International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Russia’s Nauka Module for ISS

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : International Space Station (ISS), Nauka

Mains level : Not Much

Pirs, a Russian module on the International Space Station (ISS) used as a docking port for spacecraft and as a door for cosmonauts to go out on spacewalks. In its place, Russia’s space agency Roscosmos will be attaching a significantly larger module called Nauka.

What does Russia’s new Nauka module do?

  • Nauka, which is 42 feet long and weighs 20 tonnes, was supposed to be launched as early as 2007, as per the ISS’s original plan.
  • Nauka — meaning “science” in Russian — is the biggest space laboratory Russia has launched to date, and will primarily serve as a research facility.
  • It is also bringing to the ISS another oxygen generator, a spare bed, another toilet, and a robotic cargo crane built by the European Space Agency (ESA).
  • The new module was sent into orbit using a Proton rocket — the most powerful in Russia’s space inventory — on July 21, and will take eight days to reach the ISS.

What kind of research goes on at the International Space Station?

  • A space station is essentially a large spacecraft that remains in low-earth orbit for extended periods of time.
  • It is like a large laboratory in space and allows astronauts to come aboard and stay for weeks or months to carry out experiments in microgravity.
  • For over 20 years since its launch, humans have continuously lived and carried out scientific investigations on the $150 billion ISS under microgravity conditions, being able to make breakthroughs in research not possible on Earth.

Back2Basics: International Space Station (ISS)

  • The International Space Station, which launched its first piece in 1998, is a large spacecraft that orbits around the Earth and is home to the astronauts.
  • The ISS is currently the only active space station in the earth’s orbit.
  • The first crew on the space station arrived on November 2, 2000.
  • The space station is home to a minimum of six astronauts, with two bathrooms, a gymnasium, and a big bay window.
  • It is a joint project between five participating space agencies -NASA (USA), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Moon-forming region seen around an exoplanet for the first time

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Exoplanets

Mains level : Core accretion

 

Scientists for the first time have spotted a Moon-forming region around an exo-planet beyond our solar system.

What are Exoplanets?

  • More than 4,400 planets have been discovered outside our solar system, called exoplanets.
  • Most orbit other stars, but free-floating exoplanets, called rogue planets, orbit the galactic center and are untethered to any star.
  • No circumplanetary discs had been found until now because all the known exoplanets resided in “mature” – fully developed – solar systems, except the two infant gas planets orbiting PDS 70.

What is the new finding?

  • The researchers have detected a disc of swirling material accumulating around one of two newborn planets.
  • They were seen orbiting a young star called PDS 70, located a relatively close 370 light-years from Earth.
  • It is called a circumplanetary disc, and it is from these those moons are born.
  • The discovery offers a deeper understanding of the formation of planets and moons.

Focus of the finding: Formation of disc

  • In our solar system, the impressive rings of Saturn, a planet around which more than 80 moons orbit, represent a relic of a primordial moon-forming disc.
  • The orange-colored star PDS 70, roughly the same mass as our Sun, is about 5 million years old– a blink of the eye in cosmic time.
  • The two planets are even younger. Both planets are similar (although larger) to Jupiter, a gas giant.
  • It was around one of the two planets, called PDS 70c, that a Moon-forming disc was observed.

Observing birth of a moon: Core Accretion

  • Stars burst to life within clouds of interstellar gas and dust scattered throughout galaxies.
  • Leftover material spinning around a new star then coalesces into planets, and circumplanetary discs surrounding some planets similarly yield moons.
  • The dominant mechanism thought to underpin planet formation is called “core accretion”.
  • In this scenario, small dust grains, coated in ice, gradually grow to larger and larger sizes through successive collisions with other grains.
  • This continues until the grains have grown to a size of a planetary core, at which point the young planet has a strong enough gravitational potential to accrete gas which will form its atmosphere.
  • Some nascent planets attract a disc of material around them, with the same process that gives rise to planets around a star leading to the formation of moons around planets.
  • The disc around PDS 70c, with a diameter about equal to the distance of the Earth to the sun, possesses enough mass to produce up to three moons the size of Earth’s moon.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Near-Earth Asteroid Scout Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Near-Earth Asteroid Scout

Mains level : Study of asteroids

Last week, NASA announced that its new spacecraft, named NEA Scout, has completed all required tests and has been safely tucked inside the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

For landing on Moon

  • NEA Scout is one of several payloads that will hitch a ride on Artemis I, which is expected to be launched in November.
  • Artemis I will be an uncrewed test-flight of the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket.
  • Under the Artemis programme, NASA has aimed to land the first woman on the Moon in 2024 and also establish sustainable lunar exploration programs by 2030.

What is NEA Scout?

  • Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout, is a small spacecraft, about the size of a big shoebox. Its main mission is to fly by and collect data from a near-Earth asteroid.
  • It will also be America’s first interplanetary mission using special solar sail propulsion.
  • This type of propulsion is especially useful for small, lightweight spacecraft that cannot carry large amounts of conventional rocket propellant.
  • NEA Scout will use stainless steel alloy booms and deploy an aluminium-coated sail measuring 925 square feet.
  • The large-area sail will generate thrust by reflecting sunlight.
  • Energetic particles of sunlight bounce off the solar sail to give it a gentle, yet constant push.

How will it study the asteroid?

  • NEA Scout is equipped with special cameras and can take pictures ranging from 50 cm/pixels to 10 cm/pixels.
  • It can also process the image and reduce the file sizes before sending them to the earth-based Deep Space Network via its medium-gain antenna.
  • The spacecraft will take about two years to cruise to the asteroid and will be about 93 million miles away from Earth during the asteroid encounter.

Why should we study near-Earth asteroids?

  • Despite their size, some of these small asteroids could pose a threat to Earth.
  • Understanding their properties could help us develop strategies for reducing the potential damage caused in the event of an impact.
  • Scientists will use this data to determine what is required to reduce risk, increase effectiveness, and improve the design and operations of robotic and human space exploration.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Why does Mercury have such a big iron core?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Our planetary system

Mains level : Not Much

Researchers have developed a model showing that the density, mass and iron content of a Mercury’s core is influenced by its distance from the Sun’s magnetic field.

About Mercury

  • Mercury is the first and the smallest planet in our solar system.
  • It is also the closest planet to Earth.
  • Like the other three terrestrial planets, Mercury contains a core surrounded by a mantle and a crust.
  • But unlike any other planet, Mercury’s core makes up a larger portion of the planet.
  • MESSENGER was a NASA robotic space probe that orbited the planet Mercury between 2011 and 2015, studying Mercury’s chemical composition, geology, and magnetic field.
  • It was the analysis from the MESSENGER mission that tells: Mercury’s core is solid.

Mystery over the core

  • It has long been known that Mercury’s core composition is made of liquid metal.
  • The core itself is about 3,600 km across. Surrounding that is a 600 km thick mantle.
  • And around that is the crust, which is believed to be 100-200 km thick.
  • The crust is known to have narrow ridges that extend for hundreds of kilometres.
  • This large core has long been one of the most intriguing mysteries about Mercury.

Why does Mercury have a large core?

  • A new study reveals that the sun’s magnetism is the reason.
  • The sun’s magnetic field influences the density, mass, and iron content of Mercury’s core.
  • The four inner planets of our solar system—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—are made up of different proportions of metal and rock.
  • A gradient in which the metal content in the core drops off as the planets get farther from the sun.
  • The researchers explain how this happened by showing that the sun’s magnetic field controlled the distribution of raw materials in the early forming solar system.

What are the key propositions?

  • During the early formation of the solar system, when a swirling dust storm and gas encircled the sun, iron’s grain was drawn toward the centre by the sun’s magnetic field.
  • At the time of planet formation from clumps of that dust and gas, planets nearer to the sun consolidated more iron into their centres than those farther away.
  • Scientists also found that the density and proportion of iron in the planet’s core correlate with the strength of the magnetic field around the sun during planetary formation.
  • Existing models on planetary formation were used to determine the speed at which gas and dust were pulled into the centre of our solar system during its formation.
  • The magnetic field that the sun would have generated as it burst into being and calculated how that magnetic field would draw iron through the dust and gas cloud.

Cooling led solidification

  • As the early solar system began to cool, dust and gas that were not drawn into the sun started to clump together.
  • The clumps closer to the sun would have been exposed to a stronger magnetic field and thus would contain more iron than those farther away from the sun.
  • As the clumps coalesced and cooled into spinning planets, gravitational forces drew the iron into their core.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What is Suborbital Flight?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Difference between Orbital and Suborbital Flight

Mains level : Space tourism

 

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson became the first billionaire to fly to the edge of space and back, riding aboard his own Virgin Galactic spacecraft in a suborbital flight.

What is Suborbital Flight?

  • When an object travels at a horizontal speed of about 28,000 km/hr or more, it goes into orbit once it is above the atmosphere.
  • Satellites need to reach that threshold speed in order to orbit Earth.
  • Such a satellite would be accelerating towards the Earth due to gravity, but its horizontal movement is fast enough to offset the downward motion so that it moves along a circular path.
  • Any object travelling slower than 28,000 km/hr must eventually return to Earth.
  • These are suborbital flights, because they will not be travelling fast enough to orbit Earth once they reach there.
  • Such a trip allows space travellers to experience a few minutes of “weightlessness”.

Analogical example

  • For an analogy, consider a cricket ball thrown into the air.
  • Given that no human hand can give it a speed of 28,000 km/hr (about 8 m/sec), the ball will fly in an arc until its entire kinetic energy is swapped with potential energy.
  • At that instant, it will lose its vertical motion momentarily, before returning to Earth under the influence of gravity.
  • A suborbital flight is like this cricket ball, but travelling fast enough to reach the “edge of space”, and yet without enough horizontal velocity to go into orbit.
  • If an object travels as fast as 40,000 km/hr, it will achieve escape velocity, and never return to Earth.

Why the buzz?

  • With Branson and Jeff Bezos kicking off private space flight, several companies are looking for customers wanting to go on suborbital or even orbital journeys.
  • At Branson’s Virgin Galactic, around 600 people have already paid deposits for tickets that are priced up to $250,000 (Rs 1.86 crore).
  • However, Bezos’s Blue Origin, which uses the reusable New Shepard rocket, is yet to announce commercialization plans, according to the BBC.
  • There is also excitement among scientists who want to use suborbital flights for microgravity research.
  • Such flights would be far less expensive than carrying experiments and people to the International Space Station.
  • Suborbital flights could also be an alternative to parabolic flights in airplanes that space agencies currently use to simulate zero gravity.

Safety concerns

  • The Branson flight comes seven years after his company’s first rocket, called Enterprise, crashed during a test flight, killing one of the pilots on board.
  • The other survived after parachuting out.
  • The current rocket is also not certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration, which is prohibited to do so by law until 2023.
  • This is because the US government does not want to burden companies like Virgin Atlantic with regulations during their “learning” period, when they can innovate by trying out different designs and procedures.
  • Passengers who go on such trips need to sign “informed consent” forms, similar to the ones before going for skydiving or bungee jumping.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Possibility of life on Saturn’s Moon

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Methanogens on saturn's moon

Mains level : Hunt for extra-terrestrial life

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected an unusually high concentration of methane, along with carbon dioxide and dihydrogen, in the moons of Saturn by flying through their plumes.

What is the new observation?

  • The spacecraft has found that Titan has methane in its atmosphere and Enceladus has a liquid ocean with erupting plumes of gas and water.

Are there methane-producing organisms on Earth?

  • Most of the methane on Earth has a biological origin.
  • Microorganisms called methanogens are capable of generating methane as a metabolic byproduct.
  • They do not require oxygen to live and are widely distributed in nature.
  • They are found in swamps, dead organic matter, and even in the human gut.
  • They are known to survive in high temperatures and simulation studies have shown that they can live in Martian conditions.
  • Methanogens have been widely studied to understand if they can be a contributor to global warming.

Could there be methanogens on Enceladus?

  • We cannot conclude that life exists in the Enceladus ocean.
  • It is the probability that Enceladus’ hydrothermal vents could be habitable to Earth-like microorganisms.
  • There can be life hypotheses.

What other processes could have produced the methane?

  • Methane could be formed by the chemical breakdown of organic matter present in Enceladus’ core.
  • Hydrothermal processes could help the formation of carbon dioxide and methane.
  • On Earth, hydrothermal vents on seafloors are known to release methane, but this happens at a very slow rate.
  • This hypothesis is plausible but only if Enceladus was formed through the accretion of organic-rich material from comets.
  • The results suggest that methane production from hydrothermal vents is not sufficient to explain the high methane concentration detected by Cassini in the plumes.
  • An additional amount of methane produced via biological methanogenesis could match Cassini’s observations.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Discrete Auroras on Mars

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Aurora, Hope Mission

Mains level : Study of Mars

The UAE’s Hope spacecraft, which is orbiting Mars since February this year, has captured images of glowing atmospheric lights in the Red Planet’s night sky, known as discrete auroras.

What causes an Aurora on Earth?

  • Auroras are caused when charged particles ejected from the Sun’s surface — called the solar wind — enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • These particles are harmful, and our planet is protected by the geomagnetic field, which preserves life by shielding us from the solar wind.
  • However, at the north and south poles, some of these solar wind particles are able to continuously stream down, and interact with different gases in the atmosphere to cause a display of light in the night sky.
  • This display, known as an aurora, is seen from the Earth’s high latitude regions (called the auroral oval), and is active all year round.

Where are they observed on Earth?

  • In the northern part of our globe, the polar lights are called aurora borealis or Northern Lights and are seen from the US (Alaska), Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
  • In the south, they are called aurora australis or southern lights and are visible from high latitudes in Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia.

So, how are Martian auroras different?

  • Unlike auroras on Earth, which are seen only near the north and south poles, discrete auroras on Mars are seen all around the planet at night time.
  • Unlike Earth, which has a strong magnetic field, the Martian magnetic field has largely died out.
  • This is because the molten iron at the interior of the planet– which produces magnetism– has cooled.
  • However, the Martian crust, which hardened billions of years ago when the magnetic field still existed, retains some magnetism.
  • So, in contrast with Earth, which acts like one single bar magnet, magnetism on Mars is unevenly distributed, with fields strewn across the planet and differing in direction and strength.
  • These disjointed fields channel the solar wind to different parts of the Martian atmosphere, creating “discrete” auroras over the entire surface of the planet as charged particles interact with atoms and molecules in the sky– as they do on Earth.

Why is it important to study them?

  • Studying Martian auroras is important for scientists, for it can offer clues as to why the Red Planet lost its magnetic field and thick atmosphere– among the essential requirements for sustaining life.

Answer this PYQ in the comment box:

Q.Which region of Mars has a densely packed river deposit indicating this planet had water 3.5 billion years ago?

(a) Aeolis Dorsa

(b) Tharsis

(c) Olympus Mons

(d) Hellas


Back2Basics:

Hope Orbiter

  • The Hope Probe, the Arab world’s first mission to Mars, took off from Earth in July last year, and has been orbiting the Red Planet since February.
  • The primary objective of the mission is to study Martian weather dynamics.
  • By correlating the lower atmosphere and upper atmosphere conditions, the probe will look into how weather changes the escape of hydrogen and oxygen into space.
  • By measuring how much hydrogen and oxygen is spilling into space, scientists will be able to look into why Mars lost so much of its early atmosphere and liquid water.
  • It is expected to create the first complete portrait of the planet’s atmosphere.
  • With the information gathered during the mission, scientists will have a better understanding of the climate dynamics of different layers of Mars’ atmosphere.

Mars

  • Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in the Solar System, being larger than only Mercury.
  • In English, Mars carries the name of the Roman god of war and is often referred to as the “Red Planet”.
  • The latter refers to the effect of the iron oxide prevalent on Mars’s surface, which gives it a reddish appearance distinctive among the astronomical bodies visible to the naked eye.
  • Mars is a terrestrial planet with a thin atmosphere, with surface features reminiscent of the impact craters of the Moon and the valleys, deserts and polar ice caps of Earth.
  • The days and seasons are comparable to those of Earth, because the rotational period, as well as the tilt of the rotational axis relative to the ecliptic plane, is similar.
  • Mars is the site of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano and highest known mountain on any planet in the Solar System, and of Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the Solar System.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

New Shephard rocket system for cost-effective access to space

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : New Shephard

Mains level : Space tourism

Last week, Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos’s space company called Blue Origin concluded the online auction for the first seat on New Shephard, a rocket system meant to take tourists to space.

What is New Shephard?

  • New Shephard has been named after astronaut Alan Shephard – the first American to go to space – and offers flights to space over 100 km above the Earth and accommodation for payloads.
  • Essentially, it is a rocket system that has been designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Karman line – the internationally recognized boundary of space.
  • The idea is to provide easier and more cost-effective access to space meant for purposes such as academic research, corporate technology development, and entrepreneurial ventures among others.
  • Apart from its academic and research-oriented goal, New Shephard will also allow space tourists to experience microgravity by taking them 100 km above the Earth.

Its components

  • The rocket system consists of two parts, the cabin or capsule, and the rocket or the booster.
  • The cabin can accommodate experiments from small Mini Payloads up to 100 kg.
  • As per Blue Origin, the Mini Payloads provide easier space access to students, who are part of educational institutions that are developing their own space programs.
  • Further, the cabin is designed for six people and sits atop a 60 feet tall rocket and separates from it before crossing the Karman line, after which both vehicles fall back to the Earth.
  • All the six seats in the capsule are meant for passengers, each of whom gets their own window seat. The capsule is fully autonomous and does not require a pilot.

How does it work?

  • The system is a fully reusable, vertical takeoff and vertical landing space vehicle that accelerates for about 2.5 minutes before the engine cuts off.
  • After separating from the booster, the capsule free falls in space, while the booster performs an autonomously controlled vertical landing back to Earth.
  • The capsule, on the other hand, lands back with the help of parachutes.

A boost for space tourism

  • Space tourism seeks to give laypeople the ability to go to space for recreational, leisure, or business purposes.
  • The idea is to make space more accessible to those individuals who are not astronauts and want to go to space for non-scientific purposes.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Polar-Areas Stellar-Imaging in Polarisation High-Accuracy Experiment (PASIPHAE)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : PASIPHAE

Mains level : Theory of expansion of the universe

The development of a vital instrument PASIPHAE, which will be used in upcoming sky surveys to study stars, is being led by an Indian astronomer.

What is PASIPHAE?

  • PASIPHAE stands for Polar-Areas Stellar-Imaging in Polarisation High-Accuracy Experiment.
  • It is an international collaborative sky surveying project. Scientists aim to study the polarisation in the light coming from millions of stars.
  • The name is inspired by Pasiphae, the daughter of Greek Sun God Helios.
  • The survey will use two high-tech optical polarimeters to observe the northern and southern skies, simultaneously.
  • It will focus on capturing starlight polarisation of very faint stars that are so far away that polarisation signals from there have not been systematically studied.
  • By combining the data, astronomers will perform a maiden magnetic field tomography mapping of the interstellar medium of very large areas of the sky using a novel polarimeter instrument known as WALOP.

Why is PASIPHAE important?

  • Since its birth about 14 billion years ago, the universe has been constantly expanding, as evidenced by the presence of Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation which fills the universe.
  • Immediately after its birth, the universe went through a short inflationary phase during which it expanded at a very high rate before it slowed down and reached the current rate.
  • However, so far, there have only been theories and indirect evidence of expansion associated with the early universe.
  • A definitive consequence of the inflationary phase is that a tiny fraction of the CMB radiation should have its imprints in the form of a specific kind of polarisation (known scientifically as a B-mode signal).
  • All previous attempts to detect this signal met with failure mainly due to the difficulty posed by our galaxy, the Milky Way, which emits copious amounts of polarized radiation.
  • Besides, it contains a lot of dust clouds that are present in the form of clusters. When starlight passes through these dust clouds, they get scattered and polarized.

What will PASIPHAE do?

  • The PASIPHAE survey will measure starlight polarisation over large areas of the sky.
  • This data along with distances to the stars will help create a 3-Dimensional model of the distribution of the dust and magnetic field structure of the galaxy.
  • Such data can help remove the galactic polarized foreground light and enable astronomers to look for the elusive B-mode signal.

What is WALOP?

  • Wide Area Linear Optical Polarimeter (WALOP) is an instrument when mounted on two small optical telescopes, that will be used to detect polarized light signals emerging from the stars along high galactic latitudes.
  • The images will simultaneously have the finest of details of a star along with its panoramic background.
  • WALOP will operate on the principle that at any given time, the data from a portion of the sky under observation will be split into four different channels.
  • Depending on the manner in which light passes through the four channels, the polarisation value from the star is obtained.
  • That is, each star will have four corresponding images which when stitched together will help calculate the desired polarisation value of a star.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

EnVision Mission to Venus

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : EnVision Mission

Mains level : Interplanetary missions

Following NASA’s footsteps, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that it has selected EnVision as its next orbiter that will visit Venus sometime in the 2030s.

Last week, NASA selected two missions to the planet Venus, Earth’s nearest neighbour. The missions called DAVINCI+ and VERITAS have been selected based on their potential for scientific value and the feasibility of their development plans.

What is EnVision?

  • EnVision is an ESA-led mission with contributions from NASA. It is likely to be launched sometime in the 2030s.
  • The earliest launch opportunity for EnVision is 2031, followed by 2032 and 2033.
  • Once launched on an Ariane 6 rocket, the spacecraft will take about 15 months to reach Venus and will take 16 more months to achieve orbit circularization.
  • The spacecraft will carry a range of instruments to study the planet’s atmosphere and surface, monitor trace gases in the atmosphere and analyses its surface composition.

What are other such missions?

  • EnVision will follow another ESA-led mission to Venus called ‘Venus Express’ (2005-2014) that focused on atmospheric research and pointed to volcanic hotspots on the planet’s surface.
  • Other than this, Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft has also been studying the planet’s atmosphere since 2015.

Why are scientists interested in studying Venus?

  • At the core of the ESA’s mission is the question of how Earth and Venus evolved so differently from each other considering that they are roughly of the same size and composition.
  • Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system because of the heat that is trapped by its thick cloud cover.
  • Last year, a team of scientists reported that they had found phosphine gas (a chemical produced only through biological processes) in the atmosphere of Venus.
  • This triggered excitement in the scientific community that some life forms might be supported by the planet.
  • But the existence of life on the planet is nearly impossible given the high temperatures of Venus and its acidic atmosphere.

Back2Basics: Venus Planet

  • For those on Earth, Venus is the second-brightest object in the sky after the moon.
  • It appears bright because of its thick cloud cover that reflects and scatters light.
  • But while Venus, which is the second closest planet to the Sun, is called the Earth’s twin because of their similar sizes, the two planets have significant differences between them.
  • For one, the planet’s thick atmosphere traps heat and is the reason that it is the hottest planet in the solar system, despite coming after Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun.
  • Surface temperatures on Venus can go up to 471 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to melt lead.
  • Further, Venus moves forward on its orbit around the Sun but spins backwards around its axis slowly.
  • This means on Venus the Sun rises in the west and sets in the East.
  • One day on Venus is equivalent to 243 Earth days because of its backward spinning, opposite to that of the Earth’s and most other planets.
  • Venus also does not have a moon and no rings.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

CHIME Telescope

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : CHIME Telescope, Fast Radio Bursts

Mains level : NA

Scientists with the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) Collaboration have assembled the largest collection of fast radio bursts (FRBs) in the telescope’s first FRB catalog.

CHIME Telescope

  • CHIME is an interferometric radio telescope at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, Canada.
  • It consists of four antennas consisting of 100 x 20-meter cylindrical parabolic reflectors with 1024 dual-polarization radio receivers suspended on support above them.
  • The telescope receives radio signals each day from half of the sky as the Earth rotates.
  • While most radio astronomy is done by swiveling a large dish to focus light from different parts of the sky, CHIME stares, motionless, at the sky, and focuses incoming signals using a correlator.
  • This is a powerful digital signal processor that can work through huge amounts of data, at a rate of about seven terrabytes per second, equivalent to a few percent of the world’s Internet traffic.

What are FRBs?

  • FRBs are oddly bright flashes of light, registering in the radio band of the electromagnetic spectrum, which blaze for a few milliseconds before vanishing without a trace.
  • These brief and mysterious beacons have been spotted in various and distant parts of the universe, as well as in our own galaxy.
  • Their origins are unknown and their appearance is highly unpredictable.
  • But the advent of the CHIME project has nearly quadrupled the number of fast radio bursts discovered to date.
  • With more observations, astronomers hope soon to pin down the extreme origins of these curiously bright signals.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

CIBER-2 Mission to count the stars in the Universe

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : CIBER 2 Mission

Mains level : NA

A NASA-funded rocket’s launch window will open at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, USA. The aim of this mission is to count the number of stars that exist in the Universe.

Answer this PYQ from CSP 2020 in the comment box:

Q.“The experiment will employ a trio of spacecraft flying in formation in the shape of an equilateral triangle that has sides one million kilometers long, with lasers shining between the craft.” The experiment in question refers to

(a) Voyager-2

(b) New horizons

(c) Lisa Pathfinder

(d) Evolved LISA

What is CIBER-2?

  • In order to roughly estimate the number of stars in the Universe, scientists have estimated that on average each galaxy consists of about 100 million stars, but this figure is not exact.
  • The figure of 100 million could easily be an underestimation, probably by a factor of 10 or more.
  • To put this into perspective, an average of 100 million stars in each galaxy (there an estimated 2 trillion of them as per NASA), would give a total figure of one hundred quintillion stars or 1 with 21 zeroes after it.
  • NASA notes that if this figure is accurate, it would mean that for every grain of sand on Earth, there are more than ten stars.
  • But this calculation assumes that all stars are inside galaxies, which might not be true and this is what the CIBER-2 instrument will try to find out.

How will CIBER-2 count stars?

  • NASA notes that the instrument will not actually count individual stars but it will instead detect the extragalactic background light
  • It is all of the light that has been emitted throughout the history of the Universe.
  • From all of this extragalactic background light, the CIBER-2 will focus on a portion of this called cosmic infrared background, which is emitted by some of the most common stars.
  • Essentially, this approach is aiming to look at how bright this light is to give scientists an estimate of how many of these stars are out there.
  • The ESA infrared space observatory Herschel also counted the number of galaxies in infrared and measured their luminosity previously.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions for exploration of Venus

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Missions on Venus

Mains level : Planetory exploration

NASA has selected two missions to the planet Venus, Earth’s nearest neighbor. The missions are called DAVINCI+ and VERITAS.

DAVINCI+ and VERITAS

(1) DAVINCI+

  • DAVINCI+ is short for ‘Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging’ and is the first US-led mission to the planet’s atmosphere since 1978.
  • It will try to understand Venus’ composition to see how the planet formed and evolved.
  • This mission also consists of a decent sphere that will pass through the planet’s thick atmosphere and make observations and take measurements of noble gases and other elements.
  • Significantly, this mission will also try to return the first high-resolution photographs of a geological feature that is unique to Venus.
  • This feature, which is called “tesserae” may be comparable to Earth’s continents.
  • The presence of tesseraes may suggest that Venus has tectonic plates like Earth.

(2) VERITAS

  • The second mission called VERITAS is short for ‘Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy’.
  • It will map the planet’s surface to determine its geologic history and understand the reasons why it developed so differently from Earth.
  • VERITAS will orbit Venus with a radar that will help to create a 3D reconstruction of its topography which might be able to tell scientists if processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active there.
  • This mission will also map the emissions from Venus’s surface that may help in determining the type of rocks that exist on Venus–a piece of information that is not exactly known yet.
  • It will also determine if active volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere.

Why study Venus?

  • The results from DAVINCI+ are expected to reshape the understanding of terrestrial planet formation in the solar system and beyond.
  • Taken together, both missions are expected to tell scientists more about the planet’s thick cloud cover and the volcanoes on its surface.
  • Further, scientists speculate about the existence of life on Venus in its distant past and the possibility that life may exist in the top layers of its clouds where temperatures are less extreme.

Have humans visited Venus?

  • Because of the planet’s harsh environment, no humans have visited it and even the spacecraft that have been sent to the planet have not survived for a very long time.
  • Venus’ high surface temperatures overheat electronics in spacecraft in a short time, so it seems unlikely that a person could survive for long on the Venusian surface.
  • So far, spacecraft from several nations have visited the planet.
  • The first such spacecraft was the Soviet Union’s Venera series (the spacecraft, however, could not survive for long because of the planet’s harsh conditions).
  • It was followed by NASA’s Magellan Mission that studied Venus from 1990-1994. As of now, Japan’s Akatsuki mission is studying the planet from Orbit.

Back2Basics: Venus

  • For those on Earth, Venus is the second-brightest object in the sky after the moon.
  • It appears bright because of its thick cloud cover that reflects and scatters light.
  • Surface temperatures on Venus can go up to 471 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to melt lead, NASA notes. Surface temperatures on Venus can go up to 471 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to melt lead, NASA notes.

Some unknown facts

  • While Venus, which is the second closest planet to the Sun, is called the Earth’s twin because of their similar sizes, the two planets have significant differences between them.
  • For one, the planet’s thick atmosphere traps heat and is the reason that it is the hottest planet in the solar system, despite coming after Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun.
  • Further, Venus moves forward on its orbit around the Sun but spins backwards around its axis slowly.
  • This means on Venus the Sun rises in the west and sets in the East.
  • One day on Venus is equivalent to 243 Earth days because of its backward spinning, opposite to that of the Earth’s and most other planets.
  • Venus also does not have a moon and no rings.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

OneWeb constellation for Internet from the Skies

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : OneWeb, LEO

Mains level : Space internet concept

Following the successful launch of 36 satellites, OneWeb’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation reached 218 in-orbit satellites.

What is OneWeb?

  • OneWeb is a global communications company that aims to deliver broadband satellite Internet around the world through its fleet of LEO satellites.
  • OneWeb satellites are built at a OneWeb and Airbus joint venture facility in Florida that can produce up to two satellites a day.
  • The launch roll-out of the satellites is facilitated by French company Arianespace using Russian-made Soyuz rockets.
  • The company has announced plans to enter the Indian market by 2022.

About its constellation

  • The company has one more launch to complete before it obtains the capacity to enable its ‘Five to 50’ service of offering internet connectivity to all regions north of 50 degrees latitude.
  • The Five to 50 service is expected to be switched on by June 2021 with global services powered by 648 satellites available in 2022.

What are LEO satellites?

  • LEO satellites have been orbiting the planet since the 1990s, providing companies and individuals with various communication services.
  • They are positioned around 500km-2000km from earth, compared to stationary orbit satellites which are approximately 36,000km away.
  • Latency, or the time needed for data to be sent and received, is contingent on proximity.
  • As LEO satellites orbit closer to the earth, they are able to provide stronger signals and faster speeds than traditional fixed-satellite systems.
  • Additionally, because signals travel faster through space than through fiber-optic cables, they also have the potential to rival if not exceed existing ground-based networks.
  • However, LEO satellites travel at a speed of 27,000 kph and complete a full circuit of the planet in 90-120 minutes.
  • As a result, individual satellites can only make direct contact with a land transmitter for a short period of time thus requiring massive LEO satellite fleets and consequently, a significant capital investment.

Criticisms of LEO satellites

  • During the days of the Sputnik and Apollo missions, governments dominated and regulated space-based activities.
  • There are logistical challenges with launching thousands of satellites into space as well.
  • Satellites can sometimes be seen in the night skies which creates difficulties for astronomers as the satellites reflect sunlight to earth, leaving streaks across images.
  • Satellites traveling at a lower orbit can also interrupt the frequency of those orbiting above them, an accusation that has been leveled against Starlink satellites already.
  • Another worry is that there are already almost 1 million objects larger than 1cm in diameter in orbit, a byproduct of decades of space activities.
  • Those objects, colloquially referred to as ‘space junk,’ have the potential to damage spacecraft or collide with other satellites.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

[pib] Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Magnetosphere

Mains level : Not Much

Indian Scientists have developed a theory that helps understand the complicated nature of Sun-Earth interaction’s happening in the magnetosphere

Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Mission

  • The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Mission is a NASA robotic space mission to study the Earth’s magnetosphere, using four identical spacecraft flying in a tetrahedral formation.
  • The mission is designed to gather information about the microphysics of magnetic reconnection, energetic particle acceleration, and turbulence⁠—processes that occur in many astrophysical plasma.
  • Indian researchers have developed a theory that solves every bit of uncertainty regarding the conflict between the observations from MMS Mission.

Answer this PYQ in the comment box:

Q.Consider the following statements:

  1. The Earth’s magnetic field has reversed every few hundred thousand years.
  2. When the Earth was created more than 4000 million years ago, there was 54% oxygen and no carbon dioxide.
  3. When living organisms originated, they modified the early atmosphere of the Earth.

Which of the statements given above is/ are correct? (CSP 2018)

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

What is the Magnetosphere?

  • The magnetosphere is the region of space surrounding Earth where the dominant magnetic field is the magnetic field of Earth, rather than the magnetic field of interplanetary space.
  • It is formed by the interaction of the solar wind with Earth’s magnetic field.

Findings of the Indian Researchers

  • The MMS spacecraft observed negative monopolar potential (electric field potentials which can be visualized in the form of single-humped pulse-type structures).
  • The scientific community suddenly recognized its importance, and publications were presented.
  • However, none of the available theories could explain the characteristics of these structures due to the exotic background conditions.
  • Indian theory provides a better understanding of their characteristics and sheds light on the generation of these structures.
  • This has lead to the unraveling of nature’s greatest mystery that causes phenomena -plasma transport and heating of plasma- the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid, and gas.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Tianwen-1 lands successfully on Mars

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Tianwen 1 and various Mars missions

Mains level : Mars mission worldwide and their success

China landed a spacecraft on Mars carrying its first Mars rover in a big boost to its space ambitions.

UPSC may ask an MCQ asking: Which of the following is/are the space missions related to Mars? It may throw up 4-5 options (which we all get confused at after few months) like Cassini , InSight , Messanger, Voyager etc.

Tianwen-1 Mission

  • The mission is named after the ancient Chinese poem ‘Questions to Heaven’, the Tianwen-1.
  • It is an all-in-one orbiter; lander and rover will search the Martian surface for water, ice, investigate soil characteristics, and study the atmosphere, among completing other objectives.
  • It will be the first to place ground-penetrating radar on the Martian surface, which will be able to study local geology, as well as rock, ice, and dirt distribution.
  • The lander descended successfully onto the surface of the red planet carrying a rover named Zhurong, named after a god of fire for a planet known in Chinese as the planet of fire.
  • Only the Soviet Union and the United States had previously carried out a successful landing on Mars.

Back2Basics: Various missions on Mars

  • The USSR in 1971 became the first country to carry out a Mars landing– its ‘Mars 3’ lander being able to transmit data for 20 seconds from the Martian surface before failing.
  • The country made it’s second and Mars landing two years later in 1973.
  • The second country to reach Mars’s surface, the US, holds the record for the most number of Mars landings.
  • Since 1976, it has achieved 8 successful Mars landings, the latest being the ‘InSight’ in 2019 (launched in 2018).
  • India and the European Space Agency have been able to place their spacecraft in Mars’s orbit.
  • India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or ‘Mangalyaan’ was able to do so in September 2014, almost a year after its launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh.
  • The Chinese mission now is expected to take off around the same time when NASA is launching its own Mars mission– the ambitious ‘Perseverance’ which aims to collect Martian samples and bring them back.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Space weather preparedness is in our national interest

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 3- Space weather preparedness

The article suggests the need for space weather preparedness to protect the satellite constellations in the future.

Satellite constellations

  • By 2030, the global space industry could add almost 50,000 new commercial satellites to the existing 5,000.
  • These would include earth-observation satellites selling commercial imagery, telecom orbiters providing 5G and next-in-line 6G data services, and meteorological ones selling weather-forecasts and datasets.
  • The increasing dependence of the digital economy on satellite constellations is spurring investment in this area.

Risks involved

  • The most important threat to the constellation of satellites will be the collisions between satellites.
  • Such collision could result in massive free-floating space debris.
  • A 2020 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report estimates that protecting satellites from space debris could cost 5-10% more per space mission.
  • Another threat to satellite constellations is that of extreme space weather events, and this cannot be addressed by space and digital players alone.
  • It demands the attention of governments.

Improving space weather forecasting ability

  • Last October, the US Congress passed an Act that directs civilian and military agencies to reinforce national space weather forecasting abilities.
  • China transferred its meteorological, hydrological and space weather command from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general staff department to the PLA strategic support force, the latter being its new branch for cyber, space and e-warfare.

Lessons for India

  • India’s economy is expected to become increasingly dependent on space- and ground-based commercial, civilian and military assets.
  • These will be vulnerable to extreme space weather events.
  • India is progressing with its capital-intensive planetary exploration and human space-flight projects.
  • we must deploy across-the-board space-weather monitoring, forecasting and response systems designed to safeguard deep-space assets and protect our gaganauts.
  • Consequently, it is imperative for the government to develop and adopt space weather forecasts before initiating outer space activities.
  • India, therefore, needs legislation like America’s to issues cross-ministerial directions.
  • The Indian scientific community operates numerous ground-based ‘sun observing’ telescopes across India, and is well connected with its international peers.
  • In the coming months India is expected to launch Aditya-L1, a space-based solar observatory, with assistance from the Indian Space Research Organisation.
  • The data generated by it will be crucial for India’s space weather monitoring ambitions.
  • But without a national policy backed by legislation, the scientific community would find it difficult to meet the strategic demands of the conjoined space and digital economies.

Consider the question “The increasing dependence of the digital economy on satellite constellations is spurring investment in this area. But it is not risk-free. In light of this, examine the risks involved and suggest the measures to deal with the risks.” 

Conclusion

The enactment of a space weather law could help the country protect its digital and telecom systems that extend to outer space from destructive solar storms and intense solar and galactic radiation whiplashes.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Martian ‘Blueberries’

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Martian blueberries

Mains level : Mars mission worldwide and their success

In 2004, NASA’s Mars exploration rover ‘Opportunity’ found several small spheres on the planet, informally named Martian blueberries which find a resemblance to the similar formation in India’s Kutch region.

There have been several missions to the red planet this year. Make a note of all of them.

Martian blueberries

  • Opportunity’s mini spectrometers studied mineralogy and noted they were made of iron oxide compounds called haematites.
  • This caused excitement, as the presence of haematites suggests that there was water present on Mars.
  • The widely accepted formation mechanism of hematite concretion [hard solid mass] is precipitation from aqueous fluids.
  • Hematite is known to form in oxidizing environments hence it can be inferred that water must have played a crucial role in the formation of grey hematite on Mars.

What makes them so special?

  • Indian researchers have been studying hematite concretions in Kutch called the Jhuran formation.
  • These formations are 145 and 201 million years old.
  • Detailed geochemistry and spectroscopic investigations of the haematite concretions in this area revealed that they resemble the ones on Mars.
  • They have similar morphology – spherical, often doublet and triplet – and similar mineralogy – a mixture of haematite and goethite.
  • Hence, several types of research have shown that the Kutch area is a potential Martian analogue locality.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s Perseverance rover makes historic Mars landing

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Various missions on Mars

Mains level : Mars mission worldwide and their success

NASA’s rover Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever sent to another world has landed safely on the floor of Jezero Crater on Mars.

Last week, separate probes launched by the UAE (Hope Mission) and China (Tianwen-1) reached Martian orbit. NASA has three Mars satellites still in orbit, along with two from the European Space Agency.

Perseverance Rover

  • The Perseverance rover weighs less than 2,300 pounds and is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
  • It is a part of the mission named ‘Mars 2020’.
  • The rover’s mission will be to search for signs of past microbial life. It will also collect samples of Martian rocks and dust, according to the release.
  • All of NASA’s previous Mars rovers — including the Sojourner (1997), Spirit and Opportunity (2004) and Curiosity (exploring Mars since 2012) — were named in this way.

Objectives of the mission

  • Looking for habitability: identify past environments capable of supporting microbial life.
  • Seeking bio-signatures: seek signs of possible past microbial life in those habitable environments, particularly in special rocks known to preserve signs over time.
  • Caching samples: collect core rock and regolith (“soil”) samples and store them on the Martian surface.
  • Preparing for humans: test oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere.

Major components

(a) Looking for underground water

  • Perseverance will carry the Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX).
  • The instrument will look for subsurface water on Mars – which, if found, will greatly help the case for a human mission or the cause of a human settlement on Mars.

(b) Testing a helicopter

  • The Mars Helicopter is a small drone. It is a technology demonstration experiment: to test whether the helicopter can fly in the sparse atmosphere on Mars.
  • The low density of the Martian atmosphere makes the odds of actually flying a helicopter or an aircraft on Mars very low.

(c) Producing oxygen on Mars

  • Perseverance will have an instrument – MOXIE, or Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment – that will use 300 watts of power to produce about 10 grams of oxygen using atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  • Should this experiment be successful, MOXIE can be scaled up by a factor of 100 to provide the two very critical needs of humans: oxygen for breathing, and rocket fuel for the trip back to Earth.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Hope: UAE’s first mission to Mars

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Hope Mission

Mains level : Mars mission worldwide and their success

The first Arab interplanetary mission is expected to reach Mars’ orbit on February 9 in what is considered the most critical part of the journey to unravel the secrets of weather on the Red Planet.

Try this question from CSP 2014:

Q.Which of the following pair is/are correctly matched?

Spacecraft Purpose
1. Cassini-Huygens Orbiting the Venus and transmitting data to the Earth
2. Messenger Mapping and investigating the Mercury
3. Voyager 1 and 2 Exploring the outer solar system

Select the correct answer using the code given below.

a) 1 only

b) 2 and 3 only

c) 1 and 3 only

d) 1, 2 and 3

Hope Mission

  • The Emirates Mars Mission called “Hope” was announced in 2015 with the aim of creating mankind’s first integrated model of the Red planet’s atmosphere.
  • Hope weighs over 1500 kg and will carry scientific instruments mounted on one side of the spacecraft, including the Emirates exploration Imager (EXI), which is a high-resolution camera among others.
  • The spacecraft will orbit Mars to study the Martian atmosphere and its interaction with outer space and solar winds.
  • Hope will collect data on Martian climate dynamics, which should help scientists understand why Mars’ atmosphere is decaying into space.

Objectives of the mission

  • Once it launches, Hope will orbit Mars for around 200 days, after which it will enter the Red planet’s orbit by 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of UAE.
  • The mission is being executed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, UAE’s space agency.
  • It will help answer key questions about the global Martian atmosphere and the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of one Martian year.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Square Kilometre Array Observatory

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Square Kilometre Array Observatory, Radio Telescopes

Mains level : Not Much

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) Council held its maiden meeting and approved the establishment of the world’s largest radio telescope.

Note all important telescopes in news and their features. Some of them are – Thirty Meter Telescope, Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope, Spitzer, Chandra etc.

SKAO

  • It is a new intergovernmental organisation dedicated to radio astronomy and is headquartered in the UK.
  • At the moment, organisations from ten countries are a part of the SKAO.
  • These include Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK.

What are radio telescopes?

  • Unlike optical telescopes, radio telescopes can detect invisible gas and, therefore, they can reveal areas of space that may be obscured by cosmic dust.
  • Significantly, since the first radio signals were detected by physicist Karl Jansky in the 1930s, astronomers have used radio telescopes to detect radio waves emitted by different objects in the universe and explore it.
  • According to NASA, the field of radio astronomy evolved after World War II and became one of the most important tools for making astronomical observations since.

The Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, which was the second-largest single-dish radio telescope in the world, collapsed in December 2020.

Significance of SKA telescope

  • The telescope, proposed to be the largest radio telescope in the world, will be located in Africa and Australia whose operation, maintenance and construction will be overseen by SKAO.
  • Some of the questions that scientists hope to address using this telescope include the beginning of the universe, how and when the first stars were born and the life-cycle of a galaxy.
  • It would explore the possibility of detecting technologically-active civilizations elsewhere in our galaxy and understanding where gravitational waves come from.
  • As per NASA, the telescope will accomplish its scientific goals by measuring neutral hydrogen over cosmic time, accurately timing the signals from pulsars in the Milky Way.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Stardust 1.O: the first rocket to run on biofuel

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Stardust-1, Biofuels

Mains level : Not Much

Stardust 1.O was recently launched from Maine, the US has become the first commercial space launch powered by biofuel.

UPSC may puzzle you with the following type of MCQ asking:

Q.Which of the following is the unique feature of the Stardust 1.0 Spacecraft recenlty seen in news?

(a) It is propelled by Bio-fuels.

(b) It has the largest payload capacity.

(c) It is re-usable launch vehicle.

(d) All of the above

What is Stardust 1.O?

  • Stardust 1.O is a launch vehicle suited for student and budget payloads.
  • The rocket is manufactured by bluShift, an aerospace company based in Maine that is developing rockets that are powered by bio-derived fuels.
  • The rocket is 20 feet tall and has a mass of roughly 250 kg.
  • The rocket can carry a maximum payload mass of 8 kg and during its first launch carried three payloads.
  • The payloads included a cubesat prototype built by high-school students, a metal alloy designed to lessen vibrations.

Why such missions are important?

  • Such efforts are a part of a growing number of commercial space companies that are working to provide easier and cheaper access to space to laypeople.
  • It also makes access to space cost-effective for purposes of academic research, corporate technology development and entrepreneurial ventures among others.

Back2Basics: Biofuel

  • Biofuels are obtained from biomass, which can be converted directly into liquid fuels that can be used as transportation fuels.
  • The two most common kinds of biofuels in use today are ethanol and biodiesel and they both represent the first generation of biofuel technology.
  • Ethanol, for instance, is renewable and made from different kinds of plant materials.
  • Biodiesel on the other hand is produced by combining alcohol with new and used vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled cooking grease.

Categories of biofuels

Biofuels are generally classified into three categories. They are

  1. First-generation biofuels – First-generation biofuels are made from sugar, starch, vegetable oil, or animal fats using conventional technology. Common first-generation biofuels include Bioalcohols, Biodiesel, Vegetable oil, Bioethers, Biogas.
  2. Second-generation biofuels – These are produced from non-food crops, such as cellulosic biofuels and waste biomass (stalks of wheat and corn, and wood). Examples include advanced biofuels like biohydrogen, bioethanol.
  3. Third-generation biofuels – These are produced from micro-organisms like algae.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What caused the tilt to Saturn’s rotation axis?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Saturn's tilt

Mains level : NA

The tilt of the rotation axis of the gas giant Saturn may in fact be caused by its moons, space scientists have reported in the journal Nature Astronomy.

About Saturn

  • Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter.
  • It is a gas giant with an average radius of about nine times that of Earth.
  • It only has one-eighth the average density of Earth; however, with its larger volume, Saturn is over 95 times more massive.

Reasons for Saturn’s tilt

  • Saturn’s axis interacted with the path of the planet Neptune and gradually tilted until it reached the inclination of 27 degrees observed today.
  • This current tilt of Saturn’s rotation axis is caused by the migration of its satellites, and especially by that of its largest moon, Titan.
  • Recent observations have shown that Titan and the other moons are gradually moving away from Saturn much faster than astronomers had previously estimated.
  • By incorporating this increased migration rate into their calculations, the researchers concluded that this process affects the inclination of Saturn’s rotation axis.

Try this PYQ:

Q.Which phenomenon has Venusian winds rotating 60 times faster than the planet below on the dark side?

(a) Super rotation

(b) Monrotation

(c) Dual rotation

(d) Macrrotation

Continuous tilting

  • As its satellites move further away, the planet tilts more and more.
  • In fact, Saturn’s axis is still tilting, and what we see today is merely a transitional stage in this shift.
  • Over the next few billion years, the inclination of Saturn’s axis could more than double.

Why it matters?

  • The decisive event that tilted Saturn is thought to have occurred relatively recently.
  • For over three billion years after its formation, Saturn’s rotation axis remained only slightly tilted.
  • It was only roughly a billion years ago that the gradual motion of its satellites triggered a resonance phenomenon that continues today.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What is Dark Matter?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Dark Matter

Mains level : Dark Matter, Black Holes

Space scientists from the University of Sussex have found a new way to know more about dark matter. They have narrowed down the range of masses within which particles that could make up dark matter may lie in.

What is the news about?

  • Around 95 % of the Universe is unknown to human beings.
  • It is often referred to as dark which has nothing to do with the colour of any substance but to do with the unknown nature of cosmic entities known as dark matter and dark energy.

Trending in news these days is the Quantum Technology. (as it used to be until last year were- the Internet of Things (IoT) CSP 2019, Artificial Intelligence (AI) etc.)

Must read all this news in a loop:

  1. National Mission on QC
  2. Quantum Coin
  3. Quantum Supremacy
  4. Quantum Entanglement

What is Dark Matter?

  • Dark matter is composed of particles that do not absorb, reflect, or emit light, so they cannot be detected by observing electromagnetic radiation.
  • Dark matter is a form of matter thought to account for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe and about a quarter of its total mass-energy density or about 2.241×10−27 kg/m3.

What does the research say?

  • Scientists carried out the research using quantum gravity, a field of study that tries to combine two of Einstein’s concepts — quantum physics and general relativity theory of gravity.
  • This is the first time anyone has thought of using what we know about quantum gravity to calculate the mass range for dark matter.
  • Their research shows that the dark matter particles can neither be super light nor super heavy unless there is a force acting on it that is yet unknown.

Quantum gravity: The concept

  • Quantum gravity is a field of theoretical physics that seeks to describe gravity according to the principles of quantum mechanics.
  • Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics which describes nature at the smallest scales of energy levels of atoms and subatomic particles.
  • Here quantum effects cannot be ignored, such as in the vicinity of black holes or similar compact astrophysical objects where the effects of gravity are strong, such as neutron stars.

Significance of the findings

  • This might help in finding out more about this mysterious force. There are currently four known forces in the Universe — gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong.
  • Scientists estimate that roughly 68 per cent of the Universe is made up of dark energy which is responsible for the accelerated expansion of the Universe.
  • Another 27 per cent is a dark matter whose existence was inferred from the observation that ordinary matter in galaxies, including the Milky Way, is far less than that required by gravity to hold the galaxies together.

Why does the ‘Dark Matter’ matter?

  • Dark matter’s gravitational effects are also necessary to explain the motions of clusters of galaxies and the structure of the entire Universe at the largest scale.
  • On smaller scales, dark matter is too diffused to impact the motion of the Solar System, Earth or the origin and evolution of humans in any significant way.
  • But the nature of that dark matter is still unclear. It is most likely made of particles that do not couple to light because of which humans cannot see them.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s Curiosity Rover celebrates 3000 days on Mars

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Curiosity rover, Martian Day

Mains level : Quest for extraterrestrial life

The Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ has completed 3,000 Martian days.

Try this PYQ:

Q.Which region of Mars has a densely packed river deposit indicating this planet had water 3.5 billion years ago?

(a) Aeolis Dorsa

(b) Tharsis

(c) Olympus Mons

(d) Hellas

Curiosity Rover

  • Curiosity is an SUV-sized Mars rover designed to explore the Gale crater on Mars as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission
  • The main mission of Curiosity was “to search areas of Mars for past or present conditions favourable for life, and conditions capable of preserving a record of life.”
  • It has a suite of instruments:
  1. A gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, a tunable laser spectrometer, X-ray diffraction, fluorescence instrument help study the rocks
  2. The Mars Hand Lens Imager (for close-up pictures) and a Mast Camera (to take photos of the surroundings)
  3. An instrument named ChemCam to vaporize thin layers of Martian rocks.
  4. Radiation Assessment Detector to study the radiation environment at the surface of Mars
  5. Rover Environmental Monitoring Station to measure atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, winds, plus ultraviolet radiation levels
  6. Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument to measure subsurface hydrogen

Back2Basics: Martian Day/ Sol

  • Coincidentally, the duration of a Martian day aka ‘Sol’ is within a few per cent of that of an Earth day, which has led to the use of analogous time units.
  • A sol is slightly longer than an Earth day. It is approximately 24 hours, 39 minutes, 35 seconds long.
  • A Martian year is approximately 668 sols, equivalent to approximately 687 Earth days.
  • Mars has an axial tilt and a rotation period similar to those of Earth.
  • Thus, it experiences seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter much like Earth.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Proxima Centauri: the closest star to the Sun

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Proxima Centauri

Mains level : Not Much

Astronomers running the world’s largest initiative to look for alien life have recently picked up an “intriguing” radio wave emission from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our Sun.

Proxima Centauri

  • Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light-years away from the Sun – considered a close distance in cosmic terms.
  • Its mass is about an eighth of the Sun’s, and it is too dim to be seen with the naked eye from Earth.
  • Proxima b, one of the two planets that revolve around the star, is the subject of significant curiosity.
  • Sized 1.2 times larger than Earth, and orbits its star every 11 days, Proxima b lies in Proxima Centauri’s “Goldilocks zone”.

Goldilocks zone is the area around a star where it is not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface of surrounding planets. To give an example, the Earth is in the Sun’s Goldilocks zone.

The mystery of radio signals

  • Astronomers at the Breakthrough Listen project, started by the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, regularly spot blasts of radio waves using two powerful telescopes.
  • They are Parkes Observatory in Australia or the Green Bank Observatory in the US.
  • All of their findings so far, though, have been attributed either to natural sources or interference caused by humans.
  • This raises the possibility that the emission could be an alien “techno-signature”, meaning something which provides evidence of alien technology.
  • There are also reasons to believe that the signal might not mean ‘aliens’.
  • Another possibility could be that the signal could have been caused by something behind Proxima Centauri or by a natural phenomenon whose existence we so far do not know of.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Chang’e 5 returns to Earth carrying moon rocks

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Chang E probe

Mains level : Various lunar missions and their success

A Chinese lunar capsule has returned to Earth with the first fresh samples of rock and debris from the moon in more than 40 years.

Try this PYQ:

Q.What do you understand by the term Aitken basin:

(a) It is a desert in the southern Chile which is known to be the only location on earth where no rainfall takes place

(b) It is an impact crater on the far side of the Moon

(c) It is a Pacific coast basin, which is known to house large amounts of oil and gas

(d) It is a deep hyper saline anoxic basin where no aquatic animals are found

Chang’e-5 Probe

  • The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess, aims to shovel up lunar rocks and soil to help scientists learn about the moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
  • The goal of the mission is to land in the Mons Rumker region of the moon, where it will operate for one lunar day, which is two weeks long.
  • It will collect 2 kg of surface material from a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum — or “Ocean of Storms” — which consist of vast lava plain.
  • The original mission, planned for 2017, was delayed due to an engine failure in China’s Long March 5 launch rocket.

A big achievement

  • The successful mission was the latest breakthrough for China’s increasingly ambitious space programme that includes a robotic mission to Mars and plans for a permanent orbiting space station.
  • This return marked China’s third successful lunar landing but the only one to lift off again from the moon.
  • It also marked the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 robot probe in 1976.

Significance of the mission

  • Rocks found on the Moon are older than any that have been found on Earth and therefore they are valuable in providing information about the Earth and the Moon’s shared history.
  • Lunar samples can help to unravel some important questions in lunar science and astronomy, including the Moon’s age, its formation, the similarities and differences between the Earth and the Moon’s geologic features.
  • For instance, the shape, size, arrangement and composition of individual grains and crystals in a rock can tell scientists about its history, while the radioactive clock can tell them the rock’s age.
  • Further, tiny cracks in rocks can tell them about the radiation history of the Sun in the last 100,000 years.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Surveyor-2 Spacecraft

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Surveyor-2

Mains level : Not Much

NASA has confirmed that the Near-Earth Object called 2020 SO is the rocket booster that helped lift the space agency’s Surveyor spacecraft toward the Moon in 1966.

Try this PYQ:

Consider the following phenomena:

  1. Size of the sun at dusk
  2. Colour of the sun at dawn
  3. Moon being visible at dawn
  4. Twinkle of stars in the sky
  5. Polestar being visible in the sky

Which of the above are optical illusions?

(a) 1, 2 and 3

(b) 3, 4 and 5

(c) 1, 2 and 4

(d) 2, 3 and 5

What is Surveyor-2?

  • The Surveyor-2 spacecraft was supposed to make a soft landing on the Moon’s surface in September 1966, during which time one of the three thrusters failed to ignite.
  • As a result of this the spacecraft started spinning and crashed on the surface.
  • The aim of the mission was to reconnoiter the lunar surface ahead of the Apollo missions that led to the first lunar landing in 1969.
  • While the spacecraft crashed into the Moon’s surface, the rocket booster disappeared into an unknown orbit around the Sun.

How was the object determined to be the rocket booster?

  • Astronomers track asteroids using telescope to determine if there are potentially hazardous asteroids that pose a threat to the planet.
  • Therefore, it is also important for them to be able to distinguish between natural and artificial objects that orbit around the Sun.
  • The rocket booster has come “somewhat close” to the Earth in the past few decades.
  • One approach to the Earth in late 1966 was so close that the object was thought to have originated from Earth.
  • In September, the NASA-funded telescope detected it.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Arecibo Radio Telescope

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Arecibo Radio Telescope

Mains level : Not Much

A massive radio telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory — one of the world’s largest — collapsed on after sustaining severe damage, following 57 years of astronomical discoveries.

Try this PYQ:

Which of the following is/are cited by the scientists as evidence/evidence for the continued expansion of the universe?

  1. Detection of microwaves in space
  2. Observation of redshirt phenomenon in space
  3. Movement of asteroids in space
  4. Occurrence of supernova explosions in space

Codes:

(a) 1 and 2 only

(b) 2 only

(c) 1, 3 and 4

(d) None of the above can be cited as evidence.

Arecibo Telescope

  • The Arecibo Observatory, also known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), was an observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico owned by the US National Science Foundation (NSF).
  • It was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope for 53 years, surpassed in July 2016 by the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China.
  • The second-largest single-dish radio telescope in the world, it had withstood many hurricanes and earthquakes since it was first built in 1963.

Its contributions

  • Being the most powerful radar, scientists employed Arecibo to observe planets, asteroids and the ionosphere.
  • It made several discoveries over the decades, including finding prebiotic molecules in distant galaxies, the first exoplanets, and the first millisecond pulsar.
  • In 1967, Arecibo was able to discover that the planet Mercury rotates in 59 days and not 88 days as had been originally thought.
  • In the following decades, it also served as a hub in the search for extraterrestrial life, and would look for radio signals from alien civilizations.
  • In 1993, scientists Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the observatory in monitoring a binary pulsar.
  • It provided a strict test of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and the first evidence for the existence of gravitational waves.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : ASKAP telescope

Mains level : Not Much

A powerful new telescope ASKAP, in Australia has mapped vast areas of the universe in record-breaking time, revealing a million new galaxies and opening the way to new discoveries.

Note all important telescopes in news and their features. Some of them are – Thirty Meter Telescope, Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope, Spitzer, Chandra etc.

What is ASKAP?

  • ASKAP is a telescope designed over a decade ago and located about 800 km north of Perth.
  • It became fully operational in February 2019 and is currently conducting pilot surveys of the sky before it can begin large-scale projects from 2021 onward.
  • ASKAP surveys are designed to map the structure and evolution of the Universe, which it does by observing galaxies and the hydrogen gas that they contain.
  • One of its most important features is its wide field of view, because of which it has been able to take panoramic pictures of the sky in great detail.
  • The telescope uses novel technology developed by CSIRO- the Australian space agency, which is a kind of a “radio camera” to achieve high survey speeds and consists of 36 dish antennas, which are each 12m in diameter.
  • The survey team has been able to observe over 83 per cent of the sky visible from ASKAP’s site in Western Australia.

Significance of the results

  • The present Rapid ASKAP Continuum Survey (RACS) taken by the ASKAP telescope is like a “Google map” of the Universe.
  • Mapping the Universe on such a scale enables astronomers to study the formation of stars and how galaxies and their supermassive black holes evolve and interact with each other.
  • Significantly, the images the telescope has taken are on average deeper and have better spatial resolution compared to those taken during other surveys of the sky.
  • The aim of the RACS survey is to generate images that will aid future surveys undertaken using the telescope.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Probe

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Hayabusa2 Probe

Mains level : Not Much

A Japanese spacecraft is nearing Earth after a yearlong journey home from a distant asteroid with soil samples. It is set to land in Australia.

Try this PYQ:

Which of the following is/are cited by the scientists as evidence/evidence for the continued expansion of the universe?

  1. Detection of microwaves in space
  2. Observation of redshirt phenomenon in space
  3. Movement of asteroids in space
  4. Occurrence of supernova explosions in space

Codes:

(a) 1 and 2 only

(b) 2 only

(c) 1, 3 and 4

(d) None of the above can be cited as evidence.

Hayabusa2 Probe

  • Hayabusa2is an asteroid sample-return mission operated by the Japanese space agency, JAXA.
  • It follows on from the Hayabusa mission which returned asteroid samples in 2010.
  • It was launched on 3 December 2014 and rendezvoused with near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu on 27 June 2018.
  • It surveyed the asteroid for a year and a half and took samples. It left the asteroid in November 2019.
  • It carries multiple science payloads for remote sensing, sampling, and four small rovers that investigated the asteroid surface to inform the environmental and geological context of the samples collected.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Chang’e-5 Lunar Probe

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Chang E probe

Mains level : Various lunar missions and their success

China is preparing to launch an unmanned spacecraft to bring back lunar rocks, the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from the moon in four decades.

Try this PYQ:

Q.What do you understand by the term Aitken basin:

(a) It is a desert in the southern Chile which is known to be the only location on earth where no rainfall takes place

(b) It is an impact crater on the far side of the Moon

(c) It is a Pacific coast basin, which is known to house large amounts of oil and gas

(d) It is a deep hyper saline anoxic basin where no aquatic animals are found

Chang’e-5 Probe

  • The Chang’e-5 probe, named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess, aims to shovel up lunar rocks and soil to help scientists learn about the moon’s origins, formation and volcanic activity on its surface.
  • The goal of the mission is to land in the Mons Rumker region of the moon, where it will operate for one lunar day, which is two weeks long.
  • It will collect 2 kg of surface material from a previously unexplored area known as Oceanus Procellarum — or “Ocean of Storms” — which consist of vast lava plain.
  • The original mission, planned for 2017, was delayed due to an engine failure in China’s Long March 5 launch rocket.
  • If successful, China will be only the third country to have retrieved samples from the moon, following the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

Significance of the mission

  • As per the Lunar and Planetary Institute, rocks found on the Moon are older than any that have been found on Earth and therefore they are valuable in providing information about the Earth and the Moon’s shared history.
  • Lunar samples can help to unravel some important questions in lunar science and astronomy, including the Moon’s age, its formation, the similarities and differences between the Earth and the Moon’s geologic features.
  • For instance, the shape, size, arrangement and composition of individual grains and crystals in a rock can tell scientists about its history, while the radioactive clock can tell them the rock’s age.
  • Further, tiny cracks in rocks can tell them about the radiation history of the Sun in the last 100,000 years.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Sentinel-6 Satellite

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Sentinel 6

Mains level : Sea level rise and climate change

The Copernicus Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite, designed to monitor oceans, was launched from the in California.

Try this MCQ:

The Jason Continuity of Service (Jason-CS) Mission recently seen in news is aimed at observing:

(a)Microgravity changes

(b)Sea level rise

(c)Cosmic radiation

(d)Space debris

Sentinel-6 Satellite

  • This is a part of the next mission dedicated to measuring changes in the global sea level.
  • It has been named after Dr Michael Freilich, who was the Director of NASA’s Earth Science Division from 2006-2019 and passed away in August this year.

What is the mission?

  • The mission, called the Jason Continuity of Service (Jason-CS) mission, is designed to measure the height of the ocean, which is a key component in understanding how the Earth’s climate is changing.
  • The spacecraft consists of two satellites, the other, called Sentinel-6B, to be launched in 2025.
  • It has been developed jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, and France’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES).

What will the satellite do?

  • The satellite will ensure the continuity of sea-level observations into the fourth decade and will provide measurements of global sea-level rise.
  • Since 1992, high-precision satellite altimeters have helped scientists understand how the ocean stores and distributes heat, water and carbon in the climate system.
  • Essentially, the satellite will send pulses to the Earth’s surface and measure how long they take to return to it, which will help scientists measure the sea surface height.
  • It will also measure water vapour along this path and find its position using GPS and ground-based lasers.

Significance of the mission

  • As per NASA, it is possible to observe the height of the oceans on a global scale and monitor critical changes in ocean currents and heat storage only from space.
  • Data from satellites such as Sentinel-6 help scientists foresee the effects of the changing oceans on the climate.
  • Further, in order to measure and track changes in the oceanic heat budget, scientists need to know the ocean currents and heat storage of the oceans, which can be determined from the height of the sea surface.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

SpaceX-NASA’s Crew-1 Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Crew-1 Mission

Mains level : Manned mission to space

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will lift off carrying a crew of four people to the International Space Station (ISS) on a six-month-long mission.

What is the Crew-1 Mission?

  • The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, whose objective is to make access to space easier in terms of its cost.
  • This will carry four astronauts on NASA missions, maintaining a space station crew of seven to maximize time dedicated to scientific research on the orbiting laboratory.
  • With this, the cargo and crew can be easily transported to and from the ISS, enabling greater scientific research.
  • At the ISS, the crew will join the members of Expedition 64, the space station crew currently in residence at the ISS.

Mission goals

  • The goals of the mission are the same as that of Expedition 1 that lifted off 20 years ago.
  • NASA has called both of these ISS missions “historic”.
  • At the ISS, the Crew-1 team will join members of Expedition 64 and conduct microgravity studies and deliver new science hardware to ISS.
  • Once in orbit, NASA astronauts will collect samples to provide data to scientists back on Earth so that they can continue to study how dietary changes affect his body.
  • The crew will also study the effects of dietary improvements on immune function and the gut microbiome and how those improvements can help crews adapt to spaceflight.

The term micro-g environment is more or less synonymous with the terms weightlessness and zero-g, but with an emphasis on the fact that g-forces are never exactly zero—just very small.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Thirty Metre Telescope

Mains level : Not Much

With regime change in the US, hopes have been raised for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii. India is one of the partners in the ambitious next-generation observatory project along with the US, Canada, China and Japan.

Try this PYQ:

Q.“Event Horizon” is related to:

(a) Telescope

(b) Black hole

(c) Solar glares

(d) None of the above

Thirty Metre Telescope

  • The TMT is a proposed astronomical observatory with an extremely large telescope (ELT) that has become the source of controversy over its planned location on Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.
  • It is being built by an international collaboration of government organisations and educational institutions, at a cost of $1.4 billion.
  • “Thirty Metre” refers to the 30-metre diameter of the mirror, with 492 segments of glass pieced together, which makes it three times as wide as the world’s largest existing visible-light telescope.
  • The larger the mirror, the more light a telescope can collect, which means, in turn, that it can “see” farther, fainter objects.
  • It would be more than 200 times more sensitive than current telescopes and would be able to resolve objects 12 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Utility of the telescope

  • One of its key uses will be the study of exoplanets, many of which have been detected in the last few years, and whether their atmospheres contain water vapour or methane — the signatures of possible life.
  • For the first time in history, this telescope will be capable of detecting extraterrestrial life.
  • The study of black holes is another objective.
  • While these have been observed in detail within the Milky Way, the next galaxy is 100 times farther away; the Thirty Metre Telescope will help bring them closer.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

GRACE-FO Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : GRACE FO mission

Mains level : Impact of climate changes on Cryosphere

The GRACE-FO mission has mapped deviation in Earth’s surface mass and spatial variations in the rate of sea-level rise between 1993 and 2018 using altimetric and gravimetric analysis.

Try this MCQ:

Q.NASA’s VIPER mission sometimes seen in news is related to the study of-

a)Moon

b)Venus

c)Sun

d)None of these

GRACE-FO Mission

  • The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission launched in 2018 is a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ).
  • It is a successor to the original GRACE mission, which orbited Earth from 2002-2017.
  • It carries on the extremely successful work of its predecessor while testing a new technology designed to dramatically improve the already remarkable precision of its measurement system.

How did NASA measure this?

(1) Altimetric Study

  • Altimetry missions are used to know the ocean surface topography — the shape and height of the ocean’s peaks and valleys.
  • Radar altimeters continually send out pulses of radio waves (microwaves) that bounce off the surface of the ocean and reflect back toward the satellite.
  • The instrument calculates the time it takes for the signal to return, while also tracking the precise location of the satellite in space. From this, scientists can derive the height of the sea surface directly underneath the satellite.

(2) Gravimetric Study

  • Gravimetry is a process of using ice’s gravitational pull on a pair of satellites. It helps estimate ice loss and its contribution to sea-level rise.
  • The twin satellites in each mission detect subtle shifts in Earth’s gravity field.
  • The strength of gravitational forces is determined by mass, so changes in Earth’s gravity field indicate a change or redistribution in mass.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What is a Fast Radio Burst (FRB)?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Fast Radio Burst (FRB)

Mains level : Hunt for extra-terrestrial life

NASA has reported that it observed a mix of X-ray and radio signals never observed before in the Milky Way.

Such news makes us think about alien and extraterrestrial life at the first. Do not get carried away with such thoughts. Its simply a space based phenomena.

What is an FRB?

  • The first FRB was discovered in 2007, since when scientists have been working towards finding the source of their origin.
  • Essentially, FRBs are bright bursts of radio waves (radio waves can be produced by astronomical objects with changing magnetic fields).
  • Its durations lie in the millisecond-scale, because of which it is difficult to detect them and determine their position in the sky.

Who discovered it?

  • The X-ray portion of the simultaneous bursts was detected by several satellites, including NASA’s Wind mission.
  • Further, a NASA-funded project called Survey for Transient Astronomical Radio Emission 2 (STARE2) also detected the radio burst.

Why are they significant?

  • First noticed in 2018 by the Canadian observatory the waves have created ripples across the globe for one reason — they arrive in a pattern.
  • This gave birth to theories that they could be from an alien civilization.
  • Initially, it was believed that the collision of black holes or neutron stars triggers them.
  • But the discovery of repeating FRBs debunked the theory of colliding objects.

What is the origin of the FRB detected in April?

  • The source of the FRB detected in April in the Milky Way is a very powerful magnetic neutron star, referred to as a magnetar.
  • Magnetar is located in the constellation Vulpecula and is estimated to be between 14,000-41,000 light-years away.
  • The FRB was part of one of the magnetar’s most prolific flare-ups, with the X-ray bursts lasting less than a second.

What is a magnetar?

  • A magnetar is a neutron star, “the crushed, city-size remains of a star many times more massive than our Sun.”
  • The magnetic field of such a star is very powerful, which can be over 10 trillion times stronger than a refrigerator magnet and up to a thousand times stronger than typical neutron stars.
  • Neutron stars are formed when the core of a massive star undergoes gravitational collapse when it reaches the end of its life.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Asteroid 16 Psyche

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Asteroids, Bennu, Psyche

Mains level : Not Much

A recent study has found that asteroid 16 Psyche, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, could be made entirely of metal and is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion.

A NASA mission has recently landed on and collected samples from an asteroid. Do you remember that? Yes. Its the Asteroid Bennu

16 Psyche

  • Located around 370 million km away from Earth, asteroid 16 Psyche is one of the most massive objects in the asteroid belt in our solar system.
  • The somewhat potato-shaped asteroid has a diameter of around 140 miles.
  • It was first discovered on March 17, 1853, by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis and was named after the ancient Greek goddess of the soul, Psyche.
  • Unlike most asteroids that are made up of rocks or ice, scientists believe that Psyche is a dense and largely metallic object thought to be the core of an earlier planet that failed in formation.
  • Its surface may mostly comprise iron and nickel, similar to the Earth’s core, according to a study.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Water on the Moon

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Artemis, SOPHIA, VIPER

Mains level : Study of water on moon

The Moon has water at places where none had been detected before and has potentially more water than previously believed in regions where it was already understood to exist.

Try this MCQ:

Q.NASA’s VIPER mission sometimes seen in news is related to the study of-

a)Moon

b)Venus

c)Sun

d)None of these

Water on the moon

  • In two separate studies in Nature Astronomy, scientists have reported findings with potentially huge implications for sustaining humans on the Moon in the future.
  • One study reports the detection of water on the Moon’s sunlit surface for the first time.
  • The other estimates that the Moon’s dark, shadowy regions, which potentially contain ice, are more widespread than thought.

Why is the discovery of water important?

  • Apart from being a marker of potential life, water is a precious resource in deep space.
  • For astronauts landing on the Moon, water is necessary not only to sustain life but also for purposes such as generating rocket fuel.
  • NASA’s Artemis programme plans to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon in 2024 and hopes to establish a “sustainable human presence” there by the end of the decade.

What was known about water on the Moon?

  • Previous Moon studies, including by the ISRO Chandrayaan-1 mission, have provided evidence for the existence of water.
  • In 2009, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) instrument aboard Chandrayaan-1 found water molecules in the Polar Regions.

What is different in the new discovery?

  • This time, it is confirmed H20 molecules, discovered in Clavius Crater in the Moon’s southern hemisphere.
  • And it is the first time water has been detected on the sunlit side, showing it is not restricted to the shadowy regions.
  • SOFIA, which is a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner that flies at altitudes up to 45,000 feet, has an infrared camera that picked up the wavelength unique to water molecules.
  • The data showed water in concentrations of 100-412 parts per million trapped in 1 cubic metre of soil.

How could the water have formed?

  • Space rocks carrying small amounts of water could have bombarded the Moon.
  • Alternatively, the Sun’s solar wind could have carried hydrogen, which then reacted with minerals in the lunar soil to create hydroxyl, which later transformed into water.
  • The sunlit surface retaining the water presents a puzzle since the Moon does not have a thick atmosphere.
  • One possibility is that the water gets trapped into tiny bead-like structures that were created in the soil by impacts from space rocks.
  • Alternatively, the water could be hidden between grains of lunar soil and sheltered from the sunlight, NASA said.

So, how widespread is water on the Moon?

  • On the sunlit side, it is not yet known whether the water SOFIA found is easily accessible.
  • On the other hand, the hidden, shadowy pockets on the lunar surface called “cold traps” are spread across a combined 40,000 sq km, the other study has reported.
  • The cold traps have gone without sunlight for potentially billions of years. If they do contain ice, it means water is going to be more accessible than previously assumed.

What next?

  • SOFIA will look for water in additional sunlit locations to learn more about how the water is produced, stored, and moved across the Moon.
  • Meanwhile, NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will carry out a mission to create the first water resource maps of the Moon.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx lands on Asteroid Bennu

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Asteroids, Bennu

Mains level : NASA's feat of landing on an asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft briefly touched asteroid Bennu, from where it is meant to collect samples of dust and pebbles and deliver them back to Earth in 2023.

The OSIRIS-REx mission

  • OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer. This is NASA’s first mission meant to return a sample from the ancient asteroid.
  • The mission is essentially a seven-year-long voyage and will conclude when at least 60 grams of samples are delivered back to the Earth.
  • As per NASA, the mission promises to bring the largest amount of extraterrestrial material back to our planet since the Apollo era.
  • The mission was launched in 2016, it reached its target in 2018 and since then, the spacecraft has been trying to match the velocity of the asteroid using small rocket thrusters to rendezvous it.
  • This week, the spacecraft’s robotic arm called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), made an attempt to “TAG” the asteroid and collected a sample.

About Bennu

  • Bennu is a B-type asteroid, implying that it contains significant amounts of carbon and various other minerals.
  • It was discovered by a team from the NASA-funded Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research team in 1999.
  • Because of its high carbon content, the asteroid reflects about four per cent of the light that hits it, which is very low when compared with a planet like Venus, which reflects about 65 per cent of the light. Earth reflects about 30 per cent.
  • Around 20-40 per cent of Bennu’s interior is empty space and scientists believe that it was formed in the first 10 million years of the solar system’s formation, implying that it is roughly 4.5 billion years old.

Why are scientists studying asteroid Bennu?

  • Bennu is an asteroid about as tall as the Empire State Building and located at a distance of about 200 million miles away from the Earth.
  • Scientists study asteroids to look for information about the formation and history of planets and the sun since asteroids were formed at the same time as other objects in the solar system.
  • Another reason for tracking them is to look for asteroids that might be potentially hazardous. It is also relatively close to the Earth.
  • It is for these reasons that scientists are interested in gathering information about this particular asteroid.
  • Significantly, Bennu hasn’t undergone drastic changes since its formation over billions of years ago and therefore it contains chemicals and rocks dating back to the birth of the solar system.

How do chemicals and rocks offer scientists clues about the solar system?

  • Because of Bennu’s age, it is likely to contain material that contains molecules that were present when life first formed on Earth, where life forms are based on carbon atom chains.
  • Even so organic material like the kind scientists hope to find in a sample from Bennu doesn’t necessarily always come from biology.
  • It would, though, further scientists’ search to uncover the role asteroids rich in organics played in catalyzing life on Earth.

Back2Basics: Asteroid

  • Asteroids are rocky objects that orbit the Sun, much smaller than planets. They are also called minor planets.
  • According to NASA, 994,383 is the count of known asteroids, the remnants from the formation of the solar system over 4.6 billion years ago.
  • Asteroids are divided into three classes. First, those found in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which is estimated to contain somewhere between 1.1-1.9 million asteroids.
  • The second group is that of Trojans, which are asteroids that share an orbit with a larger planet.
  • The third classification is Near-Earth Asteroids (NEA), which have orbits that pass close by the Earth. Those that cross the Earth’s orbit are called Earth-crossers.
  • More than 10,000 such asteroids are known, out of which over 1,400 are classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs).

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Mars ‘Opposition’ Event

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Opposition event

Mains level : Not Much

Due to an event referred to as “opposition”, which takes place every two years and two months, Mars will shine the brightest.

Try this question from CSP 2017:

Q.Which region of Mars has a densely packed river deposit indicating this planet had water 3.5 billion years ago?

(a) Aeolis Dorsa (b) Tharsis (c) Olympus Mons (d) Hellas

What is the Opposition Event?

  • ‘Opposition’ is the event when the sun, Earth and an outer planet (Mars in this case) are lined up, with the Earth in the middle.
  • The time of opposition is the point when the outer planet is typically also at its closest distance to the Earth for a given year, and because it is close, the planet appears brighter in the sky.
  • An opposition can occur anywhere along Mars’ orbit, but when it happens when the planet is also closest to the sun, it is also particularly close to the Earth.
  • It will outshine Jupiter, becoming the third brightest object (moon and Venus are first and second, respectively) in the night sky during the month of October.

When does opposition happen?

  • Earth and Mars orbit the sun at different distances (Mars is farther apart from the sun than Earth and therefore takes longer to complete one lap around the sun).
  • In fact, the opposition can happen only for planets that are farther away from the sun than the Earth.
  • In the case of Mars, roughly every two years, the Earth passes between sun and Mars, this is when the three are arranged in a straight line.
  • Further, as the Earth and Mars orbit the sun, there comes a point when they are on the opposite sides of it, and hence very far apart. At its farthest, Mars is about 400 million km from the Earth.
  • In case of opposition, however, Mars and Sun are on directly opposite sides of the Earth. In other words, the Earth, sun and Mars all lie in a straight line, with the Earth in the middle.

Logic behind the name

  • As per NASA, from an individual’s perspective on the Earth, Mars rises in the east and after staying up all night, it sets in the west just as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
  • Because from the perspective on Earth, the sun and Mars appear to be on the opposite sides of the sky, Mars is said to be in “opposition”.
  • Essentially, the opposition is a reference to “opposing the sun” in the sky.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s Sonification Project

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Data Sonification

Mains level : Data Sonification and its applications

While telescopes offer glimpses of outer space by translating digital data into stunning images, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Center (CXC) has gone a step further by unveiling a new ‘sonification’ project that transforms data from astronomical images into audio.

Don’t get confused with the ‘Chandra‘ considering it as an ISRO Project.

What is the project?

  • Users can now ‘listen’ to images of the Galactic Centre, the remains of a supernova called Cassiopeia A, as well as the Pillars of Creation Nebula, which are all located in a region around 26,000 light-years away from Earth.
  • The data has been collected by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope — each of which is represented by a different musical ‘instrument’.

What is data sonification?

  • Data sonification refers to the use of sound values to represent real data. Simply put, it is the auditory version of data visualization.
  • In NASA’s recent Chandra project, for instance, data is represented using a number of musical notes.
  • With this data sonification project, users can now experience different phenomena captured in astronomical images as an aural experience.
  • The birth of a star, a cloud of dust or even a black hole can now be ‘heard’ as a high or low pitched sound.

How did NASA translate astronomical images into sound?

  • NASA’s distant telescopes in space collect inherently digital data, in the form of ones and zeroes, before converting them into images.
  • The images are essentially visual representations of light and radiation of different wavelengths in space, that can’t be seen by the human eye.
  • The Chandra project has created a celestial concert of sorts by translating the same data into sound. Pitch and volume are used to denote the brightness and position of a celestial object or phenomenon.
  • So far, the astronomers behind Project Chandra have released three examples made using data collected from some of the most distinct features in the sky — the Galactic Centre, Cassiopeia A, and Pillars of Creation Nebula.

(1) The Galactic Centre

  • The first example is that of the Galactic Centre, which the rotational centre of the Milky Way galaxy is.
  • It comprises a collection of celestial objects — neutron and white dwarf stars, clouds of dust and gas, and most notably, a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*, that weighs four million times the mass of the sun.
  • Based on data gathered by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, an image is rendered using X-ray, visible and infrared light before being translated into sound.
  • The translation begins on the left side of the image and then moves to the right.
  • Stars and other compact sources are represented using individual short notes, while a longer humming sound is used to denote clouds of gas and dust.

(2) Cassiopeia A

  • Located around 11,000 light-years away from Earth in the northern Cassiopeia constellation, Cassiopeia A is one of the most well-known remnants of a once-massive star that was destroyed by a supernova explosion around 325 years ago.
  • The image shows the supernova remnant as a ball of different coloured filaments.
  • Each colour represents a particular element — red is used for silicon, yellow for sulfur, purple denotes iron, while green is used for calcium. Each of these filaments is also assigned its own unique sound.
  • Unlike with the sonification of the Galactic Centre, where the translation plays from left to right, here the sounds move outwards from the centre of the circular structure.

(3) The Pillars of Creation

  • The iconic Pillars of Creation is located in the centre of the Eagle Nebula, which is also known as Messier 16.
  • The Hubble Star Telescope was used for images of the celestial structure, which comprises wispy towers of cosmic dust and gas.
  • Here too, different colours are used to represent elements — blue for oxygen, red for sulphur and green for both nitrogen and hydrogen.
  • Like with the Galactic Centre, this sound translation also plays from left to right. However, the sound has an eerie effect, with sharp whistles representing stars and low howls indicating the presence of gas clouds.

Significance of the project

  • The sonification project aims to “incorporate NASA science content into the learning environment effectively and efficiently for learners of all ages”.
  • Over the years, NASA has been working towards making data about space accessible for a larger audience.
  • The projects like this allow audiences — including visually-impaired communities — to experience space through data.

Back2Basics: Chandra X-Ray Observatory

  • The Chandra X-ray Observatory (CXO) is a Flagship-class space telescope launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia during STS-93 by NASA on July 23, 1999.
  • Chandra is sensitive to X-ray sources 100 times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope, enabled by the high angular resolution of its mirrors.
  • Since the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs the vast majority of X-rays, they are not detectable from Earth-based telescopes; therefore space-based telescopes are required to make these observations.
  • Chandra is an Earth satellite in a 64-hour orbit, and its mission is ongoing as of 2020.
  • The telescope is named after the Nobel Prize-winning Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Explained: Solar Cycle 25

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Solar Cycle, solar maxima and minima

Mains level : Solar Cycle and its impact

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced the commencement of solar cycle 25.

Try this PYQ:

Q. Which one of the following reflects back more sunlight as compared to the other three?

(a) Sand desert

(b) Paddy cropland

(c) Land covered with fresh snow

(d) Prairie land

What is the Solar Cycle?

  • Like seasons on Earth, the Sun follows a cycle of 11 years, during which solar activities fluctuate between solar minima and maxima.
  • Depending on the number of sunspots detected on the Sun, scientists term it is as solar maxima (highest number of sunspots) or solar minima (lowest number of sunspots).
  • Sunspots are small and dark, yet cooler areas formed on the solar surface, where there are strong magnetic forces.
  • They start appearing at Sun’s higher latitudes and later shift towards the equator as a cycle progresses.
  • In short, when the Sun is active, there are more sunspots in comparison to fewer sunspots during the lesser active phase.
  • Maxima or minima is not a specific time in the 11-year cycle but is a period that can last for a few years.

How are solar cycles determined?

  • One of the important elements researchers look out for on the Sun’s surface is the number of sunspots.
  • A new cycle commences when the Sun has reached its lowest possible minima phase.
  • Every time the cycle changes, the Sun’s magnetic poles reverse.

Monitoring solar cycles

  • Since the Sun is a highly variable star, data of sunspot formation and its progress need close monitoring.
  • Data of six to eight months are required to confirm whether the star has undergone a minima phase.
  • Traditionally, telescopes were used to record sunspots and recorded data since 1755 is available.
  • With the advance in technology in recent decades, satellites are also used to make real-time sunspot observations.
  • On this basis, scientists announced the completion of solar cycle 24, which lasted between December 2008 and December 2019.
  • With the Sun’s activities having reached its lowest minima between the two cycles, the new solar cycle 25 has now commenced.

How has the transition between solar cycles 24 and 25 been?

  • The Sun’s activities were notably lesser during 2019 and early 2020. There were no sunspots for 281 days in 2019 and 181 days in 2020.
  • Since December 2019, the solar activities have slowly picked up, corroborating the beginning of the news cycle.
  • The panel termed solar cycle 25 to be a weak one, with the intensity similar to that of Solar cycle 24.

What solar activities affect us on Earth?

  • Solar activities include solar flares, solar energetic particles, high-speed solar wind and Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).
  • These influence the space weather which originates from the Sun.
  • Solar storms or flares can typically affect space-dependent operations like GPS, radio and satellite communications, besides hampering flight operations, power grids and space exploration programmes.
  • CMEs pose danger to space weather. Ejections travelling at a speed of 500km/second are common during solar peaks and create disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere, the protective shield surrounding the planet.
  • At the time of spacewalks, astronauts face a great health risk posed by exposure to solar radiation outside Earth’s protective atmosphere.

 

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Life signature on Venus

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Phosphine, Venus

Mains level : Quest for extraterrestrial life

Scientists have detected in the harshly acidic clouds of Venus a gas called phosphine that indicates microbes may inhabit Earth’s inhospitable neighbour, a sign of potential life beyond Earth.

Try this PYQ:

Q.Which phenomenon has Venusian winds rotating 60 times faster than the planet below on the dark side?

(a) Super rotation

(b) Monrotation

(c) Dual rotation

(d) Macrrotation

Phosphine

  • Phosphine – a phosphorus atom with three hydrogen atoms attached – is highly toxic to people.
  • It is known to be produced only through a biological process, and not through any naturally occurring chemical process.
  • Phosphine was seen at 20 parts-per-billion in the Venusian atmosphere, a trace concentration.
  • Researchers examined potential non-biological sources such as volcanism, meteorites, lightning and various types of chemical reactions, but none appeared viable.
  • There are some other ways in which this chemical might be produced, for example, in the underbelly of volcanoes or meteorite activity, but that would have shown in much lower concentrations.

Why study Venus?

  • Venus is Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. Similar in structure but slightly smaller than Earth, it is the second planet from the sun. Earth is the third.
  • Venus is wrapped in a thick, toxic atmosphere that traps in heat. Surface temperatures reach a scorching 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead.
  • Existence of phosphine is the most credible evidence yet for the possibility of life away from Earth.

Hosting life on Venus

  • There are several things that we know about Venus that make life, as we know it, unsustainable on that planet.
  • The temperature of Venus is too high, and its atmosphere is highly acidic, just two of the things that would make life impossible.
  • It is too early to consider this as evidence for extraterrestrial life.

Paving way for future mission

  • Missions to Venus are not new. The finding can further ignite interest in space missions to Venus.
  • Spacecraft have been going near the planet since the 1960s, and some of them have even made a landing.
  • In fact, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is also planning a mission to Venus, tentatively called Shukrayaan, in the near future.
  • As of now, the plan is still on the drawing board. All future missions to Venus would now be attuned to investigating further evidence of the presence of life.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Dwarf Planet Ceres

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Ceres and other dwarf planets

Mains level : Not Much

The dwarf planet Ceres, which lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter now, has the status of an “ocean world”.

Note various dwarf planets and the criteria making a planet dwarf, as mentioned in the B2b section.

Ceres exploration

  • The dwarf planet was first spotted by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801, who assumed that Ceres was the missing planet between Mars and Jupiter.
  • It was classified as a dwarf planet in 2006 and is the first dwarf planet to be orbited by a spacecraft.
  • In 2015, NASA’s Dawn reached it to study its surface, composition and history.

What does it mean to be an “ocean world”?

  • With a crust that mixes ice, salts, rock-forming minerals and other materials, Ceres looks to be a remnant “ocean world,” wearing the chemistry of its Old Ocean and records of the interaction on its surface.
  • The observations from Dawn suggest the presence of briny liquid (saltwater) water under Ceres’s surface.
  • Scientists have determined that Ceres has a brine reservoir located about 40 km deep and which is hundreds of miles wide, making the dwarf planet, “water-rich”.

Why do researchers study Ceres?

  • Scientists are interested in this dwarf planet because it hosts the possibility of having water, something that many other planets do not have.
  • Therefore, scientists look for signs of life on Ceres, a possibility that has also maintained scientists’ interest in the planet Mars, whose atmosphere was once warm enough to allow water to flow through it.
  • Another reason why scientists are interested in that studying it can give insights about the formation of the Solar System since it is considered to be a fossil from that time.

Back2Basics: Dwarf Planets

  • As of today, there are officially five dwarf planets in our Solar System.
  • The most famous is Pluto, downgraded from the status of a planet in 2006.
  • The other four, in order of size, are Eris, Makemake, Haumea and Ceres. The sixth claimant for a dwarf planet is Hygiea, which so far has been taken to be an asteroid.
  • These four criteria are – that the body orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon, has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit and has enough mass for its gravity to pull it into a roughly spherical shape.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

SPT0418-47: The Baby Milky Way

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Galaxies, Milky Way

Mains level : Not Much

SPT0418-47, a golden halo glinting 12 billion light-years away is the farthest galaxy resembling our Milky Way was recently spotted by astronomers.

Try this PYQ:

Which of the statements about black holes in space is/are correct?  (CSP 2016)

  1. It is a region in space where the pulling force of gravity is so strong that light is not able to escape.
  2. It can result from the dying stars.

Select the correct answer using the code given below:

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2

SPT0418-47

  • The galaxy, called SPT0418-47, is so far away that it took billions of years for its light to reach Earth and so our image of it is from deep in the past.
  • It was picked up by the powerful Alma radio telescope in Chile using a technique called gravitational lensing, where a nearby galaxy acts as a powerful magnifying glass.
  • This was when the Universe was 1.4 billion years old — just 10% of its current age — and galaxies were still forming.
  • It has features similar to our Milky Way — a rotating disc and a bulge, which is the high density of stars packed tightly around the galactic centre.

What makes it special?

  • This is the first time a bulge has been seen this early in the history of the Universe, making SPT0418-47 the most distant Milky Way look-alike.
  • Thus the infant star system challenges our understanding of the early years of the Universe.
  • Researchers expect these young star systems to be chaotic and without the distinct structures typical of mature galaxies like our Galaxy.
  • This unexpected discovery suggests the early Universe may not be as chaotic as once believed and raises many questions on how a well-ordered galaxy could have formed so soon after the Big Bang.

Back2Basics: Milky Way

  • The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System, with the name describing the galaxy’s appearance from Earth.
  • It appears like a hazy band of light seen in the night sky formed from stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye.
  • From Earth, the Milky Way appears as a band because its disk-shaped structure is viewed from within.
  • Galileo Galilei first resolved the band of light into individual stars with his telescope in 1610.
  • Until the early 1920s, most astronomers thought that the Milky Way contained all the stars in the Universe.
  • Following the 1920 Great Debate between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, observations by Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Magnetoseismology of Sun’s Corona

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : MHG, CoMP, Corona

Mains level : Study of solar atmosphere

A group of researchers has measured the global magnetic field of the Sun’s corona for the very first time.

Try this PYQ:

The terms ‘Event Horizon’, ‘Singularity’, `String Theory’ and ‘Standard Model’ are sometimes seen in the news in the context of (CSP 2017)-

(a) Observation and understanding of the Universe

(b) Study of the solar and the lunar eclipses

(c) Placing satellites in the orbit of the Earth

(d) Origin and evolution of living organisms on the Earth

Basis of the research

  • The properties of waves depend on the medium in which they travel.
  • By measuring certain wave properties and doing a reverse calculation, some of the properties of the medium through which they have travelled can be obtained.
  • Waves can be longitudinal waves (for example, sound waves) or transverse waves (for example, ripples on a lake surface).
  • The waves that propagate through magnetic plasma are called magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) waves.
  • From the theoretical calculation, it can be shown that the properties of the transverse MHD wave are directly related to the strength of magnetic fields and the density of the corona.

How was the Magnetic Field measured?

  • The team used a technique known as coronal seismology or magnetoseismology to measure the coronal magnetic field which has been known for a few decades.
  • This method requires the measurement of the properties of magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) waves and the density of the corona simultaneously.
  • In the past, these techniques were occasionally used in small regions of the corona, or some coronal loops due to limitations of our instruments/and proper data analysis techniques.

The CoMP instrument

  • The team used the improved measurements of the Coronal Multi-channel Polarimeter (CoMP) and advanced data analysis to measure the coronal magnetic field.
  • CoMP is an instrument operated by High Altitude Observatory, of the U.S.
  • It is located at Mauna Loa Solar Observatory, near the summit of that volcano on the big island of Hawaii.

Why measure the solar magnetic field?

  • It is very important to measure the corneal magnetic fields regularly since the solar corona is highly dynamic and varies within seconds to a minute time scale. There are two main puzzles about the Sun which this advancement will help address:

(1) Coronal heating problem

  • Though the core of the Sun is at a temperature of about 15 million degrees, its outer layer, the photosphere is a mere 5700 degrees hot.
  • However, its corona or outer atmosphere, which stretches up to several million kilometres beyond its surface, is much, much hotter than the surface.
  • It is at a temperature of one million degrees or more.
  • What causes the atmosphere of the Sun (corona) to heat up again, though the surface (photosphere) is cooler than the interior? That is the question which has baffled solar physicists.
  • Popular attempts to explain this puzzle invoke the magnetic field of the corona. Hence the present work will help understand and verify these theories better.

(2) Mechanisms of eruptions of the Sun

  • The eruptions on the Sun include solar flares and coronal mass ejections.
  • These are driven by magnetic reconnections happening in the Sun’s corona.
  • Magnetic reconnection is a process where oppositely polarity magnetic field lines connect and some of the magnetic energy is converted to heat energy and also kinetic energy which leads to the generation of heating, solar flares, solar jets, etc.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

SN5 Starship by SpaceX

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SN5 Starship

Mains level : Commercial crew programme by SpaceX

SpaceX has successfully test-launched its “Mars ship”, a stainless steel test vehicle called SN5, and which is a part of the Starship spacecraft.

Elon Musk’s aerospace company has been putting continuous wins on the board ever since it became the first privately funded group to put a payload in Earth orbit.

What is Starship?

  • Designed by SpaceX, Starship is a spacecraft and super-heavy booster rocket meant to act as a reusable transportation system for crew and cargo to the Earth’s orbit, Moon and Mars.
  • SpaceX has described Starship as “the world’s most powerful launch vehicle” with an ability to carry over 100 metric tonnes to the Earth’s orbit.
  • Starship has been under development since 2012 and is a part of Space X’s central mission to make interplanetary travel accessible and affordable and to become the first private company to do so.

So what all can Starship do?

  • SpaceX is planning its first cargo mission to the red planet by 2022 and by 2024, the company wants to fly four ships including two cargo and two crewed ones to Mars.
  • Once functional, the Starship spacecraft will enter Mars’ atmosphere at a speed of 7.5 km per second and will be designed to withstand multiple entries.
  • Starship is also expected to help carry large amounts of cargo to the Moon, for human spaceflight development and research.
  • Beyond the Moon, the spacecraft is being designed for carrying crew and cargo for interplanetary missions as well.

A quest for reusability

  • Therefore, the company is working on building a fleet of reusable launch vehicles, capable of carrying humans to Mars and other destinations in the solar system.
  • Reusability is at the heart of making interplanetary travel accessible.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule ‘Endeavour’

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Demo 2 Mission

Mains level : Commercial space flights

Two NASA astronauts returned to Earth from the International Space Station (ISS) in a dramatic, retro-style splashdown, their capsule parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico to finish an unprecedented test flight.

We can get a match the pair type question in prelims asking various space missions and their purposes. Make note of similar space missions from here.

Crew Dragon

  • Crew Dragon is a part of the Dragon 2, a class of reusable spacecraft developed and manufactured by American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX.
  • It is the fifth class of US spacecraft to take human beings into orbit, after the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
  • The rocket, named Falcon 9, which carried the spaceship into the orbit, was also built by SpaceX.
  • It is done under the Demo-2 Mission of NASA and SpaceX.

Demo-2: What is the mission?

  • The Demo-2 mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program with the aim of developing reliable and cost-effective access to and from the ISS.
  • Essentially, the lift-off is a flight test to certify if SpaceX’s crew transportation system can be used to ferry crew to and from the space station regularly.

What makes it a special event?

  • It was the first splashdown by U.S. astronauts in 45 years, with the first commercially built and operated spacecraft to carry people to and from orbit.
  • The last time NASA astronauts returned from space to water was on July 24, 1975, in the Pacific to end a joint U.S.-Soviet mission known as Apollo-Soyuz.
  • The return clears the way for possible tourist flights in the near future.

Back2Basics: SpaceX

  • Space Exploration Technologies Corp., trading as SpaceX, is a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation Services Company headquartered in Hawthorne, California.
  • It was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars.
  • It has developed several launch vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What is Interplanetary Contamination?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Interplanetary Contamination

Mains level : Interplanetary Contamination

As ambitious space missions are proliferating, along with advances in commercial space flight, astrobiologists have expressed concerns about possible ‘interplanetary contamination’.

A statements based question can be expected from the two types of interplanetary contamination.

What is Interplanetary Contamination?

  • Interplanetary contamination refers to biological contamination of a planetary body by a space probe or spacecraft, either deliberate or unintentional.
  • There are two types of interplanetary contamination:
  1. Forward contamination is the transfer of life and other forms of contamination from Earth to another celestial body.
  2. Back contamination is the introduction of extraterrestrial organisms and other forms of contamination into Earth’s biosphere. It also covers infection of humans and human habitats in space and on other celestial bodies by extraterrestrial organisms, if such habitats exist.
  • The main focus is on microbial life and on potentially invasive species.
  • Non-biological forms of contamination have also been considered, including contamination of sensitive deposits (such as lunar polar ice deposits) of scientific interest.

Are there any mechanisms to prevent such contaminations?

  • Current space missions are governed by the Outer Space Treaty and the COSPAR (Committee on Space Research) guidelines for planetary protection.
  • Forward contamination is prevented primarily by sterilizing the spacecraft.
  • According to NASA, the guidelines have had far-reaching implications on human spacecraft design, operational procedures, and overall mission structure.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

[pib] Asteroid 2020 ND

NASA has issued a warning that a huge “Asteroid 2020 ND” will move past Earth on July 24.

Try this question from CSP 2014:

Q.What is a coma, in the content of astronomy?

(a) Bright half of material on the comet

(b) Long tail of dust

(c) Two asteroids orbiting each other

(d) Two planets orbiting each other

What are Asteroids?

  • Asteroids are small, rocky objects that orbit the Sun. They are leftover from the formation of our solar system.
  • Although asteroids orbit the Sun like planets, they are much smaller than planets.
  • There are lots of asteroids in our solar system. Most of them live in the main asteroid belt—a region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
  • Some asteroids go in front of and behind Jupiter. They are called Trojans.
  • Asteroids that come close to Earth are called Near-Earth Objects, NEOs for short. NASA keeps a close watch on these asteroids.

Asteroid 2020 ND

  • The 2020 ND is about 170 metres-long.
  • It will be as close as 0.034 astronomical units (5,086,328 kilometres) to our planet and is travelling at a speed of 48,000 kilometres per hour.
  • Its distance from Earth has placed it in the “Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs)” category.

How are PHAs defined?

  • PHAs are currently defined based on parameters that measure the asteroid’s potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth.
  • NASA classifies objects like these as ‘near-Earth objects’ (NEOs) as they get nudged by other planets’ gravitational attraction resulting in their proximity to our solar system.
  • It is not necessary that asteroids classified as PHAs will impact the Earth. It only means there is a possibility for such a threat.

Can they be deflected?

  • Over the years, scientists have suggested different ways to ward off such threats, such as blowing up the asteroid before it reaches Earth or deflecting it off its Earth-bound course by hitting it with a spacecraft.
  • The most drastic measure undertaken so far is the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA), which includes NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission and the ESA’s Hera.
  • Both mission’s target is Didymos, a binary near-Earth asteroid, one of whose bodies is of the size that could pose the most likely significant threat to Earth.
  • In 2018, NASA announced that it had started the construction of DART, which is scheduled to launch in 2021 with an aim to slam into the smaller asteroid of the Didymos system at around 6 km per second in 2022.
  • Hera, which is scheduled to launch in 2024, will arrive at the Didymos system in 2027 to measure the impact crater produced by the DART collision and study the change in the asteroid’s orbital trajectory.

Back2Basics: Near-Earth objects (NEOs)

  • NEOs are comets and asteroids nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits which allows them to enter the Earth’s neighbourhood.
  • These objects are composed mostly of water ice with embedded dust particles, and occasionally approach close to the Earth as they orbit the Sun.
  • NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Study (CNEOS) determines the times and distances of these objects as and when their approach to the Earth is close.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Hope:  UAE’s first mission to Mars

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Hope Mission

Mains level : Quest for Mars and its possibility to host life

The launch of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first mission to Mars has been delayed by two days due to bad weather conditions which were scheduled to take off from its launch site, Tanegashima Space Center, in Japan.

Try this question from CSP 2014:

Q.Which of the following pair is/are correctly matched?

Spacecraft Purpose
1. Cassini-Huygens Orbiting the Venus and transmitting data to the Earth
2. Messenger Mapping and investigating the Mercury
3. Voyager 1 and 2 Exploring the outer solar system

Select the correct answer using the code given below.

a) 1 only

b) 2 and 3 only

c) 1 and 3 only

d) 1, 2 and 3

Hope Mission

  • The Emirates Mars Mission called “Hope” was announced in 2015 with the aim of creating mankind’s first integrated model of the Red planet’s atmosphere.
  • Hope weighs over 1500 kg and will carry scientific instruments mounted on one side of the spacecraft, including the Emirates exploration Imager (EXI), which is a high-resolution camera among others.
  • The spacecraft will orbit Mars to study the Martian atmosphere and its interaction with outer space and solar winds.
  • Hope will collect data on Martian climate dynamics, which should help scientists understand why Mars’ atmosphere is decaying into space.

Objectives of the mission

  • Once it launches, Hope will orbit Mars for around 200 days, after which it will enter the Red planet’s orbit by 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of UAE.
  • The mission is being executed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, UAE’s space agency.
  • It will help answer key questions about the global Martian atmosphere and the loss of hydrogen and oxygen gases into space over the span of one Martian year.

Back2Basics: Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)

  • The MOM also called Mangalyaan is a space probe orbiting Mars since 24 September 2014. It was launched on 5 November 2013 by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
  • It aims at studying the Martian surface and mineral composition as well as scans its atmosphere for methane (an indicator of life on Mars).
  • It is India’s first interplanetary mission and it made it the fourth space agency to reach Mars, after Roscosmos, NASA, and the European Space Agency.
  • It made India the first Asian nation to reach Martian orbit and the first nation in the world to do so on its maiden attempt.
  • It was initially meant to last six months, but subsequently, ISRO had said it had enough fuel for it to last “many years.”

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Kuaizhou-11 Rocket

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : KZ-11

Mains level : Not Much

China’s 19th launch of 2020, the Kuaizhou-11 rocket, failed in its mission.

Try this question from CSP 2014:

Q.Which of the following pair is/are correctly matched?

Spacecraft Purpose
1. Cassini-Huygens Orbiting the Venus and transmitting data to the Earth
2. Messenger Mapping and investigating the Mercury
3. Voyager 1 and 2 Exploring the outer solar system

Select the correct answer using the code given below.

a) 1 only

b) 2 and 3 only

c) 1 and 3 only

d) 1, 2 and 3

The Kuaizhou-11

  • Kuaizhou, meaning “fast ship” in Chinese, was operated by the commercial launch firm Expace and was originally scheduled for 2018 after being developed three years earlier.
  • Also known as KZ-11, it had a lift-off mass of 70.8 tonnes, and was designed to launch low-Earth and Sun-synchronous orbit satellites.
  • It was carrying two satellites — the first being a remote sensing satellite that would provide data to clients on a commercial basis for forecasting and managing geological disasters.
  • It would also provide the information required for natural resource exploration. The second was part of a series of satellites for low-Earth orbit navigation.
  • Both satellites were built by Changguang Satellite Co. Ltd., a commercial entity born out of the state-owned firms.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Rare Comet ‘C/2020 F3 Neowise’

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Various terminologies mentioned

Mains level : Not Much

The C/2020 F3 comet also dubbed NEOWISE will be visible with the naked eye for around 20 minutes every day for 20 days across India.

Try this question from CSP 2014:

Q.What is a coma, in the content of astronomy?

(a) Bright half of material on the comet

(b) Long tail of dust

(c) Two asteroids orbiting each other

(d) Two planets orbiting each other

What are Comets?

  • Comets or “dirty snowballs” are mostly made of dust, rocks and ice, the remnants from the time the solar system was formed over 4.6 billion years ago.
  • The word comet comes from the Latin word “Cometa” which means “long-haired” and the earliest known record of a comet sighting was made by an astrologer in 1059 BC.
  • Comets can range in their width from a few miles to tens of miles wide.
  • While there are millions of comets orbiting the sun, there are more than 3,650 known comets as of now, according to NASA.

How do they illuminate?

  • Comets do not have the light of their own and what humans are able to see from Earth is the reflection of the sun’s light off the comet as well as the energy released by the gas molecules after it is absorbed from the sun.
  • The visibility cannot be precisely predicted since a lot depends on the way the “outbursts” of gas and dust play out determining how much of a “good show” the comet will put out for observers.
  • As they orbit closer to the sun, they heat up and release debris of dust and gases that form into a “glowing head” that can often be larger than a planet.

Why do they get close to the sun?

  • Comets may be occasionally pushed into orbits closer to the sun and the Earth’s neighbourhood due to forces of gravity of other planets.
  • The appearance of some comets, like those that take less than 200 years to orbit around the sun is predictable since they have passed by before.
  • These may be referred to as short-period comets and can be found in the Kuiper belt, where many comets orbit the sun in the realm of Pluto, occasionally getting pushed into orbits that bring them closer to the sun.
  • One of the most famous short-period comets is called Halley’s Comet that reappears every 76 years. Halley’s will be sighted next in 2062.
  • Comets in this cloud can take as long as 30 million years to complete one rotation around the sun.

Significance of the comets

  • NASA tracks all Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that includes comets and asteroids using telescopes placed all around the Earth, as part of its NEO Observation Program.
  • Comets hold important clues about the formation of the solar system and it is possible that comets brought water and other organic compounds, which are the building blocks of life to Earth.

Back2Basics

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Carbon enrichment of the Universe

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Carbon enrichment of the Universe

Mains level : Formation of the universe and the Big Bang

A recent study has provided new insights on the origins of the carbon in our galaxy.

Try this question from CSP 2016:

Q.Consider the following:

  1. Photosynthesis
  2. Respiration
  3. Decay of organic matter
  4. Volcanic action

Which of the above add carbon dioxide to the carbon cycle on earth?

(a) 1 and 4 only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 2, 3 and 4 only

(d) 1, 2, 3 and 4

Why study Carbon?

  • Carbon is essential for life: It is the simple building block of all the complex organic molecules that organisms need.
  • It is known that all the carbon in the Milky Way came from dying stars that ejected the element into their surroundings.
  • What has remained debated, however, is what kind of stars made the major contribution.
  • The study shows the analysis of white dwarfs — the dense remnants of a star after its death.

How does carbon come from stars?

  • Most stars — except the most massive ones — are doomed to turn into white dwarfs.
  • When the massive ones die, they go with a spectacular bang known as the supernova.
  • Both low-mass and massive stars eject their ashes into the surroundings before they end their lives.
  • And these ashes contain many different chemical elements, including carbon.

How is it synthesized?

  • Both in low-mass stars and in massive stars carbon is synthesized in their deep and hot interiors through the triple-alpha reaction that is the fusion of three helium nuclei.
  • In low-mass stars, the newly synthesized carbon is transported to the surface [from the interiors] via gigantic bubbles of gas and from there injected into the cosmos through stellar winds.
  • Massive stars enrich the interstellar medium with carbon mostly before the supernova explosion, when they also experience powerful stellar winds.

Findings of the news research

  • It was earlier debated that whether the carbon in the Milky Way originated from low-mass stars before they became white dwarfs or from the winds of massive stars before they exploded as supernovae.
  • The new research suggests that white dwarfs may shed more light on carbon’s origin in the Milky Way.
  • The researchers measured the masses of the white dwarfs, derived their masses at birth, and from there calculated the “initial-final mass relation”.
  • The IFMR is a key astrophysical measure that integrates information of the entire life cycles of stars.
  • They found that the relationship bucked a trend — that the more massive the star at birth, the more massive the white dwarf left at its death.
  • So far, stars born roughly 1.5 billion years ago in our galaxy were thought to have produced white dwarfs about 60-65% the mass of our Sun.

What explains this?

  • From an analysis of the initial-final mass relation around the little kink, the researchers drew their conclusions about the size range for the stars that contributed carbon to the Milky Way.
  • Stars more massive than 2 solar masses, too, contributed to the galactic enrichment of carbon.
  • Stars less massive than 1.65 solar masses did not. In other words 1.65-Msun [1.65 times the mass of the Sun] represents the minimum mass for a star to spread its carbon-rich ashes upon death.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s Gateway Lunar Orbiting Outpost

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Lunar Gateway, ISS

Mains level : Read the attached story

NASA recently finalised the contract for the initial crew module of the agency’s Gateway lunar orbiting outpost.

Note the following things about the Lunar Gateway:

  1. Parent Agency and other agencies involved

  2. Missions and celestial bodies to be studied

  3. Difference between Gateway and ISS

What is NASA’s Gateway Lunar Orbit Outpost?

  • Essentially, the Gateway is a small spaceship that will orbit the Moon, meant for astronaut missions to the Moon and later, for expeditions to Mars.
  • While the project is led by NASA, the Gateway is meant to be developed, serviced, and utilized in collaboration with commercial and international partners: Canada (CSA), Europe (ESA), and Japan (JAXA).
  • The spaceship will have living quarters, laboratories for science and research and docking ports for visiting spacecraft.
  • Once docked to the Gateway, astronauts will be able to stay there for three months at a time, conduct science experiments and take trips to the surface of the Moon.

Features of the Gateway

  • One of the most unique features of the Gateway is that it can be moved to other orbits around the Moon to conduct more research.
  • The Gateway will act as an airport, where spacecraft bound for the lunar surface of Mars can refuel or replace parts and resupply things like food and oxygen, allowing astronauts to take multiple trips to the Lunar surface and exploration of new locations across the Moon.

How is it different from ISS?

  • Astronauts will use the Gateway at least once per year and not stay around the year as they do on the International Space Station (ISS).
  • Compared to the ISS, the Gateway is much smaller (the size of a studio apartment), while the ISS is about the size of a six-bedroom house.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What is the Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : BECs

Mains level : Various properties of BECs

Scientists have observed the fifth state of matter in space for the first time, offering unprecedented insight that could help solve some of the quantum universe’s most intractable conundrums.

Try this question from CSP 2018

Q. Consider the following phenomena:

  1. Light is affected by gravity.
  2. The Universe is constantly expanding.
  3. Matter warps its surrounding space-time.

Which of the above is/are the prediction/predictions of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, often discussed in media?

(a) 1 and 2 only

(b) 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs)

  • Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) — the existence of which was predicted by Albert Einstein and Indian mathematician Satyendra Nath Bose almost a century ago — are formed when atoms of certain elements are cooled to near absolute zero (0 Kelvin, minus 273.15 Celsius).
  • At this point, the atoms become a single entity with quantum properties, wherein each particle also functions as a wave of matter.
  • BECs straddle the line between the macroscopic world governed by forces such as gravity and the microscopic plane, ruled by quantum mechanics.

Why are BECs important?

  • Scientists believe BECs contain vital clues to mysterious phenomena such as dark energy — the unknown energy thought to be behind the Universe’s accelerating expansion.
  • But BECs are extremely fragile. The slightest interaction with the external world is enough to warm them past their condensation threshold.
  • This makes them nearly impossible for scientists to study on Earth, where gravity interferes with the magnetic fields required to hold them in place for observation.

Studying BECs

  • NASA scientists unveiled the first results from BEC experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where particles can be manipulated free from Earthly constraints.
  • The microgravity onboard the ISS allowed them to create BECs from rubidium — a soft metal similar to potassium — on a far shallower trap than on Earth.
  • Microgravity at ISS allows confining atoms with much weaker forces. Microgravity also allowed the atoms to be manipulated by weaker magnetic fields, speeding their cooling and allowing clearer imaging.
  • Creating the fifth state of matter, especially within the physical confines of a space station, is no mean feat for NASA.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Near-Earth Object (NEO) 163348

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : NEOs

Mains level : Not Much

NASA announced that a giant asteroid is expected to pass Earth at a safe distance, today.

Do you remember Osiris-Rex spacecraft of NASA? It is the only spacecraft to touch an asteroid called ‘Bennu’. NASA has brought back comet dust and solar wind particles before, but never asteroid samples.

This makes it a landmark feat and thus a hotspot for UPSC prelims.

What are NEOs?

  • NASA defines NEOs as comets and asteroids nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits which allows them to enter the Earth’s neighbourhood.
  • These objects are composed mostly of water ice with embedded dust particles.
  • NEOs occasionally approach close to the Earth as they orbit the Sun.
  • NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Study (CNEOS) determines the times and distances of these objects as and when their approach to the Earth is close.

Significances of NEOs

  • The scientific interest in comets and asteroids is largely due to their status as relatively unchanged remnant debris from the solar system formation process over 4.6 billion years ago.
  • Therefore, these NEOs offer scientists clues about the chemical mixture from the planets formed.
  • Significantly, among all the causes that will eventually cause the extinction of life on Earth, an asteroid hit is widely acknowledged as one of the likeliest.
  • Over the years, scientists have suggested different ways to ward off such a hit, such as blowing up the asteroid before it reaches Earth, or deflecting it off its Earth-bound course by hitting it with a spacecraft.

About 163348 (2002 NN4)

  • A Near-Earth Object (NEO), the asteroid is called 163348 (2002 NN4) and is classified as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA).
  • Asteroids with a minimum orbit intersection distance (MOID) of about 0.05 (AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun and is roughly 150 million km) or less are considered PHAs.
  • This distance is about 7,480,000 km or less and an absolute magnitude (H) of 22 (smaller than about 150 m or 500 feet in diameter).

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Radio lights from Sun’s Corona

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), Nanoflares

Mains level : Coronal heating of Sun

A group of India scientists have recently discovered tiny flashes of radio light emanating from all over the Sun, which they say could help in explaining the long-pending coronal heating problem.

Possible prelim question:

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) Telescope recently seen in news is a landmark in observing: Gravitational Waves/Black Holes/Sun’s Corona/ etc..

What is Sun’s Corona?

  • The corona is the outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere. It is the aura of plasma that surrounds the Sun and other stars.
  • The Sun’s corona extends millions of kilometres into outer space and is most easily seen during a total solar eclipse, but it is also observable with a coronagraph.
  • Spectroscopy measurements indicate strong ionization in the corona and a plasma temperature in excess of 1000000 Kelvin much hotter than the surface of the Sun.

Radio lights observed

  • These radio lights or signals result from beams of electrons accelerated in the aftermath of a magnetic explosion on the Sun.
  • While the magnetic explosions are not yet observable, these weak radio flashes are ‘smoking guns’ or the evidence for the same.
  • Hence it brought the researchers closer to explaining the coronal heating problem.

Their significance

  • These observations are the strongest evidence till date that the tiny magnetic explosions originally referred to as ‘nanoflares’ by eminent American solar astrophysicist Eugene Parker.
  • It is the possible phenomena that could be heating up the corona (the aura of plasma that surrounds the sun and other stars).

The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA)

  • The phenomenon of coronal heating has been known for the last 70 years, the availability of cutting edge data from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope proved to be a game-changer.
  • The MWA is a low-frequency radio telescope, located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia.
  • The MWA has been developed by an international collaboration, including partners from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, India, Canada and the United States.

Solving the mystery

  • The strength of the magnetic fields varies a lot from one place on the surface of the Sun to another, by more than a factor of 1,000.
  • But the corona is hot everywhere. So, this heating process has to work all over the corona, even in regions of weak magnetic fields.
  • Until now, the process of how this magnetic energy is deposited in the corona had remained a mystery.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Starman Suits in Demo-2 Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Demo 2 Mission

Mains level : Not Much

NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight has now been rescheduled for May 31, due to weather conditions. Apart from the test flight itself, what’s getting attention are the spacesuits that the astronauts will wear while travelling in the SpaceX capsule, called Crew Dragon.

Try this question from CSP 2014:

Q. Which of the following pair is/are correctly matched?

Spacecraft Purpose
1. Cassini-Huygens Orbiting the Venus and transmitting data to the Earth
2. Messenger Mapping and investigating the Mercury
3. Voyager 1 and 2 Exploring the outer solar system

Select the correct answer using the code given below.

a) 1 only

b) 2 and 3 only

c) 1 and 3 only

d) 1, 2 and 3

The SpaceX spacesuit

  • The so-called “Starman suits” the astronauts will wear on the Demo-2 mission have been designed by a famous Hollywood costume designer.
  • The SpaceX spacesuits are different from other spacesuits typically worn by astronauts because of their sleek design and are being described as resembling a tuxedo.
  • These spacesuits are meant to be lighter and more flexible, are equipped with touchscreen gloves, have vents that allow astronauts to be cooler while maintaining pressure inside the suit, and have an incorporated helmet and visor.
  • The helmets of these suits are 3D printed with touchscreen-sensitive gloves and the suit is all in one piece, customised for the wearer.

How are launch-and-entry spacesuits different from EMUs?

  • The SpaceX suits are only meant to be worn inside the space shuttle and are not suitable for carrying out spacewalks.
  • Spacesuits for spacewalks, called Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), are heavier than launch-entry suits (LES) and are already present aboard the ISS.
  • While inside the spacecraft, the atmosphere can be controlled, to explore and work in space, humans require that they take their environment with them because there are atmospheric pressure and no oxygen to sustain life.
  • Such spacesuits – EMUs are worn for spacewalks or extravehicular activities (EVA) conducted outside a space shuttle.
  • These provide astronauts with oxygen supply and protect them against extreme temperatures, radiation and space dust.

Back2Basics

Demo-2 Mission by SpaceX

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

China’s Mars Mission: Tianwen-1

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Various missions mentioned in the newscard

Mains level : Quest for Mars and its possibility to host life

China’s space program is now slated to achieve a new milestone. In July, the country will launch its first Mars mission, the ‘Tianwen-1’, which is expected to land on the Red Planet’s surface in the first quarter of 2021.

UPSC may ask an MCQ asking: Which of the following is/are the space missions related to Mars? It may throw up 4-5 options (which we all get confused at after few months) like Cassini , InSight , Messanger, Voyager etc.

Tianwen-1 Mission

  • The mission is named after the ancient Chinese poem ‘Questions to Heaven’, the Tianwen-1.
  • It is an all-in-one orbiter; lander and rover will search the Martian surface for water, ice, investigate soil characteristics, and study the atmosphere, among completing other objectives.
  • It will carry 13 payloads (seven orbiters and six rovers) that will explore the planet.
  • It will be the first to place ground-penetrating radar on the Martian surface, which will be able to study local geology, as well as rock, ice, and dirt distribution.
  • China’s previous ‘Yinghuo-1’ Mars mission, which had piggybacked on a Russian spacecraft, had failed after it could not leave the Earth’s orbit and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean in 2012.

Why all are curious about Mars exploration?

  • After the Moon, the most number of space missions in the Solar System has been to Mars.
  • Despite being starkly different in many ways, the Red Planet has several Earth-like features– such as clouds, polar ice caps, canyons, volcanoes, and seasonal weather patterns.
  • For ages, scientists have wondered whether Mars can support life.
  • In the past few years, Mars missions have been able to discover the possible presence of liquid water on the planet, either in the subsurface today or at some point in its past.
  • This has made space explorers more curious about whether the planet can sustain life.
  • Newer NASA missions have since transitioned from their earlier strategy of “Follow the Water” to “Seek Signs of Life”.

Back2Basics: Various missions on Mars

  • The USSR in 1971 became the first country to carry out a Mars landing– its ‘Mars 3’ lander being able to transmit data for 20 seconds from the Martian surface before failing.
  • The country made it’s second and Mars landing two years later in 1973.
  • The second country to reach Mars’s surface, the US, holds the record for the most number of Mars landings.
  • Since 1976, it has achieved 8 successful Mars landings, the latest being the ‘InSight’ in 2019 (launched in 2018).
  • India and the European Space Agency have been able to place their spacecraft in Mars’s orbit.
  • India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) or ‘Mangalyaan’ was able to do so in September 2014, almost a year after its launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Andhra Pradesh.
  • The Chinese mission now is expected to take off around the same time when NASA is launching its own Mars mission– the ambitious ‘Perseverance’ which aims to collect Martian samples and bring them back.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What is a Parallel Universe?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Parallel Universe, ANITA experiment

Mains level : Parallel Universe and the validity of such concepts

Twitter and other social media platforms are abuzz with the so-called ‘parallel universe’ that NASA has discovered. According to the claims, NASA has detected a parallel universe in Antarctica, where time runs backwards.

 

ANITA experiment is significant for prelims. It can be asked in prelims in such match the pair questions-

Q. Consider the following pairs :

Terms sometimes seen in news                                Context / Topic

1. Belle 2 experiment –                                        Artificial Intelligence

2. Blockchain technology –                               Digital Cryptocurrency

3. CRISPR – Cas9 –                                               Particle Physics

Which of the pairs given above is/are correctly matched? (CSP 2018)

(a) 1 and 3 only

(b) 2 only

(c) 2 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

What is a Parallel Universe?

  • In quantum mechanics, a parallel universe is theorized as existing alongside our own, although undetectable.
  • The recent reports claiming that there is evidence of a parallel universe appear to be based on ANITA findings that are at least a couple of years old.
  • A science magazine had published a feature, discussing some anomalous results coming from neutrino detection experiments in Antarctica.
  • It discussed a speculative cosmological model that posits there’s an antimatter universe extending backwards from the BigBang.
  • This theorem was also proposed by famous scientist Stephens Hawking.

What were the anomalous detections in Antarctica?

The ANITA experiment

  • Four years ago an experiment had spotted a handful of instances of what seemed to be highly energetic neutrinos coming through the Earth.
  • It was named Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) experiment — a high-altitude helium balloon with an array of radio antennas, partially funded by NASA.
  • The telescope could spot these neutrinos coming from the space and hitting the ice sheet in Antarctica.
  • ANITA detected these particles, but instead of coming from the space, the neutrinos were found to be coming from the Earth’s surface without any source.
  • These detections happened in 2016, then again in 2018, but there was no credible explanation.
  • Physicists have been working to figure out if these results can be explained with our current models of physics or have something to do with the experimental set-up itself, or if something like the parallel universe does exist.

Back2Basics: Neutrinos

  • A neutrino is a subatomic particle very similar to an electron.
  • But it has no electrical charge and a very small mass, which might even be zero.
  • Neutrinos are one of the most abundant particles in the universe.
  • Because they have very little interaction with matter, they are incredibly difficult to detect.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Demo-2 Mission by SpaceX

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Demo 2 Mission

Mains level : Commercial crew programme by NASA

NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight will lift off for International Space Station (ISS) becoming the first crewed flight to launch from American soil since the conclusion of the space shuttle era in 2011.

We can get a match the pair type question in prelims asking various space missions and their purposes. Make note of similar space missions from here.

Try this:

Q. Which of the following pair is/are correctly matched? (CSP 2014)

Spacecraft Purpose
1. Cassini-Huygens Orbiting the Venus and transmitting data to the Earth
2. Messenger Mapping and investigating the Mercury
3. Voyager 1 and 2 Exploring the outer solar system

Select the correct answer using the code given below.

a) 1 only

b) 2 and 3 only

c) 1 and 3 only

d) 1, 2 and 3

Demo-2: What is the mission?

  • The Demo-2 mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program with the aim of developing reliable and cost-effective access to and from the ISS.
  • Essentially, the lift-off is a flight test to certify if SpaceX’s crew transportation system can be used to ferry crew to and from the space station regularly.
  • After its launch, the Crew Dragon will perform a series of phasing manoeuvres to gradually approach and autonomously dock with the ISS.
  • After docking, the two astronauts will go aboard the ISS. They will perform tests of the Crew Dragon and conduct research with Expedition 63, the space station crew currently in residence at ISS.

About the Commercial Crew Program

  • The main objective of this program is to make access to space easier in terms of its cost, so that cargo and crew can be easily transported to and from the ISS, enabling greater scientific research.
  • Secondly, by encouraging private companies such as Boeing and SpaceX to provide crew transportation NASA wants to focus on building spacecraft and rockets meant for deep space exploration missions.
  • Boeing and SpaceX were selected by NASA in September 2014 to develop transportation systems meant to transfer crew from the US to the ISS.

Back2Basics: SpaceX

  • Space Exploration Technologies Corp., trading as SpaceX, is a private American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation Services Company headquartered in Hawthorne, California.
  • It was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars.
  • SpaceX has developed several launch vehicles and the Dragon spacecraft.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Luhman 16A: A binary brown-dwarf system

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Luhman 16A, Binary star system

Mains level : Not Much

A group of international astrophysicists have identified cloud bands on the surface of Luhman 16A, one of a pair of binary brown dwarfs in the Vela constellation.

Space terminology has gained importance in prelims. The Luhman 16A coupled with few more examples of space concepts like binary star and dwarf star are discussed in this newscard.

Luhman 16A

  • Luhman 16 is a binary star system, the third closest system to the Sun after Alpha Centauri and Barnard’s star.
  • At a distance of about 6.5 light-years from the Sun, this pair of brown dwarfs referred to as Luhman 16A and Luhman 16B orbit each other, casting a dim light.
  • Brown dwarfs are also called failed stars because their masses are intermediate to the largest planets and the smallest main sequence stars.
  • Their masses being too small, they are unable to sustain fusion of their hydrogen to produce energy.
  • It is believed that some of the more massive brown dwarfs fuse deuterium or lithium and glow faintly.

The cloud band over Luhman

  • The group, by using the Very Large Telescope at European Southern Observatory, Chile, found that Luhman 16A had band-like clouds in its atmosphere, whereas the same was not true of Luhman 16B.
  • Many astronomers detected polarization of brown dwarfs.
  • But what is special in the newest study of Luhman 16 is that the researchers have found the actual structure of the clouds — that they form bands over one of the pair.
  • Understanding the cloud system over a brown dwarf can shed light on the pressure, temperature and climate on the surface of the celestial body.

Why it has made into a headline?

  • The researchers have used an idea put forth nearly two decades ago by Indian astrophysicist Sujan Sengupta, who works at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru.
  • Sengupta had propounded the light emitted by a cloudy brown dwarf, or reflected off an extrasolar planet, will be polarized.
  • He then suggested that a polarimetric technique could serve as a potential tool to probe the environment of these objects.

Back2Basics: Binary Star System

  • A binary star is a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around their common barycenter.
  • Systems of two or more stars are called multiple star systems.
  • These systems, especially when more distant, often appear to the unaided eye as a single point of light, and are then revealed as multiple by other means.
  • Binary star systems are very important in astrophysics because calculations of their orbits allow the masses of their component stars to be directly determined.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

‘The Long March 5B’ rocket

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : The Long March 5B

Mains level : Not Much

China has successfully launched a new rocket and prototype spacecraft in a major test of the country’s ambitions to operate a permanent space station and send astronauts to the Moon.

Can you recall the historical link between the name “The Long March” and China’s History.

The Long March 5B

  • Long March 5 or Chang Zheng 5 is a Chinese heavy-lift launch system developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).
  • It is the first Chinese launch vehicle designed from the ground up to focus on non-hypergolic liquid rocket propellants.
  • The maximum payload capacities of the base variant are ~25,000 kilograms to Low Earth Orbit and ~14,000 kilograms to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit.
  • The spaceship is expected to transport astronauts to a space station that China plans to complete by 2022 — and eventually to the Moon. It will have a capacity for a crew of six.

Back2Basics: Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit

 

  • About 35,786 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, satellites are in geostationary orbit. From the center of the Earth, this is approximately 42,164 kilometers. This distance puts it in the high Earth orbit category.
  • At any inclination, a geosynchronous orbit synchronizes with the rotation of the Earth.
  • While geosynchronous satellites can have any inclination, the key difference to geostationary orbit is the fact that they lie on the same plane as the equator.
  • GTO is a an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different radiuses in the same plane—used to reach geosynchronous or  geostationary orbit using high-thrust chemical engines.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Unified Geologic Map of the Moon

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Unified Geologic Map of the Moon

Mains level : Studying topography of the moon

The first-ever digital, unified, global, geological map of the moon was released virtually by the  United States Geological Survey (USGS), NASA and the Lunar Planetary Institute.

Unified Geologic Map of the Moon

  • The UGM will serve as a blueprint for future human missions and a source of research and analysis for the educators and the general public interested in lunar geology.
  • The map is a ‘seamless, globally consistent, 1:5,000,000-scale geologic map’.
  • The mapped surface features of the moon included crater rim crests, buried crater rim crests, fissures, grabens, scarps, mare wrinkle ridges, faults, troughs, rilles, and lineaments.

How it was prepared?

  • The researchers built on the original digital renovation of the six maps comprising of the near, central far, east, west, north and south sides that was released in 2013.
  • The final map consists of 43 geologic units across the entire lunar surface, broken down into groups based on characteristics like materials of craters, basins, terra, plains and volcanic units.
  • Data from NASA’s Apollo Missions were used to come up with the map.

Its’ significance

  • The moon’s South Pole is especially interesting because the area is much larger than the North Pole and there could be a possibility of the presence of water in these permanently shadowed areas.
  • Further, the South Pole region also contains the fossil record of the early Solar System.
  • These present and future moon missions’ success can be further helped by the digital map of the moon.
  • The Chandrayaan 2, an active mission also targets the Lunar South Pole for exploration.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

GRACE-FO Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : GRACE-FO Mission

Mains level : Groundwater recharge and conservation efforts

NASA releases new global maps mapping groundwater, soil wetness using GRACE-FO satellites.

GRACE-FO Mission

  • The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission is a partnership between NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ).
  • GRACE-FO is a successor to the original GRACE mission, which orbited Earth from 2002-2017.
  • It carries on the extremely successful work of its predecessor while testing a new technology designed to dramatically improve the already remarkable precision of its measurement system.

Why need such data on groundwater and soil moisture?

  • Groundwater and soil moisture — which depicts wetness in soil — are crucial for irrigation and crop growth.
  • The need to constantly monitor groundwater and soil moisture is important since both act as useful indicators for predicting drought conditions.
  • One of the goals of the new global maps is to make the same consistent product available in all parts of the world, especially in countries that do not have any groundwater-monitoring infrastructure.
  • The data would help in managing the selection of appropriate agricultural crops and predicting yields.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs)

Mains level : Not Much

 

Researchers from a Canadian space observatory have been recording the periodic radio waves hitting Earth from a neighbouring galaxy from past few years. These radio waves are called Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs).

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs)

  • FRBs are super intense, millisecond-long bursts of radio waves produced by unidentified sources in the space.
  • Their discovery in 2007 by American astronomer Duncan Lorimer led to the term ‘Lorimer Bursts’.
  • Since then, just a few dozen similar events have been observed in data collected by radio telescopes around the world, building evidence that points to a variety of potential causes.
  • Only a handful of emissions have been traced to specific areas of the sky, indicating sources in other galaxies.
  • The flash of radio waves is incredibly bright if distant, comparable to the power released by hundreds of millions of suns in just a few milliseconds.
  • This intensity suggests powerful objects like black holes and neutron stars could be involved.
  • The events were once considered to be largely transient – they seemed to happen once, without obvious signs of a repeat emission. However, a number of such bursts have been identified since then.

Why are they significant?

  • First noticed in 2018 by the Canadian observatory the waves have created ripples across the globe for one reason — they arrive in a pattern.
  • This gave birth to theories that they could be from an alien civilization.
  • Initially, it was believed that the collision of black holes or neutron stars triggers them.
  • But the discovery of repeating FRBs debunked the theory of colliding objects.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s new Mars rover: Perseverance

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Perseverance rover

Mains level : Not Much

NASA has named its next Mars rover ‘Perseverence’.

About Perseverance

  • The Perseverance rover weighs less than 2,300 pounds and is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
  • The rover’s mission will be to search for signs of past microbial life. It will also collect samples of Martian rocks and dust, according to the release.
  • The rover will also be tasked with studying the red planet’s geology and climate.
  • All of NASA’s previous Mars rovers — including the Sojourner (1997), Spirit and Opportunity (2004) and Curiosity (exploring Mars since 2012) — were named in this way.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

New forces in orbit

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 3- What reforms are needed in space sector to leverage it for commercial purposes.

Context

As it looks at the growing role of the private sector and the effort by nations like the UAE and Luxembourg, Delhi needs to move quickly towards a new model for India’s space activity.

Growing presence in the outer space

  • Outer space no longer a preserve of a few: When you think of outer space, you think of big powers like the United States, Russia and China.
    • You might also note the collective European effort under the European Space Agency as well as the impressive national space programmes of India and Japan.
    • Strategic or symbol of national pursuit: Space programmes have for long been viewed as either strategic or symbols of national prestige for big countries that are prepared to invest significant resources in the pursuit of a credible presence in outer space.
  • Two small countries challenging the narrative: Two small countries, the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in Europe have begun to demonstrate that the outer space need not be the playing ground for big powers alone.
    • Sceptics might think it is pretentious for the UAE with its native population of barely one million and Luxembourg with 600,000 people to think of a place for themselves in space.

UAE’s presence in the space

  • Reminder for India: The interesting path these two countries have set for themselves in outer space is a reminder that Delhi needs to adapt to the rapidly changing dynamic in outer space.
  • Hope Mars Mission: That size is not a constraint is reflected in the UAE’s plan to launch its Mars mission, “Hope”, later this year in partnership with a range of organisations across the world — including three universities in the US.
    • Japan is scheduled to launch the UAE Mars probe this year.
    • India’s own ISRO is also working with the UAE on its Mars mission.
  • Last year, the first Emirati Astronaut, Hazza al-Mansouri spent more than a week in the US-Russian space station.
  • What are the reasons for the UAE’s space strategy? It is about cornering a slice of the rapidly growing commercial space industry — part of a major effort to diversify the UAE economy away from its reliance on hydrocarbons.

How Luxembourg is increasing its presence in the outer space

  • Commercial space as a major opportunity: Over the years, Luxembourg moved away from its past reliance on the steel industry to become a centre of European banking and finance.
    • It is now looking at commercial space as a major opportunity.
  • Regulatory steps: Luxembourg has taken a number of regulatory steps to create a vibrant ecosystem for space companies ranging from satellite operations to future extraction of resources from asteroids and other space objects.
  • Expansion of the space sector: At the moment, the space sector accounts for nearly 2 per cent of Luxembourg’s GDP.
    • There are more than 50 companies and two public research organisations that are driving the expansion of space sector in Luxembourg.
    • It entered the space sector only in the middle of the last decade. It is also driven by the need for economic diversification.
  • Leveraging new ideas: UAE and Luxembourg do have a reputation for leveraging new ideas to transcend the limitations of their size in the world.
    • But their space adventure was not possible without the structural changes that are reshaping the global space activity.

How space industry underwent a change over the years

  • Preserve of national programs: Through the second half of the 20th century, outer space was the sole preserve of national space programmes driven by government-funding, direction and management.
  • The emergence of the private sector: As military uses of space and prestige projects like Moon-landing emerged, major private sector entities already in the aviation industry like Boeing and Lockheed won space contracts in the US.
    • Collaboration with government: The Pentagon and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) told these companies what to do.
  • Expansion: The last decades of the 20th century saw significant expansion of satellite-based telecommunication, navigation, broadcasting and mapping, and lent a significant commercial dimension to the space sector.
    • As the digital revolution in the 21st century transformed the world economy, the commercial space sector has begun to grow in leaps and bounds.
    • The global space business is now estimated to be around $ 400 billion and is expected to easily rise to at least trillion dollars by 2040.
  • Rise of SpaceX: One example of the rise of private sector companies in the space sector is SpaceX run by the US entrepreneur Elon Musk.
    • Hired for a resupply mission for the space station, it now launches more rockets every year than NASA.
    • The entry of the private sector has begun to drive down the cost-per-launch through innovations such as reusable rockets.

Scope of the expansion of the space industry

  • Decrease in launch cost and rise in ambition: As launch costs came down, the private sector has become more ambitious.
    • Internet through space: SpaceX plans to launch hundreds of satellites into the low-earth orbit to provide internet services. Amazon has plans to build a network of more than 3,000 satellites in the low-earth orbit.
    • Space tourism: Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have plans to develop space tourism and build human settlements on the Moon and on Mars.
    • Small private companies in the fray: It is not just big companies that are aiming for the Moon. Last year, a private company in Israel sent a lunar lander to the Moon. Although the lander crashed, much like India’s Vikram, the private sector has begun to do things that were once the monopoly of national agencies.

India not in synch with the global changes

  • Not adapting to the change: India, however, is quite some distance away from adapting to the unfolding changes in the global space business.
    • In its early years, India’s space programme that was constrained by lack of resources found innovative ways of getting ahead in space.
  • Space sector dominated by the government: Although the ISRO encourages private sector participation in the national space programme, its model is still very 20th century — in terms of governmental domination.

Conclusion

As it looks at the growing role of the private sector and the effort by nations like the UAE and Luxembourg, India needs to move quickly towards a new model for India’s space activity. It needs a regulatory environment that encourages a more dynamic role for the private sector and promotes innovation.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

2020 CD3: A mini-moon

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : 2020 CD3, Temporarily Captured Object (TCO)

Mains level : Not Much

 

 

Astronomers have observed a small object orbiting Earth, which they have dubbed a “mini-moon” or the planet’s “second moon”.

2020 CD3

  • The mini-moon was discovered by some astronomers at NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) in Arizona.
  • It is actually an asteroid, about the size of a car; its diameter is about 1.9-3.5 m.
  • And unlike our permanent Moon, the mini-moon is temporary; it will eventually break free of Earth’s orbit and go off on its own way.
  • Orbit integrations indicate that this object is temporarily bound to the Earth.
  • 2020 CD3 was captured into Earth’s orbit over three years ago.
  • For CSS, it is only the second such discovery. It previously discovered 2006 RH120, which orbited Earth for some time that year, before it escaped in 2007.

Where do such moons come from?

  • When an asteroid’s orbit crosses Earth’s orbit, it can sometimes be captured into the latter orbit. This is what happened with 2020 CD3.
  • It is now orbiting at a distance farther from Earth. Such an asteroid is called a Temporarily Captured Object (TCO).
  • The orbit of such objects is unstable. They have to contend with the gravitational influence of our permanent Moon as well as that of the Sun.
  • Once caught in Earth’s orbit, such objects usually remain for a few years before they break free and go into independent orbit around the Sun.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s InSight Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : InSight Mission

Mains level : Key findings of the InSight Mission

 

It’s now more than a year since NASA’s InSight lander mission touched down on Mars on November 26, 2018. This week, NASA published a report regarding findings on the Mars.

About InSight Mission

  • The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport mission is a robotic lander designed to study the deep interior of the planet Mars.
  • It is the first mission dedicated to looking deep beneath the Martian surface.
  • Among its science tools are a seismometer for detecting quakes, sensors for gauging wind and air pressure, a magnetometer, and a heat flow probe designed to take the planet’s temperature.
  • The InSight mission is part of NASA’s Discovery Program.
  • It is being supported by a number of European partners, which include France’s Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA).

Key findings of the Mission

Underground: rumbles

  • Mars trembles more often than expected, but also more mildly.
  • This emerged from readings of the ultra-sensitive seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS).
  • The instrument enables scientists to “hear” multiple trembling events from hundreds to thousands of miles away.
  • Mars doesn’t have tectonic plates like Earth, but it does have volcanically active regions that can cause rumbles.

The surface: Magnetism

  • Billions of years ago, Mars had a magnetic field.
  • Although it is no longer present, it left behind what NASA describes as “ghosts” – magnetized rocks that are now between 61 m to several km below ground.
  • InSight is equipped with a magnetometer, which has detected magnetic signals.
  • At a Martian site called Homestead hollow, the magnetic signals are 10 times stronger than what was predicted earlier (based on data from orbiting spacecraft).

In the wind: dust devils

  • InSight measures wind speed, direction and air pressure nearly continuously.
  • Weather sensors have detected thousands of passing whirlwinds, which are called dust devils when they pick up grit and become visible.
  • The site has more whirlwinds than any other place where a landing has been made on Mars while carrying weather sensors.
  • Despite all that activity in the wind and frequent imaging, InSight’s cameras have yet to see dust devils. But SEIS can feel these whirlwinds pulling on the surface.

The core: still to come

  • InSight has two radios. One is for regularly sending and receiving data. The other radio, which is more powerful, is designed to measure the “wobble” of Mars as it spins.
  • This X-band radio, also known as the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), can eventually reveal whether the planet’s core is solid or liquid.
  • A solid core would cause Mars to wobble less than a liquid one would.
  • This first year of data is just a start, NASA said in the statement. When it is two years on Earth, Mars will have completed one year.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Habitable-zone Planet Finder (HPF)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Habitable-zone Planet Finder (HPF), Spectrograph

Mains level : HPF and its applications

 

At 100 light-years from Earth, a low-mass star was sending signals in a pattern that suggested that an exoplanet was orbiting the star confirmed the Habitable-zone Planet Finder (HPF).

Habitable-zone Planet Finder

  • NASA’s Kepler mission observed a dip in the host star’s light, suggesting that the planet was crossing in front of the star during its orbit.
  • To confirm, researchers turned to an instrument called Habitable-zone Planet Finder (HPF). It has confirmed that there is indeed an exoplanet.
  • HPF is an astronomical spectrograph, built by Penn State University scientists, and recently installed on the 10m Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory in Texas.
  • The instrument is designed to detect and characterize planets in the habitable zone — the region around the star where a planet could sustain liquid water on its surface — around nearby low-mass stars.
  • The newly confirmed planet, called G 9-40b, is the first one validated by HPF. It is about twice the size of Earth and orbits its star once every six Earth-days.

How it works

  • A spectrograph is an instrument that splits light into its component wavelengths.
  • Scientists then measure the properties of light over a specific portion of the spectrum and draw conclusions on what is responsible for the trends they observe.

Why need HPF?

  • Kepler’s observations alone were not enough to confirm a planet. It was possible that a close stellar companion was responsible for the dip in the star’s light.
  • Precision spectroscopic observations from HPF ruled out this possibility.
  • Shooting a high-power laser into the air, researchers generated a “laser guide star”, and subsequent observations found no evidence of blending of light or other stellar companions.
  • Finally, using HPF, an analysis of a set of radial velocities helped provide estimates for the planet’s mass.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Supergiant star ‘Betelgeuse’

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Supergiant star ‘Betelgeuse’

Mains level : Big Bang Theory

 

Using the European Space Organization’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have noticed the unprecedented dimming of Betelgeuse.

 Betelgeuse

  • It is a red supergiant star (over 20 times bigger than the Sun) in the constellation Orion.
  • Along with the dimming, the star’s shape has been changing as well, as per recent photographs of the star taken using the VISIR instrument on the VLT.
  • Instead of appearing round, the star now appears to be “squashed into an ova”.

Why is it significant?

  • Betelgeuse was born as a supermassive star millions of years ago and has been “dramatically” and “mysteriously” dimming for the last six months.
  • While Betelgeuse’s behaviour is out of the ordinary, it doesn’t mean that an eruption is imminent since astronomers predict the star to blast sometime (supernova explosion, which is the largest explosion to take place in space) in the next 100,000 years or so.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Discovery Program investigations by NASA

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Various missions mentioned in the newscard

Mains level : Discovery Program investigations

NASA announced it has selected four Discovery Program investigations to develop concept studies for possible new missions.

What are the new missions?

  • Two proposals are for trips to Venus, and one each is for Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton.
  • After the concept studies are completed in nine months, some missions ultimately may not be chosen to move forward.

DAVINCI+

  • DAVINCI+ stands for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus.
  • This will analyse Venus’s atmosphere to understand how it was formed and evolved, and if it ever had an ocean.
  • This will advance understanding of the formation of terrestrial planets.

IVO

  • Io Volcano Observer is a proposal to explore Jupiter’s moon Io, which is extremely volcanically active.
  • This will try to find out how tidal forces shape planetary bodies.
  • The findings could further knowledge about the formation and evolution of rocky, terrestrial bodies and icy ocean worlds in the Solar System.

TRIDENT

This aims to explore Neptune’s icy moon, Triton, so that scientists can understand the development of habitable worlds in the Solar System.

VERITAS

Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy will aim to map Venus’s surface to find out why Venus developed so differently from Earth.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

The ‘Pale Blue Dot’

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Pale Blue Dot

Mains level : Voyager 1 mission

 

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the NASA published a new version of the image of Pale Blue Dot.

Pale Blue Dot

  • The ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is one of the most iconic images in the history of astronomy.
  • It shows Earth as a single bright blue pixel in empty space within a strand of sun rays, some of which are scattering from and enlightening the planet.
  • The original image was taken by the Voyager 1 mission spacecraft on February 14, 1990 when it was just beyond Saturn.
  • At the behest of astronomer Carl Sagan, the cameras were turned towards Earth one final time to capture the image.
  • After this, the cameras and other instruments on the craft were turned off to ensure its longevity.

About Voyager 1

  • Voyager 1 is a space probe launched by NASA on September 5, 1977.
  • Having operated for more than 42 years, the spacecraft still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and to transmit data to Earth.
  • At a distance of 148.67 AU (22.2 billion km) from Earth as of January 19, 2020 it is the most distant man-made object from Earth.
  • The probe’s objectives included flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

The Family Portrait of the Solar System

  • The Pale blue dot image was a part of series of 60 images designed to produce what the mission called the ‘Family Portrait of the Solar System’.
  • This sequence of camera-pointing commands returned images of six of the solar system’s planets, as well as the Sun.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

SuperCam on Mars Rover 2020

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SuperCam

Mains level : Study of life on Mars

 

In its mission to Mars this summer, NASA is sending a new laser-toting robot called SuperCam as one of seven instruments aboard the Mars 2020 rover.

SuperCam

  • Called SuperCam, the robot is used for studying mineralogy and chemistry from up to about 7 metres away.
  • It might help scientists find signs of fossilized microbial life on Mars.
  • SuperCam packs what would typically require several sizable pieces of equipment into something no bigger than a cereal box.
  • It fires a pulsed laser beam out of the rover’s mast to vaporise small portions of rock from a distance, providing information that will be essential to the mission’s success.

NASA lists five things to know

  • From more than 7 m away, SuperCam can fire a laser to study rock targets smaller than a pencil point. That lets the rover study spots it can’t reach with its arm.
  • SuperCam looks at rock textures and chemicals to find those that formed or changed in water on Mars long ago.
  • SuperCam looks at different rock and “soil” types to find ones that could preserve signs of past microbial life on Mars — if any ever existed.
  • For the benefit of future explorers, SuperCam identifies which elements in the Martian dust may be harmful to humans.
  • Scientists can learn about how atmospheric molecules, water ice, and dust absorb or reflect solar radiation. This helps predict Martian weather better.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Solar Orbiter (SolO) Probe

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SolO Mission

Mains level : Significance of the Mission

 

Yesterday, the Solar Orbiter, a collaborative mission between the European Space Agency and NASA to study the Sun, took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

What is the Solar Orbiter?

  • Carrying four in situ instruments and six remote-sensing imagers, the Solar Orbiter (called SolO) will face the sun at approximately 42 million kilometres from its surface.
  • Before SolO, all solar imaging instruments have been within the ecliptic plane, in which all planets orbit and which is aligned with the sun’s equator.
  • The new spacecraft will use the gravity of Venus and Earth to swing itself out of the ecliptic plane, passing inside the orbit of Mercury, and will be able to get a bird’s eye view of the sun’s poles for the first time.

Objectives of the mission

  • The Orbiter will take pictures using telescopes through a heat shield that is partly made of baked animal bones, to help it withstand temperatures of up to 600 degree Celsius.
  • By understanding the behaviour of the sun, the Orbiter aims to provide information on how the former would affect technology such as satellites, navigation systems, power grids, and telecommunication services.
  • The Orbiter will help scientists understand the sun’s dynamic behaviour, and solve mysteries such as the sunspot cycle, or why the star spews out high velocity charged particles through the solar system.
  • With more data on the global magnetic field of the star, scientists would be able to forecast space weather events.

Earlier missions

  • In 1990, NASA and ESA had sent the Ulysses mission, which also passed over the sun’s poles but at much farther distances, and did not carry a camera.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Spitzer Space Telescope

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Spitzer Telescope

Mains level : Significant feats of the mission

 

NASA’s Spitzer Mission, which studied the universe in infrared light for more than 16 years, will come to an end since it is low on fuel and has been drifting away from Earth for a few years now.

Spitzer Space Telescope

  • The Spitzer Space Telescope is a space-borne observatory, one of the elements of NASA’s Great Observatories that include the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray.
  • Using different infrared wavelengths, Spitzer was able to see and reveal features of the universe including objects that were too cold to emit visible light.
  • Apart from enabling researchers to see distant cold objects, Spitzer could also see through large amounts of gas using infrared wavelengths to find objects that may otherwise have been invisible to human beings.
  • These included exoplanets, brown dwarfs and cold matter found in the space between stars.
  • Spitzer was originally built to last for a minimum of 2.5 years, but it lasted in the “cold” phase for over 5.5 years. On May 15, 2009 the coolant was finally depleted and the “warm mission” began.

Major discoveries

  • Spitzer also studied some of the most distant galaxies ever detected.
  • The light from these galaxies reached us after traveling for billions of years, enabling scientists “to see those objects as they were long, long ago”.
  • Hubble and Spitzer in 2016 identified and studied the most distant galaxy ever observed.
  • Using these two telescopes, scientists were able to see a bright infant galaxy as it was over 13.4 billion years ago, roughly 400 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was less than 5% of its current age.
  • It assisted in the discovery of planets beyond our solar system, including the detection of seven Earth-size exo-planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1.
  • Three of its seven planets were located in the “habitable zone,” where the temperature might be right for liquid water to exist on the planets’ surfaces.

Other landmarks

  • Spitzer has logged over 106,000 hours of observation time.
  • Thousands of scientists around the world have utilized Spitzer data in their studies, and Spitzer data is cited in more than 8,000 published papers.
  • Spitzer’s primary mission ended up lasting 5.5 years, during which time the spacecraft operated in a “cold phase,” with a supply of liquid helium cooling three onboard instruments to just above absolute zero.
  • The cooling system reduced excess heat from the instruments themselves that could contaminate their observations.
  • This gave Spitzer very high sensitivity for “cold” objects.
  • In July 2009, after Spitzer’s helium supply ran out, the spacecraft entered a so-called “warm phase.”
  • Spitzer’s main instrument, called the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC), has four cameras, two of which continue to operate in the warm phase with the same sensitivity they maintained during the cold phase.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : TMT, Mauna Kea

Mains level : India's abroad space missions

 

India, a partner in the construction of one of the largest telescopes in the world, TMT, has said it wants the project to be moved out of the proposed site at Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii.

Thirty Metre Telescope

  • The TMT is a proposed astronomical observatory with an extremely large telescope (ELT) that has become the source of controversy over its planned location on Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii in the US state of Hawaii.
  • It is being built by an international collaboration of government organisations and educational institutions, at a cost of $1.4 billion.
  • “Thirty Metre” refers to the 30-metre diameter of the mirror, with 492 segments of glass pieced together, which makes it three times as wide as the world’s largest existing visible-light telescope.
  • The larger the mirror, the more light a telescope can collect, which means, in turn, that it can “see” farther, fainter objects.
  • It would be more than 200 times more sensitive than current telescopes and would be able to resolve objects 12 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Utility of the telescope

  • One of its key uses will be the study of exoplanets, many of which have been detected in the last few years, and whether their atmospheres contain water vapour or methane — the signatures of possible life.
  • For the first time in history, this telescope will be capable of detecting extraterrestrial life.
  • The study of black holes is another objective.
  • While these have been observed in detail within the Milky Way, the next galaxy is 100 times farther away; the TMT will help bring them closer.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Artemis Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Artemis Mission

Mains level : Manned mission on Moon

NASA wants to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by the year 2024, which it plans on doing through the Artemis lunar exploration program. An Indian American astronaut named Raja Chari is set to accompany the crew in this mission.

Artemis Mission

  • In 2011, NASA began the ARTEMIS (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence, and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun) mission using a pair of repurposed spacecraft and in 2012 the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft studied the Moon’s gravity.
  • For the program, NASA’s new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) will send astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft a quarter of a million miles away from Earth to the lunar orbit.
  • The astronauts going for the Artemis program will wear newly designed spacesuits, called Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU.
  • These spacesuits feature advanced mobility and communications and interchangeable parts that can be configured for spacewalks in microgravity or on a planetary surface.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Goldilocks Zone

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Goldilocks Zone

Mains level : Not Much

NASA has reported the discovery of an Earth-size planet, named TOI 700 d, orbiting its star in the “habitable zone”.

Goldilocks Zone

  • A habitable zone, also called the “Goldilocks zone”, is the area around a star where it is not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface of surrounding planets.
  • Our Earth is in the Sun’s Goldilocks zone. If Earth were where the dwarf planet Pluto is, all its water would freeze; on the other hand, if Earth were where Mercury is, all its water would boil off.
  • Life on Earth started in water, and water is a necessary ingredient for life as we know it.
  • So, when scientists search for the possibility of alien life, any rocky exoplanet in the habitable zone of its star is an exciting find.

TOI 700 d

  • The newest such planet was found by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, which it launched in 2018.
  • The star, TOI 700, is an “M dwarf” located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado, is roughly 40% of our Sun’s mass and size, and has about half its surface temperature.
  • The find was confirmed by the Spitzer Space Telescope, which sharpened the measurements that TESS had made, such as orbital period and size.
  • TOI 700 d measures 20% larger than Earth. It orbits its star once every 37 days and receives an amount of energy that is equivalent to 86% of the energy that the Sun provides to Earth.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

SnowEx

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SnowEx

Mains level : Snowfall and its significance

For a better understanding of how much water is contained in each winter’s snowfall and how much will be available when it melts in the spring, NASA has launched a seasonal campaign — part of a five-year programme called SnowEx.

SnowEx

  • SnowEx was initiated in 2016-17.
  • The overall target is optimal strategies for mapping global snow water equivalent (SWE) with remote sensing and models leading to a Decadal Survey “Earth System Explorer” mission.
  • Within its geographic range, SnowEx assesses where snow has fallen, how much there is and how its characteristics change as it melts.

How does it work?

  • It uses airborne measurements, ground measurements and computer modelling.
  • The airborne campaign will fly radar and lidar to measure snow depth, microwave radar and radiometers to measure SWE, optical cameras to photograph the surface, infrared radiometers to measure surface temperature, and hyperspectral imagers for snow cover and composition.
  • Ground teams will measure snow depth, density, accumulation layers, temperature, wetness and snow grain size — the size of a typical particle.

Why such campaign?

  • Around 1.2 billion people, or nearly one-sixth of the world, depend on seasonal snow and glaciers for their water supply.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Bhibha Constellation and Santamasa Planet

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Bhibha , Santamasa

Mains level : Not Much

A white yellow star in Sextans constellation and its Jupiter-like exoplanets, which were hitherto named HD 86081 and 86081b, will now have Indian names, a/c to International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Bhibha

  • The star has been named in honour of a pioneering Indian woman scientist Bibha Choudhury, who discovered subatomic particle, pi-meson.
  • ‘Bhibha’ also means “a bright beam of light” in Bengali.
  • It is located in the constellation of Sextans. It is as hot as the sun, with a surface temperature of about 6,000 degrees Kelvin. It is 1.55 times bigger, 1.21 times massive, and 1.75 times brighter.
  • It is so far away that light from it takes 310.93 years to reach Earth and hence it is visible only with a telescope.

Santamasa

  • The planet has been named S’antamasa’ to reflect the cloudy nature of its atmosphere. ‘Santamasa’ is the Sanskrit term for ‘clouded’.
  • ‘Santamasa’, which is its only planet, is estimated to have a mass of 1.5 times that of Jupiter, going around the central star in a nearly circular orbit just in 2.1375 days.
  • Revolving so near the host star, the planet is expected to be very hot.

Back2Basics

International Astronomical Union (IAU)

  • The IAU is an international association of professional astronomers, at the PhD level and beyond, active in professional research and education in astronomy.
  • Among other activities, it acts as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations and names to celestial bodies (stars, planets, asteroids, etc.) and any surface features on them.
  • To standardize planetary nomenclature, the IAU was assigned in 1919 the task of selecting official names for features on Solar System bodies.
  • Planetary nomenclature, like terrestrial nomenclature, is a system of uniquely identifying features on the surface of a planet or natural satellite so that the features can be easily located, described, and discussed.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Asteroid Didymos

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA)

Mains level : Need for a planetary defence mechanism


The European Space Agency (ESA) has approved the budget of Hera, the European component of the mission to slam a spacecraft into an asteroid.

Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA)

  • Amidst the growing concern of need of a planetary defence mechanism, scientists are studying asteroids and trying to find ways to deflect them from a collision course with Earth.
  • One such project is the Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA), which includes NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Hera.
  • The project aims to study the effectiveness of an impact to ward off an impending asteroid threat.

Why need a planetary defence mechanism?

  • There are around 25,000 near-Earth objects (NEOs) that orbit the Sun on a trajectory that brings them close to our planet’s orbit. NASA tracks such near-Earth objects to ensure they do not become threats.
  • However, certain near-Earth objects have been classified as “potentially hazardous” which are 140 metres or more in size and come within 0.05 AU (astronomical unit) to Earth.
  • The distance in space is usually measured in astronomical units where 1 AU is the distance between Earth and the Sun, which is around 93 million miles or 150 million kilometres.
  • According to NASA JPL’s Centre for NEO studies, as of now, there are about 900 near-Earth objects measuring more than 1 km. A
  • n impact from one of these NEOs can bring devastating effects to Earth.

Why AIDA is aiming for Didymos?

  • The twin-asteroid system Didymos is a binary near-Earth asteroid.
  • According to NASA, while the primary body of Didymos is approximately 780 meters across, its secondary body or “moonlet” is about 160-meters in size.

About DART and Hera’s mission

  • Last year, NASA announced that it had started the construction of DART, their component of the AIDA mission.
  • DART is scheduled to launch in 2021 with an aim to slam into the smaller asteroid of the Didymos system at around 6 km per second in 2022.
  • Hera will arrive at the Didymos system in 2027 to measure the impact crater produced by the DART collision and study the change in the asteroid’s orbital trajectory.
  • ESA was supposed to construct the complementary mission Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) to study Didymos prior to DART’s collision, but the mission was scrapped and ESA came up with an alternative mission Hera, which is scheduled to launch in 2024.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Space Internet

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Starlink network

Mains level : Concept of Space internet


The SpaceX, the world’s leading private company in space technology, last week fired a spray of 60 satellites into orbit. Following last week’s launch, the company has now deployed 122 satellites in orbit with a target of 12000 in all.

Space Internet

  • SpaceX announced the satellite Internet constellation in January 2015, and launched two test satellites in February 2018.
  • The Starlink network, as the project is called, is one of several ongoing efforts to start beaming data signals from space, and also the most ambitious.
  • This launch is the first operational batch of what is intended to eventually evolve into a constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites.
  • They are aimed at providing low-cost and reliable space-based Internet services to the world.

Why Space internet services?

  • This is mainly to ensure that reliable and uninterrupted Internet services is ensured across the world
  • Currently, about 4 billion people, more than half the world’s population, do not have access to reliable Internet networks.
  • And that is because the traditional ways to deliver the Internet — fibre-optic cables or wireless networks — cannot take it everywhere on Earth.
  • In many remote areas, or places with difficult terrain, it is not feasible or viable to set up cables or mobile towers.
  • Signals from satellites in space can overcome this obstacle easily.

Orbital Details

  • Space-based Internet systems have, in fact, been in use for several years now — but only for a small number of users.
  • Also, most of the existing systems use satellites in geostationary orbit.
  • This orbit is located at a height of 35,786 km over the Earth’s surface, directly above the Equator.
  • Satellites in this orbit move at speeds of about 11,000 km per hour, and complete one revolution of the Earth in the same time that the earth rotates once on its axis.
  • To the observer on the ground, therefore, a satellite in geostationary orbit appears stationary.
  • Owing to their lower height, their signals cover a relatively small area. As a result, many more satellites are needed in order to reach signals to every part of the planet.
  • Additionally, satellites in these orbits travel at more than double the speed of satellites in geostationary orbit — about 27,000 km per hour — to balance the effects of gravity.

So how will placing satellites in lower orbits help?

  • One big advantage of beaming signals from geostationary orbit is that the satellite can cover a very large part of the Earth.
  • Signals from one satellite can cover roughly a third of the planet — and three to four satellites would be enough to cover the entire Earth.
  • Also, because they appear to be stationary, it is easier to link to them.
  • But satellites in geostationary orbit also have a major disadvantage. The Internet is all about transmission of data in (nearly) real time.
  • However, there is a time lag — called latency — between a user seeking data, and the server sending that data.
  • And because data transfers cannot happen faster than the speed of light (in reality, they take place at significantly lower speeds), the longer the distance that needs to be covered the greater is the time lag, or latency.

Limitations

  • Three issues have been flagged — increased space debris, increased risk of collisions, and the concern of astronomers that these constellations of space Internet satellites will make it difficult to observe other space objects, and to detect their signals.
  • To put things in perspective, there are fewer than 2,000 operational satellites at present, and fewer than 9,000 satellites have been launched into space since the beginning of the Space Age in 1957.
  • Most of the operational satellites are located in the lower orbits.
  • The European Space Agency (ESA) this year had to perform, for the first time ever, a “collision avoidance manoeuvre” to protect one of its live satellites from colliding with a “mega constellation”.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Spicules in the Sun

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Spicules, Photosphere

Mains level : Heating of Sun's photosphere


  • One of the puzzles concerning is the Sun’s surface and atmospheric temperature.
  • A team of researchers has observed the reason why Sun’s atmosphere is hotter than its surface.

Anomaly of the Sun’s temperature

  • The temperature at the core of the Sun is nearly 15 million degrees Celsius, while that at its surface layer, known as the photosphere, is merely 5,700 degrees C.
  • The natural thing to expect is that still further outwards, in its atmosphere, known as the corona, the temperatures would be comparable to that at the surface (photosphere).
  • However, the temperature of the corona is much higher.
  • It starts increasing outside the photosphere, reaching a value of about one million degrees or more in the corona.

Coronal heating

  • One would expect that as there are no extra sources of heat, when you move away from a hot object, the temperature steadily decreases.
  • However, with respect to the Sun, after dropping to a low, the temperature again rises to one million degrees in the corona which stretches over several million kilometres from the surface of the Sun.
  • This implies there should be a source heating the corona. The puzzle of coronal heating has been tackled by many theories.
  • Now, in a research paper, the team of solar physicists has made observations and matched it with an analysis that explains this conundrum.

Mystery now solved: Spicules in the Sun

  • The key to the puzzle lies in geyser-like jets known as solar spicules that emanate from the interface of the corona and the photosphere.
  • While in a photograph these look like tiny hairlike projections, they are in fact 200-500 kilometres wide and shoot up to heights of about 5,000 km above the solar surface.
  • It has been suspected that these spicules act as conduits through which mass and energy from the lower atmosphere bypass the photosphere and reach the corona.
  • These spicules heat up while propagating upward, reaching the coronal temperature.
  • They are made of plasma – a mixture of positive ions and negatively charged electrons.The coronal plasma emits light in extreme ultraviolet.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Gravastar

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Gravastars

Mains level : Gravastars, Black Holes


  • According to some scientists, the universe contains not just black holes but many exotic objects, such as gravastars and boson stars which are black hole mimickers.

Why study Gravastars?

  • In September 2015, the LIGO detectors in the US made history by directly detecting for the first time the merging of two black holes.
  • Since then, LIGO, joined by other detectors around the world, has gone on to detect eleven events of which one is the merger of two neutron stars and the remaining ten, of pairs of black holes (binary black holes).
  • As they spiralled in towards each other and merged, the binary black holes let off characteristic gravitational wave signals. The properties of the merging black holes, namely the masses and spins could be arrived at by looking at the initial part of the signal waveform.
  • Similarly, by carefully looking at the tail end – also known as the ring down part of the signal, the mass and spin of the final merged state (black hole) can be inferred.
  • The question emerges – whether other exotic objects exist that may act as black hole mimickers and give off similar signals.

What is Gravastar?

  • Theoretically, there are possibilities such as the so-called gravastars and boson stars which are black hole mimickers.
  • For instance, a gravastar is a strange object that would have a core of exotic matter resembling dark energy with an external shell of normal star-like matter.
  • There are no observational evidences for their existence till date, but then, there were not too many ways in which one could look for them.

How it is distinguished from black hole?

  • The spinning of the compact object has a different effect on it whether it is a black hole or, for instance, a gravastar.
  • Since the gravastar is filled with dark energy, it exerts a negative pressure on the outside. So when it spins it behaves differently from normal stars and black holes.
  • When a normal star spins about an axis, it tends to bulge about the equator and get compressed at the poles.
  • However, for a gravastar this effect is just reversed – It gets compressed near the equator and bulges out at the poles. Thus their shapes change differently when spinning.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Arrokoth

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Arrokoth and other Kupier Belt objects

Mains level : New Horizons mission


The most distant space object ever seen up close has been recently named as ‘Arrokoth’.

(Note: It was earlier nicknamed as Ultima Thule)

Arrokoth

  • The International Astronomical Union and Minor Planets Center, the global body for naming Kuiper Belt objects have given this name.
  • It was discovered in 2014 with the Hubble Space Telescope, which is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
  • Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by the snowman figured ice mass in December 2018, some 1.6 billion kilometres beyond Pluto.
  • The New Horizons team of NASA proposed the name to the International Astronomical Union and Minor Planets Center.
  • For the New Horizons team it took some months to finalise this name. In the language of the Powhatan tribe, Arrokoth means “sky”.
  • The team got the approval from the elders of the Powhatan tribe to assign it to their new found “baby”.

About New Horizons mission

  • NASA launched the New Horizons mission in January 2006.
  • After crossing by Pluto in 2015, in 2019 it flew by Arrokoth. This remains the “farthest flyby ever conducted.”

Back2Basics

Kuiper Belt

  • The Kuiper Belt is a disk-shaped region found in the outer solar system, past the orbit of Neptune.
  • It is known as the third zone of the solar system, after the zone hosting the gas planets in our solar system.
  • It contains hundreds of millions of small icy bodies that are thought to be left over material from the formation of the outer planets.
  • At least three dwarf planets are located in the Kuiper belt: Pluto, Haumea and Makemake.
  • Also, some of the solar system’s moons are thought to have originated there, such as Neptune’s Triton and Saturn’s Phoebe.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

X-57 Maxwell: NASA’s first electric plane

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : X-57 Maxwell

Mains level : Significance of the aircraft for the space missions


  • NASA unveiled its first all-electric experimental aircraft X-57 Maxwell which was being developed since 2015.

Maxwell

  • The Maxwell is the latest in a line of experimental aircraft the NASA.
  • It has been developed over many decades for many purposes, including the bullet-shaped Bell X-1 that first broke the sound barrier and the X-15 rocket plane flown by Neil Armstrong before he joined the Apollo moon team.
  • The two largest of 14 electric motors that will ultimately propel the plane are powered by specially designed lithium ion batteries.
  • The Maxwell will be the agency’s first crewed X-plane to be developed in two decades.
  • The lift propellers will be activated for take-off and landings, but retract during the flight’s cruise phase.

What makes it significant?

  • Electric motor systems are more compact with fewer moving parts than internal-combustion engines, they are simpler to maintain and weigh much less, requiring less energy to fly.
  • They also are quieter that conventional engines.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Voyager 2 Spacecraft

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Voyager Mission, Heliosphere

Mains level : Particulars of the space mission


  • NASA’s Voyager 2 has become the second human-made object in history to reach the edge of our solar system.
  • The spacecraft exited the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.

Voyager 2

  • Voyager 2 was launched in 1977, 16 days before Voyager 1, and both have travelled well beyond their original destinations.
  • The spacecraft were built to last five years and conduct close-up studies of Jupiter and Saturn.
  • As the spacecraft flew across the solar system, remote-control reprogramming was used to endow the Voyagers with greater capabilities than they possessed when they left Earth.
  • It carries a working instrument that will provide first-of-its-kind observations of the nature of this gateway into interstellar space.
  • It is slightly more than 18 billion kilometres from Earth. Its twin, Voyager 1, crossed this boundary in 2012.
  • Their five-year lifespans have stretched to 41 years, making Voyager 2 NASA’s longest running mission.

What is Heliosphere?

  • The heliosphere is the vast, bubble-like region of space which surrounds and is created by the Sun.
  • In plasma physics terms, this is the cavity formed by the Sun in the surrounding interstellar medium.
  • The “bubble” of the heliosphere is continuously “inflated” by plasma originating from the Sun, known as the solar wind.
  • Outside the heliosphere, this solar plasma gives way to the interstellar plasma permeating our galaxy.
  • The boundary, called the heliopause, is where the tenuous, hot solar wind meets the cold, dense interstellar medium.

Still in the solar system

  • While the probes have left the heliosphere, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have not yet left the solar system, and won’t be leaving any time soon.
  • Mission operators still can communicate with Voyager 2 as it enters this new phase of its journey, but information —moving at the speed of light — takes about 16.5 hours to travel from the spacecraft to Earth.
  • By comparison, light travelling from the Sun takes about eight minutes to reach Earth.

Future missions of NASA

  • NASA also is preparing an additional mission — the upcoming Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), due to launch in 2024 — to capitalise on the Voyagers’ observations.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Space Taxi: CST-100 Starliner

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Starliner

Mains level : Space Taxies


  • Boeing announced that an unmanned safety test flight of its CST-100 Starliner crew capsule being developed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) had been successful.

Starliner

  • Boeing is developing the CST-100 Starliner jointly with NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme (CCP).
  • It is one of two companies that CCP has agreements with to develop new private spaceships meant to ferry astronauts to space and back; the other is Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
  • It carried no crew, but both NASA and Boeing said any astronauts that might have been on board would not have been put in danger due to the failure of one parachute.
  • The crew transportation systems will be owned and operated by the companies, which, in addition to ferrying US astronauts, will be able to sell their services to other customers as well.

Built design

  • Unlike the SSP vehicles that landed on a runway like an aircraft, the Boeing capsule uses its parachutes and an airbag system to descend to the ground.
  • The landing mechanism is designed to absorb the shock of the impact, and allow the capsule to be reused 10 times.
  • The capsule is not designed for a water-based return.

Need for space taxis

  • NASA wants to reduce dependence on Russia’s fleet of Soyuz space shuttles.
  • Soyuz have been used by US since the retirement of its Space Shuttle Program (SSP) in 2011, the only spacecraft that can ferry astronauts (and cosmonauts) to the ISS and back.
  • All Soyuz spacecraft are launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
  • NASA expects the first mission to carry humans using these capsules to take off by 2020.

About NASA’s Space Shuttle Program

  • In the 30 years beginning 1981, NASA’s space shuttle fleet under its SSP — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour — flew 135 missions.
  • Many of these helped construct the ISS, the largest manmade structure in space.
  • The shuttles were reusable spacecraft that could carry humans into orbit. The final space shuttle mission was carried out by Atlantis in 2011.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Dwarf Planets

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Dwarf Planets

Mains level : NA


  • As of today, there are officially five dwarf planets in our Solar System. Now, there is a claimant for a sixth dwarf planet.

Hygiea: New dwarf in the race

  • Using observations made through the European Space Organization’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have now found Hygiea may possibly be a dwarf planet.
  • The most famous is Pluto, downgraded from the status of a planet in 2006. The other four, in order of size, are Eris, Makemake, Haumea and Ceres.
  • Called Hygiea, it has so far been taken to be an asteroid. It lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
  • If it qualifies, Hygiea will be the smallest dwarf planet in the Solar System.

What makes a Hygiea dwarf?

  • The International Astronomical Union sets four criteria for a dwarf planet, and Hygiea already satisfies three — it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon, and it has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
  • The fourth requirement is that it have enough mass that its own gravity pulls it into a roughly spherical shape.
  • According to the new study, VLT observations now show Hygiea satisfied that condition, too.
  • This is the first time astronomers have observed Hygiea in high resolution to study its surface and determine its shape and size.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Meteor shower

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Meteor shower

Mains level : Not Much


  • The Orionids meteor showers will make their yearly appearance this and the next weekend, reaching their peak on October 22.

Orionids meteor showers

  • These meteor showers are known for their brightness and speed, travelling at about 66 km/s into the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Orionids meteor shower is believed to originate from the constellation Orion The Hunter. This point of origination is referred to as the radiant.
  • Even so, this does not mean that the meteor showers originate from a particular constellation, but the name is given only for the purposes of identification.
  • The Orionids meteor shower is not the only one that occurs annually. For instance, the Perseid meteor shower occurs every year in August and was first observed over 2000 years ago.
  • Other meteor showers include Quadrantis, that happen between December-January, Lyrids in April, Leonids in November and Geminids in December.

What are meteor showers?

  • Meteors are bits of rock and ice that are ejected from comets as they manoeuvre around their orbits around the sun. The Orionids meteors emerge from the comet 1P/Halley.
  • Meteor showers, on the other hand, are witnessed when Earth passes through the trail of debris left by a comet or an asteroid.
  • When a meteor reaches the Earth, it is called a meteorite and a series of meteorites when encountered at once, is termed as a meteor shower.
  • As it falls towards the Earth, the resistance makes the space rock extremely hot and as the meteorite passes through the atmosphere, it leaves behind a streak of hot glowing gas that is visible to the observers and not the rock itself.

Why do meteor showers happen on an annual basis?

  • Like the Earth orbits around the Sun, comets orbit around it as well. Although they may not be as circular as Earth but maybe lop-sided.
  • Therefore, when comets come closer to the Sun, their icy parts melt and break off, forming the debris that the Earth may encounter around the same time every year as it makes way around its own orbit.
  • In the case of the Orionids, each time the Halley comet, that takes 76 years to orbit around the Sun, reaches the inner solar system the icy and rocky dust is released into space.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Ionospheric Connection Explorer

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : ICON explorer

Mains level : Significance of the mission


  • NASA has launched a satellite to explore the mysterious, dynamic region where air meets space.

Ionospheric Connection Explorer

  • The satellite — called ICON, short for Ionospheric Connection Explorer — rocketed into orbit following a two-year delay.
  • The refrigerator-size ICON satellite will study the airglow formed from gases in the ionosphere and also measure the charged environment right around the spacecraft which is at a level of 580 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
  • The ionosphere is the charged part of the upper atmosphere extending several hundred miles (kilometers) up.
  • It’s in constant flux as space weather bombards it from above and Earth weather from below, sometimes disrupting radio communications.

Why study Ionosphere?

  • There’s too much going on in this region to be caused by just the sun.
  • Hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather conditions on Earth are also adding energy.
  • The more scientists know the better spacecraft and astronauts can be protected in orbit through improved forecasting.
  • A NASA satellite launched last year, Gold, is also studying the upper atmosphere, but from much higher up.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

82 Moons orbiting Saturn

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Natural satellites of various planets

Mains level : Not Much


  • The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center confirmed 20 new moons orbiting Saturn, making it the planet with the most moons in our Solar System, at 82.

Moons count for various planets

  • A count of the moons listed on the NASA website shows that our Solar System’s planets together have 205 confirmed moons now.
  • Saturn and Jupiter, with 161 between them, account for nearly 80% of these.
  • Another 20% are orbiting Uranus (27) and Neptune (14).
  • Of the remaining three moons, one is Earth’s own while the other two are with Mars.

What’s so special about Saturn?

  • The newly discovered moons of Saturn are about 5 km each in diameter.
  • Seventeen orbit Saturn opposite to the planet’s rotation, and three in the same direction as Saturn’s rotation.

No moon for Mercury and Venus

  • Mercury is so close to the Sun and its gravity that it wouldn’t be able to hold on to its own moon, NASA explains.
  • Any moon would most likely crash into Mercury or maybe go into orbit around the Sun and eventually get pulled into it.
  • It is not yet clear, however, why Venus does not have a moon.

About International Astronomical Union (IAU)

  • The IAU is an international association of professional astronomers, at the PhD level and beyond, active in professional research and education in astronomy.
  • Among other activities, it acts as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations and names to celestial bodies (stars, planets, asteroids, etc.) and any surface features on them.
  • To standardize planetary nomenclature, the IAU was assigned in 1919 the task of selecting official names for features on Solar System bodies.
  • Planetary nomenclature, like terrestrial nomenclature, is a system of uniquely identifying features on the surface of a planet or natural satellite so that the features can be easily located, described, and discussed.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Planet Nine

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Planet IX

Mains level : Possiblities of a primordial black hole in the Milky way


Planet Nine

  • Hidden in the outer Solar System lurks a presence, believed to be a gigantic planet orbiting the same Sun and casting a visible influence on the behaviour of a number of other objects.
  • Although it has not yet been spotted, this behaviour would be difficult to explain if such a presence did not exist.
  • It is popularly referred to as Planet Nine, the presumed ninth planet of the Solar System, and occasionally as Planet X.

Planet of tiny black hole?

  • Scientists have proposed that this could be a tiny black hole instead.
  • They have shown that the behaviour of certain Trans-Neptunian Objects like a primordial black hole.

Primordial black hole

  • A primordial black hole is one that is believed to have formed immediately after the creation of the universe.
  • Like Planet Nine, primordial black holes too have been predicted to exist — including by the late Stephen Hawking — but none has been spotted as yet.

What do we know of Planet Nine so far?

  • Over the years, scientists have sought to explain several puzzling aspects of the Solar System by attributing these to the influence of Planet Nine.
  • In a 2016 paper made out a case for Planet Nine’s existence by arguing that it could be responsible for the peculiar alignment of icy objects on the outskirts of the Solar System.

What, then, is the basis of the new suggestion about a black hole?

  • Researchers based their theory proposed two gravitational anomalies.
  • One is the unusual orbits of asteroids beyond the orbit of Neptune, which have fed the prediction of Planet Nine, estimated to be somewhere between 5 and 20 times the mass of the Earth.
  • The other anomaly was observed thousands of light years away, by a project called the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE).
  • In six observations, an object bent the light of a star like black holes do. This is called microlensing.
  • These six events correspond to objects whose masses are in the range 0.5 to 20 times the mass of Earth.

Can the black hole be found?

  • The catch is that it is much harder to look for a black hole than to look for a planet, especially when the black hole is predicted to be of small dimensions.
  • However, it is reasonable to expect a dark matter halo surrounds this black hole.
  • If dark matter can annihilate into particles we know, the halo surrounding the black hole would radiate high energy photons and the halo would be visible in X-rays and gamma rays.
  • Researchers propose to look through a gamma ray telescope dataset and try to find evidence of these annihilations.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Starship spacecraft

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Starship

Mains level : About the interplanetory mission


  • SpaceX unveiled a prototype design of its next-generation Starship spacecraft that will take people or cargo to the moon, Mars or other destinations in space or around Earth.

Starship

  • SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft will be capable of carrying up to 100 people on long-duration interplanetary flights and deliver as much as around 100 tons of payload for building bases on Moon and Mars cities.
  • It has been designed for full and rapid reusability.
  • Starship was first unveiled in 2016 as a fully reusable spacecraft and back then, it was called Interplanetary Transport System (ITS).
  • In 2017, it was renamed the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and the design was updated as well.
  • The spacecraft was finally named Starship in 2018 with more design improvements.

Design

  • It is 164 feet (50 meters) tall and has a diameter of nine meters.
  • It will be launched into space with the help of its Super Heavy booster, which can include up to 37 Raptor engines, though only 24 would be required for each mission.
  • Super Heavy measures 223 feet in length, while its diameter is also nine meters.

Why Starship?

  • According to the SpaceX CEO, the Earth will face a near-extinction event at some point in time, which is why a “backup” plan for all humankind is needed.
  • The ultimate goal is to colonize Mars over the next 100 years and SpaceX has been quite vocal of his idea in the past.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Asteroid named after Pandit Jasraj

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : IAU

Mains level : India's vocal art


  • The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has named an asteroid, discovered in 2006, after Indian classical singer Pandit Jasraj.

About the asteroid

  • The asteroid, or more formally known as a minor planet, is located between Mars and Jupiter, and was discovered on November 11, 2006, by the Catalina Sky Survey in the United States.
  • The privilege of naming a planet is first given to discoverers, who have 10 years to propose a name.
  • All names proposed are judged by the Working Group for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN) of the IAU, comprising professional astronomers with research interests in minor planets and/or comets from around the world.

International Astronomical Union (IAU)

  • The IAU is an international association of professional astronomers, at the PhD level and beyond, active in professional research and education in astronomy.
  • Among other activities, it acts as the internationally recognized authority for assigning designations and names to celestial bodies (stars, planets, asteroids, etc.) and any surface features on them.
  • To standardize planetary nomenclature, the IAU was assigned in 1919 the task of selecting official names for features on Solar System bodies.
  • Planetary nomenclature, like terrestrial nomenclature, is a system of uniquely identifying features on the surface of a planet or natural satellite so that the features can be easily located, described, and discussed.

About Pandit Jasraj

  • Pandit Jasraj (b. 1930) is an exponent of Indian classical vocal music.
  • Jasraj is the recipient of numerous awards, honours, and titles, including the prestigious Padma Vibhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.
  • His distinctive voice traverses a remarkable four-and-a-half octaves.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Accretion Disc of a Black Hole

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Accretion Disc of a Black Hole

Mains level : Black-hole theory and its relevance


  • A new visualization of a black hole, released by NASA, illustrates how its gravity distorts our view by warping its surroundings.

Accretion Disc

  • The black hole’s extreme gravity skews light emitted by different regions of the disc, producing the misshapen appearance.
  • This visualization simulates the appearance of a black hole where infalling matter has collected into a thin, hot structure called an accretion disc.
  • As magnetic fields twist through the churning gas, bright knots form and dissipate in the disc.
  • In the area closest to the black hole, the gas orbits at close to the speed of light.
  • The outer portions spin a bit more slowly.
  • This difference stretches and shears the bright knots, producing light and dark lanes in the disk.

How it is formed?

  • The black hole’s extreme gravity alters the paths of light coming from different parts of the disc, producing the warped image.
  • Exactly what we see depends on our viewing angle; the greatest distortion occurs when viewing the system nearly edgewise.
  • Glowing gas on the left side moves toward us so fast that the effects of Einstein’s relativity give it a boost in brightness.
  • On the right side, gas moving away becomes slightly dimmer.
  • This asymmetry disappears when we see the disc exactly face on because, from that perspective, none of the material is moving along our line of sight.

Back2Basics

Black Hole

  • A black hole is an object in space that is so dense and has such strong gravity that no matter or light can escape its pull. Because no light can escape, it is black and invisible.
  • They drastically warp the fabric of space-time and anything that passes too close gets sucked into it be it a wandering star or a photon of light.
  • They exist from the size of a human cell to more massive than the sun.
  • Black holes of stellar mass are formed when a massive star collapses at the end of its life cycle.
  • After a black hole forms, it continues to grow by absorbing mass from its surroundings.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Sagittarius A*

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Sagittarius A*

Mains level : Black-hole theory and its relevance


Sagittarius A*

  • It is a supermassive black hole that sits 26,000 light years away from Earth, near the Galactic Centre, or the centre of the Milky Way.
  • It is one of the few black holes where we can witness the flow of matter nearby.
  • Since the discovery of Sagittarius A* 24 years ago, it has been fairly calm.

Why in news?

  • This year Sagittarius A* has shown unusual activity, and the area around it has been much brighter than usual.
  • It may be that the Sagittarius A* has become hungrier, and has been feeding on nearby matter at a markedly faster rate, which one researcher described as a “big feast”.
  • A black hole does not emit light by itself, but the matter that it consumes can be a source of light.
  • A large quantity of gas from the S0-2 star, which travelled close to the black hole last year, may now have reached the latter.
  • Other possibilities of the heightened activity are that it could be growing faster than usual in size, or that the current model that measures its level of brightness is inadequate and is in need of an update.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : LRO

Mains level : Achievements of LRO


  • ISRO’S attempts to figure out what happened to Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram will get a boost when NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) flies over the lander’s landing site on the Moon.
  • NASA will share any before and after flyover imagery of the area around the targeted Chandrayaan-2 Vikram lander landing site.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)

  • The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite missions began on June 18, 2009.
  • It is a robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon.
  • It studies the Moon’s surface, clicks pictures, and collects data that help in figuring out the presence and possibility of water ice and other resources on the Moon, as well as plan future missions to it.
  • The primary mission of the LRO, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, located in Greenbelt, Maryland, was to measure the entire lunar surface to create a high-resolution 3-D map of the Moon.
  • The map with ~50-centimeter resolution images would aid in the planning of future robotic and crewed missions.
  • In addition, LRO would map the Polar Regions and search for the presence of water ice.

The mission

  • The mission has provided technical innovations and made surprising discoveries that have changed our view of the Moon.
  • The instruments on board the spacecraft return global data, such as day-night temperature maps, a global geodetic grid, high resolution color imaging and the moon’s UV albedo.
  • It is estimated that the LRO has fuel enough to stay on its mission for at least six more years.

Achievements of LRO

  • Some of LRO’s technical innovations include the first global thermal mapping of a planetary body covering a full range of local times and seasons.
  • It carries the first bi-static radar imaging measurements from Earth to a planetary orbiter.
  • It has provided more than five years of laser altimetry measurements yielding more than 8 billion topographic points, better than any other object in the Solar System.
  • On March 15, 2011, LRO provided more than 192 terabytes of data from its primary mission to its Planetary Data System, or PDS, to make the information available to researchers, students, media, and the general public.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

K2-18b

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : K2-18b

Mains level : Read the attached story


  • K2-18b is now the only planet orbiting a star outside the Solar System known to have both water and temperatures that could be potentially habitable.

K2-18b

  • About 110 light years from Earth, an exoplanet eight times the mass of Earth orbits a star. Called K2-18b, it was discovered in 2015 by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.
  • The researchers used 2016-17 data from the Hubble Space Telescope and developed algorithms to analyse the starlight filtered through K2-18b’s atmosphere.
  • The results revealed the molecular signature of water vapour, also indicating the presence of hydrogen and helium in the planet’s atmosphere.
  • It resides in a habitable zone — the region around a star in which liquid water could potentially pool on the surface of a rocky planet.
  • Scientists have found signatures of water vapour in the atmosphere of K2-18b. The discovery of water vapour is not the final word on the possibility of life.
  • That makes it the only planet orbiting a star outside the Solar System that is known to have both water and temperatures that could support life.

Not ‘Earth 2.0’

  • K2-18b is not ‘Earth 2.0’ as it is significantly heavier and has a different atmospheric composition.
  • For one thing, K2-18b’s size and surface gravity are much larger than Earth’s. Its radiation environment may be hostile.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA)

Mains level : About the mission


Background

  • Among all the causes that will eventually cause the extinction of life on Earth, an asteroid hit is widely acknowledged as one of the likeliest.
  • Over the years, scientists have suggested different ways to ward off such a hit, such as blowing up the asteroid before it reaches Earth, or deflecting it off with a spacecraft.
  • Now, scientists have embarked on a plan to test their expertise with the second of these two methods.

Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA)

  • It is an ambitious double-spacecraft mission to deflect an asteroid in space, to prove the technique as a viable method of planetary defence.
  • The mission, which includes NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), is known as the Asteroid Impact Deflection Assessment (AIDA).
  • The target is the smaller of two bodies in the “double Didymos asteroids” that are in orbit between Earth and Mars.
  • Didymos is a near-Earth asteroid system. Its main body measures about 780 m across; the smaller body is a “moonlet” about 160 m in diameter.
  • The project aims to deflect the orbit of the smaller body through an impact by one spacecraft.
  • Then a second spacecraft will survey the crash site and gather the maximum possible data on the effect of this collision.

Tools of the mission

  • NASA is building the Double Asteroid Impact Test (DART) spacecraft for launch in summer 2021.
  • It is planned to collide with the target at 6.6 km/s in September 2022.
  • Flying along with DART will be an Italian-made miniature CubeSat, called LICIACube, to record the moment of impact.
  • ESA’s contribution is a mission called Hera, which will perform a close-up survey of the post-impact asteroid, acquiring measurements such as the asteroid’s mass and detailed crater shape.
  • Hera will also deploy a pair of CubeSats for close-up asteroid surveys and the very first radar probe of an asteroid.
  • All this would allow researchers to model the efficiency of the collision.
  • This can help turn this experiment into a technique that could be repeated, as needed, in the event of a real threat.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Mars Solar Conjunction

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Mars Solar Conjunction

Mains level : Not Much


  • For more than a week, the daily communication between Earth and Mars will go silent.

Mars Solar Conjunction

  • On the surface of Mars are NASA’s Curiosity rover and InSight lander.
  • Above Mars are several orbiters, including India’s Mars Orbiter Spacecraft (Mangalyaan), which has completed its official mission life but remains in orbit.
  • Antennas on Earth and those on active spacecraft on or around Mars regularly exchange data.
  • Now this will pause because of a phenomenon called Mars solar conjunction.
  • For NASA’s spacecraft, this will happen between August 28 and September 7.

Causes

  • During Mars solar conjunction, Mars and Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun.
  • The Sun expels hot, ionised gas from its corona, which extends far into space.
  • During solar conjunction, this gas can interfere with radio signals when engineers try to communicate with spacecraft at Mars, corrupting commands and resulting in unexpected behaviour from those space explorers.
  • When Mars disappears far enough behind the Sun’s corona that there is increased risk of radio interference, engineers hold off on sending commands. Solar conjunction occurs every two years.

What it means for mars missions?

  • This time, the hold on issuing commands — called a “command moratorium” — will run from August 28 to September 7, NASA said.
  • All of this means that there will be a temporary pause in the stream of raw images available.
  • Once conjunction is over, the spacecraft will beam the data they have collected
  • In 2015, the conjunction period for Mangalyaan had lasted for more than a month — from May 27 to July 1.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research (FEDOR)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : FEDOR

Mains level : Unmanned spaces missions and their significance


  • Russia has launched an unmanned rocket carrying a life-size humanoid robot that will spend 10 days learning to assist astronauts on the International Space Station.

Fedor

  • FEDOR is a Russian humanoid that replicates movements of a remote operator as well as performs a limited set of actions autonomously.
  • Named Fedor, short for Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research, the robot is the first ever sent up by Russia to the International Space Station.
  • Instead of cosmonauts, Fedor, also known as Skybot F850, was strapped into a specially adapted pilot’s seat, with a small Russian flag in hand.
  • “Let’s go. Let’s go,” the robot was heard saying during launch, repeating the famous phrase used by first man in space Yuri Gagarin.
  • The silvery anthropomorphic robot stands 1.80 metres (5 foot 11 inches) tall and weighs 160kg (353 pounds).
  • Fedor has Instagram and Twitter accounts with posts saying it is learning new skills such as opening a bottle of water. In the ISS, it will trial those manual skills in very low gravity.

What’s so special with Fedor?

  • Fedor copies human movements, a key skill that allows it to remotely help astronauts or even people on Earth to carry out tasks while the humans are strapped into an exoskeleton.
  • Fedor is described as potentially useful on Earth for working in high radiation environments, demining and tricky rescue missions.
  • Though initially developed for the emergencies ministry, Fedor can also be seen shooting at targets from two handguns in a video posted by Russian space agency.
  • On board, the robot will perform tasks supervised by russian cosmonaut and will wear an exoskeleton and augmented reality glasses in a series of experiments later this month.
  • Since Fedor is not trained to grab space station handles to move about in microgravity conditions, its legs will be immobilised on the space station.

Fedor not the first

  • Fedor is not the first robot to go into space.
  • In 2011, NASA sent up Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot developed with General Motors that had a similar aim of working in high-risk environments.
  • It was flown back to Earth in 2018 after experiencing technical problems.
  • In 2013, Japan sent up a small robot called Kirobo along with the ISS’s first Japanese space commander. Developed with Toyota, it was able to hold conversations — albeit only in Japanese.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Tardigrade: the water bear

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Tardigrade

Mains level : Not Much


  • On this April 11, the Israeli spacecraft Beresheet attempted to land on the Moon, but crashed on the surface.
  • It was carrying a number of items — including thousands of specimens of a living organism called Tardigrade.

Tardigrade

  • The Tardigrade, also known as water bear, is among the toughest and most resilient creatures on Earth.
  • The Tardigrade can only be seen under a microscope.
  • Half a millimeter long, it is essentially a water-dweller but also inhabits land and, a 2008 study found, can survive in the cold vacuum of outer space.
  • It derives its name from the fact that it looks like an eight-legged bear, with a mouth that can project out like a tongue.
  • Its body has four segments supported by four pairs of clawed legs.
  • A tardigrade typically eats fluids, using its claws and mouth to tear open plant and animal cells, so that it can suck nutrients out of them.
  • It is also known to feast on bacteria and, in some cases, to kill and eat other tardigrades. Although they are famed for their resilience, they are destructible too.
  • Should a human being swallow a tardigrade with her food, her stomach acid will cause the flesh of the tardigrade to disintegrate.

Survival instinct

  • In 2017, a study found that if all other life were to be wiped out by a cataclysmic event — a large asteroid impact, a supernova or a gamma-ray bursts — the tardigrade would be the likeliest to survive.
  • It can endure extreme hot and cold temperature levels.
  • Although the tardigrades on the Israeli spacecraft were dehydrated, the organism is known to “come back to life” on rehydration.
  • In fact, they themselves expel water from their bodies and set off a mechanism to protect their cells, and can still revive if placed in water later.
  • However, there is no evidence of liquid water on the Moon, although there is ice.
  • Without liquid water, it is possible that the tardigrades will remain in their current state, unless future astronauts find them and revive them in water.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Parker Solar Probe

Mains level : About the solar mission


  • NASA’s Parker Solar Probe completed a year in service.

Parker Solar Probe

  • It is part of NASA’s “Living with a Star” programme that explores different aspects of the Sun-Earth system.
  • The probe seeks to gather information about the Sun’s atmosphere and NASA says that it “will revolutionise our understanding of the Sun”.
  • It is also the closest a human-made object has ever gone to the Sun.
  • During the spacecraft’s first two solar encounters, the instruments were turned on when Parker was about 0.25 AU from the Sun and powered off again at the same distance on the outbound side of the orbit.
  • For this third solar encounter, the mission team turned on the instruments when the spacecraft was around 0.45 AU from the Sun on the inbound side of its orbit.
  • It will turn them off when the spacecraft is about 0.5 AU from the Sun on the outbound side.

Ai m of the mission

  • The mission’s central aim is to trace how energy and heat move through the Sun’s corona and to study the source of the solar wind’s acceleration.
  • The mission is likely to last for seven years during which it will complete 24 orbits.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

TOI 270: new planetary system

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : TOI 270

Mains level : Exoplanets and thier habitability


TOI 270

  • It is the name of the dwarf star and the planetary system recently discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
  • TOI 270 is about 73 light years away from Earth, and is located in the constellation Pictor.
  • Its members include the dwarf star, which is 40 per cent smaller than the Sun in size and mass, and the three planets or exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) that have been named TOI 270 b, TOI 270 c, and TOI 270 d.
  • These three planets orbit the star every 3.4 days, 5.7 days, and 11.4 days respectively. In this system, TOI 270 b is the innermost planet.

Nature of the planets

  • Researchers expect it to be a rocky world about 25 per cent bigger than Earth.
  • It is not habitable since it is located too close to the star — about 13 times closer than our Solar System’s Mercury is from the Sun.
  • On the other hand, TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d are Neptune-like planets because their compositions are dominated by gases rather than rock.
  • Planet d, which is suspected to have a rocky core covered by a thick atmosphere, offers a surface unfavorably warm for the existence of liquid water, thereby rendering the planet potentially uninhabitable.

About Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)

  • TESS is NASA’s latest satellite to search for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets.
  • The mission will spend the next two years monitoring the nearest and brightest stars for periodic dips in their light.
  • TESS is expected to transmit its first series of science data back to Earth in August, and thereafter periodically every 13.5 days, once per orbit, as the spacecraft makes it closest approach to Earth.
  • These events, called transits, suggest that a planet may be passing in front of its star.
  • TESS is expected to find thousands of planets using this method, some of which could potentially support life.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Tiangong-2

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Tiangong 2 mission

Mains level : Not Much


  • Tiangong-2 was a manned Chinese space station that was destroyed upon its controlled re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean on July 19.
  • Tiangong-2 was retired from service after it had completed its experiments in space.

Tiangong-2

  • Tiangong means “Heavenly Palace”. It was 10.4 metres long and 3.35 metres wide at its widest point, and weighed 8.6 metric tonnes.
  • It was launched on September 15, 2016 and, in late 2016, hosted two Chinese astronauts for 30 days in what was China’s longest manned space mission so far.
  • The recently decommissioned space lab followed the Tiangong-1, China’s first space station, which crashed into the southern Pacific Ocean on April 1, 2018 after Chinese scientists lost control of the spacecraft.
  • China had launched Tiangong-1 in 2011 as proof-of-concept of technologies for future stations. The lab was visited by two teams of Chinese astronauts for 11 days and 13 days respectively.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Thirty Meter Telescope

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : 30m telescope

Mains level : Functions of the telescope


Thirty Metre Telescope

  • The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is a proposed astronomical observatory with an extremely large telescope (ELT) that has become the source of controversy over its planned location on Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii in the US state of Hawaii.
  • It is being built by an international collaboration of government organisations and educational institutions, at a cost of $1.4 billion.
  • “Thirty Metre” refers to the the 30-metre diameter of the mirror, with 492 segments of glass pieced together, which makes it three times as wide as the world’s largest existing visible-light telescope.
  • The larger the mirror, the more light a telescope can collect, which means, in turn, that it can “see” farther, fainter objects.
  • It would be more than 200 times more sensitive than current telescopes, and would be able to resolve objects 12 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Utility of the telescope

  • One of its key uses will be the study of exoplanets, many of which have been detected in the last few years, and whether their atmospheres contain water vapour or methane — the signatures of possible life.
  • For the first time in history this telescope will be capable of detecting extraterrestrial life.
  • The study of black holes is another objective.
  • While these have been observed in detail within the Milky Way, the next galaxy is 100 times farther away; the Thirty Metre Telescope will help bring them closer.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Ploonets

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Ploonets

Mains level : Not Much


  • Astronomers have defined a new class of celestial objects called “ploonets,” which are orphaned moons that have escaped the bonds of their planetary parents.

Ploonets

  • Astronomers named a new class of theorized objects that begin as moons around large planets, but eventually move out on their own. They call them “ploonets.”
  • The scientists think these objects should exist in solitary orbits around their host stars and could even be discovered in observations from past and present exoplanet-hunting surveys, like Kepler and TESS.

Why such renaming?

  • Earth’s own Moon is slowly spiraling away from our planet; it may also end up as a ploonet in some 5 billion years.

Making of a Ploonet

  • Over the past few decades, astronomers have uncovered more than 4,000 confirmed exoplanets, and nearly as many exoplanet candidates.
  • And one thing astronomers have learned from this sizeable census is that a surprisingly high number of massive exoplanets — called “hot Jupiters” — are located oddly close to their host stars.
  • Although at least part of the reason they detected so many hot Jupiters boils down to observational biases, this significant sample of weird planets still raises questions about how planets form.

Have we already found Ploonets?

  • Although there has yet to be a definite confirmation of a Ploonet orbiting a star, there are at least a few examples that might fit the bill.
  • The evidence for these potential Ploonets comes from perplexing exoplanetary observations that have yet to be adequately explained.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Hayabusa2

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Hayabusa2

Mains level : Importance of the mission


  • Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which successfully made its second touchdown on asteroid Ryugu has become the first ever space probe to gather material from beneath the surface of an asteroid.

About Hayabusa2

  • Launched in December 2014, the probe is a follow-up of Hayabusa, which explored the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.
  • Hayabusa was the first mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth.
  • The asteroid mission first reached Ryugu — a kilometre-wide asteroid, with a relatively dark surface and almost zero gravity — in June 2018 and made its first touchdown on the surface in February 2019.
  • A month later the spacecraft hit the surface of Ryugu with a pellet and created a 10-metre-wide crater.
  • It also exposed the materials under the asteroid’s surface that were so far protected from the harsh effects of cosmic rays and charged particles of solar wind blasting through space.

Structure of Ryugu

  • Ryugu is a rubble-pile asteroid: A collection of rocks and dust held together loosely by gravity.
  • Its surface is also strewn with an unusual number of boulders — more per unit surface area than any asteroid explored so far.

Latest update

  • For its latest mission, Hayabusa2 hovered outside the crater, without landing.
  • It picked up samples of the material by shooting down a projectile from its one-metre long cylindrical horn, which then captured the fragments rebounding from the surface, stated the release.
  • Hayabusa2 will deliver the material to Earth by the end of 2020, when it is expected to return to Earth.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA’s PUNCH mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : PUNCH mission

Mains level : Read the attached story

  • NASA has selected an US based Indian researcher to lead its PUNCH mission which will image the Sun.

About PUNCH Mission

  • PUNCH stands for “Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere,” is focused on understanding the transition of particles from the Sun’s outer corona to the solar wind that fills interplanetary space.
  • It will consist of a constellation of four microsatellites that through continuous 3D deep-field imaging, will observe the corona and heliosphere as elements of a single, connected system.
  • This is a landmark mission will image regions beyond the Sun’s outer corona.
  • The Sun and the solar wind are one interconnected system, but these have until recently been studied using entirely different technologies and scientific approaches.

Why such mission?

  • Other missions such as NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and the ESA-NASA joint project, Solar Orbiter, which is due to be launched in 2020, can study the structures of the Sun’s atmosphere.
  • The PUNCH mission enhances these by tracking these structures in real time.
  • Since the Sun’s corona is much fainter than its surface layers, it cannot be viewed by the instruments directly.
  • So PUNCH will block out the light from the Sun to view its corona and the structures in it.

Constellation of satellites

  • PUNCH will consist of a ‘constellation’ of four suitcase-sized microsats that will orbit the Earth in formation and study how the corona, which is the atmosphere of the Sun, connects with the interplanetary medium.
  • The mission is expected to be launched in 2022.
  • The mission will image and track the solar wind and also the coronal mass ejections – which are huge masses of plasma that get thrown out of the Sun’s atmosphere.
  • The coronal mass ejections can affect and drive space weather events near the Earth.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Lunar Evacuation System Assembly (LESA)

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : LESA

Mains level : Lunar missions by NASA


  • Among preparations for NASA’s 2024 Moon mission, one has been to test a device called Lunar Evacuation System Assembly, or LESA.
  • Astronauts are testing LESA under the sea. With its rocky, sandy terrain and buoyant salt water, the bottom of the ocean floor has much in common with the lunar surface.

About LESA

  • Developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), LESA is a pyramid-like structure whose purpose is to rescue an astronaut should he or she suffer an injury on the lunar surface.
  • Astronauts will be wearing heavy extravehicular activity (EVA) suits.
  • There is no way an astronaut could carry their fallen crewmate over their shoulder while wearing an EVA suit.
  • LESA can be operated by a single astronaut to rescue a fallen colleague.
  • It enables an astronaut to lift their crewmate onto a mobile stretcher in less than 10 minutes, before carrying them to the safety of a nearby pressurized lander.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Spectrum-Roentgen-Gamma telescope to create a 3D X-ray map of Universe

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SRG

Mains level : X Ray Telescope


  • A team of German-Russian scientists is all set to launch a space telescope, which will create a three-dimensional (3D) X-ray map of the universe and unveil unknown supermassive black holes, dark energy and stars.

Spectrum-Roentgen-Gamma (SRG) Telescope

  • The telescope will be launched into space on a Russian-built Proton-M rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in June 2019.
  • The four-year mission will survey the entire sky eight times and track the evolution of the universe and dark energy, a mysterious repulsive force that is accelerating its expansion.
  • Besides, it also aims to detect up to three million supermassive black holes — many of which are unknown — and X-rays from as many as 700,000 stars in the Milky Way.
  • The telescope is the first to be sensitive to high-energy ‘hard’ X-rays and map the entire sky.
  • The SRG will also find how dark matter — the main engine of galaxy formation — is spread in the universe.
  • X-ray sky surveys have also been conducted by previous missions, but they were not able to map the entire sky, the report said.

Two X-ray telescopes:

  • A German-built eROSITA (Extended Roentgen Survey with an Imaging Telescope Array)
  • A Russian-built ART-XC (Astronomical Roentgen Telescope — X-ray Concentrator)

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

MeerLICTH Optical Telescope

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SKA, MeerLitch

Mains level : SKA


  • Scientists in South Africa have launched the world’s first optical telescope linked to a radio telescope, combining “eyes and ears” to try to unravel the secrets of the universe.
  • The device forms part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project in the remote Karoo desert, which will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope system.

Square Kilometre Array

  • The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with eventually over a square kilometre of collecting area.
  • The scale of the SKA represents a huge leap forward in both engineering and research & development towards building and delivering a unique instrument, with the detailed design and preparation now well under way.
  • The SKA will eventually use thousands of dishes and up to a million low-frequency antennas that will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail.
  • Its unique configuration will give the SKA unrivalled scope in observations, largely exceeding the image resolution quality of the Hubble Space Telescope.
  • South Africa’s Karoo host the core of the high and mid frequency dishes, ultimately extending over the African continent. Australia’s Murchison Shire  host the low-frequency antennas.

MeerLITCH

  • The latest move combines the new optical telescope MeerLITCH — Dutch for ‘more light’ — with the recently-completed 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, located 200 kilometres away.
  • This is the eye, with the MeerKAT being the ears as a radio telescope.
  • The MeerLITCH uses a main mirror just 65 cm in diameter and a single 100 megapixel detector measuring 10 cm x 10 cm.
  • Astronomers have previously had to wait for a cosmic incident to be picked up by a radio telescope and then carry out optic observations afterwards.
  • The project has been six years in the making by a joint-team of South African, Dutch and British scientists.

Purpose of MeerLITCH

  • MeerLICHT boasts of a huge field of view that allows astronomers to see an area 13 times the size of the full moon in exquisite detail, and pick up objects one million times fainter than is possible with the human eye.
  • The priorities for MeerLITCH is the study of black holes, neutron stars and stellar explosions, which must be scrutinized quickly before they fade away.
  • The study of exploding stars across the universe will gain a whole new dimension.
  • Flashes of radio emission known as Fast Radio Bursts may now be ‘caught in the act’. Hopefully we can finally determine the origin of these enigmatic flashes.

Members of SKA

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Evidence of water found on Ultima Thule

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Ultima Thule

Mains level : Significance of the Mission


  • NASA has found evidence for a unique mixture of methanol, water ice, and organic molecules on Ultima Thule’s surface — the farthest world ever explored by mankind.

Ultima Thule

  • Ultima Thule is a contact binary, with two distinctly differently shaped lobes.
  • At about 36 kilometres long, it consists of a large, strangely flat lobe — nicknamed “Ultima” — connected to a smaller, somewhat rounder lobe — dubbed “Thule” — at a juncture.
  • Officially named (486958) 2014 MU69, it earned the nickname Ultima Thule following a public contest in 2018.
  • It is located in the Kuiper Belt, a disc in the outer Solar System (beyond Neptune) that consists of small bodies including Pluto.
  • 2014 MU69 was discovered in June 2014 by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope but is so distant that many of its characteristics remain to be understood.

About the mission

  • New Horizons, a space probe that was launched in 2006, became the first mission to visit Pluto in 2015.
  • Travelling farther into the Kuiper Belt, the nuclear-powered space probe has come within 3,500 km of Ultima Thule.
  • Images taken revealed that the object may have a shape similar to a bowling pin, or a “snowman”, or a peanut spinning end over end, or could be two objects orbiting each other.
  • Flyby data showed that Ultima Thule is spinning like a propeller with the axis pointing approximately toward New Horizons.
  • NASA released a composite of two images taken by New Horizons’ high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager.

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Chang’e-4 Mission

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : About the mission

Mains level : Magma Ocean Theory and formation of Moon


Chang’e-4

  • In January, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e-4 — named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology — became the first ever craft to touch down on the far side of the lunar surface.
  • The team landed its probe in the Von Karmen Crater in the Aitken Basin at the Moon’s south pole — home to one of the largest impact craters known in the solar system.
  • Scientists have said they could be a step closer to solving the riddle behind the Moon’s formation, unveiling the most detailed survey yet of the far side of Earth’s satellite.

Formation of Moon

  • The moon is believed to have gone through a phase during its formation when it was partially or entirely composed of molten rock.
  • As it cooled, denser minerals sank to the bottom of the magma-ocean, while lighter materials gathered near the surface to form its mantle.
  • They detected materials such as olivine and low-calcium pyroxene that are rare elsewhere on the surface.
  • These materials were ejected from the Moon’s upper mantle when it was struck by a meteor.

Lunar Magma Ocean Theory

  • The lunar magma ocean (LMO) is a term used in planetary science to describe the thermal state of Earth’s Moon in the thousands to millions of years following its formation.
  • The most widely accepted model for the formation of the Moon invokes a collision between proto-Earth and another proto-planet.
  • The Moon accreted from the resulting debris disk surrounding the Earth, which likely consisted of molten and vaporized silicate material.
  • The accretion of the Moon from this debris disk leads to a body in a largely or completely molten state.
  • This “magmasphere” is referred to as the LMO.