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When I heard about this I felt an amused twinge of envy. Over the last year I have been using an unimpressive 4G broadband service and at best get 20 Mbps, NASA’s Psyche mission has STILL been getting 23 Mbps at 225 million km away! It’s all thanks to the prototype optical transmission system employed on the probe. It means it can get up to 100 times more data transmission rate than usual radio. 

NASA’s Pysche mission is on its way to explore the metal rich asteroid between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter called, not surprisingly Psyche. The intriguing thing about the asteroid is that it seems to be the iron rich core of an unformed planet. The spacecraft carried a wealth of scientific instruments to explore the asteroid including an imaging rig, gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, magnetometer and an X-band Gravity platform.

It began its two year journey on 13 October with its destination, a tiny world that may help us unravel some of the mysteries of the formation of our Solar System. The theory that Psyche is a failed planetary core is not certain so this will be one of the first of its mission objectives; is it simply unmelted metal or was it a core. In order to understand this it’s necessary to work out its age. Secondary to the origin, other objectives are to explore the composition and its topography across the surface.

Asteroid Psuche was discovered in March 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. Because he discovered it, he was allowed to name it and settled on Psyche after the Greek goddess of the soul. It orbits the Sun at a distance of between 378 million to 497 million kilometres and takes about 5 Earth years to complete an orbit. Shaped like a potato, or perhaps more accurately classed as ‘irregular’ it is actually a little ellipsoid in shape measuring 280 km across wide at its widest part and 232 km across long. 

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Illustration of the metallic asteroid Psyche. Credit: Peter Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Of more interest than the objectives perhaps (although I for one am looking forward to learn more about this wonderful asteroid) was the trial communication system. The newly developed Deep Space Optical Communications technology (DSOC) is not the primary communications platform but it is there as a prototype.

The optical system which relies upon laser technology successfully sent back engineering data at a distance of 226 million kilometres. Perhaps more impressively though, the spacecraft has shown that it can transmit at a rate of 267 Mbps (YES you read that right, just over quarter of a Gbps!) The impressive download speed was achieved on 11 December last year when a 15 second ultra high definition video was sent to Earth. Sadly though, as the spacecraft recedes, its data transmission capability will reduce. Still far better than normal radio communications though.

Using a powerful modulated laser, the Optical Communication Telescope Laboratory in California will be able to send data at a low rate to Psyche. To receive data, a photon counting receiver has been installed at the Caltech Palomar Observatory to pickup information sent by the spacecraft. Communication has always been a great challenge in space exploration and, whilst we cannot reduce transit time for data, we can improve the amount of data sent at any one time. A great step forward in space exploration.

Source : NASA’s Optical Comms Demo Transmits Data Over 140 Million Miles

The post Psyche is Still Sending Data Home at Broadband Speeds appeared first on Universe Today.

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The Inner and Outer Milky Way Aren’t the Same Thickness, and that’s Surprising

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At first glance, the universe and night sky seem largely unchanging. The reality is very different, even now, a gas cloud is charging toward the Milky Way Galaxy and is expected to crash into us in 27 million years. A team of astronomers hoping to locate the exact position of the expected impact site have been unsuccessful but have accidentally measured the thickness of the Milky Way! Analysing radio data, they have been able to deduce the thickness of the inner and outer regions and discovered a dramatic difference between the two. 

The team of astronomers from the US National Science Foundation’s Green Bank Observatory were attempting to study the Smith Cloud. This high velocity cloud of hydrogen gas is located in the constellation Aquila at a distance of somewhere between 36,000 and 45,000 light years. Previous studies from the Green Bank Observatory have shown the cloud contains at least 1 million times the mass of the Sun and measures 9,800 light years long by 3,300 light years wide. 

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A false-color image of the Smith Cloud made with data from the Green Bank Telescope (GBT). New analysis indicates that it is wrapped in a dark matter halo. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

The plan was simple enough, to observe the spot where the cloud is currently interacting with the Milky Way. The observation is tricky enough though as the cloud is on the far side of the Milky Way and there is a lot of stuff in the way! The team, led by Toney Minter used the 20m Green Bank Telescope to search for dust and emissions from hydroxyl molecules (composed of a hydrogen and oxygen molecule.)  What the team expected to see was a difference in composition in the region of the Milky Way interacted with the cloud which, should have very little dust and hydroxyl molecules. Clouds in the Milky Way tend to have both so a difference should be detectable. 

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The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. Credit: Jay Young.

Minter was candidly open about the study joking ‘I knew there was a low probability that I’d find what I was looking for—and I didn’t,. But this is all part of the scientific process. You learn from what you DO and DON’T find.’

Disappointingly the team did not detect any differences in composition but what they did find was equally as interesting. The study revealed information about the Milky Way itself and the structure of its inner regions. Minter and his team had to look through the Milky Way’s inner regions for their study and what they were able to determine was the thickness of the layer of molecules in the inner Galaxy. The information enabled them to deduce the scale height of the clouds of molecular gas in the inner Milky Way. The results showed that the layer of molecules in the inner region measured 330 light years thick while those in the outer parts measured twice as much, around 660 light years.

The discovery still leaves questions unanswered. The observation certainly shows the difference in thickness between the inner and outer regions but it doesn’t give any clue as to what is driving the difference. Further observations are now required to follow up on this discovery to try and model the underlying process. Of course one other question remains unanswered and that is the nature and mechanics of the Smith Cloud and how it will impact our own Galaxy. Far from being disappointed though, Minter stated ‘That’s why astronomy is exciting, our knowledge is always evolving’

Source : While Aiming for
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Catching Comet 13P Olbers This Summer

Comet 13P Olbers by William R. Brooks

A little known periodic comet graces northern hemisphere summer skies.

Short summer nights present a tough dilemma for nighttime astronomy: to stay up late, or wake up early? Summer 2024 gives you at least one reason to opt for the former, as periodic Comet 13P/Olbers graces the evening sky.

The History of the Comet

The comet was first spotted on the night of March 6th, 1815 by astronomer Heinrich Olbers (of Olbers’ Paradox fame) observing from Bremen, Germany. The orbit was later described by Carl Gauss and Friedrich Bessel as just shy of 74 years, about five years off of the present value.

A sketch of Comet 13P Olbers from 1887 by William Robert Brooks. Credit: Public Domain

The Comet’s Orbit

Comet 13P/Olbers is on a 69 year orbit, which takes it from a perihelion 1.175 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun just outside of the Earth’s orbit, out to an aphelion of 32.5 AU out beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Perihelion for the comet occurs June 30th, 2024 at 1.175 AU from the Sun and 1.919 AU from the Earth.

The orbit of Comet 13P Olbers. Credit: NASA/JPL

Synopsis of the Current Apparition

In 2024, Comet 13P Olbers loiters low to the west this summer for northern observers at dusk. This is because it’s approaching Earth along our line of sight. The comet will seem to hang about 20-30 degrees above the horizon on summer evenings for mid-latitude northern hemisphere observers.

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The location of the comet in the evening sky in mid-June. Credit: Stellarium

Here’s our look at what to expect from the comet month-by-month. Unless otherwise noted, ‘Passes near’ means a closest approach of less than one angular degree:


17-The orbital path of the comet is edge on as seen from our point of view, and the comet may exhibit a spiky anti-tail.

19-Passes into the constellation of the Lynx.

28-Passes near the +4.3 magnitude star 31 Lyncis.

The celestial path of the comet
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Starliner Has Five Leaks

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Many space fans have been following the successful launch of the Boeing Starliner, another commercial organisation aiming to make space more accessible. It successfully reached the International Space Station, delivering Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams into orbit but it wasn’t without a hitch. Three of its thrusters experienced problems and there were ‘five small leaks on the service module.’ The crew and ground teams are working through safety checks of power and habitability. To ensure a safe return of the astronauts NASA has extended the mission by four days to 18th June. 

Boeing Starliner is a reusable (partly) spacecraft designed to transport crews to low Earth orbit. NASA is the lead customer so, once certification has been achieved, will be used to deliver astronauts regularly to the ISS. It consists of a crew capsule that can be used ten times and an expendable service module. Measuring 4.6 metres in diameter it is slightly larger than the Apollo Command module that was a part of the historic Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins mission to the Moon.

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The Apollo 10 command/service module nicknamed “Charlie Brown” orbiting the Moon as seen from the lunar module. Credit: NASA

The Boeing Starliner launch marked its first crewed trip into orbit, with the objective of data collection for certification by NASA for regular crewed missions to ISS. The tests are numerous and include; running the spacecraft in minimal power mode (for when docked to ISS), checking suitability to support crew on its own in the event of an emergency, performing habitability studies for a four person crew and a multitude of other system checks. The module has been docked to ISS since 6th June.

Teething problems for any new module are always expected but when the word ‘leak’ pops up it is most definitely a cause for concern. In the case of Starliner, five small leaks have been detected in the service module helium manifolds. When Starliner launched, the ground team already knew there was one leak in the propulsion system but now, four more have been detected! The flight engineers initially suspected a flaw in a manifold seal or possibly even faulty installation but now, with the four additional leaks they’re trying to understand if there is a common problem.

The leaks are not the only problem that has been experienced. As Starliner approached ISS, it relied upon precise pulses from the 28 reaction control thrusters. During this critical phase of the docking process, five of them failed. More accurately, the spacecraft control software deduced they were not working and deselected them. The first docking window was missed as a result but the crew were able to test and restart four of the five engines allowing them to safely dock. Engineers are still looking into the thruster problem but are confidence it will allow the safe return of the astronauts. 

International Space Station. Credit: NASA

As for the helium leak, flight engineers have examined the leak rate and confirmed that Starliner has sufficient margin to support a return trip to Earth. With Starliner docked to the ISS the manifolds are all closed preventing any helium loss until the return trip which takes just seven hours. Even with the manifolds open and the rate of leak there is sufficient helium to support 70 hours of flight time.

Ground support teams are continuing to work through the problems and the return plan. They will explore tolerances and possible operational mitigations for the remainder of the mission. As the
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