Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Photo of the Day: I Officially Own the Civic!

Yesterday, I finally received in the mail the pink slip for my car from the California DMV! According to the Certificate of Title, my Honda Civic is officially paid off as of September 21! And 10 months ahead of schedule, too. I look forward to no longer making payments for it on the 6th of each month, and being able to take my car on another road trip to say, Joshua Tree without worrying about paying for major maintenance afterwards when I didn't even own the vehicle. So one good thing happened for me in 2020! Happy Tuesday.

My 2015 Honda Civic is officially paid off as of September 21, 2020.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

NBA Finals Update: The Lake Show Has Its Opponent!

The matchup for the 2020 NBA Finals is now set...with the Los Angeles Lakers taking on the Miami Heat at Walt Disney World in Florida.

A few hours ago, the Miami Heat emerged victorious in the Eastern Conference Finals after defeating the Boston Celtics, 125-113, during Game 6 at Walt Disney World in Florida. This will be the first time since 2014 that the Heat is in the championship round...with head coach Erik Spoelstra about to face off against former Miami player LeBron James, and Heat president Pat Riley about to take on the former Los Angeles team that he coached to four NBA championships between 1982 and '88. This should absolutely be a great series! Assuming that it's the Lakers who leave the Orlando bubble with the Larry O'Brien Trophy in hand, of course. Knock on wood... Carry on!

The schedule for the 2020 NBA Finals.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Lakers Are Back in the NBA Finals!!!

The Los Angeles Lakers are presented the conference championship trophy after defeating the Denver Nuggets, 117-107, in Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at Florida's Walt Disney World...on September 26, 2020.

Over a decade after they last played in the championship round of the postseason—leading to a Game 7 victory against the Boston Celtics in June of 2010—the Los Angeles Lakers are back in the NBA Finals! This long-awaited moment (for Lake Show fans, that is) comes after LeBron James willed his team to a 117-107 win against the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals tonight. Not only is King James in position to win his fourth NBA title, but Anthony Davis (who cemented his place in Lakers lore with that buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of Game 2 last Sunday) is also poised to win his first ring should the Lakers prevail against its next opponent...which will either be the Celtics or the Miami Heat.

If the Lake Show emerges as the 2020 NBA champion at Florida's Walt Disney World next month, this will lead to it tying the Celtics at 17 titles apiece. But more significantly in this unusual and devastating year, this will also solidify the Lakers' effort in honoring Kobe Bryant one more time this season. Only four more games need to be won for the Mamba... Happy Saturday.

LeBron James and Co. only need to win four more games for the Mamba.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Dragonfly Will Head to Saturn's Moon Titan a Year Later Than Planned...

An artist's concept of NASA's Dragonfly rotorcraft on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan.
NASA / Johns Hopkins APL

Dragonfly Launch Moved to 2027 (News Release)

Dragonfly is a NASA mission that delivers a rotorcraft to Saturn’s moon Titan to advance our search for the building blocks of life. While Dragonfly was originally scheduled to launch in 2026, NASA has requested the Dragonfly team pursue their alternative launch readiness date in 2027. No changes will be needed to the mission architecture to accommodate this new date, and launching at a later date will not affect Dragonfly’s science return or capabilities once at Titan.

The decision to pursue the alternative launch date is based on factors external to the Dragonfly project team, including COVID-19’s impact on the Planetary Science Division’s budget.

“NASA has the utmost confidence in the Dragonfly team to deliver a successful mission that conducts compelling science,” said Lori Glaze, Director for the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Dragonfly will significantly increase our understanding of this richly organic world and help answer key astrobiology questions in our search to understand the processes that supported the development of life on Earth.”

Dragonfly marks the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet. Taking advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere – four times denser than Earth’s – it will also become the first vehicle ever to fly its entire science payload to multiple locations for repeatable and targeted access to surface materials. By surveying dozens of locations across the icy world, Dragonfly will characterize the habitability of Titan’s environment and investigate the progression of its prebiotic chemistry.

Source: NASA.Gov

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Mars 2020 Update: Taking a Closer Look at the Perseverance Rover's Microbe-hunting Device...

An artist's concept of NASA's Perseverance Mars rover scanning a rock for microbial fossils with its PIXL device.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA's New Mars Rover Will Use X-Rays to Hunt Fossils (News Release)

PIXL, an instrument on the end of the Perseverance rover's arm, will search for chemical fingerprints left by ancient microbes.

NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has a challenging road ahead: After having to make it through the harrowing entry, descent, and landing phase of the mission on Feb. 18, 2021, it will begin searching for traces of microscopic life from billions of years back. That's why it's packing PIXL, a precision X-ray device powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Short for Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, PIXL is a lunchbox-size instrument located on the end of Perseverance's 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm. The rover's most important samples will be collected by a coring drill on the end of the arm, then stashed in metal tubes that Perseverance will deposit on the surface for return to Earth by a future mission.

Nearly every mission that has successfully landed on Mars, from the Viking landers to the Curiosity rover, has included an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer of some kind. One major way PIXL differs from its predecessors is in its ability to scan rock using a powerful, finely-focused X-ray beam to discover where – and in what quantity – chemicals are distributed across the surface.

"PIXL's X-ray beam is so narrow that it can pinpoint features as small as a grain of salt. That allows us to very accurately tie chemicals we detect to specific textures in a rock," said Abigail Allwood, PIXL's principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

Rock textures will be an essential clue when deciding which samples are worth returning to Earth. On our planet, distinctively warped rocks called stromatolites were made from ancient layers of bacteria, and they are just one example of fossilized ancient life that scientists will be looking for.

An AI-Powered Night Owl

To help find the best targets, PIXL relies on more than a precision X-ray beam alone. It also needs a hexapod – a device featuring six mechanical legs connecting PIXL to the robotic arm and guided by artificial intelligence to get the most accurate aim. After the rover's arm is placed close to an interesting rock, PIXL uses a camera and laser to calculate its distance. Then those legs make tiny movements – on the order of just 100 microns, or about twice the width of a human hair – so the device can scan the target, mapping the chemicals found within a postage stamp-size area.

"The hexapod figures out on its own how to point and extend its legs even closer to a rock target," Allwood said. "It's kind of like a little robot who has made itself at home on the end of the rover's arm."

Then PIXL measures X-rays in 10-second bursts from a single point on a rock before the instrument tilts 100 microns and takes another measurement. To produce one of those postage stamp-size chemical maps, it may need to do this thousands of times over the course of as many as eight or nine hours.

That timeframe is partly what makes PIXL's microscopic adjustments so critical: The temperature on Mars changes by more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) over the course of a day, causing the metal on Perseverance's robotic arm to expand and contract by as much as a half-inch (13 millimeters). To minimize the thermal contractions PIXL has to contend with, the instrument will conduct its science after the Sun sets.

"PIXL is a night owl," Allwood said. "The temperature is more stable at night, and that also lets us work at a time when there's less activity on the rover."

X-rays for Art and Science

Long before X-ray fluorescence got to Mars, it was used by geologists and metallurgists to identify materials. It eventually became a standard museum technique for discovering the origins of paintings or detecting counterfeits.

"If you know that an artist typically used a certain titanium white with a unique chemical signature of heavy metals, this evidence might help authenticate a painting," said Chris Heirwegh, an X-ray fluorescence expert on the PIXL team at JPL. "Or you can determine if a particular kind of paint originated in Italy rather than France, linking it to a specific artistic group from the time period."

For astrobiologists, X-ray fluorescence is a way to read stories left by the ancient past. Allwood used it to determine that stromatolite rocks found in her native country of Australia are some of the oldest microbial fossils on Earth, dating back 3.5 billion years. Mapping out the chemistry in rock textures with PIXL will offer scientists clues to interpret whether a sample could be a fossilized microbe.

More About the Mission

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will also characterize the planet's climate and geology, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first planetary mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with the European Space Agency, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers.

Source: NASA.Gov


A snapshot of the PIXL device that is heading to the Red Planet aboard NASA's Perseverance Mars rover.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

Monday, September 21, 2020

Remnants from One of Our Solar System's Largest Asteroids May Have Been Found on Bennu...

Images of asteroid Bennu's surface taken by NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft...showing small boulders that may have originated from asteroid Vesta.
NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx to Asteroid Bennu: “You’ve got a little Vesta on you…” (News Release)

In an interplanetary faux pas, it appears some pieces of asteroid Vesta ended up on asteroid Bennu, according to observations from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The new result sheds light on the intricate orbital dance of asteroids and on the violent origin of Bennu, which is a “rubble pile” asteroid that coalesced from the fragments of a massive collision.

“We found six boulders ranging in size from 5 to 14 feet (about 1.5 to 4.3 meters) scattered across Bennu’s southern hemisphere and near the equator,” said Daniella DellaGiustina of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson. “These boulders are much brighter than the rest of Bennu and match material from Vesta.”

“Our leading hypothesis is that Bennu inherited this material from its parent asteroid after a vestoid (a fragment from Vesta) struck the parent,” said Hannah Kaplan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Then, when the parent asteroid was catastrophically disrupted, a portion of its debris accumulated under its own gravity into Bennu, including some of the pyroxene from Vesta.”

DellaGiustina and Kaplan are primary authors of a paper on this research appearing in Nature Astronomy September 21.

The unusual boulders on Bennu first caught the team’s eye in images from the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) Camera Suite (OCAMS). They appeared extremely bright, with some almost ten times brighter than their surroundings. They analyzed the light from the boulders using the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) instrument to get clues to their composition. A spectrometer separates light into its component colors. Since elements and compounds have distinct, signature patterns of bright and dark across a range of colors, they can be identified using a spectrometer. The signature from the boulders was characteristic of the mineral pyroxene, similar to what is seen on Vesta and the vestoids, smaller asteroids that are fragments blasted from Vesta when it sustained significant asteroid impacts.

Of course it’s possible that the boulders actually formed on Bennu’s parent asteroid, but the team thinks this is unlikely based on how pyroxene typically forms. The mineral typically forms when rocky material melts at high-temperature. However, most of Bennu is composed of rocks containing water-bearing minerals, so it (and its parent) couldn’t have experienced very high temperatures. Next, the team considered localized heating, perhaps from an impact. An impact needed to melt enough material to create large pyroxene boulders would be so significant that it would have destroyed Bennu’s parent-body. So, the team ruled out these scenarios, and instead considered other pyroxene-rich asteroids that might have implanted this material to Bennu or its parent.

Observations reveal it’s not unusual for an asteroid to have material from another asteroid splashed across its surface. Examples include dark material on crater walls seen by the Dawn spacecraft at Vesta, a black boulder seen by the Hayabusa spacecraft on Itokawa, and very recently, material from S-type asteroids observed by Hayabusa2 at Ryugu. This indicates many asteroids are participating in a complex orbital dance that sometimes results in cosmic mashups.

As asteroids move through the solar system, their orbits can be altered in many ways, including the pull of gravity from planets and other objects, meteoroid impacts, and even the slight pressure from sunlight. The new result helps pin down the complex journey Bennu and other asteroids have traced through the solar system.

Based on its orbit, several studies indicate Bennu was delivered from the inner region of the Main Asteroid Belt via a well-known gravitational pathway that can take objects from the inner Main Belt to near-Earth orbits. There are two inner Main Belt asteroid families (Polana and Eulalia) that look like Bennu: dark and rich in carbon, making them likely candidates for Bennu’s parent. Likewise, the formation of the vestoids is tied to the formation of the Veneneia and Rheasilvia impact basins on Vesta, at roughly about two billion years ago and approximately one billion years ago, respectively.

“Future studies of asteroid families, as well as the origin of Bennu, must reconcile the presence of Vesta-like material as well as the apparent lack of other asteroid types. We look forward to the returned sample, which hopefully contains pieces of these intriguing rock types,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This constraint is even more compelling given the finding of S-type material on asteroid Ryugu. This difference shows the value in studying multiple asteroids across the solar system.”

The spacecraft is going to make its first attempt to sample Bennu in October and return it to Earth in 2023 for detailed analysis. The mission team closely examined four potential sample sites on Bennu to determine their safety and science value before making a final selection in December 2019. DellaGiustina and Kaplan’s team thinks they might find smaller pieces of Vesta in images from these close-up studies.

The research was funded by the NASA New Frontiers Program. The primary authors acknowledge significant collaboration with the French space agency CNES on this paper. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. The late Michael Drake of the University of Arizona pioneered the study of vestoid meteorites and was the first principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA is exploring our Solar System and beyond, uncovering worlds, stars, and cosmic mysteries near and far with our powerful fleet of space and ground-based missions.

Source: AsteroidMission.org

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Photos of the Day: Remnants of the Bobcat Fire...

A smoke cloud emerges as the Bobcat Fire flares back up in the San Gabriel Mountains...as seen from the city of Industry in California on September 19, 2020.

Just thought I'd share these images that I took earlier today showing the Bobcat Fire, which has been raging for over a week now, flaring back up in the San Gabriel Mountains in California. These photos were taken from the cities of Industry and Walnut—using my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera. As you can see in the last pic at the very bottom of this entry, it appears that firefighters were able to contain the blaze as the smoke cloud began dissipating. Normally, wildfire season continues through late October...meaning that Californians like myself won't get to experience cool weather for another month and a half. Waitin' for you to arrive, November!

A smoke cloud emerges as the Bobcat Fire flares back up in the San Gabriel Mountains...as seen from the city of Industry in California on September 19, 2020.

The giant smoke cloud caused by the Bobcat Fire hangs over the San Gabriel Mountains...as seen from the city of Walnut in California on September 19, 2020.

The giant smoke cloud caused by the Bobcat Fire begins to dissipate over the San Gabriel Mountains...as seen from the city of Walnut in California on September 19, 2020.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

TESS Update: Another Great Discovery by the Exoplanet-Hunting Space Telescope...

An artist's concept of the exoplanet WD 1856 b orbiting the white dwarf star WD 1856+534.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA Missions Spy First Possible ‘Survivor’ Planet Hugging White Dwarf Star (Press Release)

An international team of astronomers using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and retired Spitzer Space Telescope has reported what may be the first intact planet found closely orbiting a white dwarf, the dense leftover of a Sun-like star, only 40% larger than Earth.

The Jupiter-size object, called WD 1856 b, is about seven times larger than the white dwarf, named WD 1856+534. It circles this stellar cinder every 34 hours, more than 60 times faster than Mercury orbits our Sun.

“WD 1856 b somehow got very close to its white dwarf and managed to stay in one piece,” said Andrew Vanderburg, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The white dwarf creation process destroys nearby planets, and anything that later gets too close is usually torn apart by the star’s immense gravity. We still have many questions about how WD 1856 b arrived at its current location without meeting one of those fates.”

A paper about the system, led by Vanderburg and including several NASA co-authors, appears in the Sept. 17 issue of Nature and is now available online.

TESS monitors large swaths of the sky, called sectors, for nearly a month at a time. This long gaze allows the satellite to find exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, by capturing changes in stellar brightness caused when a planet crosses in front of, or transits, its star.

The satellite spotted WD 1856 b about 80 light-years away in the northern constellation Draco. It orbits a cool, quiet white dwarf that is roughly 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) across, may be up to 10 billion years old, and is a distant member of a triple star system.

When a Sun-like star runs out of fuel, it swells up to hundreds to thousands of times its original size, forming a cooler red giant star. Eventually, it ejects its outer layers of gas, losing up to 80% of its mass. The remaining hot core becomes a white dwarf. Any nearby objects are typically engulfed and incinerated during this process, which in this system would have included WD 1856 b in its current orbit. Vanderburg and his colleagues estimate the possible planet must have originated at least 50 times farther away from its present location.

“We’ve known for a long time that after white dwarfs are born, distant small objects such as asteroids and comets can scatter inward towards these stars. They’re usually pulled apart by a white dwarf's strong gravity and turn into a debris disk,” said co-author Siyi Xu, an assistant astronomer at the international Gemini Observatory in Hilo, Hawaii, which is a program of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab. “That’s why I was so excited when Andrew told me about this system. We’ve seen hints that planets could scatter inward, too, but this appears to be the first time we’ve seen a planet that made the whole journey intact.”

The team suggests several scenarios that could have nudged WD 1856 b onto an elliptical path around the white dwarf. This trajectory would have become more circular over time as the star’s gravity stretched the object, creating enormous tides that dissipated its orbital energy.

“The most likely case involves several other Jupiter-size bodies close to WD 1856 b’s original orbit,” said co-author Juliette Becker, a 51 Pegasi b Fellow in planetary science at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena. “The gravitational influence of objects that big could easily allow for the instability you’d need to knock a planet inward. But at this point, we still have more theories than data points.”

Other possible scenarios involve the gradual gravitational tug of the two other stars in the system, red dwarfs G229-20 A and B, over billions of years and a flyby from a rogue star perturbing the system. Vanderburg’s team thinks these and other explanations are less likely because they require finely tuned conditions to achieve the same effects as the potential giant companion planets.

Jupiter-size objects can occupy a huge range of masses, from planets only a few times more massive than Earth to low-mass stars thousands of times Earth’s mass. Others are brown dwarfs, which straddle the line between planet and star. Usually scientists turn to radial velocity observations to measure an object’s mass, which can hint at its composition and nature. This method works by studying how an orbiting object tugs on its star and alters the color of its light. But in this case, the white dwarf is so old that its light has become both too faint and too featureless for scientists to detect noticeable changes.

Instead, the team observed the system in the infrared using Spitzer, just a few months before the telescope was decommissioned. If WD 1856 b were a brown dwarf or low-mass star, it would emit its own infrared glow. This means Spitzer would record a brighter transit than it would if the object was a planet, which would block rather than emit light. When the researchers compared the Spitzer data to visible light transit observations taken with the Gran Telescopio Canarias in Spain’s Canary Islands, they saw no discernable difference. That, combined with the age of the star and other information about the system, led them to conclude that WD 1856 b is most likely a planet no more than 14 times Jupiter’s size. Future research and observations may be able to confirm this conclusion.

Finding a possible world closely orbiting a white dwarf prompted co-author Lisa Kaltenegger, Vanderburg, and others to consider the implications for studying atmospheres of small rocky worlds in similar situations. For example, suppose that an Earth-size planet were located within the range of orbital distances around WD 1856 where water could exist on its surface. Using simulated observations, the researchers show that NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could detect water and carbon dioxide on the hypothetical world by observing just five transits.

The results of these calculations, led by Kaltenegger and Ryan MacDonald, both at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, have been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available online.

“Even more impressively, Webb could detect gas combinations potentially indicating biological activity on such a world in as few as 25 transits,” said Kaltenegger, the director of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute. “WD 1856 b suggests planets may survive white dwarfs’ chaotic histories. In the right conditions, those worlds could maintain conditions favorable for life longer than the time scale predicted for Earth. Now we can explore many new intriguing possibilities for worlds orbiting these dead stellar cores.”

There is currently no evidence suggesting there are other worlds in the system, but it’s possible additional planets exist and haven’t been detected yet. They could have orbits that exceed the time TESS observes a sector or are tipped in a way such that transits don’t occur. The white dwarf is also so small that the possibility of catching transits from planets farther out in the system is very low.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia, NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes, and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California managed the Spitzer mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Spitzer science data continue to be analyzed by the science community via the Spitzer data archive, located at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at Caltech. Science operations were conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech. Spacecraft operations were based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Microbial Life in the Venusian Cloud Tops? Yes, Please!

A false-color image of Venus that was taken by Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft.
JAXA / ISAS / Akatsuki Project Team

What a way to start a Monday! Even though life hasn't been confirmed by astronomers in regards to this amazing discovery, it definitely puts Venus at the forefront of space exploration in terms of seeing if the search for life should've also focused on the Morning/Evening Star all along. NASA is planning to select two Discovery-class interplanetary missions next year... Along with the Trident robotic probe that would do a flyby of Neptune's moon Triton early next decade, I'm also rooting for the VERITAS or DAVINCI+ mission—both designed to explore Venus—to be chosen by the U.S. space agency as well! 2021 can't arrive soon enough.


Hints of life on Venus (Press Release)

An international team of astronomers, led by Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University, today announced the discovery of a rare molecule – phosphine – in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially, or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments.

Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes – floating free of the scorching surface, but still needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine molecules, which consist of hydrogen and phosphorus, could point to this extra-terrestrial ‘aerial’ life. The new discovery is described in a paper in Nature Astronomy.

The team first used the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii to detect the phosphine, and were then awarded time to follow up their discovery with 45 telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimetre, much longer than the human eye can see – only telescopes at high altitude can detect this wavelength effectively.

Professor Greaves says, “This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity, really – taking advantage of JCMT’s powerful technology, and thinking about future instruments. I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock!”

Naturally cautious about the initial findings, Greaves and her team were delighted to get three hours of time with the more sensitive ALMA observatory. Bad weather added a frustrating delay, but after six months of data processing, the discovery was confirmed.

Team member Dr Anita Richards, of the UK ALMA Regional Centre and the University of Manchester, adds: “To our great relief, the conditions were good at ALMA for follow-up observations while Venus was at a suitable angle to Earth. Processing the data was tricky, though, as ALMA isn’t usually looking for very subtle effects in very bright objects like Venus.”

Greaves adds: “In the end, we found that both observatories had seen the same thing – faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below.”

Professor Hideo Sagawa of Kyoto Sangyo University then used his models for the Venusian atmosphere to interpret the data, finding that phosphine is present but scarce – only about twenty molecules in every billion.

The astronomers then ran calculations to see if the phosphine could come from natural processes on Venus. They caution that some information is lacking – in fact, the only other study of phosphorus on Venus came from one lander experiment, carried by the Soviet Vega 2 mission in 1985.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Dr William Bains led the work on assessing natural ways to make phosphine. Some ideas included sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but none of these could make anywhere near enough of it. Natural sources were found to make at most one ten thousandth of the amount of phosphine that the telescopes saw.

To create the observed quantity of phosphine on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10% of their maximum productivity, according to calculations by Dr Paul Rimmer of Cambridge University. Any microbes on Venus will likely be very different to their Earth cousins though, to survive in hyper-acidic conditions.

Earth bacteria can absorb phosphate minerals, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine gas. It costs them energy to do this, so why they do it is not clear. The phosphine could be just a waste product, but other scientists have suggested purposes like warding off rival bacteria.

Another MIT team-member, Dr Clara Sousa Silva, was also thinking about searching for phosphine as a ‘biosignature’ gas of non-oxygen-using life on planets around other stars, because normal chemistry makes so little of it.

She comments: “Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% of acid in their environment – but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.”

Other possible biosignatures in the Solar System may exist, like methane on Mars and water venting from the icy moons Europa and Enceladus. On Venus, it has been suggested that dark streaks where ultraviolet light is absorbed could come from colonies of microbes. The Akatsuki spacecraft, launched by the Japanese space agency JAXA, is currently mapping these dark streaks to understand more about this “unknown ultraviolet absorber”.

The team believes their discovery is significant because they can rule out many alternative ways to make phosphine, but they acknowledge that confirming the presence of “life” needs a lot more work. Although the high clouds of Venus have temperatures up to a pleasant 30 degrees centigrade, they are incredibly acidic – around 90% sulphuric acid – posing major issues for microbes to survive there. Professor Sara Seager and Dr Janusz Petkowski, also both at MIT, are investigating how microbes could shield themselves inside droplets.

The team are now eagerly awaiting more telescope time, for example to establish whether the phosphine is in a relatively temperate part of the clouds, and to look for other gases associated with life. New space missions could also travel to our neighbouring planet, and sample the clouds in situ to further search for signs of life.

Professor Emma Bunce, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, congratulated the team on their work:

“A key question in science is whether life exists beyond Earth, and the discovery by Professor Jane Greaves and her team is a key step forward in that quest. I’m particularly delighted to see UK scientists leading such an important breakthrough – something that makes a strong case for a return space mission to Venus.”

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

"Venus has for decades captured the imagination of scientists and astronomers across the world.”

“This discovery is immensely exciting, helping us increase our understanding of the universe and even whether there could be life on Venus. I am incredibly proud that this fascinating detection was led by some of the UK’s leading scientists and engineers using state of the art facilities built on our own soil.”

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Sunday, September 13, 2020

On This Day in 2019: THE BROKEN TABLE Is Successfully Funded!

The final poster for THE BROKEN TABLE.

So today marks one year since my short film The Broken Table was successfully funded on Kickstarter! Much props to the 49 amazing backers who made my project become a reality... As a reminder, you can watch the psychological thriller on Vimeo and YouTube! The Vimeo version, of course, is also posted below. Happy Sunday!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Two Hitchhikers Will Launch with NASA's Psyche Spacecraft to a Pair of Near-Earth Asteroids in 2022...

An artist's concept of the twin Janus spacecraft.
Lockheed Martin

New Small Satellite Mission To Rendezvous With Binary Asteroids (Press Release - September 10)

The twin-spacecraft Janus project will study the formation and evolutionary implications for small "rubble pile" binary asteroids.

DENVER -- The University of Colorado Boulder and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) will soon lead a new space mission to capture the first-ever closeup look at a mysterious class of solar system objects: binary asteroids.

These bodies are pairs of asteroids that orbit around each other in space, much like the Earth and Moon. In a project review on Sept. 3, NASA gave the official go-ahead to the Janus mission, named after the two-faced Roman god. The mission will study these asteroid couplets in never-before-seen detail. Known as Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C), this review and approval from NASA allows for the project to begin implementation, and baselines the project's official schedule and budget.

It will be a moment for twos: In 2022, the Janus team will launch two identical spacecraft that will travel millions of miles to individually fly close to two pairs of binary asteroids. Their observations could open up a new window into how these diverse bodies evolve and even burst apart over time, said Daniel Scheeres, the principle investigator for Janus.

"Binary asteroids are one class of objects for which we don't have high-resolution scientific data," said Scheeres, distinguished professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at CU Boulder. "Everything we have on them is based on ground observations, which don't give you as much detail as being up close."

The mission, which will cost less than $55 million under NASA's SIMPLEx program, may also help to usher in a new era of space exploration, said Lockheed Martin's Janus Project Manager Josh Wood. He explained that Janus' twin spacecraft are designed to be small and nimble, each one about the size of a carry-on suitcase.

"We see an advantage to be able to shrink our spacecraft," said Wood. "With technology advancements, we can now explore our solar system and address important science questions with smaller spacecraft."

Janus is led by the University of Colorado Boulder, where Scheeres is based, which will also undertake the scientific analysis of images and data for the mission. Lockheed Martin will manage, build and operate the spacecraft.

The mission will rendezvous with two binary pairs—named 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH—each showcasing a different kind of orbital pattern. The pair called 1991 VH, for example, has a "moon" that whips around a much bigger "primary" asteroid following a hard-to-predict pattern.

The team will use a suite of cameras to track the dynamical motion in unprecedented detail. Among other goals, Scheeres and his colleagues hope to learn more about how binary asteroids move—both around each other and through space.

"Once we see them up close up, there will be a lot of questions we can answer, but these will raise new questions as well," Scheeres said. "We think Janus will motivate additional missions to binary asteroids."

Wood added that the mission's twin spacecraft, each of which weigh just about 80 pounds, will travel farther than any small satellite to date.

After blasting off in 2022, they'll first complete an orbit around the Sun, before heading back toward Earth and sling-shotting their way far into space and beyond the orbit of Mars.

"I think it's a great test for what is achievable from the aerospace community," Wood said. "And the Colorado-centric development for this mission, combining the space talent of both CU Boulder and Lockheed Martin, is a testament to the skills available in the state."

Source: Lockheed Martin

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Finally Paid Off!

Over an hour ago, I called the bank that I was making monthly payments to for my Honda Civic (which I bought back in June of 2015) to see if it's completely paid off, and indeed it is! I made the final payment last Friday, but due to Labor Day weekend, it didn't get withdrawn by the bank till two days ago. I found out that my auto loan is no more when I could no longer log into my account this morning (this wasn't my primary bank account, FYI)! Woohoo! My Civic was paid off 10 months ahead of schedule! It feels really good that I'm no longer debt-free...at least in regards to making car payments.

Now I have a minor credit card debt that I need to pay off as well. I was using the extra $600 a week that I received from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (which expired on July 25 here in California) to do so. I'm waitin' on Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and the rest of Congress to get their act together and pass one more stimulus bill (before Election Day on November 3, preferably) so I can nip this last debt in the bud. Happy Thursday!

My 2015 Honda Civic is finally paid off...as of September 10, 2020.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Photos of the Day #2: A Smoke Cloud Above My Backyard...

The smoke cloud from the Bobcat Fire lurks above a recently-built 3-story home behind my backyard in Pomona, California...on September 9, 2020.

Just thought I'd share these pictures that I took of a smoke cloud emanating from one of the ongoing wildfires as it lurked above my backyard in Pomona, California this morning. This smoke is coming from the Bobcat Fire burning in the San Gabriel Mountains about 20 miles away. While this is a surreal sight to behold above my neighborhood, this is nothing compared to the orange and red skies that folks in San Francisco saw earlier today. And the houses behind my backyard just recently completed construction a month ago (I've been keeping track of their progress on one of my Flickr pages since early 2018). Have a great night.

The smoke cloud from the Bobcat Fire lurks above the recently-built 3-story home behind my backyard in Pomona, California...on September 9, 2020.

The smoke cloud from the Bobcat Fire lurks above a recently-built 2-story home behind my backyard in Pomona, California...on September 9, 2020.

The smoke cloud from the Bobcat Fire lurks above other recently-built 2-story homes behind my backyard in Pomona, California...on September 9, 2020.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Photo of the Day: The Real 'Peregrine' Lunar Lander Is Ready to be Built!

The full-scale Structural Test Model for Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander...which is set to head to the Moon aboard United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket next summer.

Earlier today, Astrobotic posted an update on LinkedIn about how it recently completed a structural model test for its Peregrine lunar lander...which is currently scheduled to head to the Moon next July on the maiden voyage of United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket. The test—which analyzed how the spacecraft would fare during flight on ULA's newest launch vehicle—was conducted on a full-scale engineering model (known as the Structural Test Model, or STM) of Peregrine at the Dayton T. Brown, Inc. commercial test facility in Bohemia, New York. Next up for Peregrine: landing stability testing and future mission configuration studies with the STM.

In regards to the actual Peregrine spacecraft itself, flight hardware for the Mission One lander will begin construction this fall. In other words, assembly can commence as soon as the end of this month, or early October. Can't wait!

Friday, September 04, 2020

Mars 2020 Update: OPTIMISM Is Ready to Roll Down Here on Earth...

Engineers test-drive the OPTIMISM rover inside a warehouse-like assembly room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California.
NASA / JPL - Caltech

NASA Readies Perseverance Mars Rover's Earthly Twin (News Release)

As NASA's Mars rover Perseverance hurtles through space toward the Red Planet, the six-wheeler's twin is ready to roll here on Earth.

A full-scale engineering version of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover - outfitted with wheels, cameras, and powerful computers to help it drive autonomously - has just moved into its garage home at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. This rover model passed its first driving test in a relatively tame warehouselike assembly room at JPL on Sept. 1. Engineers expect to take it out next week into the Mars Yard, where a field of red dirt studded with rocks and other obstacles simulates the Red Planet's surface.

"Perseverance's mobility team can't wait to finally drive our test rover outside," said Anais Zarifian, the mobility test bed engineer at JPL. "This is the test robot that comes closest to simulating the actual mission operations Perseverance will experience on Mars - with wheels, eyes, and brains all together - so this rover is going to be especially fun to work with."

Wait, Why Does Perseverance Need a Twin?

Perseverance isn't flying to Mars with a mechanic. To avoid as many unexpected issues as possible after the rover lands on Feb. 18, 2021, the team needs this Earth-bound vehicle system test bed (VSTB) rover to gauge how hardware and software will perform before they transmit commands up to Perseverance on Mars. This rover model will be particularly useful for completing a full set of software tests so the team can send up patches while Perseverance is en route to Mars or after it has landed.

And just like Perseverance has a fitting name - one that captures the hard work of getting the rover on its way to Mars amid a pandemic - its twin has a name, too: OPTIMISM. While OPTIMISM is an acronym for Operational Perseverance Twin for Integration of Mechanisms and Instruments Sent to Mars, the name is also a nod to the mantra of the team that spent two years planning and assembling it.

"The Mars 2020 Perseverance test bed team's motto is 'No optimism allowed,'" said Matt Stumbo, the lead for the VSTB rover on the test bed team. "So we named the test rover OPTIMISM to remind us of the work we have to do to fully test the system. Our job is to find problems, not just hope activities will work. As we work through the issues with OPTIMISM, we gain confidence in Perseverance's capabilities and confidence in our ability to operate on Mars."

Almost Identical

OPTIMISM is nearly identical to Perseverance: It is the same size, has the same mobility system and top driving speed (0.094 mph, or 0.15 kph), and features the same distinctive "head," known as the remote sensing mast. After a second phase of building at the beginning of the new year, it will have the full suite of science instruments, cameras, and computer "brains" Perseverance has, plus its unique system for collecting rock and soil samples.

But since OPTIMISM lives at JPL, it also features some Earthly differences. For one thing, while Perseverance gets its power from a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (a kind of nuclear battery that has reliably powered space missions since the 1960s), OPTIMISM features an umbilical cord that can be plugged in for electrical power. That cord also provides an ethernet connection, allowing the mission team to send commands to and receive engineering data back from OPTIMISM without installing the radios Perseverance uses for communication. And whereas Perseverance comes with a heating system to keep it warm in the frigid environment of Mars, OPTIMISM relies on a cooling system for operating in hot Southern California summers.

Welcome to the Family

OPTIMISM isn't JPL's only VSTB rover. NASA's Curiosity Mars rover, which has been exploring the Red Planet since it landed in 2012, has a twin named MAGGIE (Mars Automated Giant Gizmo for Integrated Engineering). MAGGIE has been helping the Curiosity team particularly with strategies for driving across challenging terrain and drilling rocks.

OPTIMISM and MAGGIE will live side-by-side in the Mars Yard, giving JPL engineers a two-car garage for the first time.

"Missions that are operating require high-fidelity replicas of their systems for testing," Stumbo said. "The Curiosity mission has learned lessons from MAGGIE that were impossible to learn any other way. Now that we have OPTIMISM, the Perseverance mission is well equipped to learn what they need to succeed on Mars."

The Perseverance rover's astrobiology mission will search for signs of ancient microbial life. It will also characterize the planet's climate and geology, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first planetary mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with the European Space Agency, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers.

Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory