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NASA believes in getting the public excited about space, and they’re carrying on this tradition by recently announcing that space fans from around the world can travel to Jupiter with the Europa Clipper mission. Though, not literally, but by adding their names to a microchip for the “Message in a Bottle” campaign that will also contain “In Praise of Mystery: A Poem for Europa”, which is an original poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón.

Participants are encouraged to visit the Europa Clipper “Message in a Bottle” website, where they’re invited to listen to an audio reading of the poem narrated by Limón, and by clicking her name at the bottom of the poem they can watch an animated video of the narrated reading.

Upon submitting their name and email address, the participant will receive an image of their name on a piece of string-tied, rolled paper in a corked glass bottle with Europa’s icy surface in the foreground and the massive Jupiter with a glistening Europa Clipper spacecraft in the background. Participants can then download the image for free directly or via the email they receive and share with their family and friends!

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Example of a participant’s name being sent to Europa with NASA’s “Message in a Bottle” campaign. (Credit: NASA)

“‘Message in a Bottle’ is the perfect convergence of science, art, and technology, and we are excited to share with the world the opportunity to be a part of Europa Clipper’s journey,” Dr. Nicola Fox, who is the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington DC, said in the announcement. “I just love the thought that our names will be traveling across our solar system aboard the radiation-tolerant spacecraft that seeks to unlock the secrets of Jupiter’s frozen moon.”

Born in Sonoma, California, Ada Limón is an award-winning author of Mexican descent, with her most notable works being “The Carrying”, which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award, and “The Hurting Kind”, which was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. In 2022, Limón was designated 24th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, making her the first Latina to be named a U.S. Poet Laureate, and subsequently reappointed to an additional two-year term in 2023. Limón had the privilege of visiting JPL in January 2023 to both see the Europa Clipper spacecraft up-close and learn more about its amazing mission to the icy world.

The Europa Clipper “Message in a Bottle” campaign builds off past NASA campaigns that involve sending names or other tokens of Earth on deep space missions. The most notable campaign is the Golden Record of the Voyager missions that was an elaborate effort encompassing a plethora of individuals, disciplines, and institutions.

In the end, two records were made with each containing 115 images, plus music, sounds, and greetings in several current and ancient languages of Earth with each record sitting on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in hopes of an extraterrestrial civilization finding them one day. In preparation for the records being found, the scientists include a cartridge and stylus and instructions on how the records could be played.

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The Voyager Golden Record. (Credit: NASA)

Most recently, the NASA Artemis I mission allowed participants to add their names to a flash drive that traveled with the mission around the Moon and back, and NASA’s Perseverance rover mission allowed participants to send their name on a microchip placed on the rover.

The overarching goal of all these campaigns, from the Golden Record to Europa
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Will We Know if TRAPPIST-1e has Life?

The search for extrasolar planets is currently undergoing a seismic shift. With the deployment of the Kepler Space Telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), scientists discovered thousands of exoplanets, most of which were detected and confirmed using indirect methods. But in more recent years, and with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the field has been transitioning toward one of characterization. In this process, scientists rely on emission spectra from exoplanet atmospheres to search for the chemical signatures we associate with life (biosignatures).

However, there’s some controversy regarding the kinds of signatures scientists should look for. Essentially, astrobiology uses life on Earth as a template when searching for indications of extraterrestrial life, much like how exoplanet hunters use Earth as a standard for measuring “habitability.” But as many scientists have pointed out, life on Earth and its natural environment have evolved considerably over time. In a recent paper, an international team demonstrated how astrobiologists could look for life on TRAPPIST-1e based on what existed on Earth billions of years ago.

The team consisted of astronomers and astrobiologists from the Global Systems Institute, and the Departments of Physics and Astronomy, Mathematics and Statistics, and Natural Sciences at the University of Exeter. They were joined by researchers from the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria and the Natural History Museum in London. The paper that describes their findings, “Biosignatures from pre-oxygen photosynthesizing life on TRAPPIST-1e,” will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS).

The TRAPPIST-1 system has been the focal point of attention ever since astronomers confirmed the presence of three exoplanets in 2016, which grew to seven by the following year. As one of many systems with a low-mass, cooler M-type (red dwarf) parent star, there are unresolved questions about whether any of its planets could be habitable. Much of this concerns the variable and unstable nature of red dwarfs, which are prone to flare activity and may not produce enough of the necessary photons to power photosynthesis.

With so many rocky planets found orbiting red dwarf suns, including the nearest exoplanet to our Solar System (Proxima b), many astronomers feel these systems would be the ideal place to look for extraterrestrial life. At the same time, they’ve also emphasized that these planets would need to have thick atmospheres, intrinsic magnetic fields, sufficient heat transfer mechanisms, or all of the above. Determining if exoplanets have these prerequisites for life is something that the JWST and other next-generation telescopes – like the ESO’s proposed Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) – are expected to enable.

But even with these and other next-generation instruments, there is still the question of what biosignatures we should look for. As noted, our planet, its atmosphere, and all life as we know it have evolved considerably over the past four billion years. During the Archean Eon (ca. 4 to 2.5 billion years ago), Earth’s atmosphere was predominantly composed of carbon dioxide, methane, and volcanic gases, and little more than anaerobic microorganisms existed. Only within the last 1.62 billion years did the first multi-celled life appear and evolve to its present complexity.

Moreover, the number of evolutionary steps (and their potential difficulty) required to get to higher levels of complexity means that many planets may never develop complex life. This is consistent with the Great Filter Hypothesis, which states that while life may be common in the Universe, advanced life may not. As a result, simple microbial biospheres similar to those that existed during the Archean could be the most common. The key, then, is to conduct searches that would isolate biosignatures consistent with primitive life and the conditions that were common to Earth billions of years ago.

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NASA Restores Communications with Voyager 1

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The venerable Voyager 1 spacecraft is finally phoning home again. This is much to the relief of mission engineers, scientists, and Voyager fans around the world.

On November 14, 2023, the aging spacecraft began sending what amounted to a string of gibberish back to Earth. It appeared to be getting commands from Earth and seemed to be operating okay. It just wasn’t returning any useful science and engineering data. The team engineers began diagnostic testing to figure out if the spacecraft’s onboard computer was giving up the ghost. They also wanted to know if there was some other issue going on.

It wasn’t completely surprising that Voyager 1 would have issues, after all. And, this isn’t the first time Voyager 1 has sent back garbly data. It’s been traversing space since its launch in 1977. Currently, the spacecraft is rushing away from the Solar System toward interstellar space. The spacecraft systems will eventually fail due to age and lack of power. But, people have always held out hope for them to last as long as possible. That’s because Voyager 1 is probing unexplored regions of space.

What Happened to Voyager 1?

The diagnostic testing led the engineering team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to look at old engineering documents and manuals for the onboard computers. Eventually, they found that the flight data subsystem (FDS) was having an issue. In the spacecraft’s data handling pipeline, this system takes information from the instruments and packages it into a data stream for the long trip back to Earth.

It turns out that the FDS has a bit of a memory problem. The engineers found this out by poking at the computer—literally sending a “poke” command to Voyager 1. That prompted the FDS to disgorge a readout of its memory—including the software code and other code values. The readout showed that about 3 percent of the FDS memory is corrupted due to a single chip failing. That’s just enough to keep the computer from doing its normal work of packaging science and engineering data. Unfortunately, engineers can’t replace the chip. No repair is possible, so the technical team devised a workaround.

Fixing the Faulty Code and Chip

So, how did engineers reach across 24 billion kilometers of space to restore communication with Voyager 1? They focused on a specific part of the computer. The loss of the code on that failed chip made it impossible for the computer to do its job. So, they figured out a way to divide the code into sections and store them in various locations around the FDS. Then they had to make the sections work together to do their original job.

They started out by taking the code that packages engineering data and moving it to a safe spot in FDS. Then they sent some commands to the spacecraft for the FDS to do some tasks. That worked because, on April 20th, they heard back from the spacecraft with clear, intelligible data. Now, they just need to do the same thing with other bits of code so that the spacecraft can send back both engineering and science data.

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The Voyager 1 flight team members celebrate in a conference room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on April 20 after receiving confirmation that their repair to the spacecraft’s FDS worked. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For now, at least, the science and engineering teams can check the spacecraft’s health and its systems. Once they relocate the other bits of code and test them after being moved, they should be able to start receiving science data again. This could take several weeks to accomplish. They’re communicating with a spacecraft that’s 22.5 light-hours away, so having a lengthy diagnostic conversation with Voyager is going to take some time. This isn’t the only problem engineers have had to contend with recently with Voyager 1. In October 2023, they worked to overcome a fuel flow problem affecting its thrusters.

Voyager 1 Into History

Voyager 1 was launched on a planetary flyby trajectory on September 5, 1977. It passed by Jupiter in March 1979 and Saturn in November 1980. The mission then morphed into an extended period of exploration and exited the heliopause in 2012. On its way out of the Solar System, the spacecraft also “looked back” at Earth. Now, it’s exploring the interstellar medium but has not yet traversed the Oort Cloud, the outermost portion of the Solar System.

This updated version of the iconic
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There Was a Doomed Comet Near the Sun During the Eclipse

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A surprise appearance of a new comet made the April 8th total solar eclipse all the more memorable.

Any dedicated ‘umbraphile’ will tell you: no two eclipses are exactly the same. Weather, solar activity, and the just plain expeditionary nature of reaching and standing in the shadow of the Moon for those brief moments during totality assures a unique experience, every time out. The same can be said for catching a brief glimpse of what’s going on near the Sun, from prominences and the pearly white corona to the configuration of bright planets… and just maybe, a new comet.

The Discovery

While many planned to try and spy periodic Comet 12P Pons-Brooks during totality, astronomer Karl Battams at the U.S. Naval Observatory alerted us to another possibility. A new sungrazing comet, spotted just hours prior. The Kreutz family comet was seen by Worachate Boonplod in the field of view of the joint NASA/ESA Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 and C2 imagers. These are equipped with Sun-covering coronagraphs that allow it to see the near solar environment. The mission was launched over a quarter of a century ago in 1995. SOHO was deployed to the sunward L1 Earth-Sun Lagrange point nearly a million miles distant. SOHO has since proven itself to be a crucial workhorse in solar heliophysics.

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Doomed SOHO-5008 (lower left). Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO

The comet soon received the formal designation of SOHO-5008. That’s right: SOHO has led to the discovery of over 5,000 comets in its career. Most of these discoveries were thanks to the efforts of dedicated online sleuths, scouring recent LASCO images.

At the time, the doom’d comet was a faint object, located only a few degrees from the Sun. The icy interloper was a tough target to nab during the fleeting minutes of totality, but at least two dedicated astrophotographers managed to catch it. Lin Zixuan saw it imaging from northern New Hampshire. Petr Horálek from the Institute of Physics in Opava Czechia (Czech Republic) was imaging from Mexico as he caught the object.

Like so many other sungrazers, the comet met its demise shortly after discovery (less than 12 hours, in fact), like a sundiving spaceship at a Disaster Area concert right out of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Brief History of Sungrazers

This sort of SOHO versus comet, versus eclipse discovery has only occurred twice: once in 2008 and again in 2020). SOHO wasn’t designed per se to find comets, but its prolific nature as a comet hunter has become an essential part of the legacy of the mission. SOHO has defined whole new families of Kreutz, Marsden and Kracht sungrazing comets. And to think, prior to the mission, only sixteen sungrazing comets were even known of.

One similar case was the Great Comet of 1948, which was also discovered by stunned observers during a total solar eclipse. Another was C/1965 Ikeya-Seki, which went on to become one of the truly great comets of the 20th century. More recently, C/2011 W3 Lovejoy surprised everyone by surviving its perihelion passage 140,000 kilometers from the surface of the Sun. Just one year later, however, 2012 S1 ISON didn’t.

It was a thrilling celestial spectacle, with an added treat.

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