Inside Space - December 12th, 2019

Inside Space (Dec 12th, 2019)

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1. Using NASA's Parker Solar Probe, scientists have observed an asteroid dust trail that has avoided detection for decades. 3200 Phaethon, which is about 3.6 miles across, travels closer to the sun than any other named asteroid. The sun's brightness has long prevented scientists from observing the dust cloud trailing 3200 Phaethon but the PSP is equipped with a camera called WISPR, which is designed to filter out the sun's light. Data gathered by WISPR indicates that the asteroid dust trail weighs an estimated billion tons and is more than 14 million miles long. Space rocks from this dust trail get captured by Earth's gravity every December and burn upon entering the atmosphere, putting on a fiery show known as the Geminid meteor shower. – CNET

2. Time-lapse videos produced with satellite imagery show the changes that some glaciers have gone through in recent decades. The videos illustrate the evolution of glaciers in Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica using images from the NASA-U.S. Geological Survey Landsat program from 1972 to 2019. The different ways in which glaciers respond to a warming climate can be seen in the videos, said glaciologist Mark Fahnestock of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. One of them shows how the melting of ice sheets and glaciers is creating more ponds in Greenland. These meltwater ponds can, in turn, speed up ice melting. – NASA / YOUTUBE

3. Rocket Lab inaugurated its first launch site in the U.S. on Thursday. The pad on Wallops Island, Virginia, is specially designed for U.S. government customers who prefer to launch from American soil and is very similar to the company's launch site in Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. "We’ve certainly made a number of improvements to the pad, but the pads look identical," said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck. "That’s part of the reason why we were able to build the site so quickly." The company has also built a facility to integrate payloads into rockets that will allow engineers to handle launches on short notice. The first launch from the site – which is designed to handle up to 12 launches a year – will see an Electron rocket transporting an experimental Air Force microsatellite in the second quarter of 2020. – SPACE NEWS

4. Throwback Thursday: ESA's XMM-Newton x-ray space telescope was launched on Dec. 10, 1999, aboard the Ariane 5's first commercial flight. 

With a mass of over 3,800 kg, XMM-Newton is a true scientific powerhouse. It has detected more X-ray sources than any previous satellite, providing scientists with data to publish over 300 studies a year. 

"XMM-Newton's discoveries have contributed to all the major areas of astrophysical and cosmological research," ESA said in a statement highlighting some of the scientific breakthroughs made thanks to the observatory.

With a design featuring three telescopes, each containing 58 wafer-thin cylindrical mirrors, the observatory has allowed scientists to study phenomena such as black holes, neutron stars and the formation of galaxies in the early universe. 

"XMM-Newton's investigation of neutron stars has shown us that there are many mysteries to be explored in this realm. In its 20 years of operation, the mission has shown we live in a more complicated, and more fascinating Universe than we realized," said ESA astronomer Norbert Schartel. 

5. NASA has released a map showing potential ice deposits on Mars. Cool colors show areas with ice near the surface and warm colors indicate the presence of ice further down. "You wouldn't need a backhoe to dig up this ice. You could use a shovel," the paper's lead author, Sylvain Piqueux of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a blog post. The water ice deposits are concentrated in areas near the poles known as the "mid-latitudes." The map shows potential landing sites because a crewed mission to Mars will likely attempt to search for water, which can be used for drinking and to produce rocket fuel. Data for the map was collected by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey orbiter. – ENGADGET

6. Canadian start-up Kepler Communications has signed a deal with SpaceX to deploy an unspecified number of satellites. The contract is for two Falcon 9 rideshare missions that will take place next year. A company executive said that Kepler has now signed deals to deploy 15 CubeSats for its "Gen-1" Internet of Things constellation. The first batch of satellites will be launched by a Soyuz rocket in mid-2020 and the SpaceX missions will follow later next year, the executive said. Kepler plans to scale its IoT constellation to 140 satellites in 2023. The constellation will transfer low-bandwidth data for the shipping, oil and farming industries. – TECHCRUNCH

7. IEEE Spectrum takes a closer look at four products that could be manufactured in space. Contributing editor Prachi Patel argues that although taking raw materials to space and transporting finished goods to Earth would be expensive, it would make sense to produce fiber-optic cable, metal alloys, meat and organs in low-Earth orbit. At least three companies are looking into producing fiber-optic cable in space because microgravity suppresses the formation of tiny crystals that can weaken signals transmitted by these cables. In addition, microgravity could allow companies to better mix metal alloys for medical implants and to 3D-print human organs with bio ink, writes Patel. Lastly, finding a way to produce lab-grown meat in space could be the key to feeding astronauts in long-term missions. – IEEE SPECTRUM

8. Water vapor seems to be present on a great number of exoplanets, but only in small quantities, a new study says. The authors, which include scientists from the University of Cambridge, studied the atmospheric composition of 19 confirmed exoplanets, ranging in size from around 10 Earth masses to over 600 Earth masses. They expected to find higher concentrations of water vapor because oxygen is the most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium. They found water vapor in 14 of the 19 exoplanets but only in low concentrations. "It is incredible to see such low water abundances in the atmospheres of a broad range of planets orbiting a variety of stars," said project leader Dr. Nikku Madhusudhan from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge. – BGR

9. A new documentary highlights the work of citizen scientists and researchers studying an aurora-like electromagnetic phenomenon known as Steve. "Chasing Steve" was screened on Dec. 9 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Auroras and Steves result from the interaction between the sun's charged particles and the Earth's upper atmosphere. To the untrained eye, a Steve (short for the Strong Thermal Emissions Velocity Enhancement) looks like an aurora. However, Steves appears further south than auroras, have a unique pinkish hue and feature green columns of light at lower altitudes. – SPACE

10. Image of the Day: The last full moon of the decade reached peak brightness last night, at 12:12 a.m. "The moon looked insane tonight. This is what is sending us into 2020 #FullMoon," tweeted Greg Furstenwerth.

Written and curated by Eduardo Garcia in New York. Eduardo is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School M.A. Science program and writes regularly for the New York Times Climate Fwd: newsletter. In one of his previous lives, Eduardo worked as a Reuters correspondent in Latin America for nearly a decade. 


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