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I remember reading about an audacious mission to endeavour to drill through the surface ice of Europa, drop in a submersible and explore the depths below. Now that concept may be taking a step closer to reality with researchers working on technology to do just that. Worlds like Europa are high on the list for exploration due to their potential to harbour life. If technology like the SLUSH probe (Search for Life Using Submersible Head) work then we are well on the way to realising that dream. 

The search for life has always been something to captivate the mind. Think about the diversity of life on Earth and it is easy to see why we typically envisage creatures that rely upon sunlight, food and drink. But on Earth, life has found a way in the most inhospitable of environments, even at the very bottom of the ocean. The Mariana’s Trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall and anything that lives there has to cope with cold water, crushingly high pressure and no sunlight. Seems quite alien but even here, life thrives such as the deep-sea crustacean Hirondellea Gigas – catchy name. 

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Location of the Mariana Trench. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kmusser

Europa, one of the moon’s of Jupiter has an ice crust but this covers over a global ocean of liquid water.  The conditions deep down in the ocean of Europa might not be so very different from those at the bottom of the Mariana’s Trench so it is here that a glimmer of hope exists to find other life in the Solar System. Should it exist, getting to it is the tricky bit. It’s not just on Europa but Enceladus and even Mars may have water underneath ice shelves. Layers of ice up to a kilometre thick might exist so technology like SLUSH has been developed to overcome. 

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Natural color image of Europa obtained by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill)

The technology is not too new though since melt probes like SLUSH have been tested before. The idea is beautifully simple. The thermo-mechanical probe uses a drilling mechanism to break through the ice and then the heat probe to partially melt the ice chips, forming slush to enable their transportation to behind the probe as it descends.

The probe, which looks rather like a light sabre, is then able to transmit data from the subsurface water back to the lander. A tether system is used for the data transmission using conductive microfilaments and an optical fibre cable. Intriguingly and perhaps even cunningly, should the fibre cable break (which is a possibility due to tidal stresses from the ice) then the microfilaments will work as an antenna. They can then be tuned into by the lander to resume data transmission. The tether is coiled up and housed inside spools which are left behind in the ice as the spool is emptied. I must confess my immediate thought here was ‘litter’! I accept we have to leave probes in order to explore but surely we can do it without leaving litter behind! However there is a reason for this too. As the spools are deployed, they act as receivers and transmitters to allow the radio frequencies to travel through the ice.

The company working on the device is Honeybee Robotics have created prototypes. The first was stand alone, had no data transmission capability and demonstrated the drilling and slushing technology in an ice tower in Honeybee’s walk in freezer. While this was underway, the tether communication technology was being tested too with the first version called the Salmon Probe. This was taken to Devon Island in the Arctic where the unspooling method is being put through its paces. The first attempts back in 2022 saw the probe achieving depths of 1.8m!

A further probe was developed called the Dolphin probe and this was
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Moon Lander Detects Technosignatures Coming from Earth

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The search for life has to be one of the most talked about questions in science. The question is, what do you look for? The Odysseus lunar lander has recently detected signs of a technologically advanced civilisation…on Earth! The lander is equipped with an instrument called ROLSES which has probed the radio emissions from Earth as if it was an exoplanet to se if it could detect signs of life! 

Odysseus was launched on 15 February, it was the Intuitive Machines lunar lander and it touched down in the solar polar region of the Moon seven days later. Since then it has been collecting valuable data from the area as a prelude for future human exploration. It was part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program which have all been built by private companies. Despite the hiccup of a landing where Odysseus tipped onto its side it has still been performing well.

There have been other challenges along the way. The laser guided navigation system which was supposed to aid the landing over the rocky surface failed. In a nod to Armstrong landing Apollo 11 manually in the last few minutes, the ground crew had to land using the optical camera system alone.  Even the journey to the Moon was not without incident. One of the antennae of the ROLSES system overheated and became dislodged from its housing.  On landing, an image showed the antenna sticking out. 

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Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the US flag on the Lunar Surface during 1st human moonwalk in history 45 years ago on July 20, 1969 during Apollo 1l mission. Credit: NASA

On board Odysseus is the Radio wave Observations at the Lunar Surface of the photo Electron Sheath or ROLSES for short. It is a radio experiment designed to explore properties of the Earth’s atmosphere from the surface of the Moon. It was a unique opportunity to observe Earth in a completely different way and, to see if our approach for hunting for technologically capable alien civilisations are correct.

The instrument was built at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and included radio antennae and a device called a radio spectrometer. It’s purpose was to record a wide range of radio emissions from the ‘radio quiet’ locale of the Moon. It turned out to be a bit of a bonus though as the team were able to record radio waves coming from Earth for about an hour and a half. 

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NASA has selected three commercial Moon landing service providers that will deliver science and technology payloads under Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) as part of the Artemis program. Each commercial lander will carry NASA-provided payloads that will conduct science investigations and demonstrate advanced technologies on the lunar surface, paving the way for NASA astronauts to land on the lunar surface by 2024…The selections are:..• Astrobotic of Pittsburgh has been awarded $79.5 million and has proposed to fly as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon, by July 2021…• Intuitive Machines of Houston has been awarded $77 million. The company has proposed to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the Moon, by July 2021…• Orbit Beyond of Edison,
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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.

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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.

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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:

June

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.

Path
The celestial path of the comet
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