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Overlooked Treasure: The First Evidence of Exoplanets

Pasadena CA (JPL)

Nov 02, 2017

Beneath an elegant office building with a Spanish-style red tiled roof in Pasadena, California, three timeworn storerooms safeguard more than a century of astronomy. Down the stairs and to the right is a basement of wonder. There are countless wooden drawers and boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, with telescope plates, sunspot drawings and other records. A faint ammonia-like smell, reminiscent of old film, fills the air. Guarding one storeroom is a short black door with a sign saying “This door to be kept closed.”

Carnegie Observatories hosts 250,000 photographic plates taken at Mount Wilson, Palomar and Las Campanas observatories, spanning more than 100 years. In their heydays, the Mount Wilson 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes – the bigger saw its first light on Nov. 1, 1917 – were the most powerful instruments of their kind.

Each indelibly changed humanity’s understanding of our place in the cosmos. But these technological marvels were ahead of their time – in one case, capturing signs of distant worlds that wouldn’t be recognized for a century.

Mount Wilson is the site where some of the key discoveries about our galaxy and universe were made in the early 20th century. This is where Edwin Hubble realized that the Milky Way cannot be the extent of our universe, because Andromeda (or M31) is farther away than the most distant reaches of our galaxy. The photographic plate from the 100-inch Hooker Telescope from 1923, which captured this monumental realization, is blown up as a huge poster outside the Carnegie storerooms.

Hubble and Milton Humason, whose Mount Wilson career began as a janitor, worked together to explore the expanding nature of the universe. Using the legendary telescopes, as well as data from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, they recognized that clusters of galaxies are traveling away from each other – and the more distant galaxies move away from each other at greater speeds.

But there is a far lesser known, 100-year-old discovery from Mount Wilson, one that was unidentified and unappreciated until recently. It’s actually: The first evidence of exoplanets.

A detective story

It started with Ben Zuckerman, professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was preparing a talk about the compositions of planets and smaller rocky bodies outside our solar system for a July 2014 symposium at the invitation of Jay Farihi, whom he had helped supervise when Farihi was a graduate student at UCLA. Farihi had suggested that Zuckerman talk about the pollution of white dwarfs, which are faint, dead stars composed of mainly hydrogen and helium.

By “pollution,” astronomers mean heavy elements invading the photospheres – the outer atmospheres – of these stars. The thing is, all those extra elements shouldn’t be there – the strong gravity of the white dwarf should pull the elements into the star’s interior, and out of sight.

The first polluted white dwarf identified is called van Maanen’s Star (or “van Maanen 2” in the scientific literature), after its discoverer Adriaan van Maanen. Van Maanen found this object in 1917 by spotting its subtle motion relative to other stars between 1914 and 1917. Astronomer Walter Sydney Adams, who would later become director of Mount Wilson, captured the spectrum – a chemical fingerprint – of van Maanen’s Star on a small glass plate using Mount Wilson’s 60-inch telescope.

Adams interpreted the spectrum to be of an F-type star, presumably based on the presence and strength of calcium and other heavy-element absorption features, with a temperature somewhat higher than our Sun. In 1919, van Maanen called it a “very faint star.”

Today, we know that van Maanen’s Star, which is about 14 light-years away, is the closest white dwarf to Earth that is not part of a binary system.

“This star is an icon,” Farihi said recently. “It is the first of its type. It’s really the proto-prototype.”

While preparing his talk, Zuckerman had what he later called a “true ‘eureka’ moment.” Van Maanen’s Star, unbeknownst to the astronomers who studied it in 1917 and those who thought about it for decades after, must be the first observational evidence that exoplanets exist.

What does this have to do with exoplanets?

Heavy elements in the star’s outermost layer could not have been produced inside the star, because they would immediately sink due to the white dwarf’s intense gravitational field. As more white dwarfs with heavy elements in their photospheres were discovered in the 20th century, scientists came to believe that the exotic materials must have come from the interstellar medium – in other words, elements floating in the space between the stars.

But in 1987, more than 70 years after the Mount Wilson spectrum of van Maanen’s Star, Zuckerman and his colleague Eric Becklin reported an excess of infrared light around a white dwarf, which they thought might come from a faint “failed star” called a brown dwarf. This was, in 1990, interpreted to be a hot, dusty disk orbiting a white dwarf. By the early 2000s, a new theory of polluted white dwarfs had emerged: Exoplanets could push small rocky bodies toward the star, whose powerful gravity would pulverize them into dust. That dust, containing heavy elements from the torn-apart body, would then fall on the star.

“The bottom line is: if you’re an asteroid or comet, you can’t just change your address. You need something to move you,” Farihi said. “By far, the greatest candidates are planets to do that.”

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has been instrumental in expanding the field of polluted white dwarfs orbited by hot, dusty disks. Since launch in 2004, Spitzer has confirmed about 40 of these special stars. Another space telescope, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, also detected a handful, bringing the total up to about four dozen known today. Because these objects are so faint, infrared light is crucial to identifying them.

“We can’t measure the exact amount of infrared light coming from these objects using telescopes on the ground,” Farihi said. “Spitzer, specifically, just burst this wide open.”

Supporting the new “dusty disk” theory of pulled white dwarfs, in 2007, Zuckerman and colleagues published observations of a white dwarf atmosphere with 17 elements – materials similar to those found in the Earth-Moon system. (The late UCLA professor Michael Jura, who made crucial contributions to the study of polluted white dwarfs, was part of this team.)

This was further evidence that at least one small, rocky body – or even a planet – had been torn apart by the gravity of a white dwarf. Scientists now generally agree that a single white dwarf star with heavy elements in its spectrum likely has at least one rocky debris belt – the remnants of bodies that collided violently and never formed planets – and probably at least one major planet.

So, heavy elements that happened to be floating in the interstellar medium could not account for the observations. “About 90 years after van Maanen’s discovery, astronomers said, ‘Whoa, this interstellar accretion model can’t possibly be right,'” Zuckerman said.

Chasing the spectrum

Inspired by Zuckerman, Farihi became enamored with the idea that someone had taken a spectrum with the first evidence of exoplanets in 1917, and that a record must exist of that observation. “I got my teeth in the question and I wouldn’t let go,” he said.

Farihi reached out to the Carnegie Observatories, which owns the Mount Wilson telescopes and safeguards their archives. Carnegie Director John Mulchaey put volunteer Dan Kohne on the case. Kohne dug through the archives and, two days later, Mulchaey sent Farihi an image of the spectrum.

“I can’t say I was shocked, frankly, but I was pleasantly blown out of my seat to see that the signature was there, and could be seen even with the human eye,” Farihi said.

The spectrum of van Maanen’s Star that Farihi had requested is now located in a small archival sleeve, labeled with the handwritten date “1917 Oct 24” and a modern yellow sticky note: “possibly 1st record of an exoplanet.”

Cynthia Hunt, an astronomer who serves as chair of Carnegie’s history committee, took the glass plate out of the envelope and placed it onto a viewer that lit it up. The spectrum itself just about 1/6th of an inch, or a bit over 0.4 centimeters.

Though the plate seems unremarkable at first glance, Farihi saw two obvious “fangs” representing dips in the spectrum. To him, this was the smoking gun: Two absorption lines from the same calcium ion, meaning there were heavy elements in the photosphere of the white dwarf – indicating it likely has at least one exoplanet. He wrote about it in 2016 in New Astronomy Reviews.

Exoplanets and debris disks

Scientists have long thought the gravity of giant planets could be keeping debris belts in place, especially in young planetary systems. A recent study in The Astrophysical Journal showed that young stars with disks of dust and debris are more likely to have giant planets orbiting at great distance from their parent star than those without disks.

A white dwarf is not a young star – on the contrary, it forms when a low-to-medium-mass star has already burned all of the fuel in its interior. But the principle is the same: The gravitational pull of giant exoplanets could throw small, rocky bodies into the white dwarfs.

Our own Sun will become a red giant in about 5 billion years, expanding so much it may even swallow Earth before it blows off its outer layers and becomes a white dwarf. At that point, Jupiter’s large gravitational influence may be more disruptive to the asteroid belt, flinging objects toward our much-dimmer Sun. This kind of scenario could explain the heavy elements at van Maanen’s Star.

Spitzer’s observations of van Maanen’s Star have not found any planets there so far. In fact, to date, no exoplanets have been confirmed orbiting white dwarfs, although one does have an object thought to be a massive planet. Other compelling evidence has emerged just in the last couple of years. Using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, scientists, including Zuckerman, recently announced that they had found evidence of a Kuiper-Belt-like object having been eaten by a white dwarf.

Scientists are still exploring polluted white dwarfs and looking for the exoplanets they may host. About 30 percent of all white dwarfs we know about are polluted, but their debris disks are harder to spot. Jura put forward that with lots of asteroids coming in and colliding with debris, dust may be converted into gas, which would not have the same highly detectable infrared signal as dust.

Farihi was thrilled about how his Mount Wilson archive detective work turned out. In 2016, he described the historical find in the context of a review paper about polluted white dwarfs, arguing that white dwarfs are “compelling targets for exoplanetary system research.”

Who knows what other overlooked treasures await discovery in the archives of great observatories – the sky-watching records of a cosmos rich in subtlety. Surely, other clues will be found by those motivated by curiosity who ask the right questions.

“It’s personal interaction with data that can really spur us to get invested in the questions that we’re asking,” Farihi said.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Overlooked_Treasure_The_First_Evidence_of_Exoplanets_999.html.

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China’s reusable spacecraft to be launched in 2020

Beijing (XNA)

Nov 02, 2017

China plans to launch its reusable spacecraft in 2020, according to a statement from China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation Tuesday.

Unlike traditional one-off spacecraft, the new spacecraft will fly into the sky like an aircraft, said Chen Hongbo, a researcher from the corporation.

The spacecraft can transport people or payload into the orbit and return to Earth.

Chen said that the spacecraft will be easier to maintain and can improve the frequency of launches at lower cost, bringing new opportunities for more people to travel into space.

Source: Xinhua News.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Chinas_reusable_spacecraft_to_be_launched_in_2020_999.html.

Russia launches European atmosphere monitoring satellite

October 13, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia successfully launched a satellite into orbit Friday that will monitor Europe’s atmosphere, helping to study air pollution. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite was launched by a Rokot missile from the Plesetsk launch pad in northwestern Russia. The satellite will map the atmosphere every day.

After separating from the upper stage booster, the satellite deployed its solar panels and began communications with Earth, the ESA said. The first signal was received 93 minutes after launch as the satellite passed over the Kiruna station in Sweden.

Controllers at ESA’s operations center in Darmstadt, Germany, then established command and control links allowing them to monitor the satellite’s condition. “The Sentinel-5P satellite is now safely in orbit so it is up to our mission control teams to steer this mission into its operational life and maintain it for the next seven years or more,” ESA Director General Jan Woerner said in a statement.

The mission will contribute to volcanic ash monitoring for aviation safety and for services that warn of high levels of UV radiation causing skin damage. The measurements also will help understand processes in the atmosphere related to the climate and to the formation of holes in the ozone layer.

It’s the sixth satellite in the ESA’s Copernicus program. Other Earth-observing Sentinel satellites launched earlier provide radar and optical imagery of the Earth, and monitor the condition of the world’s oceans and ice sheets.

“Having Sentinel-5P in orbit will give us daily and global views at our atmosphere with a precision we never had before,” ESA quoted Josef Aschbacher, the head of its earth observation programs, as saying.

Philippe Gaudy, who oversees the Sentinel project for the European Space Agency, said data collected by Sentinel 5P would help scientists to better monitor air pollution, such as for nitrogen oxide emitted by cars.

A recent report estimated that more than 400,000 people die prematurely in Europe alone because of air pollution. Orbital observation can be used to compare reported air pollution by governments with actual data, to see whether countries are living up to their commitments under international treaties, Gaudy said.

The data from Sentinel-5P will be made available for free to anyone who wants it, he added. It will take engineers several months to calibrate and validate the measurements, meaning data will start to become available in the first half of next year.

Private companies are launching a new space race

London, UK (The Conversation)

Oct 05, 2017

The space race between the USA and Russia started with a beep from the Sputnik satellite exactly 60 years ago (October 4, 1957) and ended with a handshake in space just 18 years later. The handshake was the start of many decades of international collaboration in space. But over the past decade there has been a huge change.

The space environment is no longer the sole preserve of government agencies. Private companies have entered the exploration domain and are propelling the sector forward more vigorously and swiftly than would be the case if left to governments alone.

It could be argued that a new space race has begun, in which private companies are competing against each other and against government organisations. But this time it is driven by a competition for customers rather than the urge to show dominance by being first to achieve a certain goal. So who are the main players and how will they change the science, technology and politics of space exploration?

Put the phrase “private space exploration” into a search engine and a wealth of links emerges. Several have titles such as: “Six private companies that could launch humans into space”, “The world’s top 10 most innovative companies in space” or “10 major players in the private sector space race”. What is immediately apparent is that practically all these companies are based in the US.

There is a big difference between building and launching satellites into low Earth orbit for telecommunications and sending crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond. Private companies in several nations have been engaged in the satellite market for many years. Their contributions to the development of non-governmental space exploration has helped to lay the trail for entrepreneurs with the vision and resources to develop their own pathways to space.

Today, several companies in the US are looking very specifically at human spaceflight. The three that are perhaps furthest down the road are SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. The main goals of all three companies is to reduce the cost of access to space – mainly through reuse of launchers and spacecraft – making space accessible to people who are not specially trained astronauts. One thing these companies have in common is the private passion of their chief executives.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, a charismatic entrepreneur, engineer, inventor and investor. The ambition of SpaceX is “to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”. To this end, the company has specialized in the design, manufacture and launch of rockets, providing direct competition to the United Launch Alliance (between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that had been the contract holder of choice for launch of NASA and Department of Defense rocket launches.

Its success has been spectacular. Having developed the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, it became the first commercial company to dock a spacecraft at the ISS in 2012. The firm now has a regular run there, carrying cargo. But so far, no astronauts. However, the Falcon Heavy is comparable to the Saturn 5 rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts, and SpaceX has designed its vehicle with a view to sending astronauts to the moon by 2018, and to Mars as early as 2023.

On September 29, Musk refined his plans, announcing the BFR project (which I like to pretend stands for Big F**king Rocket). This would replace the Falcon and Dragon spacecraft – and would not only transport cargo and explorers to the moon and Mars, but could also reduce travel times between cities on Earth. Musk calculates it could take as little as 29 minutes to fly from London to New York.

Whether the company succeeds in sending astronauts to the moon in 2018 remains to be seen. Either way, a lot could be going on then – 2018 is also the year when Blue Origin, founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the technology and retail entrepreneur behind Amazon, aims to launch people to space. But its ambition is different from that of SpaceX. Blue Origin is focusing on achieving commercially available, sub-orbital human spaceflight – targeting the space tourism industry.

The company has developed a vertical launch vehicle (New Shepard, after the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepard) that can reach the 100km altitude used to define where “space” begins. The rocket then descends back to Earth, with the engines firing towards the end of the descent, allowing the spacecraft to land vertically. Test flights with no passengers have made successful demonstrations of the technology. The trip to space and back will take about 10 minutes.

But Blue Origin has got some competition from Virgin Galactic, which describes itself as “the world’s first commercial spaceline”. Founded in 2004 by Richard Branson, also a technology and retail entrepreneur, it plans to carry six passengers at a time into sub-orbital space and give them about six minutes of weightlessness in the course of a two and a half hour flight.

The technology differs from that of SpaceX and Blue Origin in that the launch into space is not from the ground, but from a jet airplane. This mothership flies to an altitude of about 18km (about twice as high as regular aircraft fly) and releases a smaller, rocket-powered spacecraft (SpaceShip Two) which is propelled to an altitude of about 100km. The program has been delayed by technical difficulties – and then by the tragic loss of pilot Mike Alsbury, when SpaceShip Two exploded in mid-air during a test flight in 2014. No date is yet set for the first passengers to fly.

There’s also the Google Lunar XPrize competition, announced in 2007, with the tagline: “Welcome to the new space race”. The aim of the prize is to launch a robotic mission to the moon, place a lander on the surface and drive 50 meters, sending back high-quality images and video. The competition is still in progress. Five privately funded teams must launch their spacecraft to the moon by the end of 2017.

Powerful international ties

The changes are taking place against a backdrop of tried and tested international collaboration in space, which took off in earnest at the end of the space race. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the US and Russia space programs complemented each other beautifully – though perhaps not intentionally. Following the cessation of Apollo in 1975, the US space program focused its efforts on robotic exploration of the solar system.

The Voyager probes gave us amazing images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Mariner and Viking missions to Mars led to Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. Messenger orbited Mercury and Magellan orbited Venus. When New Horizons launched to Pluto in 2006, it was a mission to visit the last planet left unexplored in the solar system.

Russia, on the other hand, pursued the goal of human spaceflight, with its incredibly successful Mir orbiting space station and its program of flights to transfer cosmonauts and cargo backwards and forwards to Mir. Human spaceflight in the US revived with the Space Shuttle and its mission to build and occupy the International Space Station (ISS). The list of nations that contribute to the ISS continues to grow. The shuttle program finished in 2011 and, since its successor Orion (built in collaboration with European Space Agency, ESA) is not due to come into service until at least 2023, the international community has been reliant on Russia to keep the ISS fueled and inhabited.

Today, as well as the US and Russia, there are strong, vibrant and successful space programs in Europe, Japan, India and China. The European Space Agency was established just two months before the historic handshake of 1975, following many years of independent aeronautical engineering research by individual nations. Similarly, the Chinese, Japanese and Indian space agencies can trace their heritages back to the 1960s. A number of smaller countries including the United Arab Emirates also have ambitious plans.

Of course these countries also compete against each other. There has been widespread speculation that the entry of China into the field was sufficient to introduce a fresh imperative to the US space program. China has a well-developed space program and is currently working towards having a space station in orbit around the Earth by about 2020. A prototype, Tiangong-2, has been in space for almost a year, and was occupied by two astronauts (or “taikonauts”) for a month.

China has also had three successful missions to the moon. And its next mission, Chang’e 5, due to launch towards the end of 2017, is designed to bring samples from the moon back to Earth. China also has a declared intent of landing taikonauts on the moon by 2025 – the same time frame in which the US will be testing its new Orion spacecraft in orbit around the moon.

But while there’s an element of competition, the success of the past few decades certainly shows that it is possible to collaborate in space even when tensions rise on the ground. Indeed, space exploration may even act as a buffer zone from international politics, which is surely something worth having. It will be interesting to see how a wider role in space exploration for private companies will affect such international collaborations, especially since so much of the effort is based in the USA.

Healthy competition or dangerous game?

A benefit of the entry of the private sector into space exploration has been recognition of the high-tech companies that contribute to the growth of the economy as valuable targets for investment. Indeed, a recent presentation at an international investment bank – under a heading of “Space; the next investment frontier” – declared that “investment interest has helped reduce launch costs and spur innovation across related industries, opening up a new chapter in the history of the space economy”.

One of the last engagements of Barack Obama’s presidency was to chair the Whitehouse Frontiers Conference, where space exploration was discussed as much within the context of US industry as within the drive to explore new worlds. Contributors to the conference included NASA – but overwhelmingly the speakers were from private technology and investment companies.

Perhaps it is cynical to say – but once investment starts to flow, lawyers won’t be far behind. And that is another aspect of the explosion of interest in space commerce and tourism. Laws, statutes and other regulations are necessary to govern the international nature of space exploration. At the moment, the United Nations, through its Office for Outer Space Affairs, is responsible for promoting international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. It also oversees operation of the Outer Space Treaty, which provides a framework for the governance of space and activities that might take place. While the obvious lack of “space police” means that it cannot be practically enforced, it has never actually been violated.

The operation is designed along similar lines to the international treaties that oversee maritime activities and the exploration of Antarctica. This is the closest that there is to international legislation and, since coming into operation in 1967 with the three inaugural signatories of the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the (then) USSR, the treaty has been signed by 106 countries (including China and North Korea). It is necessary to have such controls because although the risks that surround space exploration are high, potential rewards are even higher.

If we look at the way more conventional businesses operate, such as supermarkets, competition drives prices down, and there is little reason to believe that competition between space companies would follow a different model. In which case, greater risks might be taken in order to increase profitability. There is no evidence for this so far – but as the field develops and additional private companies move into space exploration – there will be a higher probability of accident or emergency.

The treaty says that a state launching a probe or satellite is liable to pay compensation for damage when accidents occur. However, the costs of space exploration are astronomical and crippling to poorer countries, making them increasingly depend on commercial launchers. But if a private company launches an object that subsequently causes damage in space, the struggling economy will have to pick up the bill. The treaty may therefore need to be updated to make private companies more liable. There are also serious issues around the safety of astronauts, who have the legal right to a safe existence when in outer space. But even lawyers aren’t sure whether the law does – or should – extend to private astronauts.

Looking to the future, there will be a need for an expanded version of a Civil Aviation Authority, directing and controlling routes, launches and landings on Earth, and between and on planetary bodies. All the safety and security considerations of air and sea travel will pertain to space travel at a vastly enhanced level, because the costs and risks are so much higher.

There will have to be firm and well-understood protocols in the event of a spacecraft crashing, or two spacecraft colliding. Not to mention piracy or the possibility of hijack. All this might sound a little gloomy, taking the dash and exhilaration from space exploration, but it will be a necessary development that opens up the era of space travel for citizens beyond those with deep pockets.

The original space race resulted from the ideas and skills of visionary theoretician engineers including: Robert H Goddard, Wernher von Braun, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky… Is it too far a stretch to think that the second space race is propelled by a new generation of entrepreneurs, including Bezos, Branson and Musk? If this is the situation, then I would hope that the main enabling factor in the pursuit of space endeavors is not possession of wealth, but that vision, ingenuity and a wish for the betterment of human are the main driving forces.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Private_companies_are_launching_a_new_space_race_999.html.

US spacewalkers repair aging ISS robotic arm

Miami (AFP)

Oct 5, 2017

Two NASA astronauts wrapped up a successful spacewalk Thursday to repair the International Space Station’s aging robotic arm, the US space agency said.

The outing by Americans Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei ended at 3 pm (1900 GMT), marking a “very successful day,” a NASA spokesman said.

The spacewalk lasted six hours and 55 minutes, almost a half hour longer than planned because the pair managed to tack on a few extra jobs that had been planned for next week.

Their main work involved the latching end of the Canadian-made arm, known as Canadarm2.

They replaced one of two Latching End Effectors (LEE) which had lost the ability to grip effectively, said the US space agency.

The 57.7 foot-long (18 meter) arm was instrumental in assembling the space station and is used to reach out and grab approaching cargo ships.

The robotic arm has been a key piece of equipment at the orbiting outpost for more than 16 years, but began malfunctioning in August.

NASA wants to restore its full capability before the next US cargo ship arrives next month, carrying supplies for the six astronauts living in orbit.

Thursday’s spacewalk was the first of three scheduled spacewalks this month aimed at repairing and maintaining various pieces of equipment outside the ISS, and was the 203rd spacewalk in the history of the space station.

Vande Hei and Bresnik plan to step out on another spacewalk October 10, with the third set for October 18.

“The second and third spacewalks will be devoted to lubricating the newly installed end effector and replacing cameras on the left side of the station’s truss and the right side of the station’s US Destiny laboratory,” NASA said.

Source: Robo Daily.

Link: http://www.robodaily.com/reports/US_spacewalkers_repair_aging_ISS_robotic_arm_999.html.

The launch of Sputnik 60 years ago opened space era

October 04, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — The launch of Sputnik 60 years ago opened the space era and became a major triumph for the Soviet Union, showcasing its military might and technological prowess. It also stunned the rest of the world.

Details of the development and the launch of the first artificial satellite were hidden behind the veil of secrecy that surrounded the Soviet space program and only became known decades later. A look at some little-known facts behind the Oct. 4, 1957, launch of the unmanned spacecraft:

A BYPRODUCT OF THE SOVIET MISSILE PROGRAM

Amid a tense Cold War arms race with the United States, the Soviet Union focused its efforts on building the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a hydrogen warhead to the U.S. The R-7 missile was built by a team led by Sergei Korolyov, and tests of the rocket began in 1957.

Korolyov, a visionary scientist and a shrewd manager at the same time, pressed the reluctant military brass to use one of the first R-7s to put a satellite in orbit. He warned Soviet leaders that the U.S. was also developing a satellite and won the Kremlin’s permission for the launch.

SIMPLE DESIGN

While there already was a project for a full-fledged scientific satellite, Korolyov ordered his team of engineers to design a primitive orbiter to save time and beat the U.S. into space. The craft, which was built in only a few months, was named PS-1, for “Prosteishiy Sputnik” — the “Simplest Satellite.”

The satellite, weighing less than 84 kilograms (about 184 pounds) and slightly larger than a basketball, was a pressurized sphere of polished aluminum alloy with two radio transmitters and four antennas.

An earlier satellite project envisaged a cone-shape vehicle, but Korolyov opted for the sphere. “The Earth is a sphere, and its first satellite also must have a spherical shape,” he was quoted as saying.

THE START OF SPACE AGE

While the rest of the world was stunned by the Soviet accomplishment, the Kremlin’s leadership seemed to be slow to grasp the scope of the event. The first official Soviet report of Sputnik’s launch was brief and buried deep inside the pages of Pravda, the Communist Party’s daily newspaper. Only two days after the launch did it come out with a banner headline and quotes of the foreign accolades.

LIGHT AND SOUND IN THE SKY

Sputnik contained a radio transmitter, broadcasting a distinctive “beep-beep-beep” sound. Pravda published a description of Sputnik’s orbit to help people watch it pass. However, it didn’t mention that the light seen moving across the night sky was in fact the spent booster rocket’s second stage, which was in roughly same orbit as the satellite. The tiny orbiter itself was invisible to the naked eye.

Sputnik orbited the Earth for three months before burning up in the atmosphere.

LEADING SPACE RACE

Thrilled by the global furor caused by Sputnik’s launch, the Kremlin immediately ordered Korolyov to launch a new satellite to mark the Nov. 7 anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. His team succeeded in building a spacecraft in less than a month, and on Nov. 3 launched Sputnik 2, which weighed about 508 kilograms (1,120 pounds). It carried the world’s first passenger, a dog named Laika. While the dog died of the heat soon after the launch, the flight proved that a living being could survive in space.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union made another giant leap ahead of the United States when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The Soviet lead in space prompted the U.S. to pour money into research and technology. In 1969, the U.S. won the race to land the first man on the moon, while the Soviet program collapsed in a series of booster rocket explosions.

UNKNOWN HERO

Amid the shroud of secrecy around the Soviet rocket and space program, Korolyov was never mentioned in any contemporary accounts of the launch. His key role was known only to a small circle of senior Soviet officials and space engineers.

Korolyov was only allowed to publish the non-secret parts of his research under the pseudonym “Professor K. Sergeyev,” while Leonid Sedov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences with no connection to space program, was erroneously praised in the West as the Father of Sputnik.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rejected the Nobel committee’s offer to nominate Sputnik’s designer for a prize, insisting it was the achievement of “the entire Soviet people.” Korolyov’s daughter, Natalia, recalled later that her father sometimes felt bitter about the secrecy. “We are like miners — we work underground,” she quoted him saying. “No one sees or hears us.”

Ultrathin spacecraft will collect, deposit orbital debris

Los Angeles CA (Sputnik)

Sep 13, 2017

A new design gaining the interest of NASA could see the inexpensive and efficient removal of Earth’s orbiting space debris.

A proposed design for a space trash collector has received a second round of funding from NASA, and the technologies involved could benefit developments in miniaturization back on Earth. A flat quadrilateral, a sort of magic carpet less than the thickness of a human hair and about three feet on a side, would incorporate redundant microelectronic and other digital technologies, as well as the propellant to allow the device to be moved around in orbit.

Upon arriving in close proximity to one of the estimated 520,000 of bits of detectable human-made space junk dangerously cluttering up near-Earth regions, the device, known as a ‘Brane craft,’ would wrap itself around the orbiting offal and direct both objects to an uncontrolled descent into our planet’s atmosphere, at which point the trash and the collector would be on track to be immolated by the intense heat and pressure of reentry.

The space-cleaning carpet, the brainchild of California-based Aerospace Corporation, itself would be subject to the same risks it is designed to ameliorate, so it will be built with multiple backups – crafted in such a way that a tiny particle shooting through it at extremely high velocities of up to 17,500 mph would not incapacitate the device.

NASA says that it tracks around 20,000 pieces of orbital trash larger than a softball – just under four inches – orbiting the Earth, and these objects travel fast enough to damage satellites and spacecraft, placing astronauts at risk.

And while there are known to be at least 500,000 pieces of orbiting garbage the size of a marble, or bigger, there are thought to be millions upon millions of tiny bits speeding around the planet that are small enough to avoid detection, but not small enough to stop a spacewalker from being hurt or killed.

The skinny space cleaner is designed to be stackable, for easy shipping aboard a launcher, and would be deployed in swarms that can be organized to work in concert or alone – each directed to specific coordinates that can be modified at will, according to space.com.

Preparing the tech for real-world testing will take several million dollars at a minimum, according to Aerospace’s principal investigator and a senior scientist Siegfried Janson.

“We’re looking at how we can get government or other companies interested in this to take this to the next level,” Janson said, cited by space.com.

Company assertions claim that if enough of the Brane craft are deployed, almost every detectable piece of space trash weighing up to 2 pounds or less could be eliminated from orbit within a decade.

NASA, hedging its bets, provides low-level proof-of-concept funding for many near-Earth garbage-collection technologies.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Ultrathin_spacecraft_will_collect_deposit_orbital_debris_999.html.

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