Growing up in Yerevan, Armenia, Rema Matevosyan and her amateur astronomer grandparents enjoyed heading outside in the middle of the night, paper map carefully marked, to observe the stars. Now as CEO of geospatial data startup Near Space Labs, her technology takes her close.
While the billionaire space race has helped spur a wave of interest in companies looking to travel, manufacture and mine off-planet, Near Space is focused a little bit closer, in the stratosphere. There, Matevosyan’s startup collects geospatial data through small autonomous robots attached to weather balloons, a contraption it calls “the Swifty,” capturing up to 1,000 square kilometers of imagery each flight from more than 60,000 feet up.
The process is cheaper—and carries a much lower carbon footprint—than flying a special plane or launching a satellite, Matevosyan says. But its data sets could prove just as valuable to insurers, governments, disaster recovery and autonomous vehicle operators alike.
“We are a very rebellious Earth-imaging company when everyone is launching satellite constellations,” Matevosyan says. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re beautiful devices. But with the rapid adoption of our product and our rapid growth wherever we’ve deployed, it speaks to the dire need for this data that we are providing.”
Now, with more than 150 flights completed, Brooklyn- and Barcelona-based Near Space is raising a $13 million Series A funding round led by Crosslink Capital, with Toyota Ventures and existing investors Leadout Capital and Wireframe Ventures joining in. The funding brings Near Space’s total funding to $16.8 million so far, and comes as the business is looking to hire more than a dozen roles to expand its customer base across the U.S. The startup plans to launch 500 flights in 2022.
After moving to Moscow to conduct funded master’s degree research in mathematics, the trilingual Matevosyan (she’s currently trying to pick up Spanish as a fourth) met cofounders Ignasi Lluch, Near Space’s CTO, and Albert Caubet, its chief engineer, while starting to earn a Ph.D. and working as a junior research fellow studying complex aerospace systems, specifically how satellites communicate with each other.
Her research took her to launches in remote parts of central Russia in December—an activity she does not recommend—and convinced her that some applications of geospatial data would be impossible to cover effectively through satellites, even with billions of dollars pouring into space tech.
Originally founded as Swiftera in late 2016, Near Space Labs was admitted to New York-based accelerator Urban-X, a five-month program operated by MINI and Urban Us that invests $100,000 in two cohorts of ten urban tech startups each year. Matevosyan abruptly relocated to Brooklyn, initially crashing on a friend’s couch, and got a working prototype running before the program’s completion.
A few months later, in June 2018, the company raised $2 million from Leadout, the VC firm founded by former Facebook executive Alison Rosenthal, Wireframe Ventures and others; it added another $1.5 million last year, with Matevosyan appearing on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for manufacturing and industry in between.
Near Space launched its first major commercial rollout in July 2020, slowed a bit by the pandemic. While Matevosyan operates out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an emerging hub for frontier tech and hardware startups, her cofounders and much of the hardware R&D is located in Barcelona. (Despite interest from Europe and Southeast Asia, especially, Matevosyan says Near Space’s immediate focus is on the U.S. market.)
The startup operates several business models, sending up Swifty platforms on a contract basis as needed for custom projects, while also launching them regularly from its own launch sites to maintain coverage for a fresh data set of geospatial data. “The idea is that we will have a global constellation of our Swifties, and then people will be subscribing to this data set and using it,” says Matevosyan.
The device itself ships in a small box; operators on the ground switch them on, attach them to the weather balloon and Near Space manages them autonomously from there. “Everybody wants to come to a launch site, which is also great for our sales, because it’s a very exciting event,” Matevosyan admits.
At new lead investor Crosslink, partner Phil Boyer says his firm was excited to back Near Space due to its familiarity with the geospatial market—it’s also backed Arturo, Descartes Labs and Enview—and the differentiation of Near Space collecting its data cheaply from the stratosphere. The potential for recurring revenue from a large market for such data, Boyer adds, meant the firm saw Near Space’s economics only improving over time. Particular growth areas of interest include real estate, disaster recovery and providing updated map information for autonomous vehicles—which helps explain Toyota’s venture arm on the cap table.
That was more than enough for the VC firm to overcome any hesitation about betting big on balloons in an age of rockets. “When you say the word ‘balloon,’ you certainly get a couple of odd looks, like, you invested a balloon company? What does that mean?” Boyer says. “But it wasn’t a huge leap of faith for us.”
Near Space is rooting for its peers in satellites and rockets, too, says Matevosyan, arguing that more activity in the category generally is good for all players. As for taking balloons seriously? “The questions drop when I show them our data,” she says.
The “billionaire space race” just got a bit more literal Thursday, as Virgin Galactic announced that it would be opening up the flight window for its first fully crewed mission to space on July 11, and that one of its first passengers would be Richard Branson. That’s 9 days prior to Jeff Bezos’ planned launch on July 20 on a capsule from his company Blue Origin.
If everything goes as planned, Branson wouldn’t be the first billionaire to go to space, but he would be the first to go on his own company’s spacecraft. Shares of Virgin Galactic stock soared in after-hours trading, up to over $51 at the time of publication. The stock had closed down at $43.19 on Thursday.
The “Unity 22” mission, as the company has dubbed it, is part of a series of test flights Virgin Galactic is conducting before it opens up its space tourism business to paying customers. The mission’s goal, the company says, is to accomplish several things: first, to evaluate the customer experience, including the periods of weightlessness and views of Earth. Second will be to test aspects of conducting research experiments, another revenue stream for the space. Third is to ensure that the company’s training program adequately prepares customers for the experience.
Joining Branson on the flight are Beth Moses, Virgin’s chief astronaut instructor; Colin Bennett, the company’s lead operations engineer; and Sirisha Bandla, the company’s VP of researcher operations, who will be conducting a science experiment for the University of Florida.
Virgin Galactic was founded by Branson in 2005, and began publicly trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019. If July’s flight is successful, the company plans two more test flights evaluating other aspects of the experience before beginning commercial service in 2022.
“It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality,” Branson said in a statement. “As part of a remarkable crew of mission specialists, I’m honoured to help validate the journey our future astronauts will undertake and ensure we deliver the unique customer experience people expect from Virgin.”
Virgin Galactic is not the only corporation pursuing suborbital spacecraft for tourism. Blue Origin is developing suborbital flights with its New Shepard spacecraft. Although initially more secretive about its plans, Jeff Bezos has said the company is developing a spacecraft that would take off and land vertically and carry three or more astronauts to the edge of space.
New Shepard has flown above the Karman line and landed in 2015 and the same vehicle was reflown to above the Karman line again in 2016. In April 2021, they completed their fifteenth test flight, with the next mission, NS 16, aiming to carry a crew as early as 20 July 2021.
On 16 September 2014, SpaceX and Boeing were awarded contracts as part of NASA’s CCtCap program to develop their Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, respectively. Both are capsule designs to bring crew to orbit, a different commercial market than that addressed by Virgin Galactic.
Now-defunct XCOR Aerospace had also worked on rocket-powered aircraft during many of the years that Virgin Galactic had; XCOR’s Lynx suborbital vehicle was under development for more than a decade, and its predecessor, the XCOR EZ-Rocket experimental rocket powered airplane did actually take flight, but the company closed its doors in 2017.
This year, the once-restricted world of space travel is about to open up in a way the nation has never seen, and a 29-year-old woman will help usher in that change.
Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, was the first person selected last week to participate in the country’s first commercial spaceflight, scheduled to take off in the fall from Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX rocket bound for Earth’s orbit.
The crew will all be non-astronauts, led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who bought the flight from SpaceX in January and set aside two seats for St. Jude. Arceneaux, who was treated at St. Jude for bone cancer when she was 10, will join Isaacman and two other passengers who have not yet been announced on the flight. One will be a sweepstakes winner as part of a campaign to raise $200 million in donations for St. Jude.
Isaacman had previously said he wanted to give the seat to a frontline health care worker and someone who was a cancer survivor. Arceneaux, who started working at the hospital early last year with children who have leukemia and lymphoma, got an out-of-the-blue call in early January asking if she’d take the first seat.
“Yes! Please!” she replied, before agreeing to ask her mom first.
“[My mom], Colleen, is a tough lady, she has been through a lot. And I love to travel, I love going to new places, and so while this was so surprising to hear, at the same time, it kind of fit,” Arceneaux told The 19th. “When I told her about this, she was in total agreement that I couldn’t pass it up.”
With that “yes,” Arceneaux also agreed to shatter some existing limitations in the rapidly expanding industry of space travel.
Under current NASA medical guidelines, Arceneaux would have not been able to participate in the mission: She has an artificial joint in her leg and a titanium rod in her left thigh bone stemming from her treatment. She spent a year undergoing intensive chemotherapy and surgery to remove a lump that had formed on her left knee. She had to learn to walk again.
Astronauts undergo stringent physical tests to qualify for flight, and a prosthesis would have disqualified her for a mission if it weren’t for the commercial nature of the flight. Women were initially excluded from spaceflight because of assumptions around physical fitness and gendered expectations.
Although space is becoming more diverse — about half of the new astronaut class is made up of women — just 40 years ago, American women hadn’t flown to space at all. Even now, only about 12 percent of all the astronauts in the world who have been to space have been women; SpaceX, for example, has only launched one woman since it started operating missions last year.
Arceneaux would be the youngest American to go to space, as well as the first pediatric cancer patient. She will also be among the first civilian American women to reach space, following Anousheh Ansari, who flew to the ISS in 2006. Beth Moses, who flew on a suborbital flight in 2019 and is considered by some to have been a civilian when she flew, is a professional commercial astronaut. Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian woman selected to go to space, tragically died shortly after take-off in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion that claimed seven lives in 1986.
“Women belong in space … I’m not going to be the last,” Arceneaux said. “And I am incredibly excited to represent women, and then represent those who aren’t physically perfect.”
Arceneaux’s experience at St. Jude — where she grew up playing pranks on staff and organizing dance recitals — marked her in such a way that she declared early on that she wanted to work there. In the years since, the occupations changed. Maybe she’d be a doctor, a nurse, or maybe a researcher, a fundraiser, a dietician. She eventually landed on physician assistant.
Since finding out about the flight, Arceneaux has become quite popular with patients who want to hear about her mission. She has already been to SpaceX’s California headquarters a few times, and she’ll be in Florida to watch a launch later this spring before her own takes off. She also has plenty of preparations ahead: centrifuge training to prepare for G-force, simulations in the capsule and learning the principles of orbital mechanics.
She will also serve as the chief medical officer on the mission.
Arceneaux will be in space about three to four days circling Earth before splashing down off the Florida coast.
She said she’s most excited about serving as a beacon of hope for other cancer patients who often don’t see themselves represented in historic milestones. The mission is aptly named “Inspiration4.”
Just recently, a mother and daughter approached Arceneaux at St. Jude and asked if she was the Hayley they’d heard about who was going to space. The little girl had just had a difficult night and she confided in Arceneaux that she was discouraged because she couldn’t run or jump.
Arceneaux perked up. “I can’t run or jump, either, but it’s not stopping me from going in space,” she told her.
“I hope that that shows them to not limit themselves,” Arceneaux said, “because they really can do more than they even imagine.”
As Arceneaux prepares for the mission, her family is excited to see her take on the responsibility. Her brother and sister-in-law are both aerospace engineers in Alabama, and they’ve helped reassure her about the safety of the flight. Her dad, too, instilled a big love of space in Arceneaux when she was a kid, encouraging her to watch space movies like “Apollo 13” and visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which she did when she was younger.
She has a photo with her parents and brother in front of a green screen floating in what appears to be the inside of the International Space Station. It won’t be too different from what Arceneaux will do from orbit inside SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.
Ahead of the flight, she is also preparing to take something into space with her that holds some significance for her family. Three years ago, Arceneaux’s father, Howard, died of kidney cancer. She said whatever she decides to take, it’ll be to honor him.
Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor who has been selected as the second civilian member of the SpaceX Inspiration 4 crew, joins TODAY for her first official interview as a civilian astronaut. “It came out of the blue,” she says. “Immediately I said ‘yes, put my name down.’” » Watch TODAY All Day: http://www.youtube.com/today » Subscribe to TODAY: http://on.today.com/SubscribeToTODAY » Watch the latest from TODAY: http://bit.ly/LatestTODAY
[…] open and close with visits to space, starting with former NASA astronaut and one of the first black American women in space, Joan Higginbotham, in conversation with author and science communicator Dr Niamh Shaw […]
[…] Showrunners Andrew Hinderaker and Jessica Goldberg drew from the history of American women in space while researching for the project and depiction of Emma’s role — both as an astronaut and a leader […]
[…] already announced include engineer and former astronaut Joan Higginbotham, one of the first black American women in space; Brittany Kaiser, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who rose to fame in Netflix’ […]
[…] of the book (covering the Mercury Thirteen, the four women cosmonauts, and the beginning of American women in space) are pretty depressing for their stories of barriers and blatant sexism […] (If your kid throws it down in disgust after 20 pages, tell them to skip to page 73; the chapter on American women in space starts out depressing but things improve from there […]
The atmosphere of Mars is thin and, compared to Earth, barely even there at all, but it can still teach us about the history of the planet and its present-day status.
The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is a project from the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos, recently detected a gas that it never found before.
Hydrogen chloride, which requires specific conditions in which to form, has been detected in the atmosphere, raising many questions.
The Mars we see today is mostly dry, dusty, and barren. Sure, there is some water locked away in ice near the poles, and possibly some melting that happens during the Martian year, but aside from that there’s very little that offers clues as to the planet’s potentially rich and life-giving history. Projects like the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, sent to Mars by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space group, are helping to pull the curtain back and reveal some of the secrets the planet still holds.
Now, in a pair of new studies published in Science Advances, researchers using data from the Trace Gas Orbiter reveal that they’ve found a gas they’ve never seen before around Mars. The newfound gas, hydrogen chloride, which is the first halogen gas found in the Martian atmosphere, seems to be linked to seasonal changes, but the discovery ultimately raises more questions than it answers.
A planet’s atmosphere might not seem like a super important thing to study, especially in the case of an atmosphere as thin as that of Mars. But while the atmosphere of Mars may not be enough to support life on its surface, it can still serve as an indicator of what processes are playing out on the surface of the planet. The exciting part about discovering hydrogen chloride in the Martian atmosphere is that it suggests that water was (or still is) a significant component of the planet’s climatology.
“You need water vapour to free chlorine and you need the by-products of water—hydrogen—to form hydrogen chloride. Water is critical in this chemistry,” Kevin Olsen, co-author of the research, said in a statement. “We also observe a correlation to dust: we see more hydrogen chloride when dust activity ramps up, a process linked to the seasonal heating of the southern hemisphere.”
But what exactly does this mean? It’s still hard to say. Whatever is generating the gas appears to be linked to summer in the planet’s southern hemisphere, but beyond that, it’s difficult to determine the chain of events that is leading to its generation.
In the second paper, researchers reveal that measurements of the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the planet’s atmosphere point to huge losses of water over the planet’s history. This supports the idea that Mars was once rich with water and potentially even supported massive lakes, rivers, and oceans on its surface.
Mike Wehner has reported on technology and video games for the past decade, covering breaking news and trends in VR, wearables, smartphones, and future tech. Most recently, Mike served as Tech Editor at The Daily Dot, and has been featured in USA Today, Time.com, and countless other web and print outlets. His love of reporting is second only to his gaming addiction.
The US space agency NASA has released the first audio from Mars, a faint crackling recording of wind captured by the Perseverance rover. A microphone did not work during the rover’s descent to the surface, but it was able to capture audio once it landed on Mars. The first-of-its-kind audio has been released along with extraordinary new video footage of the rover as it descended and landed last Thursday.
On the show we are joined by Dr Swati Mohan, the Indian American scientist who led the guidance and control operations of the Mars 2020 mission. She talks about the what the ‘Seven Minutes Terror’ was and about the tiny bindi she wore that has generated a huge buzz on social media. NDTV is one of the leaders in the production and broadcasting of un-biased and comprehensive news and entertainment programmes in India and abroad. NDTV delivers reliable information across all platforms: TV, Internet and Mobile. Subscribe for more videos: https://www.youtube.com/user/ndtv?sub… Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ndtv Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ndtv Download the NDTV Apps: http://www.ndtv.com/page/apps Watch more videos: http://www.ndtv.com/video?yt.
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In September 2019, my colleague Anna Kapinska gave a presentation showing interesting objects she’d found while browsing our new radio astronomical data. She had started noticing very weird shapes she couldn’t fit easily to any known type of object.
Among them, labelled by Anna as WTF?, was a picture of a ghostly circle of radio emission, hanging out in space like a cosmic smoke-ring. None of us had ever seen anything like it before, and we had no idea what it was. A few days later, our colleague Emil Lenc found a second one, even more spooky than Anna’s.
EMU plans to boldly probe parts of the Universe where no telescope has gone before. It can do so because ASKAP can survey large swathes of the sky very quickly, probing to a depth previously only reached in tiny areas of sky, and being especially sensitive to faint, diffuse objects like these.
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I predicted a couple of years ago this exploration of the unknown would probably make unexpected discoveries, which I called WTFs. But none of us expected to discover something so unexpected, so quickly. Because of the enormous data volumes, I expected the discoveries would be made using machine learning. But these discoveries were made with good old-fashioned eyeballing.
Our team searched the rest of the data by eye, and we found a few more of the mysterious round blobs. We dubbed them ORCs, which stands for “odd radio circles”. But the big question, of course, is: “what are they?”
At first we suspected an imaging artefact, perhaps generated by a software error. But we soon confirmed they are real, using other radio telescopes. We still have no idea how big or far away they are. They could be objects in our galaxy, perhaps a few light-years across, or they could be far away in the Universe and maybe millions of light years across.
When we look in images taken with optical telescopes at the position of ORCs, we see nothing. The rings of radio emission are probably caused by clouds of electrons, but why don’t we see anything in visible wavelengths of light? We don’t know, but finding a puzzle like this is the dream of every astronomer.
We have ruled out several possibilities for what ORCs might be.
Could they be supernova remnants, the clouds of debris left behind when a star in our galaxy explodes? No. They are far from most of the stars in the Milky Way and there are too many of them.
Could they be the rings of radio emission sometimes seen in galaxies undergoing intense bursts of star formation? Again, no. We don’t see any underlying galaxy that would be hosting the star formation.
Could they be the giant lobes of radio emission we see in radio galaxies, caused by jets of electrons squirting out from the environs of a supermassive black hole? Not likely, because the ORCs are very distinctly circular, unlike the tangled clouds we see in radio galaxies.
Could they be Einstein rings, in which radio waves from a distant galaxy are being bent into a circle by the gravitational field of a cluster of galaxies? Still no. ORCs are too symmetrical, and we don’t see a cluster at their centre.
A genuine mystery
In our paper about ORCs, which is forthcoming in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, we run through all the possibilities and conclude these enigmatic blobs don’t look like anything we already know about.
So we need to explore things that might exist but haven’t yet been observed, such as a vast shockwave from some explosion in a distant galaxy. Such explosions may have something to do with fast radio bursts, or the neutron star and black hole collisions that generate gravitational waves.
Or perhaps they are something else entirely. Two Russian scientists have even suggested ORCs might be the “throats” of wormholes in spacetime.
From the handful we’ve found so far, we estimate there are about 1,000 ORCs in the sky. My colleague Bärbel Koribalski notes the search is now on, with telescopes around the world, to find more ORCs and understand their cause.
It’s a tricky job, because ORCS are very faint and difficult to find. Our team is brainstorming all these ideas and more, hoping for the eureka moment when one of us, or perhaps someone else, suddenly has the flash of inspiration that solves the puzzle.
It’s an exciting time for us. Most astronomical research is aimed at refining our knowledge of the Universe, or testing theories. Very rarely do we get the challenge of stumbling across a new type of object which nobody has seen before, and trying to figure out what it is.
Is it a completely new phenomenon, or something we already know about but viewed in a weird way? And if it really is completely new, how does that change our understanding of the Universe? Watch this space!
By: Ray Norris Professor, School of Science, Western Sydney University
A new study using observations from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope reveals the first clear-cut evidence that the expanding debris of exploded stars produces some of the fastest-moving matter in the universe. This discovery is a major step toward meeting one of Fermi’s primary mission goals. Cosmic rays are subatomic particles that move through space at nearly the speed of light. About 90 percent of them are protons, with the remainder consisting of electrons and atomic nuclei.
In their journey across the galaxy, the electrically charged particles become deflected by magnetic fields. This scrambles their paths and makes it impossible to trace their origins directly. Through a variety of mechanisms, these speedy particles can lead to the emission of gamma rays, the most powerful form of light and a signal that travels to us directly from its sources. Two supernova remnants, known as IC 443 and W44, are expanding into cold, dense clouds of interstellar gas.
This material emits gamma rays when struck by high-speed particles escaping the remnants. Scientists have been unable to ascertain which particle is responsible for this emission because cosmic-ray protons and electrons give rise to gamma rays with similar energies. Now, after analyzing four years of data, Fermi scientists see a gamma-ray feature from both remnants that, like a fingerprint, proves the culprits are protons. When cosmic-ray protons smash into normal protons, they produce a short-lived particle called a neutral pion.
The pion quickly decays into a pair of gamma rays. This emission falls within a specific band of energies associated with the rest mass of the neutral pion, and it declines steeply toward lower energies. Detecting this low-end cutoff is clear proof that the gamma rays arise from decaying pions formed by protons accelerated within the supernova remnants. This video is public domain and can be downloaded at: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?11209 Like our videos? Subscribe to NASA’s Goddard Shorts HD podcast: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/iTunes/f… Or find NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NASA.GSFC Or find us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/NASAGoddard
In the history of spaceflight, only five spacecraft ever launched by humanity possess enough energy to leave the gravitational pull of our Solar System. While thousands upon thousands of objects have been launched into space, overcoming the gravitational pull of planet Earth, the Sun is more than 300,000 times as massive as our home planet, and is far more difficult to escape from. A combination of fast launch speeds and gravitational assists from other planets were required to leave our Solar System, with only Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and New Horizons attaining “escape velocity” from our Sun.
While Pioneer 10 and 11 are now inactive, New Horizons and both Voyager spacecrafts remain operational, powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators. Voyager 1 has overtaken all other spacecrafts and is now the most distant: 22 billion km away, pulling away from the slightly slower Voyager 2 at “only” 18.8 billion km distant. Since the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, NASA has had no contact with Voyager 2, but an upgraded deep space network dish made a successful call on October 29. Here’s the fascinating science that keeps us in touch with the most distant objects ever launched from Earth.
When it comes to sending and receiving signals across astronomical distances, there are three enemies you have to overcome:
The farther away a spacecraft is from you, the farther a signal that you send has to travel before it reaches it, the longer it takes to get there, and the lower in power that signal is when it arrives. If a spacecraft is twice as distant as another, the distance to it is twice as great, the time it takes a light signal to travel to it is twice as great, and the signal power that it receives is only one-fourth as great, since light signals spread out in the two dimensions perpendicular to the spacecraft’s line-of-sight. The farther away a spacecraft is, it’s harder to contact, it takes longer to contact it, and it requires more energy to send-or-receive the same signal.
The way an electromagnetic signal works — whether you’re detecting it with a refracting lens, a reflecting dish, or a linear antenna — is straightforward: it spreads out in a spherical shape from its source. Because there’s a certain amount of inherent background noise to any observation you’d make, from both terrestrial and celestial sources, you need your signal to cross a certain threshold to be detectable, rising above the noise background. On the receiving end, that means larger detectors are better, while on the transmitting end, that means a higher-powered transmitter is better.
Unfortunately, the spacecraft that have already been launched cannot have their hardware upgraded in any way; once they’re launched, they’re simply stuck with the technology they’ve been outfitted with. To make matters worse, the spacecraft themselves are powered by radioactive sources, where specially chosen material, such as plutonium-238, radioactively decays, emitting heat that gets converted into electricity. As time goes on, more and more of the material decays away, decreasing the power available to the spacecraft for both transmitting and receiving signals.
As the amount of heat energy produced by radioactive material decreases, the conversion from heat energy into electrical energy becomes less successful: the thermocouples degrade over time and lose efficiency at lower powers. As a result, the power available to the spacecraft through radioisotope thermoelectric generators has decreased precipitously. As of 2020, the plutonium-238 onboard is producing just 69% of the initial heat energy, and that translates into only about ~50% of the original output power.
Even though Voyager 1 and 2 are now 43 years old and farther from Earth than any other operating spacecraft in history, however, they’re not lost to us yet. The reason is simple: as we improve our transmission and receiving capabilities back here on Earth, we can both send out more powerful signals to be received by these distant spacecraft, and we can do a better job of detecting the spacecrafts’ responses even at low powers. The key is through NASA’s Deep Space Network: a collection of radio antennae designed to communicate with humanity’s most distant spacecraft.
There are three major radio antenna facilities around the world: one in Canberra, Australia, one in Madrid, Spain, and one in Goldstone, California. These three facilities are spaced roughly equidistant around the globe; for almost any location that you can imagine putting a spacecraft, at least one of the antennae will have a direct line-of-sight to that spacecraft at any given time.
Almost, of course. You might recognize that the facility in Canberra, Australia, is the only one located in Earth’s southern hemisphere. If a spacecraft is very far south — so far south that it’s invisible from locations like California or Spain — then the Australian dish would be the only one capable of communicating with it. While both Pioneers, New Horizons, and the Voyager 1 spacecraft could all be contacted (in theory) by all three of these facilities, Voyager 2 is the exception for one major reason: its 1989 flyby of Neptune and its giant moon, Triton.
The trip to Neptune still, even to this day, represents the only close encounter humanity has ever had with our Solar System’s eighth and final (for now) planet, as well as with Triton, the largest known object to originate in our Kuiper belt. The discoveries from that flyby were spectacular, as a number of fantastic features were discovered: Neptune’s ring system, a number of small, inner moons, and a series of features on Triton, including cryovolcanoes and varied terrain similar to what we’d discover some 26 years later when New Horizons flew past Pluto.
In order to have a close encounter with Triton, however, Voyager 2 needed to fly over Neptune’s north pole, deflecting Voyager 2’s trajectory far to the south of the plane in which the planets orbit the Sun. Over the past 31 years, it’s continued to follow that trajectory, rendering it invisible to every member of the Deep Space Network except for the one dish in Australia. And since mid-March, 2020, that dish — which includes the radio transmitter used to talk to Voyager 2 — has been shut down for upgrades.
The dish itself is a spectacular piece of technology. It’s 70 meters (230 feet) across: a world-class radio antenna. The instruments attached to it include two radio transmitters, one of which is used to send commands to Voyager 2. That instrument, as of early 2020, was 47 years old, and hadn’t been replaced in all that time. Additionally, it was using antiquated heating and cooling equipment, old and inefficient electronics, and a set of power supply equipment that limited any potential upgrades.
Fortunately, the decision was made to upgrade all of these, which should enable NASA to do what no other facility can do: send commands to Voyager 2. While the spacecraft is still operating — including sending health updates and science data that can be received by a series of smaller dishes also located in Australia — it has been unable to receive commands, ensuring that it will just keep doing whatever it was last doing until those new commands are received.
On October 29, 2020, enough of the upgrades had been executed that mission operators for Voyager 2 decided to perform a critical test: to send a series of commands to Voyager 2 for the first time since the upgrades began. According to the project manager of the Deep Space Network for NASA, Brad Arnold:
“What makes this task unique is that we’re doing work at all levels of the antenna, from the pedestal at ground level all the way up to the feedcones at the center of the dish that extend above the rim.”
Although it takes about 36 light-hours for a signal to travel round-trip from Earth to Voyager 2, NASA announced on November 2 that the test was successful. Voyager 2 returned a signal that confirmed the call was received, followed by a successful execution of the commands. According to Arnold, “This test communication with Voyager 2 definitely tells us that things are on track with the work we’re doing.”
The upgrades to this member of the Deep Space Network are on track for completion in early 2021, where they will not only be critical for the continued success of the Voyager 2 mission, but will prepare NASA for a series of upcoming missions. The upgraded infrastructure will play a critical role in any upcoming Moon-to-Mars exploration efforts, will support any crewed missions such as Artemis, will provide communication and navigation infrastructure, and will also assist with communications to NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover, scheduled to land on Mars on February 18, 2021.
This particular dish was constructed in 1972, where it had an original size of 64 meters (210 feet). It was expanded to 70 meters (230 feet) 15 years later, but none of the subsequent repairs or upgrades compare to the work being done today. According to NASA, this is “one of the most significant makeovers the dish has received and the longest it’s been offline in over 30 years.”
As Voyager 2 and the other escaping spacecraft continue to recede from the Sun, their power levels will continue to drop and it will become progressively more difficult to issue commands to them as well as to receive data. However, as long as they remain functional, even at incredibly low and inefficient power levels, we can continue to upgrade and enlarge the antennae that are a part of NASA’s Deep Space Network to continue to conduct science with them. As long as these spacecraft remain operational in some capacity, simply continuing to upgrade our facilities here on Earth will enable us to gather data for years, and likely even decades, to come.
Voyager 1 and 2 are already the most distant operational spacecraft ever launched from Earth, and continue to set new records. They’ve both passed the heliopause and entered interstellar space, probing different celestial hemispheres as they go. Each new piece of data they send back is a first: the first time we’ve directly sampled space outside of our Solar System from so far away. With these new upgrades, we’ll have the capacity to see what we’ve never seen before. In science, that’s where the potential for rich, new discoveries always lies. Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website or some of my other work here.
It would change everything we know about life in the Solar System and far beyond.
Or would it? What if we accidentally transported life to Mars on a spacecraft? And what if that is how life moves around the Universe?
A new paper published this week in Frontiers in Microbiology explores the possibility that microbes and extremophiles may migrate between planets and distribute life around the Universe—and that includes on spacecraft sent from Earth to Mars.
What is ‘panspermia?’
It’s an untested, unproven and rather wild theory regarding the interplanetary transfer of life. It theorizes that microscopic life-forms, such as bacteria, can be transported through space and land on another planet. Thus sparking life elsewhere.
It could happen by accident—such as on spacecraft—via comets and asteroids in the Solar System, and perhaps even between star systems on interstellar objects like ʻOumuamua.
However, for “panspermia” to have any credence requires proof that bacteria could survive a long journey through the vacuum, temperature fluctuations, and intense UV radiation in outer space.
Cue the “Tanpopo” project.
What is the ‘Tanpopo’ mission?
Tanpopo—dandelion in English—is a scientific experiment to see if bacteria can survive in the extremes of outer space.
The researchers from Tokyo University—in conjunction with Japanese national space agency JAXA—wanted to see if the bacteria deinococcus could survive in space, so had it placed in exposure panels on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS). It’s known as being resistant to radiation. Dried samples of different thicknesses were exposed to space environment for one, two, or three years and then tested to see if any survived.
“The results suggest that deinococcus could survive during the travel from Earth to Mars and vice versa, which is several months or years in the shortest orbit,” said Akihiko Yamagishi, a Professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences and principal investigator of Tanpopo.
That means spacecraft visiting Mars could theoretically carry microorganisms and potentially contaminate its surface.
However, this isn’t just about Earth and Mars—the ramifications of panspermia, if proven, are far-reaching.
“The origin of life on Earth is the biggest mystery of human beings (and) scientists can have totally different points of view on the matter,” said Dr. Yamagishi. “Some think that life is very rare and happened only once in the Universe, while others think that life can happen on every suitable planet.”
This is bacteria surviving in space for a long period when shielded by rock—typically an asteroid or a comet—which could travel between planets, potentially spreading bacteria and biologically-rich matter around the Solar System.
However, the theory of panspermia goes even further than that.
What is ‘interstellar panspermia’ and ‘galactic panspermia?’
This is the hypothesis—and it’s one with zero evidence—that life exists throughout the galaxy and/or Universe specifically because bacteria and microorganisms are spread around by asteroids, comets, space dust and possibly even interstellar spacecraft from alien civilizations.
In 2018 a paper concluded that the likelihood of Galactic panspermia is strongly dependent upon the survival lifetime of the organisms as well as the velocity of the comet or asteroid—positing that the entire Milky Way could potentially be exchanging biotic components across vast distances.
Such theories have gained credence in the last few years with the discovery of two extrasolar objects Oumuamua and Borisov passing through our Solar System.
However, while the ramifications are mind-boggling, panspermia is definitely not a proven scientific process.
There are still many unanswered questions about how the space-surviving microbes could physically transfer from one celestial body to another.
How will Perseverance look for life on Mars?
NASA’s Perseverance rover is due to land on the red planet on February 18, 2021. It will land in a nearly four billion-year-old river delta in Mars’ 28 miles/45 kilometers-wide Jezero Crater.
It’s thought likely that Jezero Crater was home to a lake as large as Lake Tahoe more than 3.5 billion years ago. Ancient rivers there could have carried organic molecules and possibly even microorganisms.
Perseverance’s mission will be to analyze rock and sediment samples to see if Mars may have had conditions for microorganisms to thrive. It will drill a few centimeters into Mars and take core samples, then put the most promising into containers. It will then leave them on the Martian surface to be later collected by a human mission in the early 2030s.
I’m an experienced science, technology and travel journalist interested in space exploration, moon-gazing, exploring the night sky, solar and lunar eclipses, astro-travel, wildlife conservation and nature. I’m the editor of WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com and the author of “A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide” (Springer, 2015), as well as many eclipse-chasing guides.
“Data indicate the spacecraft had entered a state known as safe mode, likely because a part of the spacecraft was a little colder than expected while Mars 2020 was in Earth’s shadow,” NASA said.
The spaceship has left Earth’s shadow and the temperatures are now normal.
When a vessel enters safe mode, it shuts down all but essential systems until it receives new commands from mission control. “Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars,” added NASA.
The spacecraft also experienced a delay in setting up its communications link with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, its mission control.
Mars 2020 sent its first signal to ground controllers at 9:15 am (1315 GMT) but it was not until 11:30 am (1530 GMT) that it established telemetry – more detailed spacecraft data.
Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager, said that the fact that the spaceship had entered safe mode was not overly concerning.
“That’s perfectly fine, the spacecraft is happy there,” he said.
“The team is working through that telemetry, they’re going to look through the rest of the spacecraft health.
“So far, everything I’ve seen looks good, so we’ll know more in a little bit.”
NASA says comet Neowise is the brightest space iceball to fly by Earth since at least 1997, and it’s now putting on a show in the evening sky, sending hopeful astrophotographers out into the dark.
Plenty of gorgeous images of the comet appearing over the horizon just before sunrise or shortly after sunset have been circulating online, even as most people still were needing binoculars to locate the speeding space visitor. This leads to an obvious question: How the heck did they get those great shots?
It takes a little planning and patience, but with the right equipment and a little cooperation from the weather, just about anyone can do it. Here are some basic tips to get you started.
Pick the right time and place
During the rest of its run, comet Neowise will appear primarily in the northwest and western evening skies. See my earlier post for more details on exactly where to look or use an online sky mapping tool like TheSkyLive.com for your time and location.
Once you know which direction to face, you’ll need to get as far away from all light pollution as possible and make sure you’ll have as clear and broad a view of the night sky as you can find. Clouds and city lights can really ruin your astrophotography plans.
Some more intrepid photographers have taken to late-night or early-morning mountain climbs to get the best vantage points possible, often with remarkable results. Just be sure to prepare and be safe if you’re going to make an expedition out of it.
Grab your gear
While a comet zips through space at 17,500 miles per hour (28,159 kilometers per hour), it appears almost stationary from our perspective. That means photographing Neowise is about precision and long exposures rather than any sort of action shots. As such, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and a camera with a good telephoto zoom lens. You’ll need to be able to set the lens and camera to manual focus and exposure, as well as use a Bulb, Time or long-exposure preset mode to handle the exposure. If you really want to go the extra mile, use a camera with a shutter release cable, self-timer or some other remote operation capability to prevent any shaking or blurring that might come from pressing the shutter button.
It doesn’t hurt to bring a wide-angle lens as well. The tail of a comet can take up a wide enough area that a zoom lens might not always be practical. That’s how many have been able to grab especially stupendous images of both Neowise and the aurora borealis.
“I was excited to see my wide-angle lens could capture the span from STEVE (an aurora-related phenomenon) to Neowise, and got about 10 photos,” Manitoba-based photographer Donna Lach told NASA. “I observed the incredible aurora for about three hours, and it sometimes stretched above me. At times Neowise was outshone by the brilliant aurora, but it was visible the entire time.”
Once you’ve found the right spot, located the comet and set up your equipment, the real work begins. First, ditch auto-focus on your camera and play with different focal lengths, exposure times and frame compositions. You might want to isolate the comet, or capture it against the landscape.
When NASA’s Bill Dunford photographed the comet while it was visible with the naked eye before dawn, he found a certain sweet spot for getting the best images.
“I zoomed in on it and exposed each shot for about four seconds,” he explains in the above video.
Trust the processing
We live in a photoshopped world, but with astrophotography you can use image processing to make Neowise look more as it appears in person.
This will again require some experimentation and good image-editing software, but Dunford advises playing around to see if you can brighten the image and bring out the brilliance of the comet and reduce noise. This is more likely to be how your brain actually processed the image received from your retinas in real life.
Share the wealth
Be sure to share whatever you capture with the world. Some of us are staring down a forecast of cloudy evening skies for the next week, despite living in the southwest desert. Please share your images with me on Twitter and Instagram @EricCMack.
It’s time to see a comet in 2020—complete with a tail! After a few weeks of will-it, won’t-it, Comet NEOWISE appears to have survived a close encounter with the Sun (unlike Comet ATLAS and Comet SWAN, which both fell apart) and has become easy to see in binoculars in the northern hemisphere—and has even become a naked-eye object.
Imaging Comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020, Flagstaff, Arizona-based photographer Jeremy Perez described it on Twitter as “an easy naked-eye object, but really rewarding through binoculars.”
Comet NEOWISE was also captured on July 5, 2020 from Austria by astrophotographer Philipp Salzgeber:
It might be wise to catch Comet NEOWISE before it potentially wanes.
It’s destined to be at its brightest and easiest to see in mid-July as it races back to the outer Solar System, but Comet F3 NEOWISE (also called C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is already surpassing expectations for its naked-eye brightness.
In fact, a few weeks before its predicted naked-eye visibility Comet NEOWISE is already being observed and photographed from the northern hemisphere.
However, comets are notoriously unreliable, and it could fizzle-out at any moment. How it looks now could be the best it gets.
The best time and place to look will be about 10º above the northeastern horizon before dawn. Comet NEOWISE is currently in the constellation of Taurus. It will soon enter Gemini, then visit Auriga, Lynx and Ursa Major.
However, as July wears on, Comet NEOWISE should—if it remains this bright—be easier to see because it will be higher above the horizon.
Comet NEOWISE will be closest to the Earth on July 23, 2020, so that’s going to be the peak week to look if it remains bright.
That’s also when Comet NEOWISE will be visible before midnight and during a New Moon, so the night skies will be dark.
That’s all well and good, but it could fizzle out at any time, so have a look soon if you can get up (very) early.
How to see Comet NEOWISE
For now, your best chance is binoculars—any pair will do (I recommend 10×50 binoculars for all kinds of astronomy)—but by mid-July it could well be a naked-eye object. Typically, comets are faint, so comet-spotting usually requires a telescope.
Who discovered Comet NEOWISE?
A long period comet, Comet NEOWISE was first discovered by NASA’s Near Earth Objects Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) space telescope on March 27, 2020.
It got closest to the Sun—its perihelion— on July 3, 2020, which is the most dangerous time for a comet. Often comets break-up and reduce in size around their perihelion, but not so Comet NEOWISE—at least, so far.
Comet NEOWISE is next expected back in the Solar System in about 6,800 years.
I’m an experienced science, technology and travel journalist interested in space exploration, moon-gazing, exploring the night sky, solar and lunar eclipses, astro-travel, wildlife conservation and nature. I’m the editor of WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com and the author of “A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide” (Springer, 2015), as well as many eclipse-chasing guides.