International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Understanding Water Loss on Venus

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Solar System; Venus and its physiography; Non-Thermal Dissociative Recombination;

Mains level: NA

Why in the News?

Over four billion years ago, Venus had enough water to potentially cover its surface with an ocean approximately 3 km deep, but today, it would remain with only 3 cm.

  • A research by US scientists explain the Non-Thermal Dissociative Recombination (DR) responsible for faster loss of water from Venus.

About Venus

  • Venus is the second planet from the Sun. It is a terrestrial planet and is the closest in mass and size to its orbital neighbour Earth.
  • Venus is notable for having the densest atmosphere of the terrestrial planets, composed mostly of carbon dioxide with a thick, global sulphuric acid cloud cover.
  • At the surface it has a mean temperature of 464 °C (737 K) and a pressure of 92 times that of Earth’s at sea level.
  • These extreme conditions compress carbon dioxide into a supercritical state close to Venus’s surface.
  • Internally, Venus has a core, mantle, and crust. Venus lacks an internal dynamo, and its weak induced magnetosphere is caused by atmospheric interactions with the solar wind.
  • Venus is one of two planets in the Solar System (the other being Mercury), that have no moons.
  • The rotation of Venus has been slowed and turned against its orbital direction (retrograde) by the currents and drag of its atmosphere.
  • It takes 224.7 Earth days for Venus to complete an orbit around the Sun, and a Venusian solar year is just under two Venusian days long.

Water Loss on Venus:

  • Venus lost its water primarily due to two factors:
      • Evaporation due to Greenhouse Effect: Its dense atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide, creating a strong greenhouse effect and surface temperatures around 450 degrees Celsius, which prevents water from existing in liquid form.
      • Proximity to the Sun: This leads to the disintegration of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen in the ionosphere under solar heat and ultraviolet radiation.
  • Mechanism of Water Loss:
  1. Thermal Process: Initially, hydrodynamic escape was significant, where solar heating caused the outer atmosphere to expand, allowing hydrogen to escape into space. This process cooled and slowed about 2.5 billion years ago.
  2. Non-Thermal Process: Focus of recent study; involves hydrogen escaping into space, reducing water formation as oxygen atoms lack hydrogen to bond with.

Key Research Findings: Non-thermal Dissociative Recombination (DR)

The discrepancy in water loss rates was addressed by identifying a previously overlooked chemical reaction involving the formyl cation (HCO+).

  • HCO+ dissociative recombination (DR) reaction occurs when HCO+ gains an electron and splits into CO and a hydrogen atom, which then escapes into space.
  • This reaction is responsible for losing out water without evaporation.
  • This reaction was modelled to significantly increase the rate of hydrogen escape, potentially doubling the rate at which Venus lost water.
  • The model suggests that water levels on Venus would have been stable from nearly 2 billion years ago due to the ongoing non-thermal HCO+ DR reaction, yet some water remains today.

Future Research on Venus

  • Existence of HCO+ Ions: Direct evidence of HCO+ ions in Venus’s atmosphere is still missing. Past missions did not focus on this molecule, and its involvement in water loss was not previously considered crucial.
  • Future Missions: The findings underscore the importance of future Venus missions to investigate the presence of HCO+ in the upper atmosphere, similar to the MAVEN mission to Mars.

PYQ:

[2011] What is the difference between asteroids and comets?

  1. Asteroids are small rocky planetoids, while comets are made of ice, dust and rocky material.
  2. Asteroids are found mostly between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, while comets are found mostly between Venus and Mercury.
  3. Comets show a perceptible glowing tail, while asteroids do not.

Which of the statements given above is/ are correct?

(a) 1 and 2 only

(b) 1 and 3 only

(c) 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Speculoos-3b: A New Earth-Sized Exoplanet Discovered

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Red Dwarf Star, Speculoos-3b

Mains level: NA

Why in the News?

  • Astronomers have identified a new Earth-sized exoplanet, named Speculoos-3b, orbiting an ultracool red dwarf star.

Back2Basics: Red Dwarf Star

  • A red dwarf is the most common type of star in the Milky Way galaxy.
  • However, due to their low luminosity, individual red dwarfs cannot be easily observed.
  • Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to the Sun, is a red dwarf, as are fifty of the sixty nearest stars.
  • According to some estimates, red dwarfs make up three-quarters of the fusing stars in the Milky Way.

About Speculoos-3b

  • Speculoos-3b is an Earth-sized exoplanet recently discovered orbiting an ultracool dwarf star.
  • It was discovered by a team of astronomers led by Michael Gillon from the University of Liege in Belgium.
  • It is located approximately 55 light-years away from Earth.
  • Due to its short orbital period, Speculoos-3b receives almost ten times more energy per second than Earth does from the Sun.

SPECULOOS Project 

  • Project Overview: The discovery was made under the SPECULOOS project, aimed at exploring exoplanets around ultra-cool dwarf stars.
  • The SPECULOOS Southern Observatory is a project carried out by the University of Liège (Belgium) and the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge (United Kingdom)

Astrophysical Significance of the Discovery

  • Prevalence of Ultracool Dwarfs: Ultracool dwarf stars, like the host of Speculoos-3b, constitute about 70% of all stars in our galaxy and are known for their longevity, surviving up to 100 billion years.
  • Importance for Life’s Potential: The extended lifespan of these stars provides a stable environment that could potentially support the development of life on orbiting planets.

PYQ:

[2015] The term ‘Goldilocks Zone’ is often seen in the news in the context of:

(a) the limits of habitable zone above the surface of the Earth

(b) regions inside the Earth where shale gas is available

(c) search for the Earth-like planets in outer space

(d) search for meteorites containing precious metals

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) Project

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: ACS3 Project, Solar Sailing

Mains level: NA

Why in the news?

NASA has launched its Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) spacecraft that uses sunlight for propulsion from New Zealand into space.

About Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) Project

  • The spacecraft is slated to orbit 1,000 kilometers above Earth, deploying an 80-square-meter solar sail approximately 25 minutes after liftoff.
  • It harnesses sunlight as a renewable propulsion source, marking a novel advancement in space exploration.
  • It uses a compact CubeSat, similar in size to an oven, which facilitates propulsion by capturing solar particle energy.
  • Operational Phases:
  • The initial flight phase spans two months and involves subsystems checkout and solar sail deployment.
  • A series of pointing maneuvers will showcase orbit raising and lowering, validating the effectiveness of sunlight pressure on the sail.

The Technology Behind: Solar Sailing

  • Solar sails typically consist of lightweight, reflective materials such as Mylar or aluminized Kapton, which are deployed in space to capture sunlight.
  • The sail is often configured as a large, thin membrane with a large surface area to maximize the amount of sunlight it can intercept.
  • When sunlight reflects off a shiny solar sail, some of its momentum is transferred, giving the sail a small push.

Solar sailing offers several advantages over traditional propulsion methods, including:

  1. Efficiency: Solar sailing does not require onboard fuel, making it a highly efficient and sustainable propulsion method for long-duration missions.
  2. Continuous thrust: Unlike chemical rockets, which provide brief bursts of acceleration, solar sails can provide continuous thrust as long as they are exposed to sunlight.
  3. Maneuverability: Solar sails can change their trajectory by adjusting the orientation of the sail relative to the direction of incoming sunlight. This allows for precise navigation and maneuvering in space.
  4. Interstellar travel: Solar sailing has the potential to enable interstellar missions by gradually accelerating spacecraft to very high velocities over time, allowing them to explore distant star systems.

 

PYQ:

[2016] What is ‘Greased Lightning-10 (GL-10)’, recently in the news?

(a) Electric plane tested by NASA

(b) Solar-powered two-seater aircraft designed by Japan

(c) Space observatory launched by China

(d) Reusable rocket designed by ISRO

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

NASA to establish Coordinated Lunar Time

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Coordinated Lunar Time, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)

Mains level: NA

Why in the news?

  • The White House directed NASA to establish a time standard for the Moon, named Coordinated Lunar Time (LTC) by the end of 2026.
  • This move aims to facilitate coordination among international bodies and private companies operating on the lunar surface.

Timekeeping on the Moon

  • The Moon has its own day and night cycle, which lasts about 29.5 Earth days.
  • Currently, the time on the Moon is measured using Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is the same timekeeping system used on the Earth.
  • However, because the Moon’s day is much longer than Earth’s day, it would be difficult to use UTC for day-to-day activities on the Moon.

Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)

  • UTC is a time standard introduced on January 1, 1960.
  • It is based on International Atomic Time (TAI), which is maintained by atomic clocks around the world.
  • It is the primary time standard used by many countries, international organizations, and scientific research institutions.
  • It is expressed as a 24-hour clock and is used to indicate the time offset from Coordinated Universal Time (UTC+0).
  • Time zones are defined as an offset from UTC, with some time zones being ahead of UTC (UTC+1, UTC+2, etc.) and others being behind UTC (UTC-1, UTC-2, etc.).
  • It is adjusted periodically to account for changes in the Earth’s rotation, which can cause variations in the length of a day.
  • These adjustments are made through the addition of leap seconds to UTC, which help to keep the time standard synchronized with the Earth’s rotation.

Need for a Lunar Time Standard

  1. Earth’s Time Standard:
  • Earth’s time standard is primarily based on Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), set by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, France.
  • UTC is determined by a weighted average of over 400 atomic clocks worldwide, providing a universally agreed-upon standard for time measurement.
  1. Challenges with Earth’s Time Standard on the Moon:
  • Time on the Moon differs from Earth due to factors like gravity and the Moon’s rotation.
  • Time on the Moon ticks slightly faster due to lower gravity (about 56 microseconds every day) as per Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Establishing a Lunar Time Standard:

  1. Technical Considerations:
  • LTC cannot be based on UTC due to the time differences between Earth and the Moon.
  • Current lunar missions operate on independent timescales linked to UTC, but this approach becomes challenging with multiple space crafts on the Moon.
  1. Deployment of Atomic Clocks:
  • Like on Earth, atomic clocks can be deployed on the lunar surface to establish a time standard.
  • A 2023 report suggests placing at least three atomic clocks on the Moon’s surface, accounting for variations in lunar rotation and local gravity.
  1. Synthesizing Time Measurements:
  • Atomic clocks placed at different lunar locations will tick at the Moon’s natural pace.
  • Output from these clocks will be combined using algorithms to generate a unified time standard for the Moon, tied back to UTC for Earth operations.

Earth’s Latitudinal Variations on Time

  • On Earth, atomic clocks placed at different latitudes experience variations in time due to differences in rotational speed of Earth.
  • Earth rotates faster at the Equator compared to the poles, resulting in different time measurements.

Benefits offered by Lunar Time

  • Having a lunar time zone would also make it easier for scientists and researchers to conduct experiments and collect data on the Moon.
  • It would also help to prevent confusion and errors that could arise from using different timekeeping systems on Earth and the Moon.

PYQ:

[2015] Tides occur in the oceans and seas due to which among the following?

1. The gravitational force of the Sun

2. The gravitational force of the Moon

3. The centrifugal force of the Earth

Select the correct option using the code given below:

(a) 1 Only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) discovers 5000th Comet

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)

Mains level: NA

Why in the news?

A Czech citizen has spotted a comet in an image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft, which has now been confirmed to be the 5,000th comet discovered using SOHO data.

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)

  • The SOHO is a spacecraft jointly operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.
  • Launched in December 1995, its primary mission is to study the Sun, particularly its outer atmosphere, known as the corona, and the solar wind.
  • SOHO observes the Sun in various wavelengths of light, enabling scientists to study phenomena such as sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections.
  • SOHO orbits the Sun at Lagrange Point L1, about 1.5 million kilometers (nearly 1 million miles) from Earth, providing an uninterrupted view of the Sun.
  • Its observations have led to discoveries such as-
  1. Identifying the source regions of solar wind,
  2. Tracking solar eruptions, and
  3. Monitoring changes in the Sun’s activity over its 11-year solar cycle.

 

What are Lagrange Points?

  • Lagrange Points are named after the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange who discovered them in 1772.
  • They are specific points in space where the gravitational forces of two large bodies, such as the Earth and the Sun, or the Earth and the Moon, balance the centrifugal force felt by a smaller body.
  • These points are stable locations where objects can maintain their relative positions concerning the larger bodies, without drifting away or falling towards them.

There are five Lagrange Points, denoted as L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5:

  1. L1: Located on the line connecting the two large bodies and closer to the smaller body, L1 is particularly useful for space observatories like the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) because it provides an unobstructed view of the Sun from Earth’s perspective.
  2. L2: Situated on the opposite side of the smaller body from the larger one, L2 is an excellent location for deep space observatories such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) because it remains relatively shielded from solar interference.
  3. L3: Located on the line connecting the two large bodies but on the opposite side of the larger body from the smaller one, L3 is less stable and less frequently used than the other Lagrange Points.
  4. L4 and L5: These points form equilateral triangles with the two large bodies, with the smaller body at the third vertex. L4 precedes the smaller body in its orbit, while L5 follows it. These points are stable and have been found to accumulate natural objects, such as asteroids, known as Trojan asteroids.

 

PYQ:

2013: Consider the following phenomena:

1. Size of the sun at dusk

2. Colure 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

 

Practice MCQ:

Regarding the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), consider the following statement:

1.    SOHO spacecraft was launched in December 1995.

2.    It is jointly operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.

3.    It orbits the Earth in sun-synchronous orbit.

How many of the above statements is/are correct?

a)    One

b)    Two

c)    Three

d)    None

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What are Cavum Clouds?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Cavum, Altocumulus Clouds

Mains level: Not Much

cavum clouds

In the news

  • Recently, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shared mesmerizing images of Cavum clouds, also known as “hole-punch clouds” or “fallstreak holes,” as observed from space.

What are Cavum Clouds?

  • Formation Process: Cavum clouds are formed when airplanes traverse through layers of altocumulus clouds, which are mid-level clouds containing supercooled water droplets (water below freezing temperature but still in liquid form).
  • Adiabatic Expansion: As the aircraft moves through, a phenomenon called adiabatic expansion can occur, causing the water droplets to freeze into ice crystals.
  • Creation of Holes: These ice crystals eventually become too heavy and fall out of the cloud layer, resulting in the formation of a hole in the clouds.
  • Steep Angle Formation: Cavum clouds are typically formed when planes pass through at a relatively steep angle.

About Altocumulus Clouds

Details
Appearance Altocumulus clouds are mid-level clouds characterized by white or gray patches or layers.
Formation They form between 2,000 to 7,000 meters (6,500 to 23,000 feet) above sea level.
Composition Composed of water droplets and occasionally ice crystals.
Shape Usually appear as rounded masses or rolls.
Weather Patterns Often indicate fair weather, but can also precede thunderstorms or cold fronts.
Optical Effects They can create a halo effect around the sun or moon when thin enough.
Classification Altocumulus clouds are classified as “middle-level clouds” (based on their altitude in the atmosphere).
Associated Types Altocumulus castellanus: Towering altocumulus clouds indicating instability and potential storminess.

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Circumstellar Discs: Insights into Planetary Formation

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Circumstellar Discs

Mains level: Read the attached story

Introduction

  • The formation of planets within protostellar discs, swirling reservoirs of gas and dust, remains a captivating field in astrophysics.
  • Recent advancements in computer simulations have unveiled the unexpected flattened shapes of nascent gas planets within these discs, providing critical understanding of planetary genesis.

What are Circumstellar Discs?

  • Protoplanetary Discs: These discs, comprised of dust, gas, and other celestial objects, orbit newly formed stars and serve as the birthplace of planets.
  • Composition and Evolution: Initially predominantly gas, protoplanetary discs evolve, hosting various materials including asteroids, comets, and planets.
  • Findings: Hubble Space Telescope offers detailed views of these regions, aiding astronomers in studying planet formation dynamics.

Distinctive Shape of Protoplanets

  • Unique Structure: Protoplanets exhibit oblate spheroid shapes, highly flattened, resembling discs with up to 90% flattening.
  • Growth Dynamics: Gas accumulation primarily occurs through poles rather than equators, impacting observed properties and interpretation of observations.

Formation Mechanisms

  • Core Accretion vs. Disc Instability: These two prominent theories offer models for planet formation, emphasizing diverse mechanisms contributing to planetary systems’ complexity.
  • Role of Disc Instability: This mechanism, explaining rapid gas giant formation, aligns with observations of certain exoplanetary systems, highlighting the interplay of formation processes.

Challenges in Observation

  • Limited Detection: Observing nascent protoplanets within these discs poses challenges, with only a few detected to date, such as within the PDS 70 system.
  • Temporal Constraints: The short duration of planetary formation phases necessitates precise timing for observational opportunities.

Insights from Simulations

  • Computational Studies: High-resolution simulations elucidate thermal conditions influencing gas protoplanet properties within the discs, offering invaluable insights into their formation.
  • Resolution and Analysis: These simulations, computationally demanding, trace protoplanet evolution from condensation to provide a deeper understanding.

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Helium Stars: A Breakthrough in Astrophysics

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Helium Star, Neutron Star etc.

Mains level: NA

helium star

Introduction

  • Astronomers have triumphantly uncovered a rare class of stars, known as helium stars, after a decade-long quest.
  • Led by Dr. Maria Drout from the University of Toronto, astronomers embarked on a collaborative mission to decipher the mysteries of these elusive cosmic entities

Helium Stars: An Overview

  • Helium stars, also known as helium-burning stars, are a stage in the evolution of certain types of stars.
  • These stars are typically more massive than the Sun and have exhausted the hydrogen fuel in their cores, leading to a contraction and subsequent heating of the core.
  • As a result, helium fusion begins in the core, where helium nuclei fuse to form heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen.
  • This fusion process releases energy, causing the star to expand and become more luminous.
  • Helium stars represent an intermediate stage in stellar evolution between main-sequence stars and later stages such as red giants or supernovae.

Key Findings and Insights

  • Spectral Analysis: Rigorous spectral analysis conducted from 2017 to 2024 unveiled distinct classes of helium stars based on hydrogen content, providing profound insights into their evolutionary trajectories.
  • Computational Modeling: Advanced computational modelling techniques yielded crucial data on surface temperatures and gravitational forces, enriching our understanding of helium stars’ properties.
  • Surface Conditions of Class 1 Stars: Further investigations into Class 1 helium stars revealed intriguing surface conditions. The team utilized computer modelling to determine surface temperature and gravity, finding them to be approximately 20 times hotter than the Sun and possessing surface gravity about 1,000 times stronger than Earth’s.

Significance of the Findings

  • Hydrogen-Deficient Supernovae: A pivotal breakthrough in the discovery of helium stars was the elucidation of hydrogen-deficient supernovae, perplexing phenomena that puzzled scientists for decades.
  • Binary-Star Interactions: Gravitational interactions within binary star systems played a crucial role in unmasking the helium-rich surfaces of these stellar anomalies.

Implications for Astrophysics

  • Cosmic Laboratories: Helium stars serve as invaluable cosmic laboratories, offering unprecedented opportunities to explore the intricacies of stellar evolution and binary star dynamics.
  • Frontiers of Research: Their discovery opens new frontiers in astrophysical research, unraveling mysteries surrounding heavy element formation and gravitational wave generation.

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Secrets of Mimas: Saturn’s Smallest Moon

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Mimas, Cassini Mission

Mains level: NA

mimas

Introduction

  • Recent findings published in the journal Nature suggest that beneath the icy shell of Mimas, there lies a potential liquid ocean, challenging previous assumptions about the moon’s composition and internal dynamics.

About Mimas

Description
Discovery Discovered by William Herschel on September 17, 1789.
Characteristics Smallest and innermost of Saturn’s major moons.
Size Diameter of about 396 kilometers (246 miles), making it one of the smallest known astronomical bodies that is rounded in shape.
Features Known for its large Herschel Crater,

Called as “Death Star” from the Star Wars films.

Composition Mostly composed of water ice with a small amount of rock.
Orbit Orbits Saturn at a distance of about 185,520 km (115,220 miles).
Exploration Visited by the Cassini spacecraft, which captured detailed images of its surface during its mission to Saturn.

Astronomical Insights

  • Potential Liquid Ocean: Scientists analyzed Mimas’s orbital motion using data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, concluding that the moon’s oscillations indicate the presence of either an elongated silicate core or a global ocean.
  • Librational Model: Calculations based on Mimas’s librations and orbital changes reached a deadlock, prompting consideration of a subsurface ocean. Theoretical models incorporating viscoelastic outer layers and hydrostatic interior interfaces suggested an ice shell thickness of 20-30 km.
  • Surface Heat and Eccentricity: Estimates indicate surface heat release of approximately 25 milliwatts per sq. m, expected to reduce Mimas’s eccentricity by half in 4-5 million years. Simulations suggest the ocean may have formed 2-25 million years ago, with potential hydrothermal activity.

Implications and Findings

  • Comparative Analysis: Similarities between Mimas and Enceladus, another Saturn moon with a global ocean, hint at potential hydrothermal activity despite surface differences.
  • Ice Shell Composition: The viscoelastic nature of Mimas’s outer icy layer and hydrostatic interior interfaces align with observations, supporting the theoretical ice shell thickness determined through calculations.

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Interplanetary Dust damage NASA’s Juno Mission  

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Juno Mission, Deimos and Phobos

Mains level: NA

Juno

Introduction

  • Juno, a spacecraft launched by NASA in 2011, embarked on a mission to unravel the secrets of Jupiter and its moons.
  • En route to Jupiter, Juno encountered fast-moving dust particles, resulting in significant damage to its solar panels.

About NASA’s Juno Mission

Description
Launch Year 2011
Mission Objective Study Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, to gain insights into the origin and evolution of Earth.
Focus Areas
  1. Investigate Jupiter’s atmosphere composition and isotopic ratios.
  2. Study Jupiter’s magnetic field and its interaction with the atmosphere, leading to aurora formation.
  3. Explore Jupiter’s structure, atmosphere, and interior to understand early solar system conditions.
Earth Insights
  • Juno mission’s advanced instruments include the Microwave Radiometer, which measures atmospheric temperature and water content.
  • By comparing Jupiter’s composition with Earth’s, scientists infer similarities and differences in planetary origins.
  • Understanding the magnetic field and auroras on Jupiter contributes to knowledge about Earth’s own magnetic field and auroras.
  • Studying Jupiter’s structure provides clues about early solar system conditions and Earth’s evolutionary processes.

Dusts in Interplanetary Space

  • Calculating Dust Flux: Scientists harnessed Juno’s data to estimate the flux of dust particles encountered between 1 and 5 Astronomical Units (AU), shedding light on the density and distribution of interplanetary dust.
  • Exploring Dust Sources: Analysis suggested Mars’s moons, Deimos and Phobos, as potential sources of interplanetary dust, offering tantalizing clues to unraveling the enigmatic origins of these celestial particles.

How Martian Moons, Deimos and Phobos produce this Dust?

  • Micrometeorite Impacts: Micrometeorites, tiny yet potent dust particles, bombard Mars’s moons, creating ephemeral clouds of dust upon impact due to the absence of atmospheres.
  • Escape into Space: Deimos and Phobos, characterized by low gravity, facilitate the escape of dust particles into space, contributing to the formation of a dusty ring around Mars.

Insights from Observations

  • Gravitational Dynamics: This models incorporated gravitational effects, lunar shapes, and dust particle velocities, offering a comprehensive understanding of the dust dynamics within the Martian system.
  • Validation through Future Missions: Prospective missions to Deimos and Phobos hold the promise of validating the recent findings, shedding further light on the dusty realms of these enigmatic moons.

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Pulsars and Their Glitches: A Glimpse into Neutron Star Secrets

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Pulsars, Neutron Stars, Glitches

Mains level: NA

Pulsars

Introduction

  • In 1967 a group of astronomers at the University of Cambridge stumbled upon a celestial mystery that would unravel the secrets of neutron stars.
  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish observed periodic signals emanating from the depths of space, eventually discovering the first pulsar, PSR B1919+21.

Pulsars and Neutron Stars

  • The Birth of a Pulsar: PSR B1919+21 initially puzzled scientists, who considered various explanations, even the possibility of signals from extraterrestrial life.
  • Neutron Stars: Neutron stars are born from the remnants of massive stars that didn’t become black holes. They are incredibly dense and primarily made up of neutrons.

Behind the Radiation: Lighthouse Effect

  • Radiation Beams: Pulsars emit focused beams of radio waves, similar to a lighthouse’s rotating light.
  • Rotation Slowdown: Neutron stars gradually slow down their rotation, and this process generates the pulsar’s radio signals.

The Mystery of Glitches

  • Sudden Speed-Ups: In 1969, scientists noticed unexpected and brief increases in the rotation speed of pulsars, known as “glitches.”
  • Unsolved Riddle: Even after more than four decades of study, the cause of these glitches remains a mystery, although scientists have developed some ideas.
  • Common Occurrence: Around 700 glitches have been observed in more than 3,000 pulsars.

Clues in the Rotation

  • Post-Glitch Behavior: During a glitch, the pulsar’s rotation rate temporarily increases before gradually returning to its previous speed.
  • Sign of Internal Changes: The slow post-glitch recovery suggests that the neutrons inside the star behave like a special kind of fluid, called a superfluid, with very low friction.
  • Superfluids and Vortices: Superfluids, like the one inside a neutron star, exhibit vortex behavior, which is like tiny whirlpools.

The Glitch Mechanism

  • Neutron Star Structure: Neutron stars have a solid outer layer with superfluid patches and a core primarily made of superfluid.
  • Vortex Pinning: Vortices within the superfluid like to stick to the crust or solid parts of the star, which keeps the superfluid rotating.
  • How Glitches Happen: As the star loses energy over time, the crust slows down, but the pinned vortices stay at their original speed. When the difference becomes too great, the vortices are released, transferring energy from the superfluid to the crust, causing a glitch in the pulsar’s rotation.

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Ingenuity: NASA’s Pioneering Mars Helicopter

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Ingenuity Helicopter

Mains level: Read the attached story

Ingenuity

Introduction

  • NASA’s Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, recently regained contact with Earth after a brief communication lapse during its 72nd flight on the Red Planet.
  • This remarkable solar-powered robotic chopper has accomplished groundbreaking feats in extraterrestrial aviation, making history with its powered, controlled flight on Mars.

About Ingenuity 

  • Inaugural Flight: Ingenuity landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, alongside the Perseverance Rover. On April 19 of the same year, it achieved the first powered extraterrestrial flight in human history.
  • Launch and Deployment: NASA launched a spacecraft on July 30, 2020, carrying the Perseverance rover with Ingenuity attached. The helicopter was deployed on the Martian surface on April 4, 2021, after reaching a suitable “airfield” location.
  • Experimental Purpose: Ingenuity’s primary mission was experimental, aiming to test powered, controlled flight on another celestial body.
  • Historic Flight: During its maiden flight, Ingenuity hovered, covered the same spot, and remained airborne for an impressive 39.1 seconds, establishing a historic milestone.

Challenges and Impressive Records

  • Vast Distances: Despite the relatively short flight duration, Mars’ distance of over 225 million kilometres from Earth results in signal delays of 5 to 20 minutes.
  • Harsh Martian Conditions: Ingenuity must endure Mars’ challenging conditions, including low atmospheric density, “continent-sized” dust storms, and various hazards.

Significance of Mars Flight

  • Historical Milestone: On April 19, 2021, Ingenuity’s inaugural flight marked two significant achievements. Firstly, it was the first aircraft to fly on another planet. Secondly, it operated in Mars’ thin atmosphere, unsuitable for conventional flight.
  • Challenges of Martian Flight: Ingenuity’s flight on Mars was challenging due to the planet’s lower gravity, one-third that of Earth’s, and its extremely thin atmosphere with just 1% of Earth’s surface pressure.
  • Autonomous Operation: Ingenuity is an autonomous aircraft, piloted by onboard guidance, navigation, and control systems, running algorithms developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Perseverance serves as a crucial link between the chopper and Earth.

Evolving Mission Role

  • Scouting and Exploration: Initially designed for a limited number of flights, Ingenuity’s role evolved as scientists began to use it for scouting. It aided Perseverance in exploring Martian terrain efficiently, avoiding unexceptional rocks and enhancing mission productivity.
  • Impressive Flight Record: Before the recent communication lapse, Ingenuity completed 72 flights, accumulating more than 128 minutes of flight time and covering a total distance of 17.7 kilometers, as recorded in the mission’s flight log.

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

India’s renewed engagement in Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) Project

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Thirty Meter Telescope

Mains level: Read the attached story

tmt

Introduction

  • India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) has shown a renewed interest in the global scientific endeavor, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project, as evidenced by their recent visit to Mauna Kea in Hawai’i.
  • This visit marks a significant step in addressing the challenges faced by this ambitious astronomical project.

Overview of the TMT Project

  • Project Description: The TMT is envisioned as a 30-metre diameter primary-mirror optical and infrared telescope, designed for deep space observations.
  • International Collaboration: It is a joint venture involving the U.S., Japan, China, Canada, and India, with India’s participation approved by the Union Cabinet in 2014.

Key facts related to TMT

  • Its 30m diameter prime-mirror will allow it to observe wavelengths ranging from ultraviolet to mid-infrared with up to 80 times more sensitivity of today’s largest telescopes.
  • It can deliver images at infrared wavelengths more than 12 times sharper than the famed Hubble Space Telescope and 4 times sharper than James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT).

Challenges and Controversies

  • Location Issues: Mauna Kea, the proposed site for the TMT, is an inactive volcano considered sacred by local communities. The site has faced opposition due to its cultural and religious significance.
  • Legal Hurdles: The Supreme Court of Hawaii invalidated the construction permits in 2015, although they were later restored in 2018. Despite this, local opposition has continued to impede construction.

Alternate Site Consideration

  • Plan B: The Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) on La Palma in Spain’s Canary Islands is being considered as an alternative site for the TMT.
  • India’s Stance: As per statements made in 2020, India prefers moving the project to an alternate site, subject to the availability of necessary permits and procedures.

India’s Role and Contribution

  • Major Contributor: India is expected to play a significant role in the TMT project, contributing hardware, instrumentation, and software worth $200 million.
  • Mirror Production: Of the 492 required mirrors, India will contribute 83, showcasing its capabilities in precision engineering and technology.

Current Status and Future Prospects

  • Ongoing Discussions: Efforts are being made to reach a consensus that respects the concerns of the local people in Hawai’i.
  • Progress in Component Development: Despite the delay in construction, significant advancements have been made in developing essential components for the TMT.
  • Decision Timeline: A firm decision on the project’s site is anticipated within the next two years, as per Annapurni Subramaniam, director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAP).

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International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Amaterasu Particles: Understanding High-Energy Cosmic Rays

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Amaterasu

Mains level: Read the attached story

Amaterasu

Introduction

  • In a significant scientific breakthrough, Japanese scientists discovered an ultra-high-energy cosmic ray in May 2021, which he named ‘Amaterasu’ after the Japanese sun goddess.

Discovery of Amaterasu

  • Event Identification: Dr. Toshihiro Fujii, an astronomer at Osaka Metropolitan University, discovered the cosmic ray named Amaterasu.
  • Measurement: Amaterasu had an energy of 240 exa-electron-volt (EeV), an extremely high level.
  • Comparison with Man-Made Accelerators: This energy is about 40 million times higher than that of protons accelerated by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Mystery of Amaterasu’s Origin

  • Unusual Origin: Amaterasu appears to have originated from an empty part of the universe.
  • Dr. Fujii’s Theories: Possible explanations include an unidentified source, interaction with a strong magnetic field, or the need for new physics models.
  • Previous Records: The “Oh My God” particle, detected in 1991 with an energy of 320 EeV, remains the most energetic cosmic ray recorded.

Nature and Impact of Cosmic Rays

  • Composition: Cosmic rays are streams of energetic particles, including protons and alpha particles, originating from outer space and the sun.
  • Interaction with Earth: Most cosmic rays lose their energy in Earth’s atmosphere, preventing harmful high-intensity rays from reaching the surface.
  • Historical Significance: Studies of cosmic rays since the 1930s have led to the discovery of many subatomic particles, although their sources and high energy remain a mystery.

Types and Origins of Cosmic Rays

  • Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR): Originating from beyond our solar system, possibly from supernovae.
  • Solar Cosmic Rays: Emitted by the sun, primarily in solar flares, consisting mainly of protons.
  • Composition Analysis: Studies show a helium-to-hydrogen nuclei mass ratio in cosmic rays similar to the early universe’s composition.

Implications of High-Energy Cosmic Rays

  • Ultra-high-energy cosmic Rays (UHECRs): These are extragalactic particles with energies exceeding 1 EeV.
  • Limitations in Space Travel: UHECRs with more than 60 EeV energy face suppression due to interaction with cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, limiting their travel distance to 50-100 megaparsecs.

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