Tag Archives: ESA

Celebrate the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25 years in space – #Hubble25

23 Apr

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 – a quarter century ago! Since then (admittedly with a couple hiccups) it has been peering deeper into the cosmos than any telescope in human history. We have learned more about the origin of the universe, the makeup of galaxies, and distant worlds though Hubble’s eye – and with great effort from many researchers around the world.

Hubble is a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Hubble weighs in at 11,000 kg, is 13.2 m by 4.2 m, and has a 2.4 m diameter primary mirror. Hubble coasts along in orbit at a cool 25,600 km/h at an altitude of 555 km above the surface of the Earth.

Hubble’s direct successor in space will be the James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2018 – though Hubble is still expected to be in operation. Numerous next generation ground-based telescopes will also come online between 2020-2025, including the Thirty Meter Telescope (read in detail about TMT here).

To celebrate Hubble’s 25th birthday, the Hubble team released a new image from Hubble today: an image of the cluster Westerlund 2 and its surroundings.

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the cluster Westerlund 2 and its surroundings has been released to celebrate Hubble’s 25th year in orbit and a quarter of a century of new discoveries, stunning images and outstanding science. The image’s central region, containing the star cluster, blends visible-light data taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and near-infrared exposures taken by the Wide Field Camera 3. The surrounding region is composed of visible-light observations taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys. (Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team)

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the cluster Westerlund 2 and its surroundings has been released to celebrate Hubble’s 25th year in orbit and a quarter of a century of new discoveries, stunning images and outstanding science. The image’s central region, containing the star cluster, blends visible-light data taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and near-infrared exposures taken by the Wide Field Camera 3. The surrounding region is composed of visible-light observations taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys. (Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team)

Even after 25 years, Hubble continues to impress with its images and scientific discovery to this day. For instance, Hubble data recently contributed to strengthening the hypothesis that Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede has a massive subsurface ocean of liquid water.

One of the best videos I’ve been able to find that offers an overview of the Hubble mission is from the telescope’s 15th birthday, back on April 24, 2005. It’s worth a watch, and of course add another decade (!!) worth of discovery on top:

On top of several physical celebrations going on around the world for the occasion of #Hubble25, there is also a lot of great content on social media:



And remember a couple years ago when the Defense Department donated two better-than-Hubble space telescopes to NASA? Read here for that one.

It’s a big universe and we need all the eyes we can get to help unravel its mysteries.

The Canadarm on board The Space Shuttle Discovery releases Hubble in April 1990. (Credit: NASA/ESA)

The Canadarm on board The Space Shuttle Discovery releases Hubble in April 1990. (Credit: NASA/ESA)

And a fun (patriotic Canadian) fact: the last piece of hardware to come into physical contact with Hubble was the Canadarm on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-125 in May 2009, following the conclusion of Hubble Servicing Mission 4, the last mission to visit the telescope:

Canadarm lifts the Hubble Space Telescope out of the payload bay of Atlantis, moments before it is released into space following the successful repair mission of STS-125. (Credit: NASA)

Canadarm lifts the Hubble Space Telescope out of the payload bay of Atlantis, moments before it is released into space following the successful repair mission of STS-125. (Credit: NASA)

Water, water everywhere!

12 Mar

Over the past week or so we’ve seen a few stories regarding wet bodies in our solar system.

First, there was news about water on Mars. Now the news wasn’t so much that there was water on Mars, since that’s been pretty well understood for a while now (thanks in large part to the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity), rather how much water there was – and it’s plentiful to say the least.

Mars with a vast Northern Ocean (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Mars with a vast Northern Ocean (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Using land-based infrared telescopes (the ESO’s VLT and NASA’s Keck), NASA was able to measure the hydrogen isotopes in Mars’ atmosphere. The results indicate that Mars one had 20 million cubic kilometers of water – more water than is in the Arctic Ocean here on Earth today. Astronomers are also currently suggesting that the Martian water was contained, mainly, in one large ocean surrounding the Red Planet’s north pole. It would have covered proportionally more of the planet’s surface than the Atlantic Ocean does here.

Nowadays on Mars it’s bone-dry, quite a bit different from ~4 billion years ago. Current estimates suggest that Mars’ ancient ocean contained about 6.5 times more water than what is currently observed in Mars’ polar ice caps, meaning that a great deal was likely lost into space as the Martian atmosphere thinned 2-4 billion years ago (though some water could still possibly be trapped in a permafrost layer).

The next news item this week is regarding Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn. Now again, we’ve understood for a while that this moon had a sub-surface ocean of liquid water, trapped beneath an icy crust, but the news this week is tantalizing: the possibility of active hydrothermal vents in the moon’s southern ocean.

Hydrothermal activity on Enceladus (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Hydrothermal activity on Enceladus (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Announced just a couple days ago thanks to data from the Cassini spacecraft, astrophysicists have been able to pinpoint the origin of tiny particles of silica that the spacecraft had been detecting in space as it orbits in the area. And the origin appears to be the southern ocean of Enceladus, a 10km deep body of water. How the silica particles form is a chemical process that takes places when ocean water interacts with volcanic activity on the ocean floor.

Precisely the same process has been observed in only one other place so far: right here on Earth. And on our world, hydrothermal vents are teeming with life.

Jump ahead to today, and NASA announces, using Hubble data, that the largest moon in our solar system has a sub-surface ocean of liquid water of its own.

Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, has been theorized to have a sub-surface ocean since the Galileo probe visited the area in 2002. Shifting magnetic fields were a major clue indicating the presence of water, though the data at the time was inconclusive. But now a novel idea has allowed a team of astronomers to make use of the Hubble Space Telescope to study Ganymede’s shifting magnetic fields from afar: patterns in the moon’s auroras.

An illustration of Ganymede's auroras (NASA/ESA)

An illustration of Ganymede’s auroras (NASA/ESA)

By understanding how different materials impact magnetic fields, and how auroras present themselves through those magnetic fields, the astronomers were able to understand Ganymede’s make-up by studying the auroras using Hubble. What they found is an ocean of water. (Edit: not only an ocean of water, but a large ocean. Ganymede could have more water in its salty subsurface ocean than Earth does in all our oceans combined.)

With all this in mind – and not to mention other wet worlds, like Europa – the solar system is starting to look a little more damp than it was once thought to be. And here on Earth at least, it is well understood that anywhere you can find water – in any form – you are virtually guaranteed to find life as well.

So how do these discoveries impact the prospects for finding life in our solar system beyond Earth?

On Mars, I’m not sure it changes much. It’s been understood that the planet was once wet, that it was wet for hundreds of millions of years (if not a billion or more), and that the environment was once life-friendly. This week’s discovery drives home the idea that there was plenty of water, but I don’t know that it’s a game-changer.

For Enceladus, this is a significant discovery. Adding in the fact that geysers have been previously detected with organic chemicals, this icy world now has to be considered one of (if not the most) likely places to harbour life in our solar system. As we understand life, it needs water and an energy source; Enceladus now seems to have both. Contemplating what might be swimming around in that alien ocean right now is an intriguing thought. (Maybe Enceladus leap-frogs Europa as the target for a robotic submarine mission?)

Ganymede? Add it to the list of worlds with liquid water that require more study. (I would similarly categorize Europa.) Questions abound as to the nature of their oceans, if there is any volcanic activity, do they cover the entire world, and could there be life?

Clearly we have some exploring to do.

Astronauts on board the International Space Station capture an image of the Space Shuttle Endeavour prior to docking during the mission STS-130 in February 2010 (NASA).

Astronauts on board the International Space Station capture an image of the Space Shuttle Endeavour prior to docking during the mission STS-130 in February 2010 (NASA).

Rosetta’s amazing comet ‘selfie’ from 16km altitude

14 Oct

16 km.

That’s how high Rosetta was when it snapped this picture. Just incredible.

Can’t wait for pictures from the landing! Less than a month away until that happens.

The Rosetta spacecraft captures a 'selfie' from 16 km above the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimengo. Two images with different exposure times were combined to bring out the faint details in this very high contrast situation. The comet's active ‘neck' region is clearly visible, with streams of dust and gas extending away from the surface. Rosetta's solar panel is visible in the foreground. The images were taken October 8 and released October 14, 2014. (CREDIT: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

The Rosetta spacecraft captures a ‘selfie’ from 16 km above the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimengo. Two images with different exposure times were combined to bring out the faint details in this very high contrast situation. The comet’s active ‘neck’ region is clearly visible, with streams of dust and gas extending away from the surface. Rosetta’s solar panel is visible in the foreground. The images were taken October 8 and released October 14, 2014. (CREDIT: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA)

Wrote this for Sun News Network today:

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft released a spectacular image Tuesday as it floated a mere 16 km above the surface of a comet.

Rosetta arrived at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimengo in August after travelling more than a decade through deep space to catch-up with the comet, made of rock and ice.

The spacecraft is currently lowering its obit in preparation for November 12, when part of the probe will touchdown on the surface.

The landing will be the first time in history that a probe sets down on a comet.

Scientists hope to unlock the secrets of how the solar system – and the Earth – formed by studying the comet, which serves as a time capsule from 4.5 billion years ago.

Rosetta and Comet 67P currently sit about 478 million km from Earth, between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter.

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko over Toronto

21 Aug

A photo of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko superimposed over a photo of Los Angeles has recently gone viral.

The picture gives you an idea of perspective. Because a 4km long comet doesn’t SOUND all that big, and in astronomical terms, it is pretty tiny.

But compared to a city here on Earth, it’s pretty darn big.

So I thought it would be fun to compare the size of 67P/CG to my hometown, Toronto:

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in the sky over Toronto

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in the sky over Toronto

This is all in the news right now because the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe recently entered orbit around 67P/CG – entering the history books as the first time humanity has ever had a spacecraft orbit a comet.

And here’s my challenge: What would Comet 67P/CG look like if it were over your hometown?

Hat tip to the original tweet: