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The Andromeda apparition

THE ANDROMEDA GALAXY is a huge spiral galaxy about 2.5 million light-years away from Earth, making it the nearest big galaxy to our Milky Way.

Both Andromeda and our Milky Way are moving through space toward each other, and are expected to crash head-on in about 4.5 billion years from now.

The European Space Agency’s fleet of space telescopes has captured views of Andromeda, also known as M31, in different wavelengths. Most of these wavelengths are invisible to the eye and each shows a different aspect of the galaxy’s nature.

Visible light, as seen by optical ground-based telescopes and our eyes, reveals the various stars that shine in the Andromeda Galaxy, yet it is just one small part of the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. There are many different wavelengths that are invisible to us but which are revealed by ESA’s orbiting telescopes.

Starting at the long wavelength end, the Planck spacecraft collects microwaves. These show up particles of incredibly cold dust, at just a few tens of degrees above absolute zero. Slightly higher temperature dust is revealed by the shorter, infrared wavelengths observed by the Herschel space telescope. This dust traces locations in the spiral arms of the Andromeda Galaxy where new stars are being born today.

The XMM-Newton telescope detects wavelengths shorter than visible light, collecting ultraviolet and X-rays. These show older stars, many nearing the end of their lives and others that have already exploded, sending shockwaves rolling through space. By monitoring the core of Andromeda since 2002, XMM-Newton has revealed many variable stars, some of which have undergone large stellar detonations known as novae.

Ultraviolet wavelengths also display the light from extremely massive stars. These are young stars that will not live long. They exhaust their nuclear fuel and explode as supernovae typically within a few tens of millions of years after they are born. The ultraviolet light is usually absorbed by dust and re-emitted as infrared, so the areas where ultraviolet light is seen directly correspond to relatively clear, dust-free parts of Andromeda.

By putting all of these observations together, and seeing Andromeda in its many different colours, astronomers are able to follow the life cycle of the stars.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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The day we met Halley

HISTORY WAS MADE 25 years ago when a small spacecraft swept to within 600 km of Halley’s comet. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Giotto probe was nearly destroyed by the encounter, but what it saw changed our picture of comets forever.

As debuts go, it doesn’t get any better than Giotto. The spacecraft was ESA’s first deep-space mission. Built to a design that drew on the Geos Earth-orbiting research satellites, it was fitted with shielding to protect it from the ‘sand-blasting’ it was going to receive as it sped through the comet’s tail.

It was originally conceived as a joint mission with NASA, the Tempel-2 Rendezvous-Halley Intercept mission. When the USA pulled out after budget cuts, ESA took the bold decision to forge on, finding Japan and Russia willing to contribute their own missions. Together, they sent a flotilla, with the Russian missions serving as pathfinders to guide Giotto to its dangerous encounter.

Comet Halley's nucleus

Giotto's encounter with Comet Halley provided the first ever opportunity to take images of a comet nucleus, which turned out to be blacker than coal.

Scientists, controllers and engineers gathered at ESA’s control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, on the night of 13-14 March 1986 to witness the flyby.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime event and it had a big impact on the general public,” says Giotto’s former Deputy Project Scientist, Gerhard Schwehm.

Heart of the comet

The scientific harvest from Giotto changed people’s perception of comets. By measuring its composition, Giotto confirmed Halley as a primitive remnant of the Solar System, billions of years old. It detected complex molecules locked in Halley’s ices that could have provided the chemical building blocks of life on Earth.

Yet the biggest triumph was the image of Halley itself. “It may sound simple to say that but the picture was the best thing, the moment you saw it…it was tremendous,” remembers Gerhard.

Countless people have seen the ghostly shimmer of Halley’s comet from Earth. Records of it stretch back to China in 240 BCE. It famously appears on the Bayeux Tapestry, and the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone used it to symbolize the star of Bethlehem in his masterpiece, The Adoration of the Magi.

Part of the Bayeux Tapestry

Comet Halley, in its 1066 appearance, is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry.

But none saw what his spacecraft namesake saw: the very heart of the comet, the nucleus.

Just 10 x 15 km, it surprised everyone by being darker than coal, reflecting just 4% of the light falling on its surface.

Instead of the whole surface boiling away, ‘jets’ were localized in specific areas.

Life after Halley

Giotto nearly did not survive. As expected, the probe was pummelled. Dust from the comet ripped into it at speeds of 68 km/s, eroding away the shielding and the sensors, destroying the camera.

But Giotto itself lived on and was sent to meet a second comet, Grigg-Skjellerup, in 1992.

Since Giotto’s encounter, Halley has continued its journey, covering about a third of its 76-year orbit. Although it will not return until 2061, there are other cometary targets.

“Giotto ignited the planetary science community in Europe—we had demonstrated that we could successfully lead demanding missions—and people started thinking about what else we could do,” says Gerhard.

Artist's impression of the Rosetta spacecraft

ESA's Rosetta spacecraft is on its way to a rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.

ESA’s Rosetta mission is next. The spacecraft is en route to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, for arrival in 2014. It will study the comet and release a lander to analyse the surface material.

Recently, Rosetta flew by asteroid Lutetia and is now preparing to hibernate for the rest of its cruise. Once at Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta will follow the comet for months.

Where Giotto gave us the night of the comet, Rosetta promises the year of the comet.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Image credits: Halley Multicolour Camera Team / Giotto Project / ESA / AOES Medialab.

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Scars on Mars

Elongated crater on Mars

This elongated crater on Mars is about 78km in length and reaches a depth of 2km. It was probably formed by the impact of a train of projectiles.

A NEW IMAGE OF AN ELONGATED impact crater in the southern hemisphere of Mars hints at a violent origin. Scientists think it could have been carved out by a train of meteoroid projectiles striking the planet at a shallow angle.

Image of a region of Mars including Huygens crater

The elongated crater (centre) is located near the 450km-wide Huygens crater.

The image above was captured by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft on 4 August 2010, and the smallest objects distinguishable by the camera are about 15m across.

The unnamed crater sits just to the south of the much larger Huygens basin (see image at right). It is about 78km in length, opens from just under 10km wide at one end to 25km at the other, and reaches a depth of 2km.

Impact craters are generally round because the projectiles that create them push into the ground before the shockwave of the impact can explode outwards. So why is this one elongated?

The clue comes from the surrounding smattering of material, thrown out in the initial impact. This ‘ejecta blanket’ is shaped like a butterfly’s wings, with two distinct lobes. It hints that two projectiles, possibly halves of a once-intact body, slammed into the surface here.

And the formation of this sort of elongated feature is not finished. In a few tens of millions of years, the Martian moon Phobos will plough into the planet, breaking up in the process, and likely creating new crater chains across the surface.

3D view of the crater

A striking perspective view of the crater.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum) / NASA / MGS / MOLA Science Team.

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ATV docks with Space Station

The European Space Agency’s Johannes Kepler Automated Transfer Vehicle, or space cargo ship, has docked with the International Space Station … as seen in the video footage above.

The video below explains the launch and purpose of the ATV.

Videos courtesy ESA.

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Italian in orbit

FROM DECEMBER 2010 to May 2011, Paolo Nespoli, ESA’s Italian astronaut, is carrying out an intensive programme of tasks, experiments and educational activities aboard the International Space Station.

His duties include participating in the docking operations to receive two cargo spacecraft: Europe’s second Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) Johannes Kepler, and the second Japanese HII Transfer Vehicle (HTV).

More than 30 experiments are planned during the mission, a programme that will cover human research, fluid physics, radiation, biology and technology demonstrations. Educational activities are also scheduled during this six-month mission.

The overall project is called MagISStra, combining the Latin word ‘magistra’, a female teacher, with ISS, the acronym of the International Space Station. This Latin influence not only brings an Italian flavour to the project, it also echoes the humanistic value of the mission.

Please note this video was produced in December 2010, before Nespoli launched to the ISS. He arrived at the station aboard Soyuz flight TMA-20 on December 15, 2010, and is due to return in May 2011.

More information can be found ESA’s MagISStra site.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Cargo ship on way to Space Station

Photo showing boosters being jettisoned from the Ariane 5

Photo captured from the real-time video from the Ariane 5 launcher, looking back down the main body of the rocket and showing the jettisoning of the booster rockets.

EUROPE’S SECOND Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Johannes Kepler, has been launched into its targeted low orbit by an Ariane 5 rocket. The unmanned supply ship is planned to deliver critical supplies and re-boost the International Space Station (ISS) during its almost four-month mission.

The Ariane 5 lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 8:50am Thursday, February 17, Sydney time (21:50 GMT Wednesday).

The launcher and its 20-tonne payload flew over the Atlantic towards the Azores and Europe. An initial 8-minute burn of the upper stage injected it, with Johannes Kepler, into a low orbit inclined at 51.6 degrees to the equator.

After a 42-minute coast, the upper stage reignited for 30 seconds to circularise the orbit at an altitude of 260 kilometres. About 64 minutes into flight, the unmanned supply ship separated safely from the spent upper stage.

The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) deployed its four solar wings soon after proceed with early orbit operations to begin its climb to the International Space Station (ISS).

First of four

“This launch takes place in a crowded and changing manifest for the ISS access, with HTV, Progress, ATV and the Shuttle coming and going,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General. “In October last year we had fixed the ATV launch schedule with our international partners, and we could keep that schedule thanks to the expertise and dedication of the European industry and Arianespace, of ESA and CNES teams and of our international partners.”

“ATV-2 is the first of a production of four and this new step is the result of technical expertise and political support from Member States to ESA and to international cooperation. We are now looking for the docking to ISS to declare success.”

“ATV Johannes Kepler is inaugurating our regular service line to the ISS,”added Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA’s Director for Human Spaceflight.

For the first time, ESA used a special access device to load last-minute cargo items. “This late access confirms ATV’s role as a critical resupply vehicle for the Space Station,” she said.

Artist's impression of ATV Johannes Kepler

Artist's impression of the Automated Transfer Vehicle Johannes Kepler.

“Right now, integration for the next vehicle in line, Edoardo Amaldi, will be finished in Europe in August 2011, and production is under way for ATV-4 and -5.” Mrs Di Pippo confirmed that “Edoardo Amaldi is planned for launch in about 12 months. The other two will follow by 2014.”

Flying in the same orbital plane as the Station but well below its 350 km-high orbit, ATV is being constantly monitored by the dedicated ESA/CNES ATV Control Centre (ATV-CC) in Toulouse, France, in coordination with the ISS control centres in Moscow and Houston.

During the coming week, ATV will adjust its orbit to rendezvous with the ISS for docking on Thursday, 24 February.

Europe’s smart supply ship

Unlike its 2008 predecessor, ATV Jules Verne, ATV Johannes Kepler will not perform practice demonstration manoeuvres. Instead, it will dock directly and autonomously with Russia’s Zvezda module to deliver cargo, propellant and oxygen to the orbital outpost.

The ATVs are contributing to the support and maintenance of the ISS together with Russia’s Progress and Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle, the second of which is now docked to the European-built Node-2.

These three independent servicing systems provide a secure logistics lifeline, while NASA’s space shuttle is going to be phased out later this year.

This launch also marks the 200th flight of an Ariane vehicle since the debut of 24 December 1979. The total includes 116 flights of Ariane 4 from 1988 to 2003 and 56 flights of Ariane 5 from 1996.

Now in its fourth decade of service, Europe’s family of launchers has lofted some 330 payloads to Earth orbit and beyond. Among these, 31 were for ESA, including deep-space probes, astronomical observatories, meteorology, remote sensing and communication satellites, as well as ISS resupply ships.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Image credits: ESA / D. Ducros.

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Johannes Kepler to reach orbit

IN RECENT WEEKS two space freighters, the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV, have arrived at the International Space Station. But the most important logistics spacecraft for the ISS is Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle. ATV-2, also known as Johannes Kepler, is to be launched from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying 7 tonnes of cargo.

Launch is due at 22:13:27 UTC on February 15 (19:13:27 Kourou time or 23:13:27 Central European Time), which is 9:13am on February 16, Sydney time in Australia.

The two videos shown here, courtesy of the European Space Agency, describe the purpose of the mission.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Europe’s year ahead in space

THIS VIDEO FROM THE European Space Agency (ESA) gives a preview of what to expect in 2011.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight: it was half a century ago that Yuri Gagarin made his historic orbit around our planet. Today, cosmonauts and astronauts from many nations are living and working together aboard the International Space Station.

Among them is ESA’s Paolo Nespoli, due to return in May from the 3rd European long-duration stay. He will later be joined by fellow ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori aboard one of the last space shuttle missions.

Other important ESA missions in 2011 are the debut of the second ATV unmanned cargo craft, planned for launch by Ariane 5 in February. Later, Europe’s spaceport in French Guyana will see the inaugural launches of the Russian Soyuz rocket and the new Vega.

ESA is also expecting interesting results from its Earth observing satellites and its Mars probe, Mars Express.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Jupiter mission proposal firms up

Artist's impression of Jupiter Europa Orbiter and Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter at Jupiter

Artist's impression of the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter and Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter spacecraft investigating the moons of Jupiter.

US AND EUROPEAN SCIENTISTS have outlined their joint vision for the Europa Jupiter System Mission…the potential next new mission to the Jupiter system.

With input from scientists around the world, scientists on the joint NASA-European Space Agency (ESA) definition team have agreed that the overarching theme for the Europa Jupiter System Mission will be investigating ‘the emergence of habitable worlds’ around gas giant planets.

Artist's impressions of the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (top) and Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter.

Artist's impressions of the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (top) and Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter.

The mission would place spacecraft into orbit around two of Jupiter’s moons—a NASA orbiter around Europa called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, and an ESA orbiter around Ganymede called the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter.

“The Europa Jupiter System Mission will create a leap in scientific knowledge about the moons of Jupiter and their potential to harbour life,” said Bob Pappalardo, the pre-project scientist for the proposed Jupiter Europa Orbiter, who is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The proposed mission singles out the icy moons Europa and Ganymede as special worlds that can lead to a broader understanding of the Jovian system and of the possibility of life in our Solar System and beyond.

They are natural laboratories for analysing the nature, evolution and potential habitability of icy worlds, because they are believed to present two different kinds of sub-surface oceans.

A tale of two moons

The Jupiter Europa Orbiter would characterise the relatively thin ice shell above Europa’s ocean, the extent of that ocean, the materials composing its internal layers, and the way surface features such as ridges and “freckles” formed.

It will also identify candidate sites for potential future landers.

Instruments that might be on board could include a laser altimeter, an ice-penetrating radar, spectrometers that can obtain data in visible, infrared and ultraviolet radiation, and cameras with narrow- and wide-angle capabilities.

Diagram showing possible ocean beneath the crust of Europa

Scientist's think Europa has an ocean of water beneath an icy crust. It's possible that energy sources such as volcanoes could have driven the evolution of life there.

Ganymede is thought to have a thicker ice shell, with its interior ocean sandwiched between ice above and below. ESA’s Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would investigate this different kind of internal structure.

The Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter would also study the intrinsic magnetic field that makes Ganymede unique among all the solar system’s known moons.

This orbiter’s instruments could include a laser altimeter, spectrometers and cameras, plus instruments to measure magnetic and electric fields, and particles in the space surrounding Ganymede

The two orbiters would also study other large Jovian moons, Io and Callisto, with an eye towards exploring the Jupiter system as an archetype for other gas giant planets.

NASA and ESA officials gave the Europa Jupiter System Mission proposal priority status for continued study in 2009, agreeing that it was the most technically feasible of the outer Solar System flagship missions under consideration.

Over the next few months, NASA officials will be analysing the joint strategy and awaiting the outcome of the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey by the National Research Council of the US National Academies. That survey will serve as a roadmap for new NASA planetary missions for the decade beginning 2013.

Adapted from information issued by NASA. Images courtesy NASA / M. Carroll.

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Lunar lander aims for pole position

Artist's impression of the ESA lunar south pole explorer

Artist's impression of the European Space Agency's unmanned lunar south pole explorer, due for launch in 2018.

The first mission aiming to visit the Moon’s south pole has taken a significant step forward, with the European Space Agency signing a design study contract with the EADS-Astrium company in Berlin, Germany.

The unmanned mission is intended to land in the mountainous and heavily cratered terrain of the lunar south pole in 2018.

This could be a prime location for future human explorers because it offers almost continuous sunlight for power and potential access to vital resources such as water ice.

To reach the surface safely, the lander must precisely find its way to a mountain peak or crater rim, carefully avoiding boulders and steep slopes, before gently setting down to take in one of the most spectacular views in the Solar System.

The Moon is a favoured target for the human exploration missions outlined in the ‘Global Exploration Strategy’ by 14 space agencies around the world. The strategy supports international space exploration and calls for further studies of the Moon and Mars—places where humans will one day live and work.

The new study is important because now, following the preliminary planning and feasibility studies, the mission’s design will be continued and some of the key technologies will be developed and tested for the first time.

First, the most recent topographic data covering the Moon’s south pole will be analysed in detail to find promising landing sites. The target area is poorly understood and only now are scientists beginning to get the information needed to consider landing and operating a mission there.

Then, the robotic lander will be designed down to the level of its various subsystems, such as propulsion and navigation.

The study will culminate in a ‘Preliminary System Requirements Review’ in 2012, which will provide the basis for the final design of the mission and lander.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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