About 17,000 Big Near-Earth Asteroids Remain Undetected: How NASA Could Spot Them

Dangerous Asteroid Headed for Earth

An artist’s illustration of a dangerous asteroid headed for Earth.(Image: © European Space Agency)

Humanity needs to step up its asteroid-hunting game.

To date, astronomers have spotted more than 8,000 near-Earth asteroids that are at least 460 feet (140 meters) wide — big enough to wipe out an entire state if they were to line up our planet in their crosshairs. That sounds like good progress, until you consider that it’s only about one-third of the 25,000 such space rocks that are thought to zoom around in Earth’s neighborhood.

“There’s still two-thirds of this population out there to be found,” Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said during a presentation last week with the agency’s Future In-Space Operations working group. “So, we have a ways to go.” [In Pictures: Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]

A near-Earth object (NEO) is anything that comes within about 30 million miles (50 million kilometers) of our planet’s orbit. The overall NEO population is almost incomprehensibly large; there are likely tens of millions of such space rocks between 33 feet and 65 feet (10 to 20 meters) in diameter, Johnson said.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEHow Near-Earth Asteroids Are Spotted by NASAVolume 0%

Asteroids of this relatively small size can cause damage on a local scale. For example, the object that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February 2013, smashing thousands of windows and wounding more than 1,200 people, measured about 62 feet (19 m) across, scientists have said.

But the really worrisome asteroids are the big ones. So, in the 1990s, Congress directed NASA to find 90 percent of the NEOs that are at least 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) in diameter — a mandate the space agency fulfilled in 2010. Currently, 887 of these mountain-size space rocks are known, and perhaps just 50 or so are left to be discovered, Johnson said. (None of the cataloged behemoths pose a threat to Earth for the foreseeable future.)

In 2005, NASA got some further instructions from lawmakers: Spot 90 percent of all NEOs 460 feet and larger by the end of 2020. It’s clear at this point that the agency will not meet that ambitious deadline. And getting such a detailed handle on the NEO population will require the launch of a dedicated asteroid-hunting space mission, according to a& NASA-commissioned study that was published in September 2017.

The space telescope for such a mission would ideally set up shop at the sun-Earth Lagrange point 1, a gravitationally stable spot about 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from our planet, and scan the heavens in infrared light using a telescope at least 1.6 feet (0.5 m) wide, the study found. Such a mission’s observations, combined with the contributions of ground-based telescopes, could probably bag the required number of 460-footers in a decade, Johnson said.

Earth Causes Asteroid-Quakes

NASA is already working on such a space project — a concept mission called the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam). NEOCam was one of five finalists for the next launch opportunity in NASA’s Discovery Program, which funds relatively low-cost and highly focused missions. NEOCam ended up missing out on that slot — NASA picked two other asteroid-studying missions, called Lucy and Psyche — but it did get another year’s worth of funding.

There’s still hope that NEOCam will fly someday, Johnson said.

“We have taken it over into the Planetary Defense Program,” he said. “All we are [lacking is] the entire budget to be able to put a mission like this — a space-based survey capability, which is highly recommended and very necessary for our future capabilities — into development.” [Photos: Asteroids in Deep Space]

A viable planetary-defense plan requires more than just asteroid detection, of course; humanity also needs to be able to deflect any dangerous space rocks that are headed our way. 

An artist's illustration of the proposed NEOCam spacecraft, which would hunt for asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.
An artist’s illustration of the proposed NEOCam spacecraft, which would hunt for asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.

NASA and its partners around the world are working on potential solutions to this problem as well. For example, NASA aims to launch a mission called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) in 2020. If all goes according to plan, in October 2022, DART will slam into the 500-foot-wide (150 m) moon of the asteroid (65803) Didymos, which itself measures about 2,600 feet (800 m) across. This impact will change the orbit of “Didymoon” in ways that Earth-based telescopes should be able to detect, NASA officials have said. 

DART will be a demonstration of the “kinetic impactor” deflection strategy. NASA had also planned to test the “gravity tractor” technique — using a fly-along probe to gradually nudge an asteroid off course via gravitational forces — in the coming years as a part of the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). But the White House zeroed out funding for ARM in last year’s federal budget request, and that mission is no more.

There’s one more possible way to knock out an incoming asteroid, and it was made famous by the 1998 movie “Armageddon.” Blasting a space rock apart with a nukewouldn’t be the first choice of most scientists or policymakers, but such an extreme measure may be the only way to deal with a big space rock detected with little lead time. (And this would be a robotic mission, by the way; you wouldn’t need a space cowboy like Bruce Willis to get the job done.)

Such preparatory work shouldn’t unduly alarm the public, Johnson stressed; the odds that a big asteroid will strike Earth are very low on a day-to-day basis.  

“These are very rare events,” he said. “But they’re also an event that, if we don’t find this population, can happen any day on us.” 

Einstein’s Gravitational Lenses Could Clear Up Roiling Debate on Expanding Cosmos

In this Hubble Space Telescope view of the distant quasar RXJ1131-1231, a foreground galaxy smears the image of the background quasar into a bright arc (left) and creates a total of four images — a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.

In this Hubble Space Telescope view of the distant quasar RXJ1131-1231, a foreground galaxy smears the image of the background quasar into a bright arc (left) and creates a total of four images — a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. 

Warps in the fabric of space-time can act like magnifying glasses, and that may help solve a cosmic mystery about the rate of the universe’s expansion, a new study found.

This research may one day lead to more-accurate models of the cosmos, which could shed light on the universe’s ultimate fate, the researchers said.

The universe has continued expanding since its birth, about 13.8 billion years ago. By measuring the present rate of cosmic expansion, known as the Hubble constant, scientists can try to learn the fate of the universe, such as whether it will expand forever, collapse upon itself or rip apart completely.

There are currently two primary strategies for measuring the Hubble constant. One involves monitoring nearby objects whose properties scientists understand well, such as stellar explosions known as supernovas and pulsating stars known as Cepheid variables, to estimate their distances. The other focuses on the cosmic microwave background, the leftover radiation from the Big Bang, examining how it has changed over time.

However, this pair of techniques has produced two different results for the value of the Hubble constant. Data from the cosmic microwave background suggests that the universe is expanding at a rate of about 41.9 miles (67.5 kilometers) per second per megaparsec (a distance equivalent to 3.26 million light-years). However, data from supernovas and Cepheids in the nearby universe suggests a rate of about 46 miles (74 km) per second per megaparsec.

This discrepancy suggests that the standard cosmological model — scientists’ current understanding of the universe’s structure and history — might be wrong. Resolving this debate, known as the Hubble constant conflict, could shed light on the evolution of the cosmos.Click here for more Space.com videos…Hubble’s Contentious ConstantVolume 0%

In the new study, an international team of researchers explored another way to measure the Hubble constant. This strategy depends on the definition of gravity, according to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, as the result of mass distorting space-time. The greater the mass of an object, the more that space-time curves around the object, and so the stronger the object’s gravitational pull is.

That means gravity can also bend light like a lens would, so objects seen through powerful gravitational fields, such as those produced by massive galaxies, are magnified. Gravitational lensing was discovered a century ago, and today, astronomers often use these lenses to see features otherwise too distant and faint to detect with even the largest telescopes.

The new research analyzes gravitational lenses to estimate their distances from Earth, data that could help researchers estimate the rate at which the universe has expanded over time.

Gravitational lenses occur when the light from a more distant galaxy or quasar is warped by the gravity of a nearer object in the line of sight from Earth, as shown in this diagram.
Gravitational lenses occur when the light from a more distant galaxy or quasar is warped by the gravity of a nearer object in the line of sight from Earth, as shown in this diagram.

“The new method has great potential to provide a unique perspective in measuring the Hubble constant,” study lead author Inh Jee, formerly an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, told Space.com.

One key to estimating the distance of a gravitational lens from Earth depends on an odd feature of gravitational lensing: It often produces multiple images of lensed objects surrounding the lens, resulting in a so-called “Einstein cross.” Because the light that creates these images takes routes of different lengths around the lens, any variation in the brightness of a lensed object will be visible in some of the images before the others. The greater the mass of the lens, the greater the bending of light, and thus the bigger the time difference between observations of the images. Scientists can use these details to estimate the strength of the gravitational field of the lens and thus its mass. 

That mass can then feed into calculations used to estimate distance. But scientists first need an additional key measurement.

This Hubble Space Telescope image, known as the “Einstein Cross,” shows four images of a distant quasar which has been multiplied by a nearby galaxy acting as a gravitational lens.
This Hubble Space Telescope image, known as the “Einstein Cross,” shows four images of a distant quasar which has been multiplied by a nearby galaxy acting as a gravitational lens. 

The other key to estimating the distance of a gravitational lensing galaxy from Earth involves analyzing the positions and velocities of stars within the lens. When these details are combined with estimates of the mass and strength of the gravitational field of the lensing galaxy, scientists can estimate the actual diameter of the lensing galaxy.

They can then compare the actual diameter of a lensing galaxy with its apparent diameter as seen from Earth. The difference between these values can help researchers estimate how far a galaxy of a given size must be in order to appear the size that it does from Earth.

The researchers applied this technique to two gravitational lensing systems. In their results, the scientists reached a Hubble constant with a value of about 51.2 miles (82.4 km) per second per megaparsec. Although this value is higher than both of the more-established values for the Hubble constant, Jee noted that there are still high levels of uncertainty with this method. With more data leading to greater certainty, this technique might end up favoring one or the other established value, or it might indeed lead to a different third value, she said.

“Since this is a new method with large uncertainties, we have a lot of room to improve the measurement,” Jee said. “For the method to provide a competitive level of precision to other methods, we need better measurements of the motions of stars in lens galaxies.”

This new technique offers a potential advantage compared to strategies that seek to measure the Hubble constant based on the cosmic microwave background: The latter rely heavily on one of several competing cosmological models used to predict the evolution of the universe over time, while this new method does not, Jee said. Compared to strategies that seek to measure the Hubble constant based on nearby supernovas and Cepheid variables, this method offers another advantage: In those strategies, measurements of distances to nearby objects may be off if the nearby environment differs significantly from the more-distant universe, she added.

“We will have dozens of new lens systems in the near future that will allow us to reduce substantially our measurement uncertainty,” study co-author Sherry Suyu at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, told Space.com.

Jee, Suyu and their colleagues detailed their findings in the Sept. 13 issue of the journal Science.

Remembering 9/11: NASA Astronauts Pay Tribute from Space

A New York City Fire Department patch floats in the Cupola window of the International Space Station on the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

A New York City Fire Department patch floats in the Cupola window of the International Space Station on the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. (Image: © NASA)

On the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, NASA astronauts paid tribute to the heroes who risked their lives to save others on that day by tweeting a special message from space.

“Honoring the brave public servants of @FDNY. Thank you for your service, we remember your fallen comrades,” NASA’s Expedition 60 astronaut Drew Morgan tweeted from the International Space Station. “Your flag and patch are proudly orbiting the Earth on board the @Space_Station! #NeverForget.”

Morgan shared photos of a New York City Fire Department (FDNY) patch floating in the Cupola window with a view of Earth in the background, as well as a photo of himself with an FDNY flag mounted inside the orbiting laboratory. 

Video: Astronaut Shares What 9/11 Looked Like from Space
Related: 9/11 Remembered in Space Photos

Honoring the brave public servants of @FDNY. Thank you for your service, we remember your fallen comrades. Your flag and patch are proudly orbiting the Earth on board the @Space_Station! #NeverForget

View image on Twitter
View image on Twitter

NASA also commemorated the somber anniversary from down on Earth by sharing a recent photo of Manhattan captured from space. NASA astronaut Christina Koch captured the photo below from the International Space Station as it passed over the area on Aug. 19, 2019.

“Each year, we pause and never forget,” NASA officials said in a statement. “Beyond remembering and honoring the Americans who died that day, NASA also assisted FEMA in New York in the days afterward, and remembered the victims by providing flags flown aboard the Space Shuttle to their families.”

Here’s Where India’s Chandrayaan-2 Will Land Near the Moon’s South Pole (and Why)

An artist's depiction of India's Chandrayaan-2 lander and rover on the surface of the moon, near its south pole.

An artist’s depiction of India’s Chandrayaan-2 lander and rover on the surface of the moon, near its south pole.(Image: © ISRO)

It doesn’t have a name, at least not yet. But in just a few days, if all goes well, it could become one of the most important places on the moon’s surface.

That spot is a highland that rises between two craters dubbed Manzinus C and Simpelius N. On a grid of the moon’s surface, it would fall at 70.9 degrees south latitude and 22.7 degrees east longitude. It’s about 375 miles (600 kilometers) from the south pole.

And it’s the preferred landing site for India’s moon mission, Chandrayaan-2, which is scheduled to touch down on Friday, Sept. 6, between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. EDT (Sept. 7, between 1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. local time at mission control in India). The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which oversees the mission, also has a backup site selected, at 67.7 degrees south latitude and 18.4 degrees west longitude.

Either way, if the landing goes smoothly, the site will become the southernmost spot on the moon to be visited by a spacecraft.

All of NASA’s Apollo landing sites, where astronauts explored the surface, are clustered near the equator on the near side, where it’s easiest and safest to land. That has skewed scientists’ understanding of the samples those astronauts brought back — it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether a characteristic appears in all the samples because it is universal in the moon’s surface or simply because it happens to prevail in this region.

Even China’s Chang’e-4 mission, which became the first spacecraft to touch down on the farside of the moon, did so at a latitude of about 45 degrees south.Click here for more Space.com videos…US, Russian and Potential Indian Moon Landing Sites Pinpointed in New AnimationVolume 0%

Choosing different lunar landing sites is important for science not solely in order to build a more complete picture of the moon’s geology: The south pole is particularly intriguing. That’s where instruments on board this mission’s predecessor, the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter, detected slabs of water ice buried in the always-shadowed craters near the moon’s south pole.

Chandrayaan-2 is designed to build on that detection, with a mission that cost $150 million, according to Science, the new outlet affiliated with the research journal of the same name. The current project added lander and rover vehicles to the second-generation orbiter.

These two vehicles will touch down just after dawn at the landing site, allowing them to work for about 14 days before the harsh lunar night freezes them. ISRO will attempt to revive the duo when the sun rises again, but the robots weren’t designed to survive the night.

The orbiter component of the mission will continue working for about a year, orbiting from pole to pole in order to augment the hoped-for discoveries of the lander and rover.

NASA’s Daring Solar Probe Is Skimming Past the Sun Today!

An artist's depiction of the Parker Solar Probe at work around the sun.

An artist’s depiction of the Parker Solar Probe at work around the sun.(Image: © NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

It’s an extra-sunny Sunday for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is making its third close pass around the sun today (Sept. 1).

The spacecraft is designed to help scientists better understand the sun and, in particular, its outer atmosphere, called the corona. That atmosphere is millions of degrees, whether Fahrenheit or Celsius — much hotter than the visible surface of the star — and scientists can’t quite figure out where all that heat comes from.

So NASA built the Parker Solar Probe, which will make 24 daring dives into the corona by the end of its mission, in 2025. The spacecraft launched last August and has already completed two solar flybys. The third close encounter will come today around 1:50 p.m. EDT (1750 GMT).

For this third flyby, scientists were able to turn the probe’s instruments on earlier in the course of the maneuver. That’s thanks to unexpectedly high levels of data return from the spacecraft. Operators on the ground received data from the probe’s first two passes more quickly than expected and were able to gather additional observations during the second pass.

This time around, the instruments will be working for 35 days straight — three times as long as they did on the first two orbits. The longer observing window means that the probe will be taking measurements from about twice as far away from the visible surface of the sun. Scientists hope that extra data will help them crack enduring mysteries about the sun and how it affects the solar system.Click here for more Space.com videos…‘Touching’ the Sun with NASA’s Parker Solar ProbeVolume 0%

Each loop around the sun brings the spacecraft a bit deeper into the star’s atmosphere, giving the probe a more daring chance at science on every orbit. After today’s perihelion, as these close encounters are called, things will get even sunnier for the spacecraft.

The Parker Solar Probe’s next loop will include a maneuver around Venus that uses the hellish planet’s gravity to nudge the spacecraft closer into the sun, setting up the next perihelion for Jan. 29, 2020.

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Such a scenario may be inevitable in any theory of quantum gravity, a still-murky area of physics that seeks to combine Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity with the workings of quantum mechanics. In a new paper, scientists create a mashup of the two by imagining starships near an enormous planet whose mass slows time. They conclude that the starships could find themselves in a state where causation is reversed: One event could end up causing another event that happened before it.

“One can devise this kind of scenario where temporal order or cause and effect are in superposition of being reversed or not reversed,” said study co-author Igor Pikovski, a physicist at the Center for Quantum Science and Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. “This is something we expect should take place once we have a full theory of quantum gravity.”

Quantum time

The famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment asks a viewer to imagine a box holding a cat and a radioactive particle, which, once decayed, will kill the unfortunate feline. By the principle of quantum superposition, the cat’s survival or death is equally likely until measured — so until the box is opened, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. In quantum mechanics, superposition means that a particle can exist in multiple states at the same time, just like Schrödinger’s cat.

The new thought experiment, published Aug. 21 in the journal Nature Communications, combines the principle of quantum superposition with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. General relativity says that the mass of a giant object can slow down time. This is well established as true and measurable, Pikovski said; an astronaut orbiting Earth will experience time just a smidge faster than his or her twin back on the planet. (This is also why falling into a black hole would be a very gradual experience.)

Thus, if a futuristic spacecraft were near a massive planet, its crew would experience time as a little bit slower than would people in a fellow spacecraft stationed farther away. Now, throw in a little quantum mechanics, and you can imagine a situation in which that planet is superpositioned simultaneously near to and far away from the two spacecraft.

Time gets weird

In this superpositioned scenario of two ships experiencing time on different timelines, cause and effect could get wonky. For example, say the ships are asked to conduct a training mission in which they fire at each other and dodge each other’s fire, knowing full well the time the missiles will launch and intercept their positions. If there’s no massive planet nearby messing with time’s flow, this is a simple exercise. On the other hand, if that massive planet were present and the ship’s captain didn’t take the slowing of time into account, the crew might dodge too late and be destroyed.

With the planet in superposition, simultaneously near and far, it would be impossible to know whether the ships would dodge too late and destroy each other or whether they would move aside and survive. What’s more, cause and effect could be reversed, Pikovski said. Imagine two events, A and B, that are causally related.

“A and B can influence each other, but in one case A is before B, while in the other case B is before A” in a superposition state, Pikovski said. That means that both A and B are simultaneously the cause and effect of each other. Fortunately for the likely-confused crews of these imaginary spacecraft, Pikovski said, they would have a mathematical way to analyze each other’s transmissions to confirm that they were in a superpositioned state.

Obviously, in real life, planets don’t move around the galaxy willy-nilly. But the thought experiment could have practical implications for quantum computing, even without working out an entire theory of quantum gravity, Pikovski said. By using superpositions in computations, a quantum-computing system could simultaneously evaluate a process as a cause and as an effect.

“Quantum computers may be able to use this for more efficient computation,” he said.

Quantum gravity could reverse cause and effect

US Military Eyes Strategic Value of Earth-Moon Space

A potential framework for the use of lunar water ice and asteroid resources.

A potential framework for the use of lunar water ice and asteroid resources.(Image: © Aiden O’Leary/Jason Aspiotis/Booz Allen Hamilton)

This week, the new United States Space Command officially makes its debut, emphasizing that space is a vital military domain — one that’s critical to America’s security and economic well-being.

Standing up the command coincides with ongoing White House support to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch.

To this end, there is increasing military interest in cislunar space. That’s the region extending beyond Earth to the moon. Indeed, the protection of trade routes and lines of communication are traditional military responsibilities, and this will continue to be true as cislunar space becomes “high ground” — a position of advantage or superiority.

Phased approaches

At last June’s Space Resources Roundtable, held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, the military utility of phased approaches to tap lunar water iceand asteroid resources for propulsion and other applications was detailed.

Jason Aspiotis and Aiden O’Leary of Booz Allen Hamilton in Charlotte, North Carolina, presented a stimulating paper: “In-space Water Supply Chain Servicing the U.S. Military: A Preliminary Estimate of Future Potential U.S. Military Supply and Demand for In-space Water-Based Fuel.”

“It’s a preliminary first-look study to gauge the potential utility of in-space resources, specifically water in the context of U.S. military and intelligence assets,” Aspiotis told Space.com. 

“It adds a lot of capability in terms of more maneuverable assets. I think the high brass is definitely paying attention and starting to consider what it really means for their own strategic plans for the future,” he said.

It’s very important for the military to have diverse supply chains, added O’Leary, so that backups can carry the load in the event that any supply chain is cut off. “I believe it has tremendous value for them,” he said.

Earth's moon and cislunar space loom large in our future. What military and intelligence-gathering purposes will they serve?
Earth’s moon and cislunar space loom large in our future. What military and intelligence-gathering purposes will they serve? 

New focus

The U.S. military’s cislunar interest is interesting, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. 

It is the opinion of Johnson-Freese that cislunar seems to be a “new focus” for the Department of Defense. 

“It appears partly driven by the new, open U.S. push toward the weaponization of space … required because virtually everything China does in space is considered a threat — and bureaucratic politics,” she told Space.com. 

All bureaucracies need a purpose, Johnson-Freese said. “Apparently part of the ‘need’ is protecting U.S. economic/commercial space interests. It would be interesting to know if this protection was requested by commercial countries or merely anticipated,” she said.

China's Chang'e-4 farside mission uses its Magpie Bridge relay satellite at the Earth-Moon L2 halo orbit.
China’s Chang’e-4 farside mission uses its Magpie Bridge relay satellite at the Earth-Moon L2 halo orbit.

Strategically vital

Cislunar space is strategically vital because the exploitation of space resources can — and will — alter the balance of power on Earth.

That’s the view of Peter Garretson, an independent strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense. A retired Air Force officer, he was previously the director of Air University’s Space Horizons Research Task Force, America’s think tank for space.

“What is driving the U.S. military to look at cislunar is not some present tactical advantage,” Garretson said. “It is fear that China’s moves to cislunar space will provide it with a positional and logistic advantage from which it could occupy, constrict, threaten or coerce U.S. interests.”

Domain awareness

The military will need to articulate requirements, Garretson said, that include cislunar “domain awareness,” in-space refueling and the ability to make use of moon-derived propellant.

“Cislunar space offers a vast maneuver space that is difficult to surveil and from which surprises can then emerge, analogous to deep-sea submarine warfare. The People’s Republic of China’s military-run space program is positioning itself in cislunar space. We are behind, and we must catch up,” Garretson said. “Cislunar space is already the high ground, and the U.S. is already far behind China in its position and its planning.”

Is competition for key locations at the moon's poles and potential water ice inevitable? This image shows a two-person crew exploring a permanently shadowed crater at the lunar south pole. As an extractable resource, water ice can be processed into oxygen, water and rocket fuel.
Is competition for key locations at the moon’s poles and potential water ice inevitable? This image shows a two-person crew exploring a permanently shadowed crater at the lunar south pole. As an extractable resource, water ice can be processed into oxygen, water and rocket fuel.

Lunar industrialization 

Garretson said that China’s Chang’e-4 farside moon mission and the nation’s Magpie Bridge relay satellite at the Earth-moon L2 halo orbit are part of a well-conceived and cumulative plan.

“They have already put in place the first node in a broader communications architecture, and perhaps a cislunar space domain awareness system as well,” Garretson said. “Next comes sample return, polar landings and 3D printing of a ‘Lunar Palace’ with an industrial mission to make economic use of lunar resources.”

China is absolutely clear on its strategic intent in cislunar space, Garretson said.

“They intend to build an infrastructure to industrialize the moon, and use its resources and ideal location to build large numbers of solar-power satellites for their own energy supply and to service a $21 trillion energy market,” Garretson said. 

An industrial-logistical system of that magnitude, Garretson said, would obviously establish China as the dominant power. 

“Without an equivalent plan to industrialize the moon, the game is lost for the United States of America. We will find ourselves having lost without fighting … confronting a juggernaut with an industrial, logistical and maneuver advantage we cannot possibly match,” Garretson concluded.

India’s Chandrayaan-2 Spacecraft Scouts the Moon in New Lunar Photos

A view of the north polar region of the moon as seen by Chandrayaan-2 on Aug. 23, 2019.
A view of the north polar region of the moon as seen by Chandrayaan-2 on Aug. 23, 2019.

India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft is settling into orbit around the moon and has an incredible view as it waits to try to make history.

The spacecraft arrived in lunar orbit on Aug. 19 (Aug. 20 local time at the Indian Space Research Organisation‘s mission control) and is currently conducting a series of maneuvers to tweak that orbit in preparation for a landing attempt in less than two weeks.

As it does so, the spacecraft is capturing stunning images of the moon’s pitted surface, including a set taken on Aug. 23 by the vehicle’s Terrain Mapping Camera 2. Those images include one showing the lunar north pole, including Plaskett, Rozhdestvenskiy, Hermite, Sommerfeld and Kirkwood craters.

A second image shows a region of the far side’s northern hemisphere, including the Jackson, Mach, Mitra and Korolev craters.

Chandrayaan-2 is settling into an orbit sweeping between the poles of the moon. In about a week, the orbiter will separate from the rest of the mission and continue on this path for the next year or so. The probe is modeled on India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which carried the instrument that confirmed the presence of water ice in craters near the moon’s poles. 

A view of the far side of the moon captured by the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft on Aug. 23, 2019.
A view of the far side of the moon captured by the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft on Aug. 23, 2019. 

The lander portion of the spacecraft, with a rover tucked on board, will head toward the surface near the moon’s south pole, attempting India’s first soft lunar landing. If the maneuver is successful, the country will become just the fourth to have accomplished such a feat, after the Soviet Union, the U.S. and China.

Landing is scheduled for Sept. 6 (Sept. 7 at mission control).

Scientists are building a real-life version of the Starship Enterprise’s life scanner

The Starship Enterprise in the original 'Star Trek' series.

The Starship Enterprise in the original ‘Star Trek’ series. (AP)

When the crewmembers of the Starship Enterprise pull into orbit around a new planet, one of the first things they do is scan for life-forms. Here in the real world, researchers have long been trying to figure out how to unambiguously detect signs of life on distant exoplanets.

They are now one step closer to this goal, thanks to a new remote-sensing technique that relies on a quirk of biochemistry causing light to spiral in a particular direction and produce a fairly unmistakable signal. The method, described in a recent paper published in the journal Astrobiology, could be used aboard space-based observatories and help scientists learn if the universe contains living beings like ourselves.

In recent years, remote-life detection has become a topic of immense interest as astronomers have begun to capture light from planets orbiting other stars, which can be analyzed to determine what kind of chemicals those worlds contain. Researchers would like to figure out some indicator that could definitively tell them whether or not they are looking at a living biosphere.

For instance, the presence of excessive oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere might be a good hint that something is breathing on its surface. But there are plenty of ways that nonliving processes can generate oxygen molecules and trick remote observers into believing a world is teeming with life.

Therefore, some researchers have suggested looking for chains of organic molecules. These living chemicals come in two arrangements — a right-handed and a left-handed version that are like mirror-flipped images of each other. In the wild, nature produces equal amounts of these right- and left-handed molecules.

“Biology breaks this symmetry,” Frans Snik, an astronomer at Leiden University in the Netherlands and co-author of the new paper, told Live Science. “This is the difference between chemistry and biology.”

On Earth, living creatures select one molecular “hand” and stick with it. The amino acids that make up the proteins in your body are all left-handed versions of their respective molecules.

When light interacts with long chains of these different-handed arrangements, it becomes circularly polarized, meaning that its electromagnetic waves will travel in either clockwise or counterclockwise spirals. Inorganic molecules won’t generally impart this property to rays of light.

In previous work published online in the preprint journal arXiv, Snik and his colleagues looked at freshly picked English ivy leaves in their lab and watched as the chlorophyll (a green pigment) created circularly polarized light. As the leaves decayed, the circular polarization signal grew weaker and weaker, until it entirely disappeared.

The next step was to test the technique in the field, and so the researchers took an instrument that detects such polarity to the roof of their building at Leiden University and aimed it at a nearby sports field. They were perplexed to see no circularly polarized light, Snik said, until they realized that this was one of the few sports fields in the Netherlands using artificial grass. When the researchers aimed their detector at a forest a few miles away, the circularly polarized signal came through loud and clear.

The million-dollar question is whether or not organisms on another world would exhibit a similar favoritism for single-handed molecules, Snik said. He believes it is a fairly good bet, since carbon-based chemicals best fit together when they all share the same handedness.

His team is now designing an instrument that could be flown to the International Space Station and map the circular polarization signal of Earth to better understand how an analogous signature might look in the light of a distant planet.

That will be an extreme but worthwhile challenge, Edward Schwieterman, an astronomer and astrobiologist at the University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the work, told Live Science. Capturing an exoplanet’s light means blocking out the light from its parent star, which is usually around 10 billion times brighter, he added. If the world is alive, only a tiny fraction of its light will contain the circular polarization signal.

“The signal is small, but the level of ambiguity is also small,” Schwieterman said, making the method useful despite its difficulty.

Future enormous space-based telescopes, such as the Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor(LUVOIR) observatory, might be able to tease out this faint signature. LUVOIR is still just a concept, but would have a mirror diameter six times wider than the one in the Hubble Space Telescope and could probably fly in the mid-2030s, officials estimate.

Snik thinks the circular polarization technique could also be brought to bear closer to home, on an instrument flown to potentially habitable moons in the outer solar system such as Europa or Enceladus. By aiming such a detector at these frozen worlds, scientists might see the signal of living creatures.

“Maybe our first detection of extraterrestrial life will be in our backyard,” said Snik.

NASA to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa, which may hold life

NASA has officially confirmed a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a trek that could answer whether the icy celestial body could be habitable for humans and support life.

Known as the Europa Clipper mission, which was originally explored in 2017, the government space agency is now in the phase of completing the final design of the spacecraft that will visit the moon. From there, it will move on to construction and, ultimately, test the spacecraft and science payload.

“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “We are building upon the scientific insights received from the flagship Galileo and Cassini spacecraft and working to advance our understanding of our cosmic origin, and even life elsewhere.”

2018 study expressed concerns that Europa’s surface may be extremely porous, which could harm any probe that touches down on its surface.

The space agency said the purpose of the mission will be to investigate whether Europa, the sixth-largest of Jupiter’s 79 known moons, “could harbor conditions suitable for life, honing our insights into astrobiology.”

The conditions on Europa have been previously likened to exoplanet Barnard B, a “super-Earth” 30 trillion miles from Earth. It likely has a surface temperature of roughly 238 degrees below zero and may have oceans underneath its icy surface, according to a July 2018 statement from NASA.

It’s unclear what the oceans on Europa are made up of, but the Hubble Space Telescope detected the presence of sodium chloride (NaCl) on its surface, according to a study published in June.

“If this sodium chloride is really reflective of the internal composition, then [Europa’s ocean] might be more Earth-like than we used to think,” the study’s lead author, Samantha Trumbo, told Space.com.

NASA said its goal for the Europa Clipper mission is to launch as soon as 2023, but it added that its baseline commitment “supports a launch readiness date by 2025.”

Cause of mysterious methane spikes on Mars still unknown.

A few months after detecting an “unusually high” level of methane on Mars, researchers have yet to figure out what’s causing the spike. They have, however, ruled out one possibility and appear to be getting closer to answering whether life exists on other planets.

According to a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers from Newcastle University in the U.K. have ruled out that the spike could have been caused by wind erosion of rocks that had trapped the methane from fluid inclusions and fractures on the Red Planet’s surface.

“The questions are — where is this methane coming from, and is the source biological? That’s a massive question and to get to the answer we need to rule out lots of other factors first,” principal investigator Dr. Jon Telling said in a statement.

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle on Vera Rubin Ridge in Gale crater on Mars. North is on the left and west is on the right, with Gale crater’s rim on the horizon of both edges. This mosaic was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity’s Mars Hands Lens Imager (MAHLI). They were all taken on Jan. 23, 2018, during Sol 1943. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

On Earth, methane is produced both from biological and geological sources.

Telling added that over the last decade, winds on Mars have driven more sand movement than previously thought and that the erosions could be similar to those of sand dunes seen on Earth. Using the data they had, they found that wind erosion was not the source of the methane spikes and is coming from another source.

“What’s important about this is that it strengthens the argument that the methane must be coming from a different source,” Telling said. “Whether or not that’s biological, we still don’t know.”

Methane was first detected in the Martian atmosphere in 2003, but the recent spike in levels discovered by NASA’s Curiosity rover has perplexed researchers. In June, the space agency confirmed the rover measured the largest level of methane, 21 parts per billion units by volume, since landing on the Red Planet on Aug. 6, 2012.

The New York Times reported in June that sunlight and chemical reactions would break up any methane in Mars’ thin air “within a few centuries,” adding that the newly-detected spike was likely released recently.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Emmal Safi, noted that although the new research is “just a little part of a much bigger story,” he hopes it leads scientists to the answer of whether life exists on other planets.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to discover is if there’s the possibility of life existing on planets other than our own, either living now or maybe life in the past that is now preserved as fossils or chemical signatures,” Safi said.

The Mars methane spike has surprised experts. Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard laboratory to “sniff” methane in the Martian atmosphere 12 times over a 20-month period that ended in 2014.

“During two of those months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion,” said NASA in a 2014 statement. “Before and after that, readings averaged only one-tenth that level.”

Sudden spikes of methane also have been recorded, but scientists don’t know how long these “transient plumes” last or why they differ from seasonal patterns.

NASA finds evidence of ‘interplanetary shock’ for first time

NASA has captured a phenomenon in space that has eluded humanity for centuries — an “interplanetary shock.”

Four spacecraft from the space agency, which are part of the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS) that launched in 2015, managed to get a view of the event in January 2018. The craft were just 12 miles away from one another, which made seeing the spectacle possible.

“MMS was able to measure the shock thanks to its unprecedentedly fast and high-resolution instruments. One of the instruments aboard MMS is the Fast Plasma Investigation,” the space agency said in a statement on its website. “This suite of instruments can measure ions and electrons around the spacecraft at up to 6 times per second. Since the speeding shock waves can pass the spacecraft in just half a second, this high-speed sampling is essential to catching the shock.”

Data from the Fast Plasma Investigation aboard MMS shows the shock and reflected ions as they washed over MMS. The colors represent the amount of ions seen with warmer colors indicating higher numbers of ions. The reflected ions (yellow band that appears just above the middle of the figure) show up midway through the animation, and can be seen increasing in intensity (warmer colors) as they pass MMS, shown as a white dot. (Credit: Ian Cohen)

Data from the Fast Plasma Investigation aboard MMS shows the shock and reflected ions as they washed over MMS. The colors represent the amount of ions seen with warmer colors indicating higher numbers of ions. The reflected ions (yellow band that appears just above the middle of the figure) show up midway through the animation, and can be seen increasing in intensity (warmer colors) as they pass MMS, shown as a white dot. (Credit: Ian Cohen)

NASA continued: “Looking at the data from Jan. 8, the scientists noticed a clump of ions from the solar wind. Shortly after, they saw a second clump of ions, created by ions already in the area that had bounced off the shock as it passed by. Analyzing this second population, the scientists found evidence to support a theory of energy transfer first posed in the 1980s.”

An interplanetary shock, which emanates from the Sun, is a type of “collisionless shock,” where particles transfer energy through electromagnetic fields as opposed to bouncing into one another, NASA added.

“These collisionless shocks are a phenomenon found throughout the universe, including in supernovae, black holes and distant stars. MMS studies collisionless shocks around Earth to gain a greater understanding of shocks across the universe,” the space agency continued.

The researchers behind the observation hope that additional instances are spotted by the MMS that will give them more detailed looks at these interplanetary shocks.

NASA has released a video describing the charged particles, also known as the solar wind, in greater detail.

The research describing the find was published in the journal JGR Space Physics.

Mysterious, Ancient Radio Signals Keep Pelting Earth. Astronomers Designed an AI to Hunt Them Down.

Sudden shrieks of radio waves from deep space keep slamming into radio telescopes on Earth, spattering those instruments’ detectors with confusing data. And now, astronomers are using artificial intelligence to pinpoint the source of the shrieks, in the hope of explaining what’s sending them to Earth from — researchers suspect — billions of light-years across space.

Usually, these weird, unexplained signals are detected only after the fact, when astronomers notice out-of-place spikes in their data — sometimes years after the incident. The signals have complex, mysterious structures, patterns of peaks and valleys in radio waves that play out in just milliseconds. That’s not the sort of signal astronomers expect to come from a simple explosion, or any other one of the standard events known to scatter spikes of electromagnetic energy across space. Astronomers call these strange signals fast radio bursts (FRBs). Ever since the first one was uncovered in 2007, using data recorded in 2001, there’s been an ongoing effort to pin down their source. But FRBs arrive at random times and places, and existing human technology and observation methods aren’t well-primed to spot these signals.

Now, in a paper published July 4 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of astronomers wrote that they managed to detect five FRBs in real time using a single radio telescope. [The 12 Strangest Objects in the Universe]

An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007.

An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007. (NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech); B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Wael Farah, a doctoral student at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, developed a machine-learning system that recognized the signatures of FRBs as they arrived at the University of Sydney’s Molonglo Radio Observatory, near Canberra. As Live Science has previously reported, many scientific instruments, including radio telescopes, produce more data per second than they can reasonably store. So they don’t record anything in the finest detail except their most interesting observations.

Farah’s system trained the Molonglo telescope to spot FRBs and switch over to its most detailed recording mode, producing the finest records of FRBs yet.

Based on their data, the researchers predicted that between 59 and 157 theoretically detectable FRBs splash across our skies every day. The scientists also used the immediate detections to hunt for related flares in data from X-ray, optical and other radio telescopes — in hopes of finding some visible event linked to the FRBs — but had no luck.

Their research showed, however, that one of the most peculiar (and frustrating, for research purposes) traits of FRBs appears to be real: The signals, once arriving, never repeat themselves. Each one appears to be a singular event in space that will never happen again.

Millions of Black Holes Are Hiding in Our Galaxy. Here’s How Astronomers Plan to Find Them.

It’s time to find all the missing black holes.

That’s the argument advanced by a pair of Japanese astrophysicists, who wrote a paper proposing a new search for millions of “isolated black holes” (IBHs) that likely populate our galaxy. These black holes, lost in the darkness, sip matter from the interstellar medium — the dust and other stuff floating between stars. But that process is inefficient, and a great deal of the matter gets expelled into space at high speeds. As that outflow interacts with the surrounding environment, the researchers wrote, it should produce radio waves that human radio telescopes can detect. And if astronomers can sift out those waves from all the noise that’s in the rest of the galaxy, they might be able to spot these unseen black holes.

“A naive way to observe IBHs is through their X-ray emission,” the researchers wrote in their paper, which has not yet been formally peer reviewed and which they made available July 1 as a preprint on arXiv. 

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Why is that? As black holes suck the matter from space, that matter at its fringes accelerates and forms what’s known as an accretion disk. The matter in that disk rubs against itself as it spins toward the event horizon— a black hole’s point of no return — spitting out X-rays in the process. But isolated black holes, which are small compared to supermassive black holes, don’t emit a great deal of X-rays this way. There simply isn’t enough matter or energy in their accretion disks to create large X-ray signatures. And past searches for IBHs using X-rays have failed to produce conclusive results.

“These outflows can possibly make the IBHs detectable in other wavelengths,” the researchers, Daichi Tsuna of the University of Tokyo and Norita Kawanaka of Kyoto University, wrote in their paper. “The outflows can interact with the surrounding matter and create strong collisionless shocks at the interface. These shocks can amplify magnetic fields and accelerate electrons, and these electrons emit synchrotron radiation in the radio wavelength.” 

 In other words, the outflow sliding through the interstellar medium should get electrons moving at speeds that produce radio waves.

“Interesting paper,” said Simon Portegies Zwart, an astrophysicist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in Tsuna and Kawanaka’s research. Portegies Zwart has also studied the question of IBHs, also known as intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs).

“It would be a great way to find IMBHs,” Portegies Zwart told Live Science. “I think that with LOFAR [the Low-Frequency Array in the Netherlands], such research should already be possible, but the sensitivity may pose a problem.”

IBHs, Portegies Zwart explained, are thought of as a “missing link” between the two types of black holes astronomers can detect: stellar-mass black holes that can be two to possibly 100 times the size of our sun, and supermassive black holes, the gargantuan beasts that live at the cores of galaxies and are hundreds of thousands of times the size of our sun.

Stellar-mass black holes are occasionally detectable in binary systems with regular stars, because the binary systems can produce gravitational waves and companion stars can provide fuel for large X-ray bursts. And supermassive black holes have accretion disks that emit so much energy that astronomers can detect and even photograph them.

But IBHs, in the midrange between those two other types, are far more difficult to detect. There are a handful of objects in space that astronomers suspect might be IBHs, but those results are uncertain. But past research, including a 2017 paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, which Portegies Zwart co-authored, suggests millions of them could be hiding out there.

Tsuna and Kawanaka wrote that the best prospect for a radio survey of IBHs probably involves using the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a multi-part radio telescope due to be built with sections in South Africa and Australia. It’s slated to have a total radio-wave collecting area of 1 square kilometer (0.39 square miles). The researchers estimate that at least 30 IBHs emit radio waves that the SKA will be able to detect during its first, proof-of-concept phase, which is scheduled for 2020. Down the road, they wrote, the complete SKA (scheduled for the mid-2020s) should be able to detect up to 700.

Not only should SKA be able to spot radio waves from these IBHs, they wrote, it should also be able to precisely estimate the distance to many of them. When that time comes, finally, all these missing black holes should start to come out of hiding.

If Aliens Are Flashing Laser Beams at Us, We Now Have a Way to Detect Them

Welcome to Project Veritas.

Scientists are on the hunt for signals from intelligent aliens. 

Are aliens using super powerful flashlights to get our attention? Astronomers think there’s a chance they are.

Since the invention of the radio, humans have been silently listening to the stars, wondering if we are alone in the universe. But if intelligent alien life does exist, the extraterrestrials could be using other forms of technology to communicate. Astronomers are beginning to not only listen to the cosmos but also gaze toward it for other signs of alien tech: laser beams.

Breakthrough Listen, the most extensive Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program in history, announced that its team will begin looking for new signs of alien technology using the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona. 

“When it comes to intelligent life beyond Earth, we don’t know where it exists or how it communicates,” Yuri Milner, billionaire particle physicist and founder of Breakthrough Listen, said in a statement. “So our philosophy is to look in as many places, and in as many ways, as we can. VERITAS expands our range of observation even further.”

Using VERITAS, astronomers will begin scanning the night sky for nanosecond flashes of light from nearby stars. Like a lighthouse beacon for the cosmos, these brief pulses of optical light would outshine any nearby stars and could indicate a method of alien communication.

“With the addition of VERITAS, we’re sensitive to an important new class of signals: fast optical pulses,” Andrew Siemion, the director of Berkeley’s SETI Research Center, said in the statement. “Optical communication has already been used by NASA to transmit high-definition images to Earth from the moon, so there’s a reason to believe that an advanced civilization might use a scaled-up version of this technology for interstellar communication.”

VERITAS has looked for such laser pulses from the mysteriously dimming Tabby’s Star after some had speculated there could be an alien megastructure surrounding it that caused the odd dimming. If the most powerful lasers on Earth were used at Tabby’s Star and pointed in our direction, VERITAS could detect them. Of the 1 million stars on the Breakthrough Listen target list, most of them are 10 to 100 times closer to Earth than Tabby’s Star, meaning even weaker laser flashes from intelligent aliens could be detected.

The array of four 12-meter optical telescopes is traditionally used to detect gamma rays — high-energy radiation emitted by extreme cosmic objects like exploding stars and even black holes — in the night sky. When gamma rays hit Earth’s atmosphere, they produce very faint blue flashes of light called Cherenkov radiation, because the particles travel faster than the speed of light through air. So the blue flashes are the light equivalent of a sonic boom. The telescope array’s ability to detect and pinpoint the source of these short-lived blue flashes made it the perfect candidate to search for laser beams from distant stars and galaxies.

“It is impressive how well-suited the VERITAS telescopes are for this project, since they were built only with the purpose of studying very-high-energy gamma rays in mind,” David Williams, a member of the VERITAS collaboration and professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in the statement.

The Breakthrough Listen initiative is a $100 million, 10-year project funded by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire and science philanthropist. The project, which began in 2015, has already surveyed more than 1,000 stars within 160 light-years away from Earth for signs of alien radio signals, with no positive results.

“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life,” famed physicist Stephen Hawking said during the initiative’s launch. “Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps intelligent life might be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that, here on one rock, the universe discovered its existence? Either way, there is no better question.”

France Is Launching a ‘Space Force’ with Weaponized Satellites

New French satellites will be equipped with machine guns and laser weapons.

French Minister of Defense Florence Parly (left) discusses the new French space force in a speech at Airbase 942 in Lyon-Mont Verdun, on July 25, 2019. Next to her on stage, French Air Force general Philippe Lavigne stands beside a model of a satellite.

French Minister of Defense Florence Parly (left) discusses the new French space force in a speech at Airbase 942 in Lyon-Mont Verdun, on July 25, 2019. Next to her on stage, French Air Force general Philippe Lavigne stands beside a model of a satellite.(Image: © Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty)

Months after President Donald Trump announced the creation of the U.S. Space Force, France is beginning to lay the groundwork for its own version. 

French President Emmanuel Macron announced last month that the nation’s air force will establish a space command for the purpose of national defense, particularly to protect of French satellites. 

Last week, French Minister of Defense Florence Parly detailed the nation’s plan for its new space force, which involves equipping satellites with machine guns and lasers, according to the French news weekly Le Point

First, the country will launch next-generation Syracuse satellites equipped with cameras that will be able to identify threats in space, such as anti-satellite weapons

The French military currently operates a constellation of three Syracuse satellites that are primarily used for communication between the mainland and French troops deployed abroad. But after the new cameras are tried and tested, France will launch another generation of Syracuse satellites that will also be able to destroy enemy satellites. 

The upgraded Syracuse satellites will be armed with either submachine guns or lasers that could disable or even destroy another satellite, according to Le Point; France aims to have those space weapons fully operational in orbit by 2030.French Spy Satellite Launched by Arianespace Soyuz RocketVolume 0% 

While the international Outer Space Treaty prohibits the testing of weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons in orbit, and another United Nations treaty prohibits the weaponization of outer space, France has no intention of violating those treaties or initiating any space battles with its satellites, Parly said during a speech at Air Base 942 Lyon Mont-Verdun on July 26.

“We do not want to embark on a space arms race,” Parly said. “We will conduct a reasoned arsenalization.”

Parly announced that the French air force would receive an additional 700 million euros (around $780 million) in addition to its existing €3.6 billion (about $40 billion) budget for space activities between 2019 and 2025. The new space command will consist of 220 personnel from the French Air Forces’ Joint Space Command, the Operational Center for Military Surveillance of Space Objects (COSMOS) and the Satellite Observation Military Center (CMOS). The space force will operate from the new Air Force Space Operations Center in Toulouse. 

Living Underground on the Moon: How Lava Tubes Could Aid Lunar Colonization

But there’s a lot we still don’t know.

What lurks within the moon's underground lava tubes? Entrances or "skylights" to lava tubes might allow future explorers access to subsurface ice.

What lurks within the moon’s underground lava tubes? Entrances or “skylights” to lava tubes might allow future explorers access to subsurface ice.(Image: © Pascal Lee/Mars Institute/SETI Institute)

Getting humans back to the moon — “this time to stay” —  will require the exploitation of lunar resources, NASA officials and exploration advocates say. 

The most important resource, at least in the short term, is water ice, which is abundant on the floors of permanently shadowed polar craters. The ice found in these “cold traps” is thought to be stable and accessible. 

But there may be other spots on the moon that could yield a mother lode of scientific data — as well as the resources needed to sustain human occupation of Earth’s celestial next door neighbor. 

Related: Home on the Moon: How to Build a Lunar Colony (Infographic)

That’s the pits

Researchers have identified “pits” on the moon, which are likely lava-tube “skylights” — geological doorways to underground tunnels that were once filled with lava.

If they do indeed provide access to lava tubes, skylights could be a game-changer for human lunar exploration, said NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green. Lava tubes are protected from the harsh environment of the lunar surface, which is bombarded by radiation and experiences temperature extremes. One lunar day lasts about 29 Earth days, meaning surface locations endure about two straight weeks of daylight followed by two weeks of darkness. 

Connective roads?

“There are a number of things on the moon that are going to be surprises,” Green said. 

“We need to get in there,” he added, referring to lunar skylights. “We need to verify. Maybe there’s a lot of water in these skylights? We don’t know. We’re finding them all over the moon.” Moon Base Concept Has Buried Multi-Level Inflatable ModulesVolume 0% 

A lava-tube network would suggest protected corridors, free of temperature swings, bombarding radiation and menacing meteoroids. They also might offer a much larger habitat capability for future moon explorers. 

“We could actually build connective roads in them,” Green told Space.com. “It could be a whole new world for us. That’s another absolute game-changer.” 

More data needed

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images spot the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater near the moon's north pole.
NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images spot the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater near the moon’s north pole.

We don’t have enough information yet to ascertain if skylights on the moon represent an interconnected underground roadway, said Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. He is also chairman of the Mars Institute and director of the NASA Haughton Mars Project at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. 

“For starters, not all pits on the moon are necessarily lava tube skylights,” Lee told Space.com. He said that some might be associated with isolated underground cavities.

“Secondly, not all lava tubes in a given region should be expected to be interconnected,” he added. “Indeed, some might have formed at different times, and might run at different levels or depths underground.”

Maze of corridors?

Lee also said that while some lava tubes on Earth have smooth walls and floors, most have very rough surfaces and debris piles on their floors. 

“We don’t know how rough lava tubes on the moon might be, but the term underground roadway seems optimistic,” Lee said. “In any case, in my view, it’s not that pits on the moon would lead to a maze of underground corridors that makes them most interesting — although that is fascinating — but the fact that they give access to an environment that’s radically different from the surface, whatever shape that underground environment might have.”

Any underground cavity on the moon, after all, would provide shielding — from temperature swings, space radiation, micrometeoritic bombardment and sandblasting from the rocket engines of landing or departing spacecraft.

Water harvesting

Moon’s Water Distribution Has To Do With Time of Day, Other FactorsVolume 0% 

Most intriguing to Lee are candidate pits recently identified inside Philolaus Crater near the north pole of the moon. Advertisement

“They might be skylights associated with a network of lava tubes formed not in volcanic lava flows, but in an impact melt sheet, the temporary pool of molten rock that ponded inside Philolaus Crater following the large impact that created the crater,” he said.

Interestingly enough, Lee said, the candidate pits inside Philolaus are located at such a high latitude that sunlight would never enter the underlying caves. 

“These would be in perpetual darkness and so cold that ice could be cold-trapped in them, much like it is in the permanently shadowed regions at the actual poles of the moon,” Lee said.

Exploring high-latitude pits on the moon might therefore offer an additional opportunity to harvest water on our lunar neighbor, Lee said.

Meanwhile, researchers have begun assessing the viability of underground lunar habitats.

Anahita Modiriasari, a postdoctoral researcher in Purdue University’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering, and her colleagues have been appraising lunar imagery, reconstructed into a 3D model to evaluate lava tubes as a potential habitat for humans on the moon. This is a task that a rover or drone could potentially accomplish on the lunar surface. 

The work is part of Purdue’s Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats (RETH), a project that investigates the value of future human habitats on the moon or Mars.

“All of this collected data is vital,” Modiriasari said. “We are using it to build an advanced model of the size, strength and structural stability of the lava tube,” she said. For example, what happens during seismic activity? What would happen if a meteorite strikes? 


In another development, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program recently awarded a Phase 3 contract to researchers developing robotic technologies to enable the exploration of lunar pits. 

The “Skylight” concept mission is led by William Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University. The NIAC award will help Whittaker and his team flesh out ways to explore and model a lunar pit. Doing so will require fast, autonomous micro-roving, which achieves significant exploration in a single lunar daylight period.

According to Whittaker, descent into and exploration of the lunar subsurface will come, but “pit-specific” questions must first be answered from the surface: How navigable are the rims? Are there caves? Are there rappel routes? What is the morphology? 

Specifically, a mission of this type would create and downlink the first high-resolution, science-quality, 3D model of a vast planetary pit, Whittaker said.

“This [Skylight] initiative matures and transitions that technology. The technology innovations are exploration autonomy, in-situ 3D modeling, fast, far micro-roving and the aggregate means to achieve mission-in-a-week,” Whittaker said.Advertisement

The unanswered questions of lava-tube exploration aren’t just technological. Also looming large, as with all aspects of lunar resource use and settlement, are space-law issues.

“Potentially exciting research areas cannot be claimed by sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita of space law at the University of Mississippi and editor-in-chief emerita at the Journal of Space Law.

“Doing things like digging corridors and building roads could easily be interpreted as making a claim by use or other means. This is prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty,” Gabrynowicz said. “The U.S. and all spacefaring nations are party to it. A location with high scientific value will require an international agreement regarding its use and who can access it.”

Used SpaceX Dragon Cargo Ship Arrives at Space Station for Record 3rd Time

The craft is delivering more than 5,000 lbs. of science gear and supplies.

SpaceX’s robotic Dragon cargo capsule arrived at the International Space Station today (July 27), ending a two-day orbital chase and setting a new record for SpaceX’s reusable spacecraft.

The Dragon, which launched Thursday (July 25) from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, was captured by the space station’s huge robotic arm at 9:11 a.m. EDT (1311 GMT) as both spacecraft sailed 267 miles (430 kilometers) above the coast of southern Chile in South America.

“We want to congratulate the team spread across the globe that makes delivering a vehicle like this. It’s pretty looking at it out the window,” astronaut Nick Hague radioed to NASA’s Mission Control in Houston after capturing Dragon with the station’s robotic arm. “It’s full of science and cargo and things to keep us busy. So, the mission continues.”

SpaceX’s most-flown Dragon

This is the record third cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for this particular Dragon, which also ferried cargo to the station in April 2015 and December 2017. The Falcon 9 was preflown as well; the rocket’s first stage had one mission under its belt before Thursday’s launch.

Such reuse is key to SpaceX’s quest to slash the cost of spaceflight, thereby making ambitious exploration feats such as Mars colonization achievable.Blastoff! SpaceX Launches CRS-18 Mission to Space StationVolume 0% 

Dragon is carrying more than 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kilograms) of supplies and equipment up to the ISS on this trip, including 2,500 lbs. (1,135 kg) of science gear that will enable dozens of experiments aboard the orbiting lab. 

Later today, flight controllers on Earth will attach Dragon to an open berthing port on the space station by remotely controlling the outpost’s robotic arm. Astronauts will then be able to open the spacecraft and begin unloading its bounty.

Big science aboard

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One of those experiments will study how microbes interact with rocks in a low-gravity environment, possibly paving the way for space “biomining” down the road. Another will attempt to fabricate human tissue using a 3D printer, and another will gauge how microgravity affects the processes of healing and tissue regeneration.

Yet another experiment will use Nickelodeon’s famous green slime to study the behavior of fluids in microgravity. ISS crewmembers will also play “slime pong” and do other fun things with the stuff, and film the activities for our viewing pleasure down here on Earth.SpaceX CRS-18 Mission – Science Experiments HighlightedVolume 0% 

Dragon also toted up another International Docking Adapter (IDA), which is designed to allow a variety of spacecraft to link up with the ISS. Such visitors will include the crew version of Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule, both of which are scheduled to start carrying astronauts in the next year or so.

The ISS already has one IDA, which a different Dragon brought up in 2016.

Dragon is scheduled to remain attached to the ISS for about a month, NASA officials said. It will then return to Earth for a Pacific Ocean splashdown, bearing a variety of science samples for researchers to study.

The current cargo mission is the 18th that SpaceX has flown under a contract with NASA.

Mike Wall’s book about the search for alien life, “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter@michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

LightSail 2 Deploys Solar Sail to Surf the Sun’s Rays

SAIL DEPLOYMENT COMPLETE! We’re sailing on SUNLIGHT!!!!!4,2142:17 PM – Jul 23, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy1,269 people are talking about this

A spacecraft the size of a loaf of bread has finally turned itself into a solar sail.

On Tuesday (July 23) at about 2:47 p.m. EDT (1847 GMT), a motor onboard the small LightSail 2 cubesat began deploying the mission’s 344-square-foot (32-square-meter) solar sail, which is about the size of a boxing ring. LightSail 2 is the passion project of The Planetary Society, and the space advocacy organization wants to demonstrate that solar surfing is a viable propulsion technique for spacecraft. 

“We’re very excited to be past this huge milestone,” Jennifer Vaughn, Chief Operating Officer at The Planetary Society said during a livestream of the deployment from the spacecraft’s control center in California. “We now have a sail. It’s time to go sailing! … We now start the very difficult process of sailing in space.”

Related: Sailing on Sunbeams: LightSail 2 to Soar Higher Than Space Station CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 18 seconds 

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the first successful solar sail demonstration flight — Ikaros — in May 2010 and dubbed it a “solar yacht.” This project, which deployed its sail in June 2010, proved that a thin membrane attached to a spacecraft body could propel the vehicle forward by gathering momentum from the push of the light particles, called photons, emitted by the sun. NASA also launched a small cubesat sail called Nanosail-Din November 2010.

But since then, solar sailing has been stuck in the mud. The Planetary Society’s goal for the Lightsail 2 mission was to change that, spending a year orbiting Earth powered by photons.

Planetary Society@exploreplanets · 18hReplying to @exploreplanets

DEPLOYMENT COMPLETE! Telemetry shows motor has reached target count!

View image on Twitter

Planetary Society@exploreplanets

All indications are that #LightSail2 has deployed its solar sail as planned. We will now confirm deployment was successful by downloading imagery.6381:55 PM – Jul 23, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy181 people are talking about this

“All indications are that #LightSail2 has deployed its solar sail as planned. We will now confirm deployment was successful by downloading imagery,” The Planetary Society shared via Twitter. In another tweet that followed shortly after, the organization said they would “begin downlinking imagery on today’s remaining tracking passes to confirm.”

LightSail 2 beamed back its first views of Earth earlier this month (July 7) and The Planetary Society confirmed that the spacecraft took photos during the deployment maneuver. 

To recap: All indications are that #LightSail2 has successfully deployed its solar sail! We will begin downlinking imagery on today’s remaining tracking passes to confirm.

View image on Twitter

7342:03 PM – Jul 23, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy211 people are talking about this

So far, the LightSail 2 mission has been running more smoothly than that of its predecessor, which experienced a software glitch just two days after launching into orbit around Earth. 

The solar-sail concept goes back almost a century, according to JAXA’s website, and solar sailing has been a passion of The Planetary Society founders going back several decades.  

“Our first project around solar sailing really started about 20 years ago with our Cosmos 1 solar sail. That mission would have been the very first space test of a solar sail,” Vaughn said during a June 20 teleconference held days before LightSail 2 launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on the early morning of June 25.

Science communicator Bill Nye, who leads The Planetary Society, first heard about solar sails in the famous astronomer Carl Sagan’s classroom at Cornell University 42 years ago. During the teleconference, he recalled his teacher talk enthusiastically about the idea of solar sailing.

If all continues to go well, LightSail 2 could prove the viability of using photons to propel other versions of this technology deep into the solar system.

Follow Doris Elin Salazar on Twitter @salazar_elin. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook 

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.

After 1.5 years of delay, India’s ambitious lunar mission launches

A model of Chandrayaan-2’s rover undergoing tests to prepare for operating in the moon’s anemic gravity. INDIAN SPACE RESEARCH ORGANISATION

*Update, 22 July, 2:45 p.m.: India’s much-delayed Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission finally launched today on a 7-week journey to a landing site near the moon’s south pole. The launch, planned for 2018 and described in our story below, was first pushed back to later in the year to allow more tests. Then, a comprehensive review in June 2018 recommended more changes to the mission, pushing the launch to early this year, before damage to the lander legs during a test delayed it further to 14 July. All set to go, a technical snag caused the launch to be aborted 56 minutes before liftoff. But at 2:43 a.m. local time today, all went smoothly and Chandrayaan-2 set off for the moon’s previously unexplored polar regions.

Below is our original story from 31 January 2018:

BENGALURU, INDIA—Sometime this summer, a spacecraft orbiting over the moon’s far side, out of contact with controllers on Earth, will release a lander. The craft will ease to a soft landing just after lunar sunrise on an ancient, table-flat plain about 600 kilometers from the south pole. There, it will unleash a rover into territory never before explored at the surface; all previous lunar craft have set down near the equator.

That’s the ambitious vision for India’s second voyage to the moon in a decade, due to launch in the coming weeks. If Chandrayaan-2 is successful, it will pave the way for even more ambitious Indian missions, such as landings on Mars and an asteroid, as well a Venus probe, says Kailasavadivoo Sivan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) here. Chandrayaan-2, he says, is meant to show that India has the technological prowess “to soft land on other heavenly bodies.”

But lunar scientists have much at stake, too. “There has been a rebirth of lunar exploration across the globe, and India can’t be left behind,” says Mylswamy Annadurai, director of the ISRO Satellite Centre. Instruments aboard the lander and rover will collect data on the moon’s thin envelope of plasma, as well as isotopes such as helium-3, a potential fuel for future fusion energy reactors. The orbiter itself will follow up on a stunning discovery by India’s first lunar foray, the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter, which found water molecules on the moon in 2009. Before that, “It was kind of a kooky science to think that you’d find water” there, says James Greenwood, a cosmochemist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “Now, we’re arguing about how much water, and not whether it has water or not.” Cameras and a spectrometer aboard the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter could help settle that question.

The $150 million mission was originally meant to fly 3 years ago, but Russia failed to deliver a promised lander, prompting India to go it alone. Final preparations are underway on the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft, which will launch from the Sriharikota spaceport on the Bay of Bengal aboard India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle.

A landing so far from the lunar equator is especially tricky. “It is a difficult and complicated mission,” says Wu Ji, director of the National Space Science Center in Beijing. Less sunlight reaches the poles, which means the lander and rover must be parsimonious with power. The plan is to set down in a high plain between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, at a latitude of about 70° south.Pole positionIf all goes to plan, India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission this summer will attempt a soft landing on an ancient high plain of the moon, some 600 kilometers from the south pole. It would be the first land-ing so far from the equator.Seeking ground truthWith spectrometers for assaying elements in theregolith, the briefcase-size rover hopes to make the most of the 14-Earth-day lunar day.Exploring lunar novaThe lander is equipped with a seismometer to listen for moonquakes and a Langmuir probe that will measure fluctuations in the wispy plasma enveloping the lunar surface.CopernicuscraterSea ofSerenityEquatorTychocraterBulk of previouslunar landingsSNSolarpanelWarmelectronicsboxNavigation cameraRoverLanding skidRampMoonChandrayaan-2 landing site nearsouthern poleRoverLanderC. BICKEL/SCIENCE

The lander will pack as much science as it can into its first lunar day—14 Earth days—as controllers may not be able to revive it after the long lunar night. The craft has a Langmuir probe to measure the moon’s plasma—a wispy layer of charged ions that may explain why the lunar regolith, or dust, has a tendency to float in the thin atmosphere. It also has a seismometer for recording moonquakes. Its seismic measurements would supplement those from the Apollo landings, because readings from high latitudes would be sensitive to signals passing through different parts of the moon. And if the seismometer is lucky enough to record a sizable quake during its operational lifetime, it might offer new evidence in a long-running debate over what the moon’s core is composed of, and whether it’s solid. “We just need more data to understand the lunar interior,” says David Kring, a planetary geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, who is not involved in the mission.

The briefcase-size rover, weighing just 25 kilograms, will also carry two spectrometers for probing the lunar surface’s elemental composition. The area is enticing, as it is thought to be made up of rocks more than 4 billion years old that solidified from the magma ocean that covered the newly formed moon. The data would be compared with those from Apollo-era missions that landed in other ancient highlands closer to the equator.

For some scientists, the most anticipated data will come from the orbiter’s water mapper. Protons in the solar wind generate hydroxyl ions when they strike oxides in the regolith. The ions drift to the poles, where they are trapped in craters as water ice, which the orbiter will inventory. Shedding light on the moon’s water circulation “is a worthwhile endeavor,” says Carle Pieters, a lunar scientist at Brown University. Locating substantial water, adds Muthayya Vanitha, Chandrayaan-2’s project director at ISRO, “could pave the way for the future habitation of the moon,” as water is a limiting factor for operating a base.

Regardless of whether Chandrayaan-2 breaks new scientific ground, a successful soft landing near the south pole will be a technical accomplishment for India, as well as a proud moment for the country. It may even benefit other countries’ moon programs. “One of NASA’s main priorities is to go [to the south pole] on a sample return mission,” Greenwood says, “so this could help us also later down the road as they give us more information as to what’s there.”