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NASA has a long history of crowdsourcing solutions, seeking input from the public, entrepreneurs, and citizen scientists. Currently, the agency is tasked with preparing for the long-awaited return to the Moon (the Artemis Program) and addressing the growing problem of Climate Change. The former entails all manner of requirements, from launch vehicles and human-rated spacecraft to logistical concerns and payload services. The latter calls for advances in climate science, Earth observation, and high-quality data collection.

To enlist the help of entrepreneurs in addressing these challenges, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has once again teamed up with the world-leading crowdsourcing platform HeroX to launch the NASA Entrepreneurs Challenge. With a total prize purse of $1,000,000, NASA is looking for ideas to develop and commercialize state-of-the-art technology and data usage that advances lunar exploration and climate science. The challenge launched on April 10th and will run until November 29th, after which the winners will be invited to a live pitch event hosted at the Defense TechConnect Innovation Summit and Expo in Washington, D.C.

In November of 2024, NASA’s Artemis II mission will carry a crew of four (who were recently announced) on a circumlunar flight. This mission follows on the heels of the successful Artemis I mission that validated the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Spacecraft, and established a new long-distance record. In 2025, NASA plans to send the first astronauts to the Moon since the Apollo Era (“the first woman and first person of color”) with Artemis III. This will be paralleled and followed by the deployment of infrastructure like the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Basecamp, with the long-term aim of creating a program of “sustained lunar exploration and development.”

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Much of NASA’s research into Climate Change takes place through the Earth Sciences Directorate.
Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, back on Earth, humanity is facing a mounting climate crisis as rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are driving temperature increases. By 2050, global temperatures will increase by an average of 1.5 to 2 °C (2.7 to 3.6 °F), according to the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), leading to rising sea levels, coastal flooding, melting ice sheets, and increased drought, famine, disease, and heat waves all across the globe. In keeping with the Mitigation and Adaptation strategies recommended by the IPCC, space agencies rely on Earth Observation satellites to track Climate Change and predict where ecological impacts will occur.

These two challenges are not mutually exclusive, as developments for space have always had game-changing applications for life here on Earth. Through its “Moon to Mars” architecture, NASA is fostering advances in habitats, power generation, food production, and bioregenerative life support systems. These technologies emphasize sustainability, closed-loop cycles, and strategies for living in environments where there is little to no margin for failure. Therefore, it is fitting that NASA has chosen to combine these two areas of focus for this year’s NASA Entrepreneur Challenge.

This year’s competition is a follow-up on Entrepreneur Challenges held in 2020 and 2021. The former was focused on machine learning, autonomous systems, mass spectrometry, and quantum sensors for astrobiology and astrophysics. The latter sought ideas for small satellite capabilities, metamaterial sensors, and sample handling and processing technology (respectively). This year’s challenge will consist of two rounds, where companies will submit pitch decks and technical papers that outline their concepts.

For Round 1, teams will submit a Pitch Deck of up to 8 slides alongside a Technical Submission (a white paper of up to 5 pages) outlining their ideas. These submissions will be judged by a panel of NASA personnel and venture experts who will award up to 20 companies with $16,000. These companies will be invited to participate in Round 2, where they will support a Pitch Deck of up to 12 Slides with a more extensive technical submission (10

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Amazing Amateur Images of April 8th’s Total Solar Eclipse

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The last total solar eclipse across the Mexico, the U.S. and Canada for a generation wows observers.

Did you see it? Last week’s total solar eclipse did not disappoint, as viewers from the Pacific coast of Mexico, across the U.S. from Texas to Maine and through the Canadian Maritime provinces were treated to an unforgettable show. The weather threw us all a curve-ball one week out, as favored sites in Texas and Mexico fought to see the event through broken clouds, while areas along the northeastern track from New Hampshire and Maine onward were actually treated to clear skies.

Many eclipse chasers scrambled to reposition themselves at the last minute as totality approached. In northern Maine, it was amusing to see tiny Houlton, Maine become the epicenter of all things eclipse-based.

Tales of a Total Solar Eclipse

We were also treated to some amazing images of the eclipse from Earth and space. NASA also had several efforts underway to chase the eclipse. Even now, we’re still processing the experience. It takes time (and patience!) for astro-photos to make their way through the workflow. Here are some of the best images we’ve seen from the path of totality:

Tony Dunn had an amazing experience, watching the eclipse from Mazatlan, Mexico. “When totality hit, it didn’t look real,” Dunn told Universe Today. “It looked staged, like a movie studio. the lighting is something that can’t be experienced outside a total solar eclipse.”

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Totality on April 8th, with prominences. Credit: Tony Dunn.

Dunn also caught an amazing sight, as the shadow of the Moon moved across the low cloud cover:

#Eclipse2024 #Mazatlan The shadow of the Moon crosses the sky.

— Tony Dunn (@tony873004) April 14, 2024

Black Hole Sun

Peter Forister caught the eclipse from central Indiana. “It was my second totality (after 2017 in South Carolina), so I knew what was coming,” Forister told Universe Today. “But it was still as incredible and beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen in nature. The Sun and Moon seemed huge in my view—a massive black hole (like someone took a hole punch to the sky) surrounded by white and blue flames streaking out. Plus, there was great visibility of the planets and a few stars. The memory has been playing over and over in my head since it happened—and it’s combined with feelings of awe and wonder at how beautiful our Universe and planet really are. The best kind of memory!”

Totality over Texas. Credit: Eliot Herman

Like many observers, Eliot Herman battled to see the eclipse through clouds. “As you know, we had really frustrating clouds,” Herman told Universe Today. “I shot a few photos (in) which you can see the eclipse embedded in the clouds and then uncovered to show the best part. For me it almost seemed like a cosmic mocking, showing me what a great eclipse it was, and lifting the veil only at the end of the eclipse to show me what I missed…”

Totality and solar

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The Solar Wind is Stripping Oxygen and Carbon Away From Venus

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The BepiColombo mission, a joint effort between JAXA and the ESA, was only the second (and most advanced) mission to visit Mercury, the least explored planet in the Solar System. With two probes and an advanced suite of scientific instruments, the mission addressed several unresolved questions about Mercury, including the origin of its magnetic field, the depressions with bright material around them (“hollows”), and water ice around its poles. As it turns out, BepiColombo revealed some interesting things about Venus during its brief flyby.

Specifically, the two probes studied a previously unexplored region of Venus’ magnetic environment when they made their second pass on August 10th, 2021. In a recent study, an international team of scientists analyzed the data and found traces of carbon and oxygen being stripped from the upper layers of Venus’ atmosphere and accelerated to speeds where they can escape the planet’s gravitational pull. This data could provide new clues about atmospheric loss and how interactions between solar wind and planetary atmospheres influence planetary evolution.

The study was led by Lina Hadid, a CNRS researcher at the Plasma Physics Laboratory (LPP) and the Observatoire de Paris. She was joined by researchers from the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) at JAXA, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), the CNRS Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS), the Institute for Geophysics and Extraterrestrial Physics (IGEP), the Space Research Institute (SRI), and multiple universities.

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Schematic view of planetary material escaping through Venus magnetosheath flank. Credit: Thibaut Roger/Europlanet 2024 RI/Hadid et al.

While Venus does not have an intrinsic magnetic field like Earth, it has a weak magnetic field that results from the interaction of solar wind and electrically charged particles in Venus’ upper atmosphere. Surrounding this “induced magnetosphere” is the “magnetosheath,” a region where the solar wind is slowed and heated. In August 2021, BepliColombo’s two spacecraft – the ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO, aka. Mio) – passed by Venus on the final leg of their journey toward Mercury, using the planet’s gravity to adjust its course and its upper atmosphere to shed speed.

The two spacecraft spent 90 minutes passing through the tail of the magnetosheath and the magnetic regions closest to the Sun. The mission controllers used this opportunity to gather data on the number and mass of charged particles it encountered using Mio‘s Mass Spectrum Analyzer (MSA) and the Mercury Ion Analyzer (MIA), which are part of the probe’s Mercury Plasma Particle Experiment (MPPE). The team also relied on Europlanet’s Sun Planet Interactions Digital Environment on Request (SPIDER) space weather modeling tools to track how atmospheric particles propagated through the magnetosheath.

As Hadid explained in a Europlanet Society release, analysis of this data provides insight into the chemical and physical processes driving atmospheric escape from this region of the magnetosheath:

“This is the first time that positively charged carbon ions have been observed escaping from Venus’s atmosphere. These are heavy ions that are usually slow moving, so we are still trying to understand the mechanisms that are at play. It may be that an electrostatic ‘wind’ is lifting them away from the planet, or they could be accelerated through centrifugal processes.”

In particular, these findings could help scientists to deduce what happened to Venus’ surface water. Like Earth, much of Venus’ surface was once covered in oceans, which disappeared about 700 million years ago. The most widely-held theory is that this coincided with a massive resurfacing event that flooded the atmosphere with carbon
Did you miss our previous article…

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Are Titan’s Dunes Made of Comet Dust?

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A new theory suggests that Titan’s majestic dune fields may be have come from outer space. Researchers had always assumed that the sand making up Titan’s dunes was locally made, through erosion or condensed from atmospheric hydrocarbons. But researchers from the University of Colorado want to know: Could it have come from comets?

The dunes of Titan

When the Cassini spacecraft arrived in orbit around Saturn, nobody had ever seen beneath the thick soupy atmosphere of Titan. So when it dropped the Huygens lander, and began probing Titan with cloud-penetrating radar, scientists were surprised to learn that Titan has a very earth-like appearance. It has a thick nitrogen atmosphere, rain, rivers, oceans and massive dune fields. But unlike the dunes of Earth’s sandy deserts in Namibia and southern Arabia, Titan’s dunes are enormous, and fill massive fields covering more than an eighth of the giant moon’s surface. These dunes are about 100 meters tall, 1 to 2 km wide at the base, and can stretch for hundreds of kilometers in length.

Dunes on Earth are made from sand, which is blown by the wind and heaped into drifts. Individual sand particles are nudge and blown by the wind with enough force to make them bounce and scatter, in a process called saltation. If the particles don’t bounce, then they cannot pile up on top of each other, but if the wind is able to lift them off the ground completely then they simply blow away. Saltation depends on the size and mass of the sand particles and the strength of the wind, but also needs the particles to be dry so that they can move freely without sticking together.

Titan’s geology

Titan is the second largest moon in the entire Solar System, beaten only by Ganymede, orbiting Jupiter. It is Saturn’s largest moon, and very old. Unlike most of Saturn’s moon, which were captured over time, Titan would have formed together with Saturn billions of years ago. Despite having so many features in common with Earth, it is a very different place. It is so intensely cold that, instead of water, its rain and rivers are made from liquid hydrocarbons like methane. Water, on the other hand, is frozen into hard ice; rocks on Titan are made from water ice, instead of granite and basalt, and Titan’s equivalent of lava and magma are made from liquid water and ammonia.

This means that sand on Titan is not made from silica eroded from larger rocks, since those materials are not found on the surface. One popular theory is that it could instead be made from ice. When liquid methane rains and flows, it could erode the water-ice bedrock, grinding chunks together to a sand of ice grains. An alternative idea is that the sand particles are instead made from tholins. These are found all over the colder regions of the Solar System, where cold hydrocarbons in comets or the outer atmospheres of planets and moons react with ultraviolet light from the Sun to create complex compounds. Tholins formed in the dry atmosphere of Titan could clump together with static electricity to form small grains of soot that then settle to the ground, creating both dust and sand.

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Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle captured during its last pass by Earth on Nov. 1, 1992. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

What do comets have to do with this?

But a paper presented at this year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) suggests a new idea: What if the sand came from comets? Comets, as we know, are made from materials left over from the creation of the Solar System. Most of the primordial gas and dust that collapsed from an ancient nebula to form the Solar System would have ended up in the Sun, with the bulk of the remains forming the planets. But this still would still have left a lot of material floating free, and some of that would have gradually coalesced into lumps of dust and ices, which we see today as comets. When comets are nudged into elliptical orbits and pass through the inner Solar System, some of their ice heats up and sublimates into gas which blows out, carrying dust with it. This dust is scattered throughout the Solar System, concentrated along the various comet’s orbits. Individual grains often collide with the Earth, which we see as meteors, burning high in our atmosphere. Recent surveys in Antarctic ice

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