NASA recently selected a miniaturized version of the original X-ray camera to fly as a CubeSat mission to study Earth's magnetic cusps - regions in the magnetic cocoon around our planet near the poles where the magnetic field lines dip down toward the ground. The CubeSat will observe the cusps via soft X-rays emitted when the million-mile-an-hour flow of solar particles constantly streaming from the sun, called the solar wind, collides with and exchanges charges with atoms in the uppermost region of Earth's atmosphere and neutral gases in interplanetary space. The bread loaf-size instrument is the latest incarnation of the Sheath Transport Observer for the Redistribution of Mass, or STORM. Funded by NASA's Heliophysics Technology and Instrument Development for Science, or H-TIDeS program, this new version of the instrument is being developed as WASP/CuPID, short for Wide Angle Soft x-ray Planetary camera and the Cusp Plasma Imaging Detector. The mission is expected to launch in 2019. Three years ago, a team of three NASA scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, demonstrated STORM aboard a Black Brant IX sounding rocket to prove that their concept for studying charge exchange would work. The charge-exchange process happens when the heavy ions in the solar wind steal an electron from the neutrals—an exchange that puts the heavy ions in a short-lived excited state. As they relax, they emit soft X-rays. The neutrals from which the heavy ions stole the electron are now charged themselves. This allows them to be picked up by the solar wind and carried away. This is one way planets like Mars could lose their atmosphere. So valuable was the resulting data that the three scientists decided to miniaturize STORM and compete for a CubeSat flight opportunity. Now about half the size of STORM, CuPID/WASP was demonstrated aboard a Black Brant IX sounding rocket in December 2015 and will be further refined under the H-TIDeS funding. Ultimately, it will carry its own avionics system. "Actually, it was quite a coup," said Michael Collier, a planetary scientist who worked with heliophysicist David Sibeck and astrophysicist Scott Porter to develop all instrument versions. "This imager has applications across many different fields and platforms. We figured we could miniaturize it and put it on a CubeSat and still get good science." Boston University professor Brian Walsh, a former Goddard post-doctorate student, is serving as the mission's principal investigator. Like its predecessor, CuPID/WASP employs what's known as a lobster-eye optic, a thick curved slab of material dotted with tiny tubes across the surface. X-ray light enters these tubes from multiple angles and is focused through reflection, giving the technology a wide field of view necessary for globally imaging the emission of soft X-rays. Because the instrument is considerably smaller than STORM, its collecting area isn't quite as good. However, the data is just as valuable to scientists, Porter said. Since its discovery in the mid-1990s, scientists have observed the emission of charge-exchange X-rays from planets, the moon, comets, interplanetary space, possible supernova remnants, and galactic halos. Planetary scientists have observed these emissions from the outer atmospheres of Venus and Mars, leading some to question whether the charge-exchange phenomenon contributes to the atmospheric loss on Mars. Heliophysicists studying how near-Earth space is affected by radiation and magnetic energy from the sun also have observed soft X-rays from the outer boundaries of Earth's magnetosphere, the magnetic bubble that shields Earth from hazardous solar storms. And astrophysicists have observed them, too—as unwanted noise in data collected by all X-ray observatories sensitive to soft X-rays. As a result, planetary scientists and heliophysicists want to measure these emissions for scientific reasons, while astrophysicists want to remove them as noise. Since the instrument's debut in 2012 and subsequent miniaturization as a CubeSat payload, a European-led team has begun considering developing a STORM-like instrument for its proposed Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE). "Everyone is interested in getting this data, although for different reasons," Collier added. "These missions span three different disciplines, which is a rare occurrence in space science."
News Article | April 8, 2016
Distant space weather has become a little less mysterious with some of the first data transmitted by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which flew by Pluto in July and has since sped deeper into space. For instance, the spacecraft has returned three years' worth of observations on solar wind — or high-energy particles flung by the sun out into space — from a region barely explored. These same particles, when on Earth, can sometimes have enough energy to interfere with radio communication and electronics, like in the case of solar storms or coronal mass ejections. While the planet's magnetic field often provides protection from these, these particles can sometimes be seen interacting with the atmosphere through auroras, including Northern Lights. But these particles reach out far more distant than Earth. Observations from Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) of the Southwest Research Institute revealed that the intense flow of solar particles, produced in the inner solar system through fast and slow flows and eruptive sun events, becomes more uniform by the time the solar wind has traveled the 3 billion miles to the orbit of Pluto. The SWAP instrument tracked interstellar pickup ions — ions created as the materials turns ionized and is "picked up" by solar wind — and speculated that they could actually be the seeds of highly energetic particles dubbed as anomalous cosmic rays, which can be a potential radiation threat to astronauts. Two Voyager spacecraft have observed these anomalous cosmic rays believed to shape the boundaries found between the solar system and interstellar space. "The Voyagers can't measure these seed particles, only the outcome," says NASA scientist Eric Christian, who was not involved in the study but analyzes what is known as heliosphere, the area in the solar system dominated by solar wind. So the blank patch in the observations is being supplied with data with the New Horizons entering that region, he adds. Dr. Heather Elliott, the study's lead author, said that SWAP was busy even while other instruments on board the New Horizons were hibernating to conserve energy on the nine-year journey to Pluto. The instrument then yielded three years of almost-continuous data that detailed the space environment. Learning more about the origin and nature of the cosmic rays can help scientists in figuring out how to keep astronauts safe during their space missions, including long-haul ones toward Mars and far beyond. The findings were published April 6 in the Astrophysical Journal. © 2016 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | November 9, 2015
Solar Wind Energy Tower Inc. won approval from an Arizona city to develop a $1.5 billion project that would use ambient desert heat to create a draft to generate electricity, in a concrete colossus that would be the tallest structure in North America.
News Article | April 6, 2016
Despite its seemingly immense emptiness, the solar system is actually suffused with a flow of solar particles emanating from the sun. New Horizons didn’t solely just activate to snap photographs of dwarf planet Pluto when it flew by in July 2015. As the spacecraft barreled past Jupiter in February 2007, particle instruments were activated. For more than 1 billion miles of its journey, the spacecraft took measurements of the space weather in the neighborhood of the outer planets. NASA scientists have published New Horizons’ observations in a study appearing in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement. The study, published today, compiles observations of solar wind from 11 to 33 astronomical units (AU). The data comes from an instrument known as the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP), which is operated by the Southwest Research Institute. Solar wind and large solar events awash space with particles, fields, and ionized gas known as plasma. “Since the sun is the source of the solar wind, events on the sun are the primary force that shape the space environment,” according to NASA. “Shocks in the solar wind—which can create space weather, such as auroras, on world with magnetic fields—are created either by fast, dense clouds of material called coronal mass ejections … or by the collision of two different-speed solar wind streams.” These events have been observed on Earth and the solar system’s inner worlds, such as Jupiter, the Northern Lights, of which vastly outshine the Earth’s. While the solar patterns from the sun were not as defined as they are near inner planets’, New Horizons did observe some interesting anomalies in the outer regions. According to The Washington Post, the spacecraft observed neutral space particles that were charged by “high-speed, ionized particles from the sun.” The subsequent speed boost made these particles four times more energetic than the sun’s particles, and twice as fast. The researchers think these particles may be the seeds for anomalous cosmic rays, which are known to cause radiation hazards for astronauts near Earth. The rays have been observed by both Voyager spacecrafts in the outer regions of the solar system. “The voyagers can’t measure these seed particles, only the outcome,” said NASA space scientist Eric Christian in a statement. “With New Horizons going into that region, this blank patch in the observations is being filled in with data.” Establish your company as a technology leader! For more than 50 years, the R&D 100 Awards have showcased new products of technological significance. You can join this exclusive community! Learn more.
The window for life to take root across broad stretches of the Martian surface may have closed shortly after the first microbes evolved on Earth. New results from NASA's MAVEN spacecraft suggest that the Red Planet lost most of its carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere — which had kept Mars relatively warm and allowed the planet to support liquid surface water — to space about 3.7 billion years ago. "We think that all of the action took place between about 4.2 to 3.7 billion years ago," MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Space.com. [Mars Atmosphere Being Stripped By Solar Wind (Video)] But this finding doesn't rule out ancient Mars as an abode for life, he stressed. After all, scientists know that Earth supported life by 3.8 billion years ago, and a recent study suggests that microbes may even have existed on Earth as early as 4.1 billion years ago. "Mars appears to have had a more clement environment for just as long as it took life to form on Earth," Jakosky said. "That doesn't tell us that life did form on Mars, but it says it's very plausible. It's at least not a stupid idea to ask whether it did." Mars is cold and dry today (albeit with scattered areas of seasonal water flow), but things were very different in the ancient past. Observations by NASA's Mars rover Curiosity and other spacecraft have shown that the Red Planet was relatively warm billions of years ago, with extensive lake-and-stream systems and perhaps even a large ocean that covered much of the Martian surface. The planet's dramatic transition is tied to the loss of its atmosphere, which is now just 1 percent as dense as that of Earth at sea level. Scientists have long wondered what exactly happened to Mars' air, and that's where the $671 million MAVEN mission comes in. Since November 2014, MAVEN (whose name is short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) has been characterizing the Red Planet's upper atmosphere from orbit and measuring how fast Martian air is leaking into space, among other duties. The probe's observations should help scientists better understand the planet's climate history and its past potential to host life, NASA officials have said. A better understanding is indeed now starting to emerge, as demonstrated by a series of new MAVEN studies that were published online today (Nov. 5) in the journal Science. For example, one of these studies suggests that long-ago solar eruptions played a large role in stripping away the Red Planet's air. In that paper, Jakosky and his colleagues report the effects of a coronal mass ejection (CME) — a powerful eruption of solar plasma — that slammed into Mars in March 2015. The Red Planet is currently losing about 100 grams of its atmosphere to space every second (a new result obtained via MAVEN observations), but the CME temporarily jacked up that rate by a factor of 10 or 20, Jakosky said. [The Sun's Wrath: Worst Solar Storms in History] Such solar storms were stronger and more frequent about 4 billion years ago, and the sun's emissions in extreme ultraviolet (UV) light were more powerful back then as well, he added. The solar wind — the flow of charged particles from the sun, which is a major driver of Martian atmosphere loss today — was also more potent during the sun's youth. "All of these [factors] point to the loss of the Martian atmosphere in the earliest stages," Jakosky said. This all happened right after Mars lost its global magnetic field, which had protected the planet's air against solar-driven stripping, he added. (Earth, which is much larger than Mars, retains a global field to this day.) That stripping would then have proceeded very quickly, "within a few hundred million years after the shutoff of the magnetic field," Jakosky said. The other, related papers published today in Science shed new light on the composition of Mars' upper atmosphere; provide new details about the Red Planet's intriguing, diffuse auroras, which are similar in some ways to the gorgeous northern lights displays seen on Earth; and report the detection of dust that appears to be interplanetary in origin. "It's not something we expected," Jakosky said of the Martian auroras, whose detection the team first announced this past March at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. "It tells us that solar particles are streaming directly into the Mars atmosphere, where they can have an impact." MAVEN spotted the auroras in December 2014 using its Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph instrument, which, as its name suggests, is sensitive to UV light. "We know that the same processes that create UV emissions on Mars will create visible emissions that would appear green, red or blue to the eye — if bright enough," study lead author Nick Schneider, also of LASP, told Space.com via email. "We think that this event probably wasn't bright enough, but suspect that other events could be. So maybe if you had as much time on Mars as Matt Damon, you might see it!" MAVEN's observations also show that these diffuse auroras can happen anywhere on the planet, Schneider added (unlike Earth's displays, which are generally restricted to high latitudes). "Our observations show unambiguously that a planet with no global magnetic field can [be] exposed to the full force of the solar wind and solar storms," he said. "Mars' atmosphere took a beating." The dust, which MAVEN observed at altitudes ranging from 124 miles to 621 miles (150 to 1,000 kilometers), also came as a surprise, Jakosky said. "We're getting hit by thousands of grains of dust," he said. "We think that this is dust coming from outside the Mars system." The detection by itself "is an interesting oddity," he added. "But [the dust] would also be the source of a steady-state metal-ion layer in the ionosphere that we've detected as well. That's another discovery from MAVEN. It's something that has the ability to affect the chemistry and energetics of the upper atmosphere. We still haven't worked through the implications, but it's something that's a really important observation." These findings provide just a taste of what MAVEN has been doing in Mars orbit for the past year. The mission team also published 44 (yes, 44!) studies online today in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. "It's incredibly satisfying to get to this point and realize that we really are answering the questions we set out to when we started the mission," Jakosky said. "We're beginning to understand what drives climate change on Mars, and to try to generalize to planets more generally." Why Is Mars A Desert Wasteland? NASA MAVEN Mission Will Investigate | Video Copyright 2015 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.