cameras will take pictures in different spectral ranges and will have the Earth in view. The image data will flow into the on board-AI, which will automatically recognise and classify objects. The technology will first be thoroughly tested around the Earth before it can possibly go on an interplanetary journey later. Hakan Kayal already has this future mission called SONATE-X firmly in his research plan – the X stands for extraterrestrial.

Students can collaborate

SONATE-2 will have other innovative and highly autonomous features on board. Compared to the predecessor satellite SONATE, the sensor data processing system will be further miniaturised and made more energy-efficient. In addition, there are new types of satellite bus components, such as improved star sensors for autonomous attitude control. The cameras will not only detect and record static objects, but also short, transient phenomena such as lightnings or meteors.

The SONATE-2 team will consist of about ten people. Students can also participate – as assistants or within bachelor’s and master‘s theses. Training the next generation in this cutting-edge technology has a place in the project. In addition to its computer science programmes, JMU offers a Bachelor’s and Master’s programme in Aerospace Informatics and a Master’s programme in Satellite Technology.

The SONATE-2 project is financed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) with funds from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) based on a resolution of the German Bundestag (FKZ 50RU2100).

The predecessor project SONATE

The new nano satellite SONATE-2 builds on a successful predecessor project, the SONATE satellite – also developed and built by Kayal’s team, also funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy. More about the mission.

Featured image: SONATE-2 in orbit: Visualisation of the new technology testing satellite for highly autonomous payloads and artificial intelligence. (Image: Hakan Kayal / Universität Würzburg)

Provided by University of Wurzburg

Atom Interferometry Demonstrated in Space For The First Time (Physics)

Researchers present results of experiments with atom interferometry on a sounding rocket / Further rocket missions set to follow

Extremely precise measurements are possible using atom interferometers that employ the wave character of atoms for this purpose. They can thus be used, for example, to measure the gravitational field of the Earth or to detect gravitational waves. A team of scientists from Germany has now managed to successfully perform atom interferometry in space for the first time – on board a sounding rocket. “We have established the technological basis for atom interferometry on board of a sounding rocket and demonstrated that such experiments are not only possible on Earth, but also in space,” said Professor Patrick Windpassinger of the Institute of Physics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), whose team was involved in the investigation. The results of their analyses have been published in Nature Communications.

A team of researchers from various universities and research centers led by Leibniz University Hannover launched the MAIUS-1 mission in January 2017. This has since become the first rocket mission on which a Bose-Einstein condensate has been generated in space. This special state of matter occurs when atoms – in this case atoms of rubidium – are cooled to a temperature close to absolute zero, or minus 273 degrees Celsius. “For us, this ultracold ensemble represented a very promising starting point for atom interferometry,” explained Windpassinger. Temperature is one of the determining factors, because measurements can be carried out more accurately and for longer periods at lower temperatures.

Atom interferometry: Generating atomic interference by spatial separation and subsequent superposition of atoms

During the experiments, the gas of rubidium atoms was separated using laser light irradiation and then subsequently superpositioned. Depending on the forces acting on the atoms on their different paths, several interference patterns can be produced, which in turn can be used to measure the forces that are influencing them, such as gravity.

Payload system of the sounding rocket in the integration hall of the European Space Agency’s Esrange Space Center in Sweden © photo/©: André Wenzlawski

Laying the groundwork for precision measurements

The study first demonstrated the coherence, or interference capability, of the Bose-Einstein condensate as a fundamentally required property of the atomic ensemble. To this end, the atoms in the interferometer were only partially superimposed by means of varying the light sequence, which, in the case of coherence, led to the generation of a spatial intensity modulation. The research team has thus demonstrated the viability of the concept, which may lead to further experiments targeting the measurement of the Earth’s gravitational field, the detection of gravitational waves, and a test of Einstein’s equivalence principle.

Even more measurements will be possible when MAIUS-2 and MAIUS-3 are launched

In the near future, the team wants to go further and investigate the feasibility of high-precision atom interferometry to test Einstein’s principle of equivalence. Two more rocket launches, MAIUS-2 and MAIUS-3, are planned for 2022 and 2023, and on these missions the team also intends to use potassium atoms, in addition to rubidium atoms, to produce interference patterns. By comparing the free fall acceleration of the two types of atoms, a test of the equivalence principle with previously unattainable precision can be facilitated. “Undertaking this kind of experiment would be a future objective on satellites or the International Space Station ISS, possibly within BECCAL, the Bose Einstein Condensate and Cold Atom Laboratory, which is currently in the planning phase. In this case, the achievable accuracy would not be constrained by the limited free-fall time aboard a rocket,” explained Dr. André Wenzlawski, a member of Windpassinger’s research group at JGU, who is directly involved in the launch missions.

The experiment is one example of the highly active research field of quantum technologies, which also includes developments in the fields of quantum communication, quantum sensors, and quantum computing.

The MAIUS-1 sounding rocket mission was implemented as a joint project involving Leibniz University Hannover, the University of Bremen, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Universität Hamburg, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut in Berlin, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Financing for the project was arranged by the Space Administration of the German Aerospace Center and funds were provided by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy on the basis of a resolution of the German Bundestag.

Featured image: An example of an interference pattern produced by the atom interferometer © photo/©: Maike Lachmann, IQO

M. D. Lachmann et al., Ultracold atom interferometry in space, Nature Communications 12, 26 February 2021,

Provided by Johannesburg Guntenberg Universitat Mainz