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In 2005, astronomer Mike Brown and his colleagues Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz announced the discovery of a previously unknown planetoid in the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune’s orbit. The team named this object Eris after the Greek personification of strife and discord, which was assigned by the IAU a year later. Along with Haumea and Makemake, which they similarly observed in 2004 and 2005 (respectively), this object led to the “Great Planet Debate,” which continues to this day. Meanwhile, astronomers have continued to study the Trans-Neptunian region to learn more about these objects.

While subsequent observations have allowed astronomers to get a better idea of Eris’ size and mass, there are many unresolved questions about the structure of this “dwarf planet” and how it compares to Pluto. In a recent study, Mike Brown and University of California Santa Cruz professor Francis Nimmo presented a series of models based on new mass estimates for Eris’ moon Dysnomia. According to their results, Eris is likely differentiated into a convecting icy shell and rocky core, which sets it apart from Pluto’s conductive shell.

Their paper, “The internal structure of Eris inferred from its spin and orbit evolution,” recently appeared in the journal Science Advances. The research began while Nimmo was visiting Professor Brown at Caltech and realized that some of his previously-unpublished data could help reveal information about the properties of Eris. At present, we know that Eris is about the same size and mass as Pluto and has a highly eccentric orbit around our Sun, ranging from 38.271 AU at perihelion to 97.457 AU at aphelion. This is almost twice as eccentric as Pluto’s orbit and roughly 50% farther from the Sun.

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Comparison between the eight largest TNOs with Earth (all to scale). Credit: NASA/Lexicon

For several months, Brown and Nimmo worked on models of Eris that incorporated two key pieces of information. The first had to do with Eris’ only known satellite, Dysnomia, and how the two bodies always face the same way toward each other. “That happens because the big planet gets spun down by the tides that the little moon raises on it,” said Nimmo in a recent UCSC press release. “The bigger the moon is, the faster the planet spins down. And so as soon as you know that, then you can actually start to do real calculations.”

Astronomers can use the spin and orbital characteristics of planets and their moons to infer certain properties, like their internal structures. But until recently, scientists did not have estimates on Dysnomia’s size, mass, and density. Luckily, Brown and his colleague Bryan J. Butler – a researcher at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) – recently conducted observations of Dysnomia and Eris (and Orcus and its satellite Vanth) using the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array (ALMA). Based on their findings, published in The Planetary Science Journal, Dysnomia has a diameter of about 615 km (382 mi) and Dysnomia and Eris have a mass ratio of 0.0085.

This upper mass limit provided the second crucial piece of information, which concerned Eris’ internal structure. The main result of Brown and Nimmo’s model (but did not expect) is that Eris is surprisingly dissipative, a concept in thermodynamics where a system operates out of equilibrium. From this, they determined that Eris has a rocky core surrounded by a layer of ice and a crust that is likely convecting. “The rock contains radioactive elements, and those produce heat,” Nimmo said. “And then that heat has to get out somehow. So as the heat escapes, it drives this slow churning in the ice.” 

This sets it apart from Pluto, which has a conducting shell, as revealed by the New Horizon mission. Brown and Nimmo hope that more exact measurements of Dysnomia’s mass will be available in the near future, as well as additional data about the shape of Eris. Because of its distance, Eris appears as a single pixel of light, while Dysnomia is visible as a faint speck next to it (see below). Therefore, astronomers must monitor Eris as it passes in front of background stars to reconstruct its shape. This is similar to the Transit Method astronomers use to detect exoplanets and constrain their sizes.

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Japan’s New H3 Rocket Successfully Blasts Off

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Japan successfully tested its new flagship H3 rocket after an earlier version failed last year. The rocket lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center on Saturday, February 17, reaching an orbital altitude of about 670 kilometers (420 miles). It deployed a set of micro-satellites and a dummy satellite designed to simulate a realistic payload.

With the successful launch of the H3, Japan will begin transitioning away from the previous H-2A rocket which has been in service since 2001 and is set to be retired after two more launches. Several upcoming missions depend on the H3, so this successful test was vital.

The launch came after two days of delays because of bad weather. The H3 rocket, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is now set to become the main launch vehicle of Japan’s space program. The rocket’s first flight in March 2023 failed to reach orbit, which resulted in the loss of an Earth imaging satellite.

The successful launch and deployment of the satellites was a relief for JAXA and members of the project. A livestream of the launch and subsequent successful orbit insertion showed those in the JAXA command cheering and hugging each other.

“I now feel a heavy load taken off my shoulders,” said JAXA H3 project manager Masashi Okada, speaking at a press briefing after the launch. “But now is the real start for H3, and we will work to steadily improve it.”

H3 stands about 57-meter (187-feet) tall and is designed to carry larger payloads. The two microsatellites were deployed approximately 16 minutes and 43 seconds after liftoff. They included an Earth observation satellite named CE-SAT-IE, developed by Canon Electronics, and TIRSAT, an infrared Earth observation instrument that will observe the temperature of the Earth’s surface and seawater.

“We feel so relieved to be able to announce the good results,” JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa said at the briefing. Yamakawa added that the main goals of H3 are to secure independent access to space and allow Japan to be competitive as international demand for satellite launches continues to grow. “We made a big first step today toward achieving that goal,” he said.

Image of SLIM lander on moon
An image sent back by a mini-probe shows Japan’s SLIM lander on its side on the lunar surface. (JAXA / Takara Tomy / Sony Group / Doshisha Univ.)

The successful launch comes after two other recent successes for JAXA last month where the H-2A rocket successfully placed a spy satellite into orbit, and just days later JAXA’s robotic SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) made the first-ever precise “pinpoint” Moon landing – although unfortunately the lander came down on its side. However, during the final stages of the descent two autonomous rovers were successfully deployed: a tiny hopping robot and the other designed to roll about the surface. Both have sent back pictures and can continue exploring and sending back information even if SLIM cannot be operated.

The post Japan’s New H3 Rocket Successfully Blasts Off appeared first on Universe Today.

Did you miss our previous article…
https://mansbrand.com/european-satellite-ers-2-to-reenter-earths-atmosphere-this-week/

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European Satellite ERS-2 to Reenter Earth’s Atmosphere This Week

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One of the largest reentries in recent years, ESA’s ERS-2 satellite is coming down this week.

After almost three decades in orbit, an early Earth-observation satellite is finally coming down this week. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Remote Sensing satellite ERS-2 is set to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere on or around Wednesday, February 21st.

Trail Blazing Mission

Launched atop an Ariane-4 rocket from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on April 21st, 1995, ERS-2 was one of ESA’s first Earth observation satellites. ERS-2 monitored land masses, oceans, rivers, vegetation and the polar regions of the Earth using visible light and ultraviolet sensors. The mission was on hand for several natural disasters, including the flood of the Elbe River across Germany in 2006. ERS-2 ceased operations in September 2011.

Reentry
Anatomy of the reentry of ERS-2. ESA

ERS-2 was placed in a retrograde, Sun-synchronous low Earth orbit, inclined 98.5 degrees relative to the equator. This orbit is typical for Earth-observing and clandestine spy satellites, as it allows the mission to image key target sites at the same relative Sun angle, an attribute handy for image interpretation.

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ERS-2 tracks and ice floe. ESA

The Last Days of ERS-2

Reentry predictions for the satellite are centered on February 21st at 00:19 Universal Time (UT)+/- 25 hours. As we get closer, expect that time to get refined. The mass of ERS-2 at launch (including fuel) was 2,516 kilograms. Expect most of the satellite to burn up on reentry.

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The orbital path of ERS-2. Orbitron

For context, recent high profile reentries include the UARS satellite (6.5 tons, in 2011), and the massive Long March-5B booster that launched the core module for China’s Tiangong Space Station in late 2022 (weighing in at 23 tons).

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ERS-2 in the clean room on Earth prior to launch. ESA

ESA passed its first space debris mitigation policy in 2008, 13 years after ERS-2 was launched. In 2011, ESA decided to passively reenter the satellite, and began a series of 66 deorbiting maneuvers to bring its orbit down from 785 kilometers to 573 kilometers. Its fuel drained and batteries exhausted, ERS-2 is now succumbing to the increased drag of the Earth’s atmosphere as we near the peak of the current solar cycle.

North Prague Floods ERS

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Look at How Much the Sun Has Changed in Just Two Years

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The solar cycle has been reasonably well understood since 1843 when Samuel Schwabe spent 17 years observing the variation of sunspots. Since then, we have regularly observed the ebb and flow of the sunspots cycle every 11 years. More recently ESA’s Solar Orbiter has taken regular images of the Sun to track the progress as we head towards the peak of the current solar cycle. Two recently released images from February 2021 and October 2023 show how things are really picking up as we head toward solar maximum.

The Sun is a great big ball of plasma, electrically charged gas, which has the amazing property that it can move a magnetic field that may be embedded within.  As the Sun rotates, the magnetic field gets dragged around with it but, because the Sun rotates faster at the equator than at the poles, the field lines get wound up tighter and tighter.

Under this immense stressing, the field lines occasionally break, snap or burst through the surface of the Sun and when they do, we see a sunspot. These dark patches on the visible surface of the Sun are regions where denser concentrations of solar material prohibit heat flow to the visible surface giving rise to slightly cooler, and therefore darker patches on the Sun. 

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A collage of new solar images captured by the Inouye Solar Telescope, which is a small amount of solar data obtained during the Inouye’s first year of operations throughout its commissioning phase. Images include sunspots and quiet regions of the Sun, known as convection cells. (Credit: NSF/AURA/NSO)

The slow rotation of the Sun and the slow but continuous winding up of the field lines means that sun spots become more and more numerous as the field gets more distorted. Observed over a period of years the spots seem to slowly migrate from the polar regions to the equatorial regions as the solar cycle progresses.

To try and help understand this complex cycle and unlock other mysteries of the Sun, the European Space Agency launched its Solar Orbiter on 10 February 2020. Its mission to explore the Sun’s polar regions, understand what drives the 11 year solar cycle and what drives the heating of the corona, the outer layers of the Sun’s atmosphere. 

Solar Orbiter
Solar Orbiter

Images from Solar Orbiter have been released that show closeups of the Sun’s visible surface, the photosphere as it nears peak of solar activity. At the beginning of the cycle, at solar minimum in 2019, there was relatively little activity and only a few sunspots. Since then, things have been slowly increasing. The image from February 2021 showed a reasonably quiet Sun but an image taken in October last year shows that things are, dare I say, hotting up! The maximum of this cycle is expected to occur in 2025 which supports theories that the period of maximum activity could arrive a year earlier.

Understanding the cycle is not just of whimsical scientific interest, it is vital to ensure we minimise damage to ground based and orbiting systems but crucially understand impact on life on Earth.

Source : Sun’s surprising activity surge in Solar Orbiter snapshot

The post Look at How Much the Sun Has Changed in Just Two Years appeared first on Universe Today.

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