The core of massive galaxy M87 as viewed in X-rays by ESA’s XMM-Newton space observatory.
A giant elliptical galaxy, M87 is home to several trillion stars, making it one of the most massive galaxies in the local Universe. About 52 million light years away, it is located at the centre of the Virgo cluster, the nearest cluster of galaxies to the Local Group, to which our own Milky Way galaxy belongs.
A supermassive black hole as massive as billions of stars like our Sun sits at the core of M87, accreting material from its surroundings at an extremely intense rate. The black hole’s accretion produces powerful jets that launch energetic particles close to the speed of light outwards into the surrounding cluster environment, as well as inflating giant bubbles that lift cooler gas from the cluster centre and form the filamentary structures visible in this image.
The activity of the black hole also generates shock waves, such as the circular feature that can be seen around the centre of the image.
This view is based on data collected at X-ray energies between 0.3 and 7 keV with the EPIC camera onboard XMM-Newton on 16 July 2017. The image spans 40 arcminutes on each side.
On 10 April 2019, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration – presented the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow: the black hole at the core of M87. The EHT observations were also performed in 2017.
Mars may have a reputation for being a desolate world, but it is certainly not dead: its albeit thin atmosphere is still capable of whipping up a storm and, as this image reveals, send hundreds – maybe even thousands – of ‘dust devils’ scurrying across the surface.
These swirling columns of wind scour away the top layer of surface material and transport it elsewhere. Their course is plotted by the streaks they leave behind – the newly exposed surface material, which is coloured in blue/grey in this recent image from the CaSSIS camera onboard the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter.
Dust devils on Mars form in the same way as those on Earth: when the ground gets hotter than the air above it, rising plumes of hot air move through cooler denser air, creating an updraft, with the cooler air sinking and setting up a vertical circulation. If a horizontal gust of wind blows through, the dust devil is triggered. Once whirling fast enough, the spinning funnels can pick up dust and push it around the surface.
As seen in this image, not much can stand in the way of a dust devil: they sweep up the sides of mounds, and down across the floors of impact craters alike.
The image was taken on 4 January 2019, and shows a region northeast of Copernicus Crater, in the Cimmeria region of Mars. It captures an area measuring 7.2 x 31 km. North is towards the top left corner in this view. The image has been geometrically rectified and resampled to 4 m/pixel.
If you are at the EGU General Assembly this week, look out for this beautiful image printed at our ESA booth.
Globular clusters are inherently beautiful objects, but the subject of this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, Messier 3, is commonly acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful of them all.
Containing an incredible half a million stars, this eight-billion-year-old cosmic bauble is one of the largest and brightest globular clusters ever discovered. However, what makes Messier 3 extra special is its unusually large population of variable stars — stars that fluctuate in brightness over time. New variable stars continue to be discovered in this sparkling stellar nest to this day, but so far we know of 274, the highest number found in any globular cluster by far. At least 170 of these are of a special variety called RR Lyrae variables, which pulse with a period directly related to their intrinsic brightness. If astronomers know how bright a star truly is based on its mass and classification, and they know how bright it appears to be from our viewpoint here on Earth, they can thus work out its distance from us. For this reason, RR Lyrae stars are known as standard candles — objects of known luminosity whose distance and position can be used to help us understand more about vast celestial distances and the scale of the cosmos.
Messier 3 also contains a relatively high number of so-called blue stragglers, which are shown quite clearly in this Hubble image. These are blue main sequence stars that appear to be young because they are bluer and more luminous than other stars in the cluster. As all stars in globular clusters are believed to have formed together and thus be roughly the same age. Only a difference in mass can give these stars a different colour: a red, old star can appear bluer when it acquires more mass, for instance stripping it from a nearby star. The extra mass changes it into a bluer star, which makes us think it is younger than it really is.
The Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission takes us over the busy maritime traffic passing through the English Channel.
The two identical Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites carry radar instruments, which can see through clouds and rain, and in the dark, to image Earth’s surface below. Here, hundreds of radar images spanning 2016 to 2018 over the same area have been, compressed into a single image.
The sea surface reflects the radar signal away from the satellite, making water appear dark in the image. This contrasts metal objects, in this case ships, which appear as bright dots in the dark water. Boats that passed the English Channel in 2016 appear in blue, those from 2017 appear in green, and those from 2018 appear in red.
Owing to its narrowness, as well as its strategic connection of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, the Channel is very busy with east-west ship traffic. Because of the volume of vessels passing through daily, a two-lane scheme is used, in order to avoid collisions. The two lanes can easily be detected in the image.
Many vessels crossing at the narrowest part of the English Channel can be seen in the far right of the image. Connecting Dover in England to Calais in northern France, the Strait of Dover is another major route, with over 400 vessels crossing every day. The shortest distance across the Channel is just 33 km, making it possible to see the opposite coastline on a clear day.
The cities of London and Paris, other towns and buildings and even wind turbines in the English Channel are visible in white owing to the strong reflection of the radar signal.
This image is also featured on the Earth from Space video programme.
ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer practices Space Station repairs in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, USA.
The giant pool is over 12 metres deep and features a full-scale mock-up of the International Space Station. It is used to train astronauts in the very precise and difficult task of making repairs or installing new equipment in the vacuum of space.
To simulate microgravity underwater, astronauts are weighted down to minimise the buoyant force that would otherwise have them bopping back up to the surface. They must also work very slowly to compensate for the drag caused by water.
It’s about as fun as falling in water fully dressed and pulling out your laptop to start working. But someone has got to do it.
Extravehicular activity or EVA training is standard across the astronaut experience, beginning at the candidate level and continuing before and after a spaceflight.
Additionally, astronauts take on a slew of other hands on activities and simulations. Matthias is in Bordeaux, France, today for the latest parabolic flight campaign. From medical training to orbital mechanics and computer engineering, astronauts have a busy schedule.
Becoming an astronaut involves a cutthroat selection process for an exciting job. But it’s not without its risks. Human spaceflight today has evolved into a standard and safe job, thanks to the sacrifice of courageous individuals over the years. Without their contributions, humans would not be the space faring species we have become today.
In celebration the beginning of the space era, the UN has designated 12 April as International Day of Human Spaceflight, more popularly known as Yuri’s Night. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to fly to space on 12 April 1961, a historic event in human history.
Events are held across the globe in celebration of Yuri’s Night. Find one near you and join the world’s largest space party celebrating human achievement beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
And if you happen to meet an astronaut, show them some love. They don’t always have it easy.
Low-temperature plasma – electrically charged gas – that was originally tested aboard the International Space Station is now being harnessed to kill drug-resistant bacteria and viruses that can cause infections in hospital.
Professor Gregor Morfill of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics made use of the ISS to investigate complex three-dimensional plasmas that Earth gravity would have flattened. His very first plasma chamber was installed aboard the Station back in 2001, by cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev. The latest fourth-generation follow-on is still running on the ISS to this day.
Plasmas are usually hot gases but Prof. Morfill’s team developed a method of generating room temperature ‘cold plasma’. Exposure to this forms small holes in the membranes of bacterial cells and destroy their DNA, while human cells are not so easily damaged.
So the idea was born to make use of cold plasma against bacteria in infected wounds without harming the patient. Initial treatment was for infected chronic wounds such as leg ulcers. Initial clinical trials showed significant reduction in bacterial burden of infected wounds, supporting healing and pain relief.
As a next step, new company terraplasma medical was set up to develop a smaller portable, battery-driven cold plasma medical device. The company has been supported through ESA’s Business Incubation Centre Bavaria.
Starting this May, this ‘plasma care’ device will be evaluated in a medical trial across multiple German healthcare institutes.
This is one of the 104 charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, that will fly on the science payload of ESA's Plato mission.
Plato, the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars mission, is an ESA mission dedicated to finding and studying extrasolar planetary systems, with a special emphasis on rocky planets around Sun-like stars and their habitable zone.
The CCDs will be a key element of the largest digital combined camera ever flown in space. This camera will receive light from 26 telescopes, all mounted on a single satellite platform.
Each telescope will include four CCDs, which produce each an image of 20 megapixels. Each telescope will therefore comprise about 80 megapixels, resulting in a full satellite total of 2.12 gigapixels.
The large format of the CCDs – approximately 8 cm x 8 cm per detector – will result in a total optically sensitive surface of 0.74 square metres. The detectors will work at a temperature lower than –65°C to maximise their sensitivity.
These CCDs, which are being provided by ESA, are made by Teledyne e2v in the UK.
More information: Delivery of first detectors for Plato’s exoplanet mission
ESA's 35-metre radio antenna in Malargüe, Argentina, has had a major refurbishment. Extenstive modifications made will now allow the ESTRACK network to support future mission like Euclid, launching in 2022, and to transfer data at much higher rates.
Currently missions like Gaia are able to send back data at a channel rate of 10Mb/s. Euclid will send back data at a rate of 149Mb/s – a similar increase in speed as we have experienced in our internet browsing in the last 10 years.
Euclid, which will orbit at the Lagrange point L2, will be fitted with the 26 GHz band radio giving it a higher bandwidth for transferring data to and from Earth, significantly increasing the scientific information returned over time.
The refurbishment of Cebreros and Malargue stations, will allow ESA deep space antennas to receive broadband signals at 26GHz as well as the conventional X-band frequency.
Highlights of the upgrade
The core of the Malargüe Ground Station antenna optical system is the beamwaveguide. This is a set of mirrors that redirect the signal from the spacecraft to the antenna feeding system.
The central mirror in the set plays a key role in the upgrade. By rotating the mirror in the centre, you can redirect the signal to different receivers with different frequencies.
When the central mirror is rotated to the deep space position, operators will be able to simultaneously use X-band and Ka-band waves – the kind of signal sent by deep space missions like BepiColombo.
When the central mirror is rotated to the near earth position, a newly developed multiband feed system will enable simultaneous X-band and K-band communications.
There is a placeholder position for exclusive communication at X-band using the new 80 kW high power amplifier. The 80kW amplifier is currently being developed and is expected to be deployed to ESTRACK by 2024.
In addition, a new generation of low-maintenance cryogenic amplifiers for improved performance have been installed, as has the latest portable satellite simulator – which will be compatible with Euclid’s high data rates.
Challenges to upgrade
This upgrade has provided unique challenges for the teams charged with seeing it through. The mirrors must be very precisely aligned, with a maximum of 3.5 millidegrees of angular tolerance. To achieve this precision, photogrammetry was used.
ESTRACK antennas also support a very wide range of flying missions, with a high operational load. To minimise the impact on operations, the complete refurbishment had to be completed in only five weeks.
Teamwork is key
The success of the upgrade relied on the dedication and expertise of each individual and their capability to work together effectively as a team.
Coordination between more than twenty people carrying out the upgrades has been paramount – and it has been achieved by keeping the team motivation high and ensuring communication and information flowed among the five industrial partner companies who worked together on the refurbishment.
Malargüe Station Manager
ESA/ESOC Darmstadt, Germany
Tel: +49 61519 02099
Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s Director of Space Transportation and Stéphane Israël, CEO at Arianespace welcomed about 100 attendees to a conference on Ariane 6 and Vega-C for institutional users at ESA-ESTEC in Noordwijk, the Netherlands on 4–5 April 2019.
Week in images
8-12 April 2019