Roughly 50 million light-years away lies a somewhat overlooked little galaxy named NGC 1559. Pictured here by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, this barred spiral lies in the little-observed southern constellation of Reticulum(The Reticule).
NGC 1559 has massive spiral arms chock-full of star formation, and is receding from us at a speed of about 1300 km/s. The galaxy contains the mass of around ten billion Suns — while this may sound like a lot, that is almost 100 times less massive than the Milky Way. Although NGC 1559 appears to sit near one of our nearest neighbours in the sky — the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), this is just a trick of perspective. In reality, NGC 1559 is physically nowhere near the LMC in space — in fact, it truly is a loner, lacking the company of any nearby galaxies or membership of any galaxy cluster.
Despite its lack of cosmic companions, when this lonely galaxy has a telescope pointed in its direction, it puts on quite a show! NGC 1559 has hosted a variety of spectacular exploding stars called supernovae, four of which we have observed — in 1984, 1986, 2005, and 2009 (SN 1984J, 1986L, 2005df [a Type Ia], and 2009ib [a Type II-P, with an unusually long plateau]).
NGC 1559 may be alone in space, but we are watching and admiring from far away.
Careering around Earth every 90 minutes, 400 km above our heads, is the International Space Station – humanity’s orbital outpost.
The first permanent European research facility in space, the Columbus module – seen partially in the bottom right of this image – was delivered 10 years ago this week. It has been home to a multitude of microgravity experiments covering fluid physics, materials science and life sciences, many of which are relevant to broader topics in space science.
During the 2009 spacewalk pictured here, NASA astronauts John Olivas and Nicole Stott retrieved the European Technology Exposure Facility, which was attached outside Columbus, for return to Earth for analysis.
The facility, and the subsequent suites of ‘Expose’ experiments, hosted experiments requiring exposure to the space environment, such as the harsh vacuum of space, ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, and extreme freeze–thaw temperature cycles. The experiments held a variety of organisms exposed to such conditions for long periods, to test the limits of life. Bacteria, seeds, lichens and algae, as well as small organisms called tardigrades or ‘water bears’, have spent months enduring these conditions and returned to Earth alive and well, proving that life that can survive spaceflight.
Exobiology studies like this are particularly important for understanding if life could survive a journey through space between planets, or, for example, have endured the harsh conditions elsewhere in the Solar System. To that end, Expose had special compartments to recreate the martian atmosphere by filtering some sunlight and retaining some pressure, to investigate to what extent terrestrial life can cope with the extreme conditions on the Red Planet.
Exobiology is also at the heart of the ExoMars programme, which will launch a rover to Mars in 2020 to probe beneath the surface, to search for any signs that life may have existed on our neighbour planet.
The Solar Monitoring Observatory SOLAR, which studied the Sun with unprecedented accuracy across most of its spectral range, was also installed externally on Columbus. The instrument has contributed to solar and stellar physics and increased our knowledge of how the Sun interacts with Earth’s atmosphere, an important aspect in understanding what makes a planet habitable.
In the future, the Atmosphere–Space Interactions Monitor, ASIM, will be installed outside Columbus to monitor electric events at high altitudes. These include red sprites, blue jets and elves that are thought to be triggered by electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere. These powerful electrical charges can reach high above the stratosphere and have implications for how our atmosphere protects us from radiation from space.
A fascinating new experiment that will expand the range of research on Columbus is also coming soon with the addition of the Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space, ACES. Accurate to a second in 300 million years, it will enable the most precise measurement of time and frequency in space yet, essential to probe fundamental theories proposed by Albert Einstein with a precision that is impossible in laboratories on Earth.
Discover more science experiments – past, present and future – onboard the Columbus module here.
A miniaturised laboratory inside the orbital laboratory that is ESA’s Columbus module, this 40 cm cube has been one of its quiet scientific triumphs.
Kubik – from the Russian for cube – has been working aboard the International Space Station since before Columbus’ arrival in February 2008.
“Kubik hosts a wide range of life science experiments in weightlessness with minimal crew involvement,” explains Jutta Krause of the payload development team. “Research teams prepare their experiments and make use of existing or custom-built ‘experiment units’, which are each about the size of a box of pocket tissues.
“Once slotted into Kubik by an astronaut, they are automatically activated through internal electrical connections, running autonomously on a programmed timeline until they are finally retrieved for return to Earth.
“At the centre of the temperature-controlled Kubik is a centrifuge to simulate gravity, so double experiments can be run with one unit in microgravity plus an Earth-gravity control or intermediate gravity level – giving researchers insight into whether any results they observe might be related to weightlessness or some other environmental factor, such as space radiation.”
The challenge for researchers is to miniaturise their experiments to fit within the confines of these compact units, adds team member Janine Liedtke: “We aim to refurbish experiment units as much as possible, so in some cases teams can adapt a previously flown unit, or else we can tailor new units to their needs.
“Why fly biological samples in weightlessness? Because we know many biological systems are partially gravity-dependent, so by ‘taking away’ gravity researchers can gain broader insight into how they work.
“To give an idea, Kubik has over the years hosted samples of bacteria, fungi, human white blood cells and stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cords, plant seedlings, and swimming tadpoles. A pending payload is designed to examine how microbial biofilms interact with rock surfaces across different gravity levels, from weightlessness to Mars and Earth gravity.”
Experiment times are limited because the samples are biological – part of the work is carefully planning the mission scenario. Even the hours needed for the ascent and descent of the experiment unit to and from Columbus are carefully accounted for, to ensure that they are back again within a couple of weeks of launch, depending on the sensitivity of the samples.
“We’ve been using the Soyuz, and now the SpaceX Dragon,” adds Jutta. “Typically, when one vehicle goes up another one comes down. This ensures that experiments can be up- and downloaded rapidly.
“A fixative is often added to an experiment at its conclusion, so researchers get to examine it as it was in microgravity. Additionally, units can be refrigerated during their return trip.”
Twelve experiments from ESA and national space agencies have so far been run in Kubik, with ESA planning seven more by the end of this decade. The facility is due to be upgraded with new electronics, to offer more features and keep it fully operational into its second decade.
Contact Jutta.Krause@esa.int for more information.
The Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite takes us over the Atlantic Ocean close to Spain and Portugal where the sky not only features clouds but also criss-cross tracks from maritime vessels.
The familiar condensation trails – or contrails – we see in the sky usually come from aircraft, so it might seem strange that ships can also occasionally leave their mark in the sky. This rarely seen maritime twist on aircraft contrails was captured by Sentinel-3A on 16 January 2018. Known as ship tracks, these narrow cloud streaks form when water vapour condenses around small particles that ships emit in their exhaust fumes. They typically form when low-lying stratus and cumulus clouds are present and when the air surrounding the ship is calm.
As the image shows, several shipping lanes intersect off the coast of Spain and Portugal. Although the Strait of Gibraltar is a busy shipping lane, with numerous ships travelling in and out of the Mediterranean Sea, there are no ship tracks visible here in the image. Most tracks are several hundreds of kilometres off shore.
Like aircraft contrails, ship tracks may also play a role in our climate by reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface or conversely by trapping the Sun’s radiation in our atmosphere – but this remains an uncertain aspect of climate science.
The Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite carries a suite of sensors including an ocean and land colour instrument, which was used to capture this image, also featured on the Earth from Space video programme.
One space lab, five spacecraft, 10 years of success. Nearly a decade ago, the Columbus laboratory set sail for humanity’s new world in space.
Shortly afterwards, the first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) arrived at the International Space Station as the most reliable and complex spacecraft ever built in Europe.
The event was a unique opportunity to re-live some exciting milestones, connect live to the Station and look into space exploration plans.
The larger Columbus family of planners, builders, scientists, support teams and astronauts gathered in ESTEC, the Netherlands on February 7 2018 to celebrate the past, present and future of Europe’s major contributions to the Station.
On 7 February 2018, 10 years to the day that Europe’s Columbus space laboratory was launched to the International Space Station, 20 lucky clubbers got a taste of weightlessness – not to conduct gravity-free science but to party with superstar DJs Steve Aoki, W&W and Le Shuuk.
Taking off from Frankfurt airport and organised by BigCityBeats, the World Club Dome project served as a teaser party for a bigger event on Earth in June. The aircraft flew up and down angled at 45º – at the top of the curve the passengers and experiments experience around 20 seconds of microgravity. Before and after the weightless period, increased gravity of up to 2 g is part of the ride.
ESA astronauts Pedro Duque and Jean-Francois Clervoy joined the weightless flight and provided background and safety tips to the DJs and party-goers.
The aircraft was on loan from its usual airport in Bordeaux, France, where it is used for scientific research and testing equipment for spaceflight. These flights are the only way to test microgravity with humans without going through lengthy astronaut-training and flights to the International Space Station. For this reason, parabolic flights are often used to validate space instruments and train astronauts before spaceflight.
ESA’s parabolic flight campaigns for science and technology investigations are generally performed twice a year, in spring and autumn.
ESA, Fraport Frankfurt and the City of Frankfurt and BigCityBeats combined a fascination of science with the joy and fun of dancing in this world’s-first flight.
More about ESA’s parabolic flights here: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Human_Spaceflight/Research/Parabolic_flights
A trio of future explorers take part in a ‘rover sim’, practising driving a virtual rover across a rocky lunar landscape.
Hannah and Lukas, from Gymnasium Michelstadt, and Lilly, from the Schule auf der Aue, in Münster, were at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, recently, to gain practical workplace experience.
The three worked as a team, responsible for surface operations, navigation and driving.
18 secondary school teachers from 11 different ESA member states attended a 2 1/2 days workshop on robotics.
The teachers used LEGO Mindstorms and Arduino to explore the Martian surface and manage scientific experiments.
Week In Images
5-9 February 2018