from the world's big
After a decade of failed attempts, scientists successfully bounced photons off of a reflector aboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, some 240,000 miles from Earth.
- Laser experiments can reveal precisely how far away an object is from Earth.
- For years scientists have been bouncing light off of reflectors on the lunar surface that were installed during the Apollo era, but these reflectors have become less efficient over time.
- The recent success could reveal the cause of the degradation, and also lead to new discoveries about the Moon's evolution.
A close-up photograph of the laser reflecting panel deployed by Apollo 14 astronauts on the Moon in 1971.
NASA<p>The technology isn't quite new. During the Apollo era, astronauts installed on the lunar surface five reflecting panels, each containing at least 100 mirrors that reflect back to whichever direction it's coming from. By bouncing light off these panels, scientists have been able to learn, for example, that the Moon is drifting away from Earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches per year.<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Now that we've been collecting data for 50 years, we can see trends that we wouldn't have been able to see otherwise," Erwan Mazarico, a planetary scientist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/laser-beams-reflected-between-earth-and-moon-boost-science" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">said</a>. "Laser-ranging science is a long game."</p>
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)
NASA<p>But the long game poses a problem: Over time, the panels on the Moon have become less efficient at bouncing light back to Earth. Some scientists suspect it's because dust, kicked up by micrometeorites, has settled on the surface of the panels, causing them to overheat. And if that's the case, scientists need to know for sure.</p><p>That's where the recent LRO laser experiment comes in. If scientists find discrepancies between the data sent back by the LRO reflector and those on the lunar surface, it could reveal what's causing the lunar reflectors to become less efficient. They could then account for these discrepancies in their models.</p>
Studying the Moon's core<p>More precise laser experiments could also help scientists learn more about the moon's core. By measuring tiny wobbles as the Moon rotates, past laser experiments revealed that the satellite has a fluid core. But inside of that fluid could lie a solid core — one that might've helped to generate the Moon's now-extinct magnetic field.</p><p>However, confirming that hypothesis will require more precise measurements — and the continued success of laser experiments involving the LRO, or reflecting panels installed on the Moon during future missions.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The precision of this one measurement has the potential to refine our understanding of gravity and the evolution of the solar system," <a href="https://science.gsfc.nasa.gov/sed/bio/xiaoli.sun-1" target="_blank">Xiaoli Sun</a>, a Goddard planetary scientist who helped design LRO's reflector, told NASA.</p>
Some of the most extreme weather in the Solar System just got stranger.
- The Juno space probe orbiting Jupiter has observed lightning at impossibly high points in the Jovian atmosphere.
- The findings, combined with other atmopsheric data, led to the creation of a new model of the atmosphere.
- The findings answer a few questions about Jupiter, but create many more.
A NASA designed graphic demonstrating the weather systems theorized to create "mushballs." The liquid water and ammonia rises in the storm clouds until they reach points where the extremely low temperatures cause them to freeze. Freezing into semi-solid "mushballs" causes them to fall where they redistribute ammonia throughout the lower atmosphere.
How can we possibly know all of this?<p>Juno relies on several pieces of equipment. The most relevant in this case is the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microwave_Radiometer_(Juno)" target="_blank">microwave radiometer</a>. This device uses microwaves to measure the Jovian atmosphere's composition. When microwaves hit water or ammonia particles, they begin to heat up. By hitting the planet with microwaves and then looking for changes in the particles' observed temperature, the probe can determine what chemicals are present.</p><p>The findings of these studies demonstrate that Jupiter's atmosphere is more complicated than previously thought. Given how we already knew about the storms larger than <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Red_Spot" target="_blank">Earth</a>, temperatures that swing between extremes in different layers of the atmosphere, and winds that blow at 100 meters per <a href="http://www.lpl.arizona.edu/~showman/publications/ingersolletal-2004.pdf" target="_blank">second</a>, that is saying something.</p>
The meteorites suggest astronomers may have small, early planets wrong.
- A group of meteorites that have come down all over the Earth have something in common.
- They all come from one early-universe baby planet, or planetesimal.
- That planetesimal was apparently not what astronomers expected.
Astronomers believe that before planets formed, there were lots of mini-planets, or planetesimals, many of which eventually broke apart — they're believed to be the source of meteorites that strike Earth. According to a recent study, a group of meteorites all around the globe may have come from the very same planetesimal. Not only is that a bit weird, but the evidence suggests that this former baby planet was not what scientists thought a planetesimal could be.
The research, "Meteorite evidence for partial differentiation and protracted accretion of planetesimals," was partially funded by NASA and is published in Science Advances.
Image source: Maria Starovoytova/Shutterstock
It's believed that planetesimals are formed out of the swirling mass of gas and dust that was our universe roughly 4.5 billion years ago. As the universe cooled, bits began to crash into each other, forming these small bodies in less than a few million years.
Early planetesimals, forming in the first 1.5 billion years of our solar system, would have pulled in radiogenic materials from the hot universe. This material gave off heat as it decayed, and so the cosmic rubble comprising these planetesimals was melted into a relatively homogeneous chondritic (melted) mass. Radiogenic materials would be less available to planetesimals formed later, and their rubble, though merged into a planetesimal, would be unmelted, or achondritic.
There may have been planetesimals that formed in the middle period. The study notes, "This could have resulted in partially differentiated internal structures, with individual bodies containing iron cores, achondritic silicate mantles, and chondritic crusts." However, there's been little evidence of such "intermediate" planetesimals.
Until now, it's been basically a binary proposition: melted or unmelted. Which gets us to the family of meteorites.
Image source: Carl Agee, Institute of Meteoritics, University of New Mexico/MIT News
When meteorites are found and studied, the type of planetesimal from which they came is usually clear: melted or unmelted. Not so for a family of meteorites called the "IIE irons." (IIE is their chemical type.)
As study co-author Benjamin Weiss of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) explains, "These IIE irons are oddball meteorites. They show both evidence of being from primordial objects that never melted, and also evidence for coming from a body that's completely or at least substantially melted. We haven't known where to put them, and that's what made us zero in on them."
Researchers had previously established that all of these IIE iron outliers — which themselves can be either achondritic or chondritic — came from the same planetesimal, and that raises some intriguing questions.
As study lead author Clara Maurel, a grad student at EAPS, puts it, "This is one example of a planetesimal that must have had melted and unmelted layers." Did that baby planet perhaps have a solid crust over a liquid mantle? "[The IIE irons encourage] searches for more evidence of composite planetary structures," she says. "Understanding the full spectrum of structures, from nonmelted to fully melted, is key to deciphering how planetesimals formed in the early solar system."
Back to the planetesimal
Image source: Maurel, et al
"Did this object melt enough that material sank to the center and formed a metallic core like that of the Earth? That was the missing piece to the story of these meteorites," said Maurel.
If that was the case, the scientists reasoned, might not such a core generate a magnetic field in the same way that Earth's core does? Some minerals in the planetesimal might have become oriented in the direction of the field, similarly to the way a compass works. And if all that's the case, those same minerals in the IIE irons might still retain that orientation.
The researchers acquired two of the IIE iron meteorites, named Colomera and Techado, in which they detected iron-nickel minerals known for their ability to retain magnetic properties.
The team took their meteorites to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for analysis using the lab's Advanced Light Source, which can detect minerals' magnetic direction using X-rays that interact with their grains.
The electrons in both IIE irons were pointed in the same direction, providing additional confirmation of their common source and suggesting their planetesimal indeed had a magnetic field roughly equivalent in size to the Earth's.
The simplest explanation for the effect was that the planetesimal had a liquid metallic core that would have been "several tens of kilometers wide." This implication suggests that previous assumptions regarding the speedy formation of planetesimals is wrong. This planetesimal must have formed over the course of several million years.
Back to the IIE irons
Cooling profiles of a partially differentiated IIE parent body.
Image source: Maurel, et al
All of this got the researchers wondering where in this surprisingly complex planetesimal the meteorites might have come from. They partnered with scientists from the University of Chicago to develop models of how this all might have gone down.
Maurel's team came to suspect that after the planetesimal cooled down and imprinted the magnetic field on the minerals, collisions with other bodies tore them away. She hypothesizes, "As the body cools, the meteorites in these pockets will imprint this magnetic field in their minerals. At some point, the magnetic field will decay, but the imprint will remain. Later on, this body is going to undergo a lot of other collisions until the ultimate collisions that will place these meteorites on Earth's trajectory."
It is unknown whether the planetesimal that produced the IIR irons was unusual, or if its history is typical for planetesimals. If so, the simple melted/unmelted dichotomy needs to be reconsidered.
"Most bodies in the asteroid belt appear unmelted on their surface. If we're eventually able to see inside asteroids," says Weiss, "we might test this idea. Maybe some asteroids are melted inside, and bodies like this planetesimal are actually common."
A recent study tested how well the fungi species Cladosporium sphaerospermum blocked cosmic radiation aboard the International Space Station.
- Radiation is one of the biggest threats to astronauts' safety during long-term missions.
- C. sphaerospermum is known to thrive in high-radiation environments through a process called radiosynthesis.
- The results of the study suggest that a thin layer of the fungus could serve as an effective shield against cosmic radiation for astronauts.
Shunk et al.<p>Additionally, the fungus is self-replicating, meaning astronauts would potentially be able to "grow" new radiation shielding on deep-space missions, instead of having to rely on a costly and complicated interplanetary supply chain.</p><p>Still, the researchers weren't sure whether <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would survive on the space station. Nils J.H. Averesch, a co-author of the <a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.16.205534v1.full.pdf" target="_blank">study published on the preprint server bioRxiv</a>, told <a href="https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/fungus-that-eats-radiation-could-be-cosmic-ray-shield" target="_blank">SYFY WIRE</a>:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While on Earth, most sources of radiation are gamma- and/or X-rays; radiation in space and on Mars (also known as GCR or galactic cosmic radiation) is of a completely different kind and involves highly energetic particles, mostly protons. This radiation is even more destructive than X- and gamma-rays, so not even survival of the fungus on the ISS was a given."</p>
International Space Station
NASA<p>To be sure, the researchers said more research is needed, and that <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would likely be used in combination with other radiation-shielding technology aboard spacecraft. But the findings highlight how relatively simple biotechnologies may offer outsized benefits on upcoming space missions.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond," the researchers wrote.</p>
America's Space Force has acquired a horse for an important mission.
- U.S. Space Force has acquired a new horse named Ghost.
- The horse is part of the Conservation Military Working Horse program.
- The horses help patrol a large territory, supporting threatened species.