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There is no dark side of the Moon.  But there are dark spots on it – specifically at the bottom of craters that are never reached by any sunlight no matter where the Moon is facing.  These areas have intrigued scientists for decades, in no small part because lack of sunlight means a lower temperature, allowing frozen materials to stay frozen. In other words, there may be water in them thar craters.  And water will be the lifeblood of any future permanent crewed lunar mission.  

Unfortunately, lack of sunlight also means it’s challenging to see what’s at the bottom of those craters.  The closest scientists have come was when LCROSS, a NASA moon mission, fired a projectile into the crater Cabeus and analyzed the resultant dust cloud, which contained a relatively high amount of water.  But so far, no one has been able to image what water is in those craters directly.

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Some of the craters at the lunar south pole that were part of the study.
Credit – MPS / University of Oxford / NASA Ames Research Center / FDL / SETI Institute

That is not to say the craters are illuminated at all.  Even when they are not in direct sunlight, reflected sunlight, some of which might have bounced off nearby hills, is still channeled into the crater. But any images captured using that reflected light are too “noisy” to make out any detailed features.  

Enter a new technique developed by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany.  They used an AI algorithm called the Hyper-effective nOise Removal U-net Software (HORUS).  HORUS’s primary goal is to “clean up” the noisy images of the bottom of unlit craters collected by other spacecraft, such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).  In addition to removing noise, the software must also correct for other factors, such as the movement of LRO itself.

UT video discussing how we can utilize water on the Moon.

Despite such difficulties, the researchers used 70,000 images from LRO to calibrate the software, which was then unleashed upon 17 different permanently dark regions at the lunar south pole.  The largest area studied was 54 sq km, while the smallest was a mere 0.18 sq km.  

With the new software, the image of the bottom of the crater is improved significantly.  Unfortunately, the photos don’t show any direct evidence of water, such as bright patches that would indicate ice. However, any crewed mission that wants to look for water in or under the regolith of these craters will first need to know what terrain it is entering.  Defining such terrain is where HORUS shines – the researchers could make out geological features a few meters across, which could be potentially hazardous to a lander or rover.

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The same crater with (right) and without (left) details filled in by HORUS.
Credit – Left: NASA/LROC/GSFC/ASU; Right: MPS/University of Oxford/NASA Ames Research Center/FDL/SETI Institute

This was the first step toward exploring these previously invisible parts of the Moon.  With luck, someday, humans will be able to explore these areas safely, and with even more luck, they might find a source of an essential ingredient of all Earth-bound life.

Learn More:
MPS – Peering into the Moon’s shadows with AI
Nature – Peering into lunar permanently shadowed regions with deep learning
Funtitech – AI provides an imaging solution for the moon shadow crater
UT – The Largest Crater on the Moon Reveals Secrets About its Early History

Lead Image:
AI image of the inside of a crater.
Credit – MPS/University of Oxford/NASA Ames Research Center/FDL/SETI Institute

The post Some of the Moon’s Craters are so Dark, it Takes AI to see What’s Inside Them appeared first on Universe Today.

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Frontier Adventure

Ingenuity Won’t Fly Again Because It’s Missing a Rotor Blade

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Ingenuity has been the first aerial vehicle on another world. NASA announced the end of the Martian helicopter’s life at the end of its 72nd flight. During the flight there had been a problem on landing and, following the incident a few photos revealed chips in one of the rotor blades but nothing too serious. New images have been revealed that show the craft is missing one of its rotor blades entirely! 

Mars Ingenuity was developed by NASA as a small lightweight drone that made history by becoming the first powered flight on Mars. It was part of the mission that took the Perseverance rover to Mars in February 2021.  Undertaking powered flights in the thin Martian atmosphere it demonstrated that powered flight was possible as it surveyed the surrounding area for items of interest for further exploration. 

Mars Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars
Image of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter (Source : NASA)

The construction was the brainchild of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory who oversaw the construction on behalf of the agency. NASA’s Ames Research Centre and Langley Research Center played a significant role in flight performance analysis and technical support.

On board the vehicle was some cutting edge technology that was tailored for the conditions on Mars. First of course, are the rotors, the thin atmosphere on Mars mean larger than usual blades were needed to generate the lift required. It was built with lightweight materials like carbon fibre to make it as efficient as possible, new and efficient solar cells that would drive the autonomous navigation systems. It was equipped with sensors and cameras to enable data collection of the Martian terrain to send back to Perseverance rover and controllers on Earth.

Ingenuity had been flying in a terrain with few rocks – which it uses in some part for navigation – and so had been experiencing difficulties. On 6 Jan it made an emergency landing because it couldn’t accurately identify its location. It happened again on the next flight but this time it seems to have come down at an angle and struck the ground with one of its rotors. Images suggested it had suffered some chips on one of the rotor blades however, recent images reveal the damage is more severe.

On 11 Feb, NASA used the black and white navigation camera to record a video showing the shadow of the rotors turning. It was an ingenious idea by the engineers to try and understand the extent of the damage to the 1.2m blades. To their surprise the footage revealed that one fo the blades, the upper blade seems to be absent! It looks like the blade detected near the mast.

Source : Ingenuity’s Navcam Reveals a Missing Rotor Blade 

The post Ingenuity Won’t Fly Again Because It’s Missing a Rotor Blade appeared first on Universe Today.

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Electrodes in Spacesuits Could Protect Astronauts from Harmful Dust on Mars

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To quote NASA associate administrator Jim Reuter, sending crewed missions to Mars by 2040 is an “audacious goal.” The challenges include the distance involved, which can take up to six months to traverse using conventional propulsion methods. Then there’s the hazard posed by radiation, which includes increased exposure to solar particles, flares, and galactic cosmic rays (GCRs). And then there’s the time the crews will spend in microgravity during transits, which can take a serious toll on human health, physiology, and psychology.

But what about the challenges of living and working on Mars for several months at a time? While elevated radiation and lower gravity are a concern, so is Martian regolith. Like lunar regolith, dust on Mars will adhere to astronauts’ spacesuits and inflict wear on their equipment. However, it also contains harmful particles that must be removed to prevent contaminating habitats. In a recent study, a team of aerospace engineers tested a new electrostatic system for removing Martian regolith from spacesuits that could potentially remove harmful dust with up to 98% efficiency.

The new system was designed by Benjamin M. Griggs and Lucinda Berthoud, a Master’s engineering student and Professor of Space Systems Engineering (respectively) with the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol, UK. The paper that describes the system and the verification process recently appeared in the journal Acta Astronautica. As they explain, the Electrostatic Removal System (ERS) they propose utilizes the phenomenon of dielectrophoresis (DEP) to remove Martian dust from spacesuit fabrics.

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Dust flies from the tires of a moon buggy, driven by Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan. These “rooster-tails” of dust caused problems. Credit: NASA

Much like its lunar counterpart, Martian regolith is expected to be electrostatically charged due to exposure to cosmic radiation. But on Mars, there’s also the contribution made by dust devils and storms, which have been known to generate electrostatic discharges (aka. lightning). During the Apollo missions, astronauts reported how the lunar regolith would adhere to their suits and get tracked back into their Lunar Modules. Once inside, it would similarly stick to everything and get into their eyes and lungs, causing irritation and respiratory problems.

Given their plans to return astronauts to the Moon through the Artemis Program, NASA is investigating several methods to prevent regolith from getting into habitation modules – like coating technology for spacesuits and electron beams for cleaning them. While Martian dust is expected to inflict similar wear on spacesuits, the situation is made worse because it may contain toxic particles. As Griggs explained to Universe Today via email:

“Beyond having an abrasive effect on spacesuits themselves, Martian regolith is also expected to present health issues to astronauts. It is known to contain a range of harmful particles which may be carcinogenic or cause respiratory issues, and data from the Pathfinder mission showed the presence of toxic particles such as chromium. Martian regolith will therefore require removal from spacesuits prior to entry into habitation zones on Mars to prevent contact between astronauts and regolith particles.”

The principle behind the device, dielectrophoresis (DEP), refers to the movement of neutral particles when subjected to a nonuniform electric field. Their proposed Electrostatic Removal System (ERS) comprises two components: a High Voltage Waveform Generator (HVWG) used to produce square waves of varying frequencies and amplitudes up to 1000 volts and an Electrostatic Removal Device (ERD) consisting of an array of parallel copper electrodes. When the square waves are applied across the electrodes in the ERD, a large and varying electric field is generated. As Griggs summarized:

“Therefore, when dust particles are incident on the surface of the ERD, the dust particles are displaced through a combination of electrostatic and dielectrophoretic forces (due to the large electric field), which acts on charged and uncharged particles respectively within the dust. This acts to displace dust particles in a direction perpendicular to the electrodes, resulting in the clearing of the ERD surface.”

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If Exoplanets Have Lightning, it’ll Complicate the Search for Life

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Discovering exoplanets is almost routine now. We’ve found over 5,500 exoplanets, and the next step is to study their atmospheres and look for biosignatures. The James Webb Space Telescope is leading the way in that effort. But in some exoplanet atmospheres, lightning could make the JWST’s job more difficult by obscuring some potential biosignatures while amplifying others.

Detecting biosignatures in the atmospheres of distant planets is fraught with difficulties. They don’t advertise their presence, and the signals we receive from exoplanet atmospheres are complicated. New research adds another complication to the effort. It says that lightning can mask the presence of things like ozone, an indication that complex life could exist on a planet. It can also amplify the presence of compounds like methane, which is considered to be a promising biosignature.

The new research is “The effect of lightning on the atmospheric chemistry of exoplanets and potential biosignatures,” and it’s been accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. The lead author is Patrick Barth, a researcher from the Space Research Institute at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

While we’ve discovered over 5,500 exoplanets, only 69 of them are in the potentially habitable zones around their stars. They’re rocky planets that receive enough energy from their stars to potentially maintain liquid water on their surfaces. Our search for biosignatures is focused on this small number of planets.

This is an artist's illustration of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1d, a potentially habitable exoplanet about 40 light-years away. Planets like these are prime targets for JWST's spectrometry. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech - Cropped from: PIA22093: TRAPPIST-1 Planet Lineup - Updated Feb. 2018, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76364484
This is an artist’s illustration of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1d, a potentially habitable exoplanet about 40 light-years away. Planets like these are prime targets for JWST’s spectrometry. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL-Caltech – Cropped from: PIA22093: TRAPPIST-1 Planet Lineup – Updated Feb. 2018, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76364484

The important next step is to determine if these planets have atmospheres and then what the composition of those atmospheres is. The JWST is our most powerful instrument for these purposes. But in order to understand what the JWST shows us in distant atmospheres, we have to know what its signals tell us. Research like this helps scientists prepare for the JWST’s observations by alerting them to potential false positives and masked biosignatures.

This JWST spectra isn't part of this research, but it shows how the powerful space telescope can examine exoplanet atmospheres. It's a transmission spectrum of the hot gas giant exoplanet WASP-39 b, captured by Webb's Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec.) It reveals the first definitive evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet outside the Solar System. In the future, the JWST will bring its observation power to bear on more exoplanets as part of the search for biosignatures. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and L. Hustak (STScI). Science: The JWST Transiting Exoplanet Community Early Release Science Team
This JWST spectra isn’t part of this research, but it shows how the powerful space telescope can
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