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Visualizations can inspire creative new ways of thinking about an object.  But holding that visualization in your hand adds a whole other level of impact to it.  That desire for impact has led Dr. Nia Imara, an astrophysicist and artist at UC Santa Cruz, to create the first-ever 3D printed models of stellar nurseries.

The printed spheres are more than just fancy baseball-sized marbles.  Their strands of different colorations represent the filaments and clumps of material naturally found in star-forming regions in space.  Dr. Imara worked with John Forbes at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics and James Weaver at Harvard to develop a suite of nine different models of the three forces that impact how stellar nurseries forms: turbulence, gravity, and magnetic fields.

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Nia Imara – the astrophysicist/artist who developed the idea of 3D printing the spheres.
Credit – Nia Imara

Different patterns in the final marbles represent variations in those three forces. The added benefit of a third dimension of visualization allowed researchers to understand how those forces interact in ways never before considered. Lighter areas correspond to dense clumps of gas and dust, whereas the darker swirls represent the void of space itself.

Those intricate swirls resulted from a type of inkjet-like 3D printing process, which differs from the typical extrusion processes a standard desktop 3D printer uses.  It uses tiny drops of resin precisely deposited at certain locations to create the swirling, whimsical effects seen in the models.

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Some of the 3D printed stellar nursery spheres.
Credit – Saurabh Mhatre

While undeniably pretty to look at, the structures themselves are also interesting from a scientific perspective.  Understanding how the filaments and clumps in the model interact based on the three forces is much easier to see when looking at a print of their shape rather than at data on a computer screen.  Additionally, some of the models were left half-completed, allowing scientists to look at a cross-section of what the inside of the nurseries would look like according to the model.

While science was certainly a driving force in the research, Dr. Imara mentioned a particular portrait she drew of herself grasping a star that made her originally conceive of this project.  But she very easily could have been inspired by an older pop culture reference – spoilers for a 25-year-old movie ahead.  In the original Men In Black, the heroes realize that what looks like a sphere on the cat Orion’s belt is actually a whole universe contained in the size of a marble.  While not quite that intricately detailed, Dr. Imara’s 3D printed models of stellar nurseries are the closest humanity has come to creating something like that for ourselves – and they are absolutely breathtaking.

Learn More:
USCS – Astronomers create the first 3D-printed stellar nurseries
Newsweek – Astronomers Can Now Touch the Stars Thanks to 3D-printed Stellar Nurseries
Cnet – Astronomers 3D-print stellar nurseries you can hold in your hand

Lead Image:
Some of the spheres were left half-finished to help visualize an interior layer of the molecular cloud.
Credit – Saurabh Mhatre

The post Astronomers Create 3D Printed Nebulae appeared first on Universe Today.

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Should We Send Humans to Venus?

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NASA is preparing to send humans back to the Moon with the Artemis missions in the next few years as part of the agency’s Moon to Mars Architecture with the long-term goal of landing humans on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s or 2040s. But what about sending humans to other worlds of the Solar System? And, why not Venus? It’s closer to Earth than Mars by several tens of millions of kilometers, and despite its extremely harsh surface conditions, previous studies have suggested that life could exist in its clouds. In contrast, we have yet to find any signs of life anywhere on the Red Planet or in its thin atmosphere. So, should we send humans to Venus?

“Yes, we should send humans to Venus,” Dr. Paul Byrne, who is an Associate Professor of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, tells Universe Today. “But first, let’s talk about what ‘sending humans to Venus’ actually means. The surface of Venus is hellish, so nobody would last long there nor volunteer to go. Above the clouds, the temperature and pressure are almost like a nice spring day here on Earth, so aside from tiny sulphuric acid cloud droplets you’d be okay (with a breathing apparatus).”

These “hellish” conditions that Dr. Byrne alludes to are the extreme conditions across the surface of Venus, including surface pressures 92 times that of Earth’s surface and average surface temperatures of approximately 464 degrees Celsius (867 degrees Fahrenheit). In contrast, Earth’s average surface temperatures are a calm 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). These extreme pressures and temperatures have made landing on the surface of Venus even more difficult, as the former Soviet Union continues to be the only nation to have successfully landed on Venus’ surface, having accomplished this feat with several of their Venera and Vega missions. However, the longest mission duration for the lander was only 127 minutes (Venera 13), which also conducted the first sound recording on another planet.

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Color images taken by the Soviet Union’s Venera 13 lander on the surface of Venus on March 1, 1982, with the lander surviving only 127 minutes due to Venus’s extreme surface conditions. (Credit: NASA)

“If we were to send humans to Venus, they’d be going in a spacecraft that would fly by the planet en route somewhere else,” Dr. Byrne tells Universe Today. “If we were to one day send humans actually to Venus itself for science and engineering purposes, then a cloud-based habitat is the way to go. Getting humans onto the Venus surface is going to require so much technology and expense that, for the foreseeable future, I don’t think anyone will think it worth doing.”

A 2015 study presented at the AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum and Exposition outlined a NASA study for the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission that would involve a 30-day crewed mission using an airship equipped with solar panels within the upper atmosphere of Venus. This is because Venus’ upper atmosphere at approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) above the surface exhibits much more hospitable conditions, including temperatures between 30 to 70 degrees Celsius (86 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit) and pressures very close to that of Earth. However, Dr. Byrne refers to HAVOC as an “unbelievably expensive concept”.

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Artist rendition of proposed habitable airships traversing Venus’ atmosphere, which has been proposed as the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission. (Credit: NASA)

As for using Venus while en route to another location in the Solar System, Venus has been used on several occasions to slingshot spacecraft to the outer Solar System as well as for exploration of the inner Solar System, such as Mercury and the Sun. For example, NASA’s Galileo and Cassini spacecraft used gravity assists

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Frontier Adventure

We Should Hit Peak Solar Activity Next Year

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You may be familiar with the solar cycle that follows a 22 year process shifting from solar minimum to maximum and back again. It’s a cycle that has been observed for centuries yet predicting its peak has been somewhat challenging. The Sun’s current cycle is approaching maximum activity which brings with it higher numbers of sunspots on its surface, more flares and more coronal mass ejections. A team from India now believe they have discovered a new element of the Sun’s magnetic field allowing them to predict the peak will occur early in 2024.

The Sun is a gigantic sphere of plasma or electrically charged gas. One of the features of plasma is that if a magnetic field passes through it, the plasma moves with it. Conversely if the plasma moves, the magnetic field moves too. This magnetic field is just like Earth and is known as a dipole magnetic field. You can visualise it if you can remember your school science days with a bar magnet and iron filings.

A dipole magnetic field has two opposite but equal charges and at the start of the Sun’s cycle the field lines effectively run from the north pole to the south. As the Sun rotates, with the equator rotating faster than the polar regions, then the plasma drags the magnetic field lines with it, winding them tighter and tighter.

The field lines become stretched causing the magnetic field to loop up and through the visible surface of the Sun. This localised event prevents the convection of super heated gas from underneath and appears as a cooler area of the surface which appears dark. As the solar cycle starts, these sunspots appear around the polar regions and slowly migrate toward the equator as it progresses with peak activity occurring when the sunspots fade away as we head toward the start of another cycle. 

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Image of sunspots (Credit : NASA Goddard Space Flight Center // SDO)

On occasions the magnetic field of sunspots are disrupted and we can experience flares or coronal mass ejections hurling vast amounts of charged particles out into space. If they reach us here on Earth they give rise to the beautiful aurora displays but they do also have a rather negative impact to satellites, power grids and telecommunications systems.

Deep inside the Sun, a dynamo mechanism is driving all this. It is created by the energy from the movement of plasma and it is this that is responsible for the flipping of the Sun’s magnetic poles where the north pole becomes south and the south pole becomes north which happens every 11 years or so. It’s another aspect of the solar cycle.

It’s been known since the 1930’s that the rate of rise the sunspot cycle relates to its strength with stronger cycles taking less time to reach peak. In the paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters; Priyansh Jaswal, Chitradeep Saha and Dibyendu Nandy from the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research announced their findings. They discovered that the rate of decrease in the Sun’s dipole magnetic field also seems to relate to the rise of the present cycle.

The team have looked back through archives and have shown how the observation of the dipole decrease rate along with observations of sunspots can predict the peak of activity with better accuracy than before. They conclude the current cycle is expected to peak somewhere between early 2024 and September next year. Being able to better predict the peak of activity will help understand the likely intensity of space weather events here on Earth providing us more warning to be able to prepare.

Source : Solar activity likely to peak next year, new study suggests

The post We Should Hit Peak Solar Activity Next Year appeared first on Universe Today.

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The Solar Radius Might Be Slightly Smaller Than We Thought

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Two astronomers use a pioneering method to suggest that the size of our Sun and the solar radius may be due revision.

Our host star is full of surprises. Studying our Sun is the most essential facet of modern astronomy: not only does Sol provide us with the only example of a star we can study up close, but the energy it provides fuels life on Earth, and the space weather it produces impacts our modern technological civilization.

Now, a new study, titled The Acoustic Size of the Sun suggests that a key parameter in modern astronomy and heliophysics—the diameter of the Sun—may need a slight tweak.

The study out of the University of Tokyo and the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge was done looking at data from the joint NASA/ESA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO’s) Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI) imager. The method probes the solar interior via acoustics and a cutting edge field of solar physics known as helioseismology.

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A cutaway diagram of the Sun. NASA/ESA/SOHO

‘Hearing’ the Solar Interior

How can you ‘hear’ acoustic waves on the Sun? In 1962, astronomers discovered that patches on the surface of the Sun oscillate, or bubble up and down, like water boiling on a stove top. These create waves that ripple in periodic 5-minute oscillations across the roiling surface of the Sun.

A view of the Sun, courtesy of SOHO’s MDI instrument. Credit: NASA

What’s more, astronomers can use what we see happening on the surface of the Sun to model the solar interior, much like terrestrial astronomers use seismic waves traveling through the Earth to model its core. Thanks to helioseismology, we can even ‘see’ what’s going on on the solar farside, and alert observers of massive sunspots before they rotate into view.

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Solar farside modeling using helioseismology. Credit: NSF/GONG

The study looked at p-mode waves as they traversed the solar interior. Previous studies relied on less accurate f-mode waves, which are surface waves considerably shorter than the solar radius.

The study defines the solar radius (half the diameter) as 695,780 kilometers… only slightly smaller than the generally accepted radius of 696,000 kilometers obtained by direct optical measurement. This is only smaller by a few hundredths of a percent, or 100-200 kilometers.

An artist’s conception of SOHO in space. Credit: ESA/SOHO

The solar radius is a deceptively simple but crucial factor in astronomy. The Sun is a glowing ball of hydrogen and helium plasma without a distinct surface boundary. The photosphere—the glowing visible layer we see shining down on us on a sunny day—is what we generally refer to as the surface of the Sun.

The Solar Radius: A Brief
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