NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has only been operational for just over a year, but this isn’t stopping the world’s biggest space agency from discussing the next big space telescope that could serve as JWST’s successor sometime in the future. Enter the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO), which was first proposed as NASA’s next flagship Astrophysics mission during the National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 (Astro2020). While its potential technological capabilities include studying exoplanets, stars, galaxies, and a myriad of other celestial objects for life beyond Earth, there’s a long way to go before HWO will be wowing both scientists and the public with breathtaking images and new datasets.
“Before we can design the mission, we need to develop the key technologies as much as possible,” said Dr. Dimitri Mawet, who is a Professor of Astronomy at Caltech and a Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “We are in a phase of technology maturation. The idea is to further advance the technologies that will enable the Habitable Worlds Observatory to deliver its revolutionary science while minimizing the risks of cost overruns down the line.”
Dr. Mawet is one of 56 individuals who have been selected to be part of the Technical Assessment Group (TAG) for HWO, which is scheduled to hold their first meetings in Washington D.C. between October 31 and November 2, 2023. As part of these meetings, the individuals will be comprised of two groups as part of NASA’s “Great Observatory Maturation Program” (GOMAP): Science, Technology, Architecture Review Team (START) and a Technical Assessment Group (TAG), with a full member list for both teams available here. While START will focus on HWO’S science goals, TAG will focus on HWO’S design and the necessary technology to meet the design requirements.
“The Decadal Survey recommended this mission as its top priority because of the transformational capabilities it would have for astrophysics, together with its ability to understand entire solar systems outside of our own,” said Dr. Fiona Harrison, who co-chaired the Astro2020 decadal report committee and is a Harold A. Rosen Professor of Physics and the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, both at Caltech.
For now, trying to identify biosignatures on exoplanets is limited to studying their atmospheres using spectroscopy, a method that involves analyzing light to identify any gases that might be present. A key aspect of analyzing exoplanet atmospheres is blocking out the immense glare from an exoplanet’s parent star, leaving only faint starlight that reflects off a nearby exoplanet’s atmosphere. This blocking of star glare is conducted with one of two primary ways: a coronagraph and a starshade.
Credit: European Space Agency
First invented by French astronomer Dr. Bernard Lyot in 1939 to study our Sun, a coronagraph is internal to the telescope and blocks out starlight through a multi-step process involving a mask, a washer (also called a Lyot stop), and a special mirror all working in tandem to first reduce large amounts of starlight coming into the telescope and finally revealing the exoplanets that were hiding within the star’s glare. Astronomers then can use spectroscopy to analyze the light from these exoplanets to identify gases within their respective atmospheres.
Currently, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and JWST are the only space telescopes that use coronagraphs to study exoplanets, along with several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), the Gemini Planet Imager, and telescopes located at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Going forward, there are plans for NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (often shortened as the Roman Space Telescope) to use an advanced coronagraph known as the Coronagraphic Instrument (CGI) for imaging gaseous exoplanets, with Roman slated to launch onboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy sometime in 2027.
If a coronagraph is internal to the telescope, the starshade is its external counterpart. While no current space telescopes employ starshades, development models designed and built by NASA would detach from a future
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How Do Lava Worlds Become Earth-Like, Living Planets?
Earth was once entirely molten. Planetary scientists call this phase in a planet’s evolution a magma ocean, and Earth may have had more than one magma ocean phase. Earth cooled and, over 4.5 billion years, became the vibrant, life-supporting world it is today.
Can the same thing happen to exo-lava worlds? Can studying them shed light on Earth’s transition?
Planet-hunters like the Kepler Spacecraft and TESS have found thousands of worlds around other stars. Many of these worlds orbit their stars very closely, so close that they’re heated to extreme temperatures. A lot of these planets are gas giants, but a significant number are rocky, and the extreme heat keeps them molten, or at least partially molten. At least half of these super-heated rocky worlds are capable of maintaining magma on their surfaces.
There’s nothing like a lava world in our Solar System. The closest is Jupiter’s moon Io. But it’s volcanically active, which isn’t the same as a magma ocean. Studying lava worlds gives scientists a glimpse into Earth’s molten past, and luckily, they’re not hard to find.
A new study looked at hot rocky super-Earths, how their magma oceans affect our observations, and how they also influence their evolutionary paths.
The study is “Fizzy Super-Earths: Impacts of Magma Composition on the Bulk Density and Structure of Lava Worlds,” and it was published in The Astrophysical Journal. The lead author is Kiersten Boley, a graduate student in astronomy at The Ohio State University.
“When planets initially form, particularly for rocky terrestrial planets, they go through a magma ocean stage as they’re cooling down,” said Boley. “So lava worlds can give us some insight into what may have happened in the evolution of nearly any terrestrial planet.”
“Being able to trap a lot of volatile elements within their mantles could have greater implications for habitability.”
Kiersten Boley, lead author, Ohio State University.
The team used exoplanet modelling software to simulate Super-Earths that orbit their stars very closely. These planets are called ultra-short period (USP) planets. They simulated multiple evolutionary pathways for a planet similar to Earth but with surface temperatures between 2600 and 3860 F (1426 and 2126 C.) Within this range, a planet’s solid mantle would melt into magma depending largely on its composition.
Their work produced three classes of magma oceans, each with different mantle structures: a mantle magma ocean, a surface magma ocean, and one consisting of a surface magma ocean, a solid rock layer, and a basal magma ocean.
This figure from the study shows the three types of mantle structures in the simulations. The researchers found that the mantle may be a mantle magma ocean, a surface magma ocean and solid rock layer, or a MOSMO structure (i.e., Surface Magma Ocean (MO)–Solid Rock Layer (S)–Basal Magma Ocean (MO)). Image Credit: Boley et al. 2023.
The research shows that mantle magma ocean planets are less common than the other two, but not by much. But when it comes to evolutionary pathways that might lead to habitable planets, it’s the planet’s composition that’s more important than its mantle structure. In lava worlds without atmospheres, the composition dictates how effective the magma is at trapping volatiles. That’s critical when it comes to life as we know it.
For a planet to one day express life, it needs an atmosphere with critical components like carbon and oxygen. Earth life is based on carbon, and oxygen is key to complex life here on Earth. So a magma planet with ample carbon and oxygen in its magma could eventually off-gas these critical materials into a planet’s burgeoning atmosphere if it held onto one.
Water, as we all know, is also critical to life, and some of the simulated planets had massive reserves of water. According to the study, a basal magma planet four times more massive than Earth—a
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Day Has Returned, but India’s Lander and Rover have Failed to Wake Up
It looks like India’s Chandrayaan-3 succumbed to the cold, and its mission is over. The frigid lunar night lasted about two weeks, and a new day has dawned. With that day came hopes of a sunlit revival for the lander and the rover, but the India Space Research Organization (ISRO) says the chances of the spacecraft awakening in the Sun are diminishing by the hour.
The lunar night that wrapped its cold arms around the lander and rover lasted 14 days, and so will the current lunar day. When the day dawned last Friday, ISRO began trying to communicate with the lander. There’s been no response so far, as both explorers may be forever entombed about 600km (373 mi) from the Moon’s south pole.
Even though things don’t look good for the mission, it’s still a success. It’s the first spacecraft to land in the Moon’s south pole region. The area is critical because it contains vast quantities of frozen water in its permanently shadowed crater. That water is a valuable resource for astronauts who’ll visit the Moon in the future and set up bases. It’s also the first time ISRO successfully landed a rover and lander on the Moon after its predecessor, Chandrayaan-2, crashed into the surface.
But it’s encouraging that Vikram and Pragyaan are still intact. ISRO hoped that the Sun would bring both back to life after the agency put them into sleep mode as night fell. There’s a chance that the sunlight would recharge the batteries.
“Once there is sufficient solar generation, they are expected to come back to life provided that they have survived the night.”
M Srikanth, Chandrayaan-3 Mission Operations Director.
ISRO released an update on Friday, the beginning of the new lunar day. Unfortunately, there was no response from either the lander or the rover.
Efforts have been made to establish communication with the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover to ascertain their wake-up condition.
As of now, no signals have been received from them.
Efforts to establish contact will continue.
— ISRO (@isro) September 22, 2023
When night falls on the Moon’s south pole, temperatures plummet as low as -200C to -250C (-328F to -418F.) The lander and rover were never designed to handle these temperatures. The rover has only a small battery—10 amp-hours—that provides the necessary power to deploy its solar array. It was also included to help the rover survive a periodic eclipse. The small battery was fully charged when night came, and the solar panels were positioned to receive incoming starlight when morning came. The Vikram lander was also ready for the morning, and its 62.5 amp hour was fully charged.
Both vehicles are pre-programmed to come back to life as the Sun reappears. “When sunlight comes back, there’s an autonomous logic pre-loaded on both the lander and rover,” said M Srikanth, Chandrayaan-3 Mission Operations Director, in an interview with the Times of India. “Once there is sufficient solar generation, they are expected to come back to life provided that they have survived the night.”
If ISRO’s Chandrayaan-3 mission is truly over, it was still a success. It was the first spacecraft to land at the Moon’s south pole region. Image Credit: ISRO
But according to Isro chief AS Kiran Kumar, the “chances of reawakening are dimming with each passing hour.” In an interview with the BBC, Kumar added, “The lander and rover have so many components which may not have survived the frigid temperatures on the Moon.” In fairness, they were never designed to.
It’s all up to the lander’s transmitter now. It’s ISRO’s link with the mission, and if it won’t function, it won’t matter if some of the spacecraft’s other systems are somehow still working. “It has to tell us that it’s alive. Even if all other sub-systems work, we have no way of knowing that,” Kumar added.
Some of ISRO’s hopefulness is based on China’s successful Chang’e 4 mission. It landed on the lunar far side and was plunged into darkness and freezing temperatures, too. It woke up with the sunrise more than once.
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Review: Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody
Hooded Fleece Jacket
Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody
$179, 12.5 oz./354g (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL, kids XS-XXL
As I’ve repeatedly written at this blog, virtually no piece of outdoor apparel offers more versatility than a highly breathable, midweight insulation layer; arguably, the only “layer” you will wear more is your skin. Find a highly breathable midweight jacket that’s soft and fits like it was custom made for your torso and you have a winner. Patagonia’s R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody could play that role for almost any outdoor user, from hard-core backpackers, climbers, and backcountry skiers to the average dayhiker and fitness walker, as I found wearing it on backpacking trips in Glacier National Park and the Canadian Rockies, not to mention countless days around town and at home.
At 12.5 ounces/354 grams (men’s medium), this midweight fleece is designed for wearing as an outer or middle layer in a huge range of cool to cold temperatures, including activities and seasons as diverse as hiking or climbing in virtually any mountains in any month of the year, southern climes from fall through spring, or for any winter activity—skiing, hiking, running, walking, you pick.
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The Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody.
” data-image-caption=”The Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Patagonia-R1-Air-Full-Zip-Hoody.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Patagonia-R1-Air-Full-Zip-Hoody.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Patagonia-R1-Air-Full-Zip-Hoody.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”The Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody.” class=”wp-image-60252″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Patagonia-R1-Air-Full-Zip-Hoody.jpg?resize=1024%2C683&ssl=1 1024w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Patagonia-R1-Air-Full-Zip-Hoody.jpg?resize=300%2C200&ssl=1 300w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Patagonia-R1-Air-Full-Zip-Hoody.jpg?resize=768%2C512&ssl=1 768w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Patagonia-R1-Air-Full-Zip-Hoody.jpg?resize=150%2C100&ssl=1 150w, https://i0.wp.com/thebigoutside.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Patagonia-R1-Air-Full-Zip-Hoody.jpg?w=1200&ssl=1 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />The Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody.
It kept me warm without overheating—rarely even breaking a sweat—wearing it over one base layer while hiking with a full pack, uphill and downhill, on cool, generally calm mornings and some windy afternoons during a weeklong, nearly 70-mile September backpacking trip in Glacier National Park, and hiking in chilly, very strong wind on three-day hikes on both the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park and the Nigel, Cataract, and Cline Passes Route in the White Goat Wilderness of the Canadian Rockies in the first week of August.
On those backpacking trips, I also wore it in camp both as an outer layer and, when temps dropped, under a down jacket—meaning the R1 Air Hoody doubled as an on-trail layer and a camp layer that allowed me to bring a lighter puffy and forego a midweight, long-sleeve shirt. To frame it another way: The R1 Air Hoody cut my layering system weight by replacing or reducing two other layers. Few pieces of apparel offer more versatility while reducing your pack weight.
I also wore it on breezy, cool evenings in the 50s between waves of thunderstorms
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