The Moon is Older than We Thought, says New Study

The Moon is Older than We Thought, says New Study

For decades, scientists have been of the belief that the Moon, Earth’s only natural satellite, was four and a half billion years old. According to this theory, the Moon was created from a fiery cataclysm produced by a collision between the Earth with a Mars-sized object (named Theia) roughly 100 million years after the formation of primordial Earth.

But according to a new study by researchers from UCLA (who re-examined some of the Apollo Moon Rocks), these estimates may have been off by about 40 to 140 million years. Far from simply adjusting our notions of the Moon’s proper age, these findings are also critical to our understanding of the Solar System and the formation and evolution of its rocky planets.

This study, titled “Early formation of the Moon 4.51 billion years ago“, was published recently in the journal Science Advances. Led by Melanie Barboni – a professor from the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences at UCLA – the research team conducted uranium-lead dating on fragments of the Moon rocks that were brought back by the Apollo 14 astronauts.

Artist’s concept of a collision that is believed to have taken place in the HD 172555 star system between a moon-sized object and a Mercury-sized planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These fragments were of a compound known as zircon, a type of silicate mineral that contains trace amounts of radioactive elements (like uranium, thorium, and lutetium). As Kevin McKeegan, a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry and a co-author of the study, explained, “Zircons are nature’s best clocks. They are the best mineral in preserving geological history and revealing where they originated.”

By examining the radioactive decay of these elements, and correcting for cosmic ray exposure, the research team was able to get highly precise estimates of the zircon fragments ages. Using one of UCLA’s mass spectrometers, they were able to measure the rate at which the deposits of uranium in the zircon turned into lead, and the deposits of lutetium turned into hafnium.

In the end, their data indicated that the Moon formed about 4.51 billion years ago, which places its birth within the first 60 million years of the Solar System or so. Previously, dating Moon rocks proved difficult, mainly because most of them contained fragments of many different kinds of rocks, and these samples were determined to be tainted by the effects of multiple impacts.

However, Barboni and her team were able to examine eight zircons that were in good condition. More importantly, these silicate deposits are believed to have formed shortly after the collision between Earth and Theia, when the Moon was still an unsolidified mass covered in oceans of magma.  As these oceans gradually cooled, the Moon’s body became differentiated between its crust, mantle and core.

Zircon deposits found in the Moon rocks returned by the Apollo 17 mission. Credit: NASA//Nicholas E. Timms.

Because zircon minerals were formed during the initial magma ocean, uranium-lead dating reaches all the way back to a time before the Moon became a solidified mass. As Edward Young, a UCLA professor of geochemistry and cosmochemistry and a co-author of the study, put it, “Mélanie was very clever in figuring out the Moon’s real age dates back to its pre-history before it solidified, not to its solidification.”

These findings have not only determined the age of the Moon with a high degree of accuracy (and for the first time), it also has implications for our understanding of when and how rocky planes formed within the Solar System. By placing accurate dates on when certain bodies formed, we are able to understand the context in which they formed, which also helps to determine what mechanisms were involved.

And this was just the first revelation produced by the research team, which hopes to continue studying the zircon fragments to see what they can learn about the Moon’s early history.

Further Reading: UCLA

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Weekly Space Hangout – January 13, 2017: News Roundup!

Weekly Space Hangout – January 13, 2017: News Roundup!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Carolyn Collins Petersen ( / / @spacewriter )
Paul M. Sutter ( / @PaulMattSutter)
Kimberly Cartier ( / @AstroKimCartier )

Their stories this week:
New studies of Boyajian’s Star

Breakthrough Starshot hunting for planets

Probing the Nearby Space Between Stars

Looking for the stuff of life

A new star in 2022

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (, which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page

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What Will the Voyager Spacecraft Encounter Next? Hubble Helps Provide a Roadmap

What Will the Voyager Spacecraft Encounter Next? Hubble Helps Provide a Roadmap

The twin Voyager spacecraft are now making their way through the interstellar medium. Even though they are going where none have gone before, the path ahead it is not completely unknown.

Astronomers are using the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the ‘road’ ahead for these pioneering spacecraft, to ascertain what various materials may lay along the Voyagers’ paths through space.

Combining Hubble data with the information the Voyagers are able to gather and send back to Earth, astronomers said a preliminary analysis reveals “a rich, complex interstellar ecology, containing multiple clouds of hydrogen laced with other elements.”

“This is a great opportunity to compare data from in situ measurements of the space environment by the Voyager spacecraft and telescopic measurements by Hubble,” said Seth Redfield of Wesleyan University, who led the study. “The Voyagers are sampling tiny regions as they plow through space at roughly 38,000 miles per hour. But we have no idea if these small areas are typical or rare. The Hubble observations give us a broader view because the telescope is looking along a longer and wider path. So Hubble gives context to what each Voyager is passing through.”

The combined data is also providing new insights into how our Sun travels through interstellar space, and astronomers hope that these combined observations will help them characterize the physical properties of the local interstellar medium.

“Ideally, synthesizing these insights with in situ measurements from Voyager would provide an unprecedented overview of the local interstellar environment,” said Hubble team member Julia Zachary of Wesleyan University.

The initial look at the clouds’ composition shows very small variations in the abundances of the chemical elements contained in the structures.

“These variations could mean the clouds formed in different ways, or from different areas, and then came together,” Redfield said.

In this illustration, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is looking along the paths of NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft as they journey through the solar system and into interstellar space. Hubble is gazing at two sight lines (the twin cone-shaped features) along each spacecraft’s path. The telescope’s goal is to help astronomers map interstellar structure along each spacecraft’s star-bound route. Each sight line stretches several light-years to nearby stars. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI).

Astronomers are also seeing that the region that we and our solar system are passing through right now contains “clumpier” material, which may affect the heliosphere, the large bubble that is produced by our Sun’s powerful solar wind. At its boundary, called the heliopause, the solar wind pushes outward against the interstellar medium. Hubble and Voyager 1 made measurements of the interstellar environment beyond this boundary, where the wind comes from stars other than our sun.

“I’m really intrigued by the interaction between stars and the interstellar environment,” Redfield said. “These kinds of interactions are happening around most stars, and it is a dynamic process.”

Both Voyagers 1 and 2 launched in 1977 and both explored Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 went on to visit Uranus and Neptune.

Voyager 1 is now 13 billion miles (20 billion km) from Earth, and entered interstellar space in 2012, the region between the stars that is filled with gas, dust, and material recycled from dying stars. It is the farthest a human-made spacecraft has even traveled. Next big ‘landmark’ for Voyager 2 is in about 40,000 years when it will come within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, in the constellation Camelopardalis.

Voyager 2, is 10.5 billion miles (16.9 billion km) from Earth, and will pass 1.7 light-years from the star Ross 248 in about 40,000 years.

Of course, neither spacecraft will be operational by then.

But scientists hope that for at least the next 10 years, the Voyagers will be making measurements of interstellar material, magnetic fields, and cosmic rays along their trajectories. The complimentary Hubble observations will help to map interstellar structure along the routes. Each sight line stretches several light-years to nearby stars. Sampling the light from those stars, Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph measured how interstellar material absorbed some of the starlight, leaving telltale spectral fingerprints.

When the Voyagers run out of power and are no longer able to communicate with Earth, astronomers still hope to use observations from Hubble and subsequent space telescopes to characterize the environment where our robotic emissaries to the cosmos will travel.

Source: HubbleSite

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Stars at the Edge of our Galaxy May Have Been Stolen

Stars at the Edge of our Galaxy May Have Been Stolen

Our Milky Way is a pretty vast and highly-populated space. All told, its stars number between 100 and 400 billion, with some estimates saying that it may have as many as 1 trillion. But just where did all these stars come from? Well, as it turns out, in addition to forming many of its own and merging with other galaxies, the Milky Way may have stolen some of its stars from other galaxies.

Such is the argument made by two astronomers from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. According to their study, which has been accepted for publication in the The Astrophysical Journal, they claim that roughly half of the stars that orbit at the extreme outer edge of the Milky Way were actually stolen from the nearby Sagittarius dwarf galaxy.

At one time, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy was thought to be the closest galaxy to our own (a position now held by the Canis Major dwarf galaxy). As one of several dozen dwarf galaxies that surround the Milky Way, it has orbited our galaxy several times in the past. With each passing orbit, it becomes subject to our galaxy’s strong gravity, which has the effect of pulling it apart.

A model of the tidally shredded Sagittarius dwarf galaxy wrapping around a 3-D representation of the Milky Way disk. Credit: UCLA/D.R. Law

The long-term effects of this can be seen by looking to the farthest stars in our galaxy, which consist of the eleven stars that are at a distance of about 300,000 light-years from Earth (well beyond the Milky Way’s spiral disk). According the study produced by Marion Dierickx, a graduate student at Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy, half of these stars were taken from the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy in the past.

Professor Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard and Marion Dierickx PhD advisor, co-authored the study – titled, “Predicted Extension of the Sagittarius Stream to the Milky Way Virial Radius“. As he told Universe Today via email:

“We see evidence for streams of stars connected to the core of the galaxy, and indicating that this dwarf galaxy passed multiple times around the Milky Way center and was ripped apart by the tidal gravitational field of the Milky Way. We are all familiar with the tide in the ocean caused by the gravitational pull of the moon, but if the moon was a much more massive object – it would have pulled the oceans apart from the Earth and we would see a stream of vapor stretched away from the Earth.”

For the sake of their study, Dierickx and Loeb ran computer models to simulate the movements of the Sagittarius dwarf over the past 8 billion years. These simulations reproduced the streams of stars stretching away from the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy to the center of our galaxy. They also varied Sagittarius’ velocity and angle of approach to see if the resulting exchanges would match current observations.

Computer-generated image showing the disc of the Milky Way (red oval) and the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy (red dot). The yellow circles represent stars that have been ripped from the Sagittarius dwarf and flung far across space. Credit: Marion Dierickx / CfA

“We attempted to match the distance and velocity data for the core of the Sagitarrius galaxy, and then compared the resulting prediction for the position and velocity of the streams of stars,” said Loeb. “The results were very encouraging for some particular set of initial conditions regarding the start of the Sagittarius galaxy journey when the universe was roughly half its present age.”

What they found was that over time, the Sagittarius dwarf lost about one-third of its stars and nine-tenths of its dark matter to the Milky Way. The end result of this was the creation of three distinct streams of stars that reach one million light-years from galactic center to the very edge of the Milky Way’s halo. Interestingly enough, one of these streams has been predicted by simulations conducted by projects like the Sloan Digital Survey.

The simulations also showed that five of Sagittarius’ stars would end becoming part of the Milky Way. What’s more,  the positions and velocities of these stars coincided with five of the most distant stars in our galaxy. The other six do not appear to be from Sagittarius dwarf, and may be the result of gravitational interactions with another dwarf galaxy in the past.

“The dynamics of stars in the extended arms we predict (which is the largest Galactic structure on the sky ever predicted) can be used to measure the mass and structure of the Milky Way,” said Loeb. “The outer envelope of the Milky Way was never probed directly, because no other stream was known to extend that far.”

Computer model of the Milky Way, the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy, and the looping stream of material between the two. Credit: Tollerud, Purcell and Bullock/UC Irvine

Given the way the simulations match up with current observations, Dierickx is confident that more Sagittarius dwarf interlopers are out there, just waiting to be found. For instance, future instruments – like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which is expected to begin full-survey operations by 2022 – may be able to detect the two remaining streams of stars which were predicted by the survey.

Given the time scales and the distances involved, it is rather difficult to probe our galaxy (and by extension, the Universe) to see exactly how it evolved over time. Pairing observational data with computer models, however, has been proven to test our best theories of how things came to be. In the future, thanks to improved instruments and more detailed surveys, we just might know for certain!

And sure to check out this animation of the computer simulation, which shows the effects on the Milky Way’s gravity on the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy’s stars and dark matter.

Further Reading: CfA

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Land On Titan With Huygens in Beautiful New Video

Land On Titan With Huygens in Beautiful New Video

On December 25, 2004, the piggybacking Huygens probe was released from the ‘mothership’ Cassini spacecraft and it arrived at Titan on January 14, 2005. The probe began transmitting data to Cassini four minutes into its descent through Titan’s murky atmosphere, snapping photos and taking data all the while. Then it touched down, the first time a probe had landed on an extraterrestrial world in the outer Solar System.

JPL has released a re-mix of the data and images gathered by Huygens 12 years ago in a beautiful new video. This is the last opportunity to celebrate the success of Huygens before Cassini ends its mission in September of 2017.

Watch as the incredible view of Titan’s surface comes into view, with mountains, a system of river channels and a possible lakebed.

After a two-and-a-half-hour descent, the metallic, saucer-shaped spacecraft came to rest with a thud on a dark floodplain covered in cobbles of water ice, in temperatures hundreds of degrees below freezing.

Huygens had to quickly collect and transmit all the images and data it could because shortly after landing, Cassini would drop below the local horizon, “cutting off its link to the home world and silencing its voice forever.”

How much of this video is actual images and data vs computer graphics?

Of course, the clips at the beginning and end of the video are obviously animations of the probe and orbiter. However, the slow descending 1st-person point-of-view video is made using actual images from Huygens. But Huygens did not take a continuous movie sequence, so a lot of work was done by the team that operated Huygens’ optical imager, the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR), to enhance, colorize, and re-project the images into a variety of formats.

The view of the cobblestones and the parachute shadow near the end of the video is also created from real landing data, but was made in a different way from the rest of the descent video, because Huygens’ cameras did not actually image the parachute shadow. However, the upward looking infrared spectrometer took a measurement of the sky every couple of seconds, recording a darkening and then brightening to the unobstructed sky. The DISR team calculated from this the accurate speed and direction of the parachute, and of its shadow to create a very realistic video based on the data.

If you’re a data geek, there are some great videos of Huygens’ data by the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory team, such as this one:

The movie shows the operation of the DISR camera during the descent onto Titan. The almost 4-hour long operation
of DISR is shown in less than five minutes in 40 times actual sped up to landing and 100 times actual speed thereafter.

Erich Karkoschka from the UA team explained what all the sounds in the video are. “All parts of DISR worked together as programmed, creating a harmony,” he said. Here’s the full explanation:

Sound was added to mark various events. The left speaker follows the motion of Huygens. The pitch of the tone indicates the rotational speed. Vibrato indicates vibration of the parachute. Little clicks indicate the clocking of the rotation counter. Noise corresponds to heating of the heat shield, to parachute deployments, to the heat shield release, to the jettison of the DISR cover, and to touch down.

The sound in the right speaker follows DISR data. The pitch of the continuous tone goes with the signal strength. The 13 different chime tones indicate activity of the 13 components of DISR. The counters at the top and bottom of the list get the high and low notes, respectively.

You can see more info and videos created from Huygens’ data here.

Read some reminiscences about Huygens from some of the Cassini team here.

The post Land On Titan With Huygens in Beautiful New Video appeared first on Universe Today.

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A “Breakthrough” to Search for Planets in Closest Star System to Earth

A “Breakthrough” to Search for Planets in Closest Star System to Earth

Ever since the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced that they had discovered an exoplanet in the nearby system of Proxima Centauri, there have been a lot of questions about this exoplanet. In addition to whether or not this planet could actually support life, astronomers have also been eager to see of its companion stars – Alpha Centauri A and B – have exoplanets too.

Prior to the discovery of Proxima b, Alpha Centauri was thought to host the closest exoplanets to Earth (Alpha Bb and Bc). However, time has cast doubt on the existence of the first, while the second’s existence remains unconfirmed. But thanks to a recent agreement between the ESO and Breakthrough Initiatives, we may yet find out if there are exoplanets in Alpha Centauri – which will come in handy when it comes time to explore there!

In accordance with this agreement, Breakthrough Initiatives will provide additional funds so that the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), located at the La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, can be modified to conduct a special search program of Alpha Centauri. This will involve upgrading the VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared (VISIR) instrument with new equipment that will enhance its planet-hunting abilities.

Image of the Alpha Centauri AB system and its distant and faint companion, Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESO

This includes a new instrument module that will allow the VLT to use a technique known as coronagraphy – a form of adaptive optics that corrects for a star’s brightness, thus making it easier for a telescope to spot the thermal glow of orbiting planets around them. While the Breakthrough Prize Foundation will pay a large fraction of the upgrade costs, the ESO will be making the VLT and its staff available to conduct the survey – which is scheduled for 2019.

Such an agreement is truly a win-win scenario. For the ESO, this will not only improve the VLT’s imaging abilities, but will also assist with the development of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). This proposed array, which is scheduled for completion by 2024, will rely on the Mid-infrared E-ELT Imager and Spectrograph (METIS) instrument to hunt for potentially habitable exoplanets.

Any lessons learned from the upgrade of VISIR will allow them to develop the necessary expertise to run METIS, and will also allow them to test the effectiveness of the technology beforehand. For Breakthrough Initiatives, determining if there are any planets in the Alpha Centauri system will go a long way towards helping them mount their historic mission to this star.

In the coming years, Breakthrough Initiatives hopes to mount the first interstellar voyage in history using a lightsail and nanocraft that would rely on lasers to push it up to relativistic speeds (20% the speed of light). Known as Breakthrough Starshot, this craft could be ready to launch in a few years time, and would reach Alpha Centauri in just 20 years time.

The ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and a stellar backdrop showing the location of Alpha Centauri. Credit: ESO

Once there, the nanocraft (using a series of microsensors) would relay information back to Earth about the Alpha Centauri system – which would include any information on its system of planets, and whether or not they are habitable. Hence, determining if there’s anything there to study in the first place will help lay the groundwork for the mission.

As Professor Avi Loeb – the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard and a member of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee – told Universe Today via email:

“We hope that the partnership between the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and ESO will lead to the discovery of new habitable planets around the nearest stars. Once discovered, we could search for the molecular signatures of life in the atmosphere of these planets, and potentially even send a spacecraft that will reach them within our lifetime. The latter is the driver for the Starshot Initiative. The discovery of habitable nearby planets will provide us with targets for photography by gram-scale spacecrafts, launched at a fraction of the speed of light and  equipped with cameras. For example, we would like to find out whether such planets are covered by blue oceans, green vegetation or yellow deserts.”

It’s one of the hallmarks of the new space age: a private and public organization coming together for the sake of mutual benefit. But when those benefits include advancing scientific research, space exploration, and the hunt for habitable planets other than our own, it truly is a win-win situation!

In the meantime, enjoy this video provided by ESO about their new partnership with Breakthrough Initiatives:

Further Reading: ESO, Breakthrough Initiatives

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Finally, An Explanation for the Alien Megastructure?

Finally, An Explanation for the Alien Megastructure?

Back in October of 2015, astronomers shook the world when they reported how the Kepler mission had noticed a strange and sudden drop in brightness coming from KIC 8462852 (aka. Tabby’s Star). This was followed by additional studies that showed how the star appeared to be consistently dimming over time. All of this led to a flurry of speculation, with possibilities ranging from large asteroids and a debris disc to an alien megastructure.

But in what may be the greatest explanation yet, a team of researchers from Columbia University have suggested that the star’s strange flickering could be the result of a planet it consumed at some point in the past. This would have resulted in a big outburst of brightness from which the star is now recovering; and the remains of this planet could be transiting in front of the star, thus causing periodic drops.

For the sake of their study – titled “Secular dimming of KIC 8462852 following its consumption of a planet“, which is scheduled to appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society – the team took the initial Kepler findings, which showed sudden drops of 15% and 22% in brightness. They then considered subsequent studies that took a look at the long-term behavior of Tabby’s Star (both of which were published in 2016).

Artist’s impression of an orbiting swarm of dusty comet fragments around Tabby’s Star. Could these be responsible for its peculiar dips in brightness or is there a biological reason?  A small red dwarf star (above, left) lies near Tabby’s. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first study, conducted by Bradley Schaefer of Louisiana State University, showed a decrease of 14% between the years of 1890 and 1989. The second study, conducted by Ben Monet and Joshua Simon (of Caltech and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, respectively), showed how the star faded by 3% over the course of the four years that Kepler continuously viewed it.

They then attempted to explain this behavior using the Kozai Mechanism (aka. Kozai Effect, Lidov-Kozai mechanism), which is a long-standing method in astronomy for calculating the orbits of planets based on their eccentricity and inclination. Applied to KIC 8462852, they determined that the star likely consumed a planet (or planets) in the past, likely around 10,000 years ago.

This process would have caused a temporary brightening from which the star is now returning to normal (thus explaining the long term trend). They further determined that the periodic drops in brightness could be caused by the remnants of this planet passing in high-eccentricity orbits in front of the star, thus accounting for the sudden changes.

Their calculations also put mass constraints on the planet (or planets) consumed. By their estimates, it was either a single Jupiter-sized planet, or a large number of smaller objects – such as moon-mass bodies that were about 1 km in diameter. This latter possibility seems more inviting, since a large number of objects would have produced a field of debris that would be more consistent with the dimming rate observed by previous studies.

Artist’s concept of KIC 8462852, which has experienced unusual changes in luminosity over the past few years. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

These results are not only the best explanation of this star’s strange behavior, they could have serious implications for the study of stellar evolution – in which stars gobble up some of their planets over time. As Brian D. Metzger, an assistant professor from the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory and the lead author on the paper, explained in an interview with New Scientist:

“We estimated that if Tabby’s star were representative, something like 10 Jupiters would have to fall into a typical star over its lifetime, or maybe even more… These transits only last a few days, so when we see one, we have to alert all the telescopes and basically point every telescope we have at Tabby’s star.”

No doubt, the mystery of Tabby’s star will endure for some time to come. We can only hope that with ongoing observation, we might sort out exactly what is taking place in this far-flung system. But for the time being, the possibility that what are we seeing is the star returning to its normal state, and being occasionally dimmed by transiting pieces of debris, is the most plausible explanation yet.

Suffice it to say, the alien megastructure enthusiasts will likely be taking this latest study with a grain of salt! You have to admit, a megastructures is a VERY enticing possibility!

Further Reading: ArXiv

The post Finally, An Explanation for the Alien Megastructure? appeared first on Universe Today.

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What is the International Space Station?

What is the International Space Station?

After the historic Apollo Missions, where human astronauts set foot on another celestial body for the first time in history, NASA and the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) began to shift their priorities away from pioneering space exploration, and began to focus on developing long-term capabilities in space. In the ensuing decades (the 1970s to 1990s), both agencies began to build and deploy space stations, each one bigger and more complex than the last.

The latest and greatest of these is the International Space Station (ISS), a scientific facility that resides in Low-Earth Orbit around our planet. This space station is the largest and most sophisticated orbiting research facility ever built, and is so large that it can actually be seen with the naked eye. Central to its mission is the idea of fostering international cooperation to advance scientific research and space exploration.


Planning for the ISS began in the 1980s, based in part on the successes of Russia’s Mir space station, NASA’s Skylab, and the Space Shuttle Program. This station, it was hoped, would allow for future utilization of the low-Earth Orbit space environment and its resources, and serve as an intermediate base for renewed exploration efforts to the Moon, mission to Mars, and beyond.

The Mir space station hangs above the Earth in 1995 (photo taken by the mission crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS-71). Credit: NASA

In May of 1982, NASA established the Space Station task force, which was charged with created a conceptual framework for such a space station. In the end, the ISS plan that emerged was a culmination of several different plans for a space station – which included NASA’s Freedom, the Soviet’s Mir-2, Japan’s Kibo laboratory, and the European Space Agency’s Columbus concepts.

The Freedom concept called for a modular space station to be deployed to orbit, where it would serve as the counterpart to the Soviet Salyut and Mir space stations. That same year, NASA approached the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) to participate in the program with the creation of the Kibo, also known as the Japanese Experiment Module.

The Canadian Space Agency was similarly approached in 1982 and was asked to provide robotic support for the station. Thanks to the success of the Canadarm, which was an integral part of the Space Shuttle Program, the CSA agreed to develop robotic components that would assist with docking, perform maintenance, and assist astronauts with spacewalks.

In 1984, the ESA was invited to participate in the construction of the station with the creation of the Columbus laboratory – a research and experimental lab specializing in materials science. Construction of both Kibo and Columbus were approved of in 1985. As the most ambitious space program in either agency’s history, the development of these laboratories was seen as central to Europe and Japan’s emerging space capability.

Skylab, America’s First manned Space Station. Photo taken by departing Skylab 4 crew in Feb. 1974. Credit: NASA

In 1993, American Vice-President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that they would be pooling resources intended to create Freedom and Mir-2. Instead of two separate space stations, the programs would be working collaboratively to create a single space station – which was later named the International Space Station.


Construction of the ISS was made possible with support from multiple federal space agencies, which included NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, the CSA, and members of the ESA – specifically Belgium, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. The Brazilian Space Agency (AEB) also contributed to the construction effort.

The in-space construction of the space station began in 1998 after the participated nations signed the Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA), which established a legal framework that stressed cooperation based on international law. The participating space agencies also signed the Four Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs), which laid out their responsibilities in the design, development and use of the station.

The assembly process began in 1998 with the deployment of the ‘Zarya’ (“Sunrise” in Russian) Control Module, or Functional Cargo Block. Built by the Russians with funding from the US, this module was designed to provide the station’s initial propulsion and power. The pressurized module – which weighed over 19,3oo kg (42,600 pounds) – was launched aboard a Russian Proton rocket in November 1998.

On Dec. 4th, the second component – the ‘Unity’ Node – was placed into orbit by the Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-88), along with two pressurized mating adapters. This node was one of three – Harmony and Tranquility being the other two – that would form the ISS’ main hull. On Sunday, Dec. 6th, it was mated to Zarya by the STS-88 crew inside the shuttle’s payload bay.

The next installments came in the year 2000, with the deployment of the Zvezda Service Module (the first habitation module) and multiple supply missions conducted by the Space Shuttle Atlantis.  The Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-92) also delivered the stations third pressurized mating adapted and a Ku-band antenna in October. By the end of the month, the first Expedition crew was launched aboard a Soyuz rocket, which arrived on Nov. 2nd.

In 2001, the ‘Destiny’ Laboratory Module and the ‘Pirs’ Docking Compartment were delivered. The modular racks that are part of Destiny were also shipped using the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules (MPLM) aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and put into place using the Canadarm2 robotic arm. 2002 saw additional racks, truss segments, solar arrays, and the Mobile Base System for the Station’s Mobile Servicing System being delivered.

In 2007, the European Harmony module was installed, which allowed for the addition of the Columbus laboratory and the Kibo laboratory – both of which were added in 2008. Between 2009 and 2011, construction was finalized with the addition of the Russian Mini-Research Module-1 and -2 (MRM2), the ‘Tranquility’ Node, the Cupola Observation Module, the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module , and the Robonaut 2.

The structure of the ISS (exploded in this diagram) showing the various components and how they are assembled together. Credit: NASA

No additional modules or components were added until 2016, when Bigelow Aersopace installed their experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). As of the penning of this article, the station has been continuously occupied for a period of 16 years and 74 days since the arrival of Expedition 1 on November 2nd, 2000. This is the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of 9 years and 357 days.

Purpose and Aims:

The main purpose of the ISS is fourfold: conducting scientific research, furthering space exploration, facilitating education and outreach, and fostering international cooperation. These goals are backed by NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscomos), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the European Space Agency (ESA), with participation from other nations and institutions.

As far as scientific research goes, the ISS provides a unique environment to conduct experiments under microgravity conditions. Whereas crewed spacecraft provide a limited platform which are only deployed to space for a limited amount of time, the ISS allows for long-term studies that can last for years (or even decades).

Many different and continuous projects are being conducted aboard the ISS, which are made possible with the support of a full-time crew of six astronauts, and a continuity of visiting vehicles (which also allows for resupply and crew rotations). Scientists on Earth have access to their data, and are able to communicate with the science teams through a number of channels.

The many fields of research conducted aboard the ISS include astrobiology, astronomy, human research, life sciences, physical sciences, space weather, and meteorology. In the case of space weather and meteorology, the ISS is in a unique position to study these phenomena because it’s position in LEO. Here, it has a short orbital period, allowing it to witness global weather patterns in a relatively short period of time.

It is also exposed to things like cosmic rays, solar wind, charged subatomic particles, and other phenomena that characterized a space environment. Medical research aboard the ISS is largely focused on the long-term effects of microgravity on living organisms – particularly its effects on bone density, muscle degeneration and organ function – which is intrinsic to long-range space exploration missions.

The ISS also conducts research that is beneficial to space exploration systems. It’s location in LEO also allows for the testing of spacecraft systems that are required for long-range missions. It also provides an environment where astronauts can gain vital experience in terms of operations, maintenance and repair services – which are similarly crucial for long-term missions (such as mission to the Moon and Mars).

The ISS also provides opportunities for educational institutions through student participation in experiments. Here, students are able to design experiments and watch as ISS crews carry them out. ISS astronauts are also able to engage classrooms through video link, radio communications, email, and educational videos/web episodes. Various space agencies also maintain educational materials for download based on ISS experiments and operations.

Educational and cultural outreach also fall within the ISS’ mandate. These activities are conducted with the help and support of the participating federal space agencies, and which are designed to encourage education and career training in the STEM (Science, Technical, Engineering, Math) fields.

One of the best known example of this are the education videos created by Chris Hadfield – the Canadian astronaut who served as the commander of Expedition 35 aboard the ISS – which chronicled the everyday activities of ISS astronauts. He also directed a great deal of attention to ISS activities thanks to his musical collaboration with the Barenaked Ladies and Wexford Gleeks – “I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)”.

His video, a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, also earned him acclaim, in part because it was the only music video ever to be filmed in space.

Operations Aboard the ISS:

As noted, the ISS is facilitated by rotating crews and regular launches that transport supplies, experiments and equipment to the station. These take the form of both crewed and uncrewed vehicles, depending on the nature of the mission. Crews are generally transported aboard Russian Progress spacecraft, which are launched via Soyuz rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Roscosmos has conducted a total of 60 trips to the ISS using Progress spacecraft, while 40 seperate launches were conducted using Soyuz rockets. Some 35 flights were also made to the station using the retired NASA Space Shuttles, which transported crew, experiments and supplies. The ESA and JAXA have both conducted 5 cargo transfer missions, using the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), respectively.

In more recent years, private aerospace companies like Space X and Orbital ATK have been contracted to provide resupply missions to the ISS, which they have done using their Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft. Additional craft, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, are expected to provide crew transportation in the future.

Alongside the development of reusable first stage rockets, these efforts are being carried out in part to restore domestic launch capability to the US. Since 2014, tensions between the Russia and the US over the Ukraine have also led to growing concerns over the future of Russian-American cooperation with programs like the ISS.

Crew activities consist of conducting experiments and research considered vital to space exploration. These activities are scheduled from 06:00 to 21:30 hours UTC (Universal Coordinated Time), with breaks being taken for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and regular crew conferences. Every crew member has their own quarters (which includes a tethered sleeping bag), two of which are located in the Zvezda Module and four more installed in Harmony.

During “night hours”, the windows are covered at to give the impression of darkness. This is essential since the station experiences 16 sunrises and sunsets a day. Two exercise periods of 1 hour each are scheduled every day to ensure that the risks of muscle atrophy and bone loss are minimized. The exercise equipment includes two treadmills, the advanced Resistive Exercise Device (aRED) for simulated weight training, and a stationary bicycle.

Hygiene is maintained thanks to water jets and soap dispensed from tubes, as well as wet wipes, rinseless shampoo, and edible toothpaste. Sanitation is provided by two space toilers – both of Russian design – aboard the Zvezda and Tranquility Modules. Similar to what available aboard the Space Shuttle, astronauts fasten themselves to the toilet seat and removal of waste is accomplished with a vacuum suction hole.

Liquid waste is transferred to the Water Recovery System, where it is converted back into drinking water (yes, astronauts drink their own urine!) Solid waste is collected in individual bags that are stored in an aluminum container, which are then transferred to the docked spacecraft for disposal.

Food aboard the station, consists mainly of freeze-dried meals in vacuum-sealed plastic bags. Canned goods are available, but are limited due to them being heavier and more expensive to transport. Fresh fruit and vegetables are often brought during resupply missions, and a large array of spices and condiments are used to ensure that food is flavorful – which is especially important since one of the effects of microgravity is a diminished sense of taste.

To prevent spillage, drinks and soups are contained in packets and consumed with a straw. Solid food is eaten with a knife and fork, which are attached to a tray with magnets to prevent them from floating away, while drinks are provided in dehydrated powder form and then mixed with water. Any food or crumbs that floats away must be collected to prevent it from clogging the air filters and other equipment.


Life aboard the station also carries with it a high degree of risk. These come in the form of radiation, the long-term effects of microgravity on human physique, the psychological effects of being in space (i.e. stress and sleep disturbances), and the danger of collision with space debris.

In terms of radiation, objects within the Low-Earth orbit environment are partially protected from solar radiation and cosmic rays by the Earth’s magnetosphere. However, without the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts are still exposed to about 1 millisievert a day, which is the equivalent of what a person on Earth is exposed to during the course of a year.

As a result, astronauts are at higher risk for developing cancer, suffering DNA and chromosomal damage, and diminished immune system function. Hence why protective shielding and drugs are a must aboard the station, as well as protocols for limiting exposure. For instance, during solar flare activity, crews are able to seek shelter in the more heavily shielded Russian Orbital Segment of the station.

As already noted, the effects of microgravity also take a toll on muscle tissues and bone density. According to a 2001 study conducted by NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP) – which researched the effects on an astronaut Scott Kelly’s body after he spent a year aboard the International Space Station – bone density loss occurs at a rate of over 1% per month.

Similarly, a report by the Johnson Space Center – titled “Muscle Atrophy” – stated that astronauts experience up to a 20 percent loss of muscle mass on spaceflights lasting just five to 11 days. In addition, more recent studies have indicated that the long-term effects of being in space also include diminished organ function, decreased metabolism, and reduced eyesight.

Because of this, astronauts exercise regularly in order to minimize muscle and bone the loss, and their nutritional regimen is designed to make sure they the appropriate nutrients to maintain proper organ function. Beyond that, the long-term health effects, and additional strategies to combat them, are still being investigated.

But perhaps the greatest hazard comes in the form of orbiting junk – aka. space debris. At present, there are over 500,000 pieces of debris that are being tracked by NASA and other agencies as they orbit the Earth. An estimated 20,000 of these are larger than a softball, while the remainder are about the size of a pebble. All told, there are likely to be many millions of pieces of debris in orbit, but most are so small they can’t be tracked.

These objects can travel at speeds of up to 28,163 km/h (17,500 mph), while the ISS orbits the Earth at a speed of 27,600 km/h (17,200 mph). As a result, a collision with one of these objects could be catastrophic to the ISS. That stations is naturally shielded to withstand impacts from tiny bits of debris and well as micro-meteoroids – and this shielding is divided between the Russian Orbital Segment and the US Orbital Segment.

On the USOS, the shielding consists of a thin aluminium sheet that is held apart from the hull. This sheet causes objects to shatter into a cloud before reaching the main hull, thereby spreading the kinetic energy of the impact. On the ROS, shielding takes the form of a carbon plastic honeycomb screen held, an aluminium honeycomb screen, and glass cloth, all of which are spaced over the hull.

The ROS’ shielding is less likely to be punctured, hence why the crew move to the ROS whenever a more serious threat presents itself. But when faced with the possibility of an impact from a larger object that is being tracked, the station performs what is known as a Debris Avoidance Manoeuvre (DAM). In this event, the thrusters on the Russian Orbital Segment fire in order to alter the station’s orbital altitude, thus avoiding the debris.

Future of the ISS:


We have written many interesting articles about the ISS here at Universe Today. Here’s International Space Station Achieves 15 Years of Continuous Human Presence in Orbit, Beginner’s Guide to Seeing the International Space Station, Take a Virtual 3-D Spacewalk Outside the International Space Station, International Space Station Viewing and Space Station Pictures.

For more information, check out the NASA Reference Guide to the ISS and this article about the 10th anniversary of the space station.

Astronomy Cast also has relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Questions: An Unlocked Moon, Energy Into Black Holes, and the Space Station’s Orbit, and Episode 298: Space Stations, Part 3 – International Space Station.


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Venus Rules the Dusk Skies at Greatest Elongation

Venus Rules the Dusk Skies at Greatest Elongation

Venus at dusk

Venus, Mars, and the waxing crescent Moon at dusk from the evening of January 3rd, 2017. Image credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.

“What’s that bright light in the sky?” The planet Venus never fails to impress, and indeed makes even seasoned observers look twice at its unexpected brilliance. The third brightest natural object in the sky, Venus now rules the dusk, a fine sight for wintertime evening commuters. Venus reaches greatest elongation tomorrow, a excellent time to admire this dazzling but shrouded world of mystery.

Venus at greatest elongation

Only the two planets interior to Earth’s orbit – Mercury and Venus – can reach a point known as greatest elongation from the Sun. As the name suggests, this is simply the point at which either planet appears to be at its maximum angular distance from the Sun. Think of a big right triangle in space, with Venus or Mercury at the right angle vertex, and the Sun and Earth at the other two corners. High school geometry can come in handy!

Venus elongation

Venus at greatest elongation (planets and orbits not to scale). Credit: Dave Dickinson

This Thursday on January 12th Venus reaches a maximum of 47 degrees elongation from the Sun at 11:00 Universal Time (UT) / 6:00 AM Eastern Standard Time, shining at magnitude -4.4. The maximum/minimum elongation for Venus that can occur is 47.3 to 45.4 degrees respectively, and this week’s is the widest until 2025.

Here’s some key dates to watch out for:

Jan 12th: Venus passes less than a degree from Neptune.

Jan 14th: Venus reaches theoretical dichotomy?

Jan 14th: Venus passes 3′ from +3.7 the magnitude star Lambda Aquarii.

Jan 17th: Venus crosses the ecliptic plane northward.

Venus and Mars reach ‘quasi-conjunction’ in late January.

January 30th: Venus crosses the celestial equator northward.

January 31st: The Moon passes 4 degrees south of Venus, and the two also form a nice equilateral triangle with Mars on the same date.

Looking west on the evening of January 31st, 2017. Image credit: Stellarium.

February 17th: Venus reaches a maximum brilliancy of magnitude -4.6.

March 26th: Solar conjunction for Venus occurs eight degrees north of the Sun … it is possible to spy Venus at solar conjunction from high northern latitudes, just be sure to block out the Sun.

Through the telescope, Venus displays a tiny 24.4” size half phase right around greatest elongation. You could stack 74 Venuses across the diameter of tomorrow’s Full Moon. When does Venus look to reach an exact half phase to you? This point, known as theoretical dichotomy, is often off by just a few days. This is a curious observed phenomenon, first noted by German amateur astronomer Johann Schröter in 1793. The effect now bears his name. A result of atmospheric refraction along the day/terminator on Venus, or an optical illusion?

Gibbous Venus

Almost there… a waning gibbous Venus from the evening of January 5th, 2017. Image credit and copyright: Shahrin Ahmad (@Shahgazer)

And hey, amateurs are now using ultraviolet filters to get actual detail on the cloud-tops of Venus… we like to use a variable polarizing filter to cut down the dazzling glare of Venus a bit at the eyepiece.

Also, keep an eye out for another strange phenomenon, known as the Ashen Light of Venus. Now,ashen light or Earthshine is readily apparent on dark side of the Moon, owing to the presence of a large sunlight reflector nearby, namely the Earth. Venus has no such large partner, though astronomers in the early age of telescopic astronomy claimed to have spied a moon of Venus, and even went as far as naming it Neith. An optical illusion? Or real evidence of Venusian sky glow on its nighttime side? After tomorrow, Venus will begin heading between the Earth and the Sun, becoming a slender crescent in the process. Solar conjunction occurs on March 25th, 2017. Venus sits just eight degrees north of the Sun on this date, and viewers in high Arctic latitudes might just be able to spy Venus above the horizon before sunrise on the day of solar conjunction. We performed a similar feat of visual athletics on the morning of January 16th, 1998 observing from North Pole, Alaska.

Venus as seen from Fairbanks, Alaska on the morning of solar conjunction, 2017. Image credit: Starry Night.

From there, Venus heads towards a fine dawn elongation on June 3rd, 2017. All of these events and more are detailed in our free e-book: 101 Astronomical Events for 2017.

Spying Venus in the Daytime

Did you know: you can actually see Venus in the daytime, if you know exactly where to look for it? A deep blue, high contrast sky is the key, and a nearby crescent Moon is handy in your daytime quest. Strange but true fact: Venus is actually brighter than the Moon per square arc second, with a shiny albedo of 70% versus the Moon’s paltry 12%. But Venus is tiny, and hard to spot against the blue daytime sky… until you catch sight of it.

The Moon passing Venus on January 31st, 2017 in the daytime sky. Image credit: Stellarium.

There’s another reason to brave the January cold for northern hemisphere residents: Venus can indeed cast a shadow if you look carefully for it. You’ll need to be away from any other light sources (including the Moon, which passes Full tomorrow as well with the first Full Moon of 2017, known as a Full Wolf Moon). And a high contrast surface such as freshly fallen snow can help… a short time exposure shot can even bring the shadow cast by Venus into focus.

If you follow Venus long enough, you’ll notice a pattern, as it visits very nearly the the same sky environs every eight years and traces out approximately the same path in the dawn and dusk sky. There’s a reason for this: 8 Earth years (8x 365.25 = 2922 days) very nearly equals 5 the synodic periods for Venus (2922/5=584 days, the number of days it takes Venus to return to roughly the same point with respect to the starry background, separate from its true orbit around the Sun of 225 days). For example, Venus last crossed the Pleiades star cluster in 2012, and will do so again in – you guessed it — in 2020. Unfortunately, this pattern isn’t precise, and Venus won’t also transit the Sun again in 2020 like it did in 2012. You’ll have to wait until one century from this year on December 10-11th, 2117 to see that celestial spectacle again….

Hopefully, we’ll have perfected that whole Futurama head-in-a-jar thing by then.

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Confirmed: We Really are ‘Star Stuff’

Confirmed: We Really are ‘Star Stuff’

Scientist Carl Sagan said many times that “we are star stuff,” from the nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, and the iron in our blood.

It is well known that most of the essential elements of life are truly made in the stars. Called the “CHNOPS elements” – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur – these are the building blocks of all life on Earth. Astronomers have now measured of all of the CHNOPS elements in 150,000 stars across the Milky Way, the first time such a large number of stars have been analyzed for these elements.

“For the first time, we can now study the distribution of elements across our Galaxy,” says Sten Hasselquist of New Mexico State University. “The elements we measure include the atoms that make up 97% of the mass of the human body.”

Astronomers with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey made their observations with the APOGEE (Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment) spectrograph on the 2.5m Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. This instrument looks in the near-infrared to reveal signatures of different elements in the atmospheres of stars.

Quote from Carl Sage. Credit: Pinterest

While the observations were used to create a new catalog that is helping astronomers gain a new understanding of the history and structure of our galaxy, the findings also “demonstrates a clear human connection to the skies,” said the team.

While humans are 65% oxygen by mass, oxygen makes up less than 1% of the mass of all of elements in space. Stars are mostly hydrogen, but small amounts of heavier elements such as oxygen can be detected in the spectra of stars. With these new results, APOGEE has found more of these heavier elements in the inner part of the galaxy. Stars in the inner galaxy are also older, so this means more of the elements of life were synthesized earlier in the inner parts of the galaxy than in the outer parts.

So what does that mean for those of us out on the outer edges of one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms, about 25,000 light-years from the center of the galaxy?

“I think it’s hard to say what the specific implications are for when life could arise,” said team member Jon Holtzman, also from New Mexico State, in an email to Universe Today. “We measure typical abundance of CHNOPS elements at different locations, but it’s not so easy to determine at any given location the time history of the CHNOPS abundances, because it’s hard to measure ages of stars. On top of that, we don’t know what the minimum amount of CHNOPS would need to be for life to arise, especially since we don’t really know how that happens in any detail!”

Holtzman added it is likely that, if there is a minimum required abundance, that minimum was probably reached earlier in the inner parts of the Galaxy than where we are.

The team also said that while it’s fun to speculate how the composition of the inner Milky Way Galaxy might impact how life might arise, the SDSS scientists are much better at understanding the formation of stars in our Galaxy.

“These data will be useful to make progress on understanding Galactic evolution,” said team member Jon Bird of Vanderbilt University, “as more and more detailed simulations of the formation of our galaxy are being made, requiring more complex data for comparison.”

Sloan Foundation 2.5m Telescope at Apache Point Observatory. Credit: SDSS.

“It’s a great human interest story that we are now able to map the abundance of all of the major elements found in the human body across hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky Way,” said Jennifer Johnson of The Ohio State University. “This allows us to place constraints on when and where in our galaxy life had the required elements to evolve, a sort ‘temporal Galactic habitable zone’”.

The catalog is available at the SDSS website, so take a look for yourself at the chemical abundances in our portion of the galaxy.

Source: SDSS

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