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Giant galaxy hides its secrets

Galaxy NGC 4696

A supermassive black hole beats at the heart of huge elliptical galaxy NGC 4696.

This picture, taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, shows NGC 4696, the largest galaxy in the Centaurus Cluster (also known as galaxy cluster Abell 3526).

NGC 4696 is an elliptical-shaped galaxy with a difference. Lacking the complex structure and active star formation of their spiral galaxy cousins, elliptical galaxies are usually little more than shapeless, albeit huge, collections of ageing stars.

Most likely formed by collisions between spiral galaxies, elliptical galaxies experience a brief burst of star formation triggered as interstellar dust and gas clouds crash into each other.

But this burst of star formation activity quickly leaves young elliptical galaxies exhausted. With no more gas to form new stars from, the galaxies grow older and fainter.

But NGC 4696 is more interesting than most elliptical galaxies.

A huge dust lane, around 30,000 light-years across, sweeping across the face of the galaxy is one way in which it looks different from most other elliptical galaxies. Viewed at certain wavelengths, strange thin filaments of ionised hydrogen gas are visible within it.

Looking at NGC 4696 at the optical and near-infrared wavelengths seen by Hubble gives a beautiful and dramatic view of the galaxy. But in fact, much of its inner turmoil is still hidden from view in this picture.

At the heart of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole is blowing out jets of matter at nearly the speed of light. When looked at in X-ray wavelengths, such as those visible from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, huge voids within the galaxy become visible, telltale signs of these jets’ enormous power to “clear out” large volumes of space of their gas and dust.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / Hubble and NASA.

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Joint missions to Mars

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have embarked on a joint program to explore Mars in the coming decades and selected the five science instruments for the first mission.

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2016, is the first of three joint robotic missions to the Red Planet. It will study the chemical makeup of the Martian atmosphere with a 1,000-fold increase in sensitivity over previous Mars orbiters.

The mission will focus on trace gases, including methane, which could be potentially geochemical or biological in origin and be indicators for the existence of life on Mars.

The mission also will serve as an additional communications relay for Mars surface missions beginning in 2018.

“Independently, NASA and ESA have made amazing discoveries up to this point,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“Working together, we’ll reduce duplication of effort, expand our capabilities and see results neither ever could have achieved alone.”

First five scientific instruments selected

NASA and ESA invited scientists worldwide to propose the spacecraft’s instruments. The five selected were from 19 proposals submitted in January. Both agencies evaluated the submissions and chose those with the best science value and lowest risk.

Map of methane in Mars' atmosphere

The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will map the variation of Martian methane with unprecedented accuracy, helping to determine whether it is biologically or volcanically produced.

The selection of the instruments begins the first phase of the new NASA-ESA alliance for future ventures to Mars. The instruments and the principal investigators are:

  • Mars Atmosphere Trace Molecule Occultation Spectrometer — A spectrometer designed to detect very low concentrations of the molecular components of the Martian atmosphere.
  • High Resolution Solar Occultation and Nadir Spectrometer — A spectrometer designed to detect traces of the components of the Martian atmosphere and to map where they are on the surface.
  • ExoMars Climate Sounder — An infrared radiometer that provides daily global data on dust, water vapour and other materials to provide the context for data analysis from the spectrometers.
  • High Resolution Colour Stereo Imager — A camera that provides four-colour stereo imaging at a resolution of two million pixels over an 8.5 kilometre (5.3 mile) swath.
  • Mars Atmospheric Global Imaging Experiment — A wide-angle, multi-spectral camera to provide global images of Mars in support of the other instruments.

The science teams on all the instruments have broad international participation from Europe and the United States, with important hardware contributions from Canada and Switzerland.

“To fully explore Mars, we want to marshal all the talents we can on Earth,” said David Southwood, ESA director for Science and Robotic Exploration.

Artist's impression of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft

Artist's impression of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter spacecraft, scheduled for launch in 2016. It will carry five science instruments plus an entry, descent and landing test vehicle.

“Now NASA and ESA are combining forces for the joint ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter mission. Mapping methane allows us to investigate further that most important of questions: Is Mars a living planet, and if not, can or will it become so in the future?”

Common purpose in Mars exploration

NASA and ESA share a common interest in conducting robotic missions to the Red Planet for scientific purposes and to prepare for possible human visits.

After a series of extensive discussions, the science heads of both agencies agreed on a plan of cooperation during a July 2009 meeting in Plymouth, England, later confirmed by ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement of intent that was signed in November 2009.

The plan consists of two Mars cooperative missions in 2016 and 2018, and a later joint sample return mission.

The 2016 mission features the European-built ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, a European-built small lander demonstrator, a primarily-US international science payload, and NASA-provided launch vehicle and communications components. ESA member states will provide additional instrument support.

The 2018 mission consists of a European rover with a drilling capability, a NASA rover capable of caching selected samples for potential future return to Earth, a NASA landing system, and a NASA launch vehicle.

These activities are designed to serve as the foundation of a cooperative program to increase science returns and move the agencies toward a joint Mars sample return mission in the 2020s.

Adapted from information issued by JPL / ESA / NASA.

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Comet mission on course

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft made a successful fly-by of asteroid Lutetia on July 10-11, but its real target is comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It will rendezvous with the comet in 2014, mapping it and studying it. It will then accompany the comet for months, from near the orbit of Jupiter down to its closest approach to the Sun.

In November 2014, Rosetta will deploy a mini-spacecraft called Philae to land on the comet’s nucleus.

This video was made just before Rosetta’s fly-by of Lutetia.

Adapted from information issued by Euronews / ESA.

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Zooming in on an asteroid

Approaching asteroid Lutetia

A sequence of images taken by the Rosetta spacecraft as it closed in on the asteroid Lutetia on July 10, 2010.

Europe’s comet-bound spacecraft Rosetta flew past the asteroid Lutetia on July 10, 2010, sending back tremendous images of the 130km-long rocky world.

The European Space Agency has put together this sequence of images (above) to show us what the view was like as Rosetta approached Lutetia. The rotation of the asteroid can be discerned, as can the craters pock-marking its surface.

Rosetta’s closest approach came at a distance of 3,162 kilometres.

Rosetta is on course for a rendezvous with its ultimate target, the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it will reach in 2014.

For more Rosetta images of Lutetia, see our earlier story, Asteroid fly-by success!

Adapted from information issued by OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / RSSD / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA.

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Asteroid fly-by success!

Asteroid Lutetia

An amazing image of asteroid Lutetia taken at the moment of closest approach during the fly-by successfully accomplished by the Rosetta spacecraft.

  • Fly-by of asteroid of Lutetia accomplished
  • Rosetta spacecraft worked flawlessly
  • Now on target for Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Asteroid Lutetia has been revealed as a battered world of many craters.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission has returned the first close-up images of the asteroid, showing that it is most probably a primitive survivor from the violent birth of the Solar System.

Asteroid Lutetia

At a distance of 36,000km, the OSIRIS Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) took this image of Lutetia, catching the planet Saturn in the background.

The fly-by has been a spectacular success with Rosetta performing faultlessly. Closest approach took place at 2:10am Sunday, Sydney time, (16:10 UTC Saturday), at a distance of 3,162 km.

The images show that Lutetia is heavily cratered, having suffered many impacts during its 4.5 billion years of existence. As Rosetta drew close, a giant bowl-shaped depression stretching across much of the asteroid rotated into view.

The images confirm that Lutetia is an elongated body, with its longest side around 130km.

The images come from the OSIRIS instrument, which combines a wide angle and a narrow angle camera. At closest approach, details down to a scale of 60 metres can be seen over the entire surface of Lutetia.

“I think this is a very old object. Tonight we have seen a remnant of the Solar System’s creation,” says Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Lindau.

Rosetta raced past the asteroid at 15 km/s, completing the fly-by in just one minute. But the cameras and other instruments had been working for hours and in some cases days beforehand, and will continue afterwards. Shortly after closest approach, Rosetta began transmitting data to Earth for processing.

Asteroid Lutetia

A sequence of images taken as Rosetta approached Lutetia. The first image was taken about 9.5 hours before closest approach, 510000 km from the asteroid; the last one about 1.5 hours before closest approach, 8,100 km from the asteroid. The resolution changes from 9.6 km/pixel to 1.5 km/pixel.

Asteroid Lutetia

The final sequence of images of Lutetia before Rosetta's closest approach.

Ready for its next target

Lutetia has been a mystery for many years. Ground-based telescopes have shown that the asteroid presents confusing characteristics.

In some respects it resembles a C-type asteroid, a primitive body left over from the formation of the Solar System. In others, it looks like an M-type asteroid. These have been associated with iron meteorites, are usually reddish in colour and thought to be fragments of the cores of much larger objects.

Rosetta operated a full suite of instruments at the encounter, looking for evidence of a thin atmosphere, magnetic effects, and surface chemical composition as well as the asteroid’s density.

Asteroid Lutetia

Farewell Lutetia — Rosetta looked back for a final glimpse as it zoomed past.

They also attempted to catch any dust grains that may have been floating in space near the asteroid for on-board analysis. The results from these instruments will come in time.

The fly-by marks the attainment of one of Rosetta’s main objectives. The spacecraft will now continue to its primary target, Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It will rendezvous with the comet in 2014, mapping it and studying it. It will then accompany the comet for months, from near the orbit of Jupiter down to its closest approach to the Sun.

In November 2014, Rosetta will deploy a mini-spacecraft called Philae to land on the comet nucleus.

Adapted from information issued by ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team  / MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / RSSD / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA.

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Remembering Halley

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of Giotto, the European Space Agency’s mission to Comet Halley.

Giotto was one of a small number of spacecraft sent to the famous comet, flying close by its nucleus and sending back remarkable, first-ever close-up images of a comet.

This video was released in 2006 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Giotto’s encounter with Halley, and details the many extraordinary things that were learned.

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Cosmic baby photo

The all-sky microwave image of the universe made by the Planck space telescope.

The all-sky microwave image of the universe made by the Planck space telescope.

  • Map of the entire sky at microwave wavelengths
  • Shows the afterglow of the Big Bang
  • Will lead to better understanding of cosmic evolution

Scientists operating Europe’s space telescope, Planck, have released the mission’s first image of the whole sky.

“This is the moment that Planck was conceived for,” says European Space Agency (ESA) Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, David Southwood.

Planck picks up microwave wavelengths. What it sees are microwaves coming from near and far in the universe.

In particular, it is studying the microwave “glow” left over from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago—the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). When we look at the CMBR, we’re seeing the oldest view we’ve ever had of the universe.

The CMBR has cooled right down from its fireball days, and is now at a temperature of about –270 degrees Celsius (only 2.7 degrees above absolute zero).

The new image is a map of the microwaves picked up from all different directions in space.

The oval shape of the map is similar to an oval-projection map of Earth, where cartographers take a round object (the Earth) and spread it out onto a flat shape. With Planck, it is a microwave map of the sky that is spread onto a flat surface.

Artist's impression of Planck

An artist's impression of the Planck telescope in its near-Earth location in space.

Why is the universe clumpy?

Stretching across the middle of the map is a mess of microwaves that come from sources within our Milky Way galaxy.

Of more interest is the mottled, reddish areas above and below. This is where Planck can see past the Milky Way to the distant universe beyond. The mottling comes from tiny temperature differences from one point to another in the CMBR.

In 1992, a forerunner of Planck, the Cosmic Microwave Background Explorer (COBE) spacecraft made the first detailed map of the CMBR. It showed the mottling effect.

The mottling effect is thought to reflect the way the universe has become “clumpy”—a combination of huge voids of empty space, and vast clusters and superclusters of galaxies.

Astronomers want to know why matter in the universe tended to clump into the clusters and superclusters, leaving the huge voids behind. It’s thought that the Big Bang explosion was “non-uniform”, ie. stuff spread out unevenly.

The mottling effect in the CMBR is thought to reflect that unevenness.

The initial discovery of the CMBR with ground-based antennae in 1964 led to its discoverers winning the Nobel Prize for Physics. This was followed by up another Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006 for two of the leaders of the COBE mission.

A scientific Eldorado

Planck is only a quarter of the way through its four-year mission. In that time, it will make four complete scans of the cosmos, building a very detailed map of the CMBR.

“We’re not giving the answer. We are opening the door to an Eldorado where scientists can seek the nuggets that will lead to deeper understanding of how our Universe came to be and how it works now,” says Southwood.

“The image itself and its remarkable quality is a tribute to the engineers who built and have operated Planck. Now the scientific harvest must begin.”

Story by Jonathan Nally, Editor,

Images courtesy ESA / LFI & HFI Consortia / C. Carreau

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Was Venus once habitable?

Artist’s concept of lightning on Venus

If Venus had more water in its distant past, could it have been a habitable planet like Earth?

  • Venus might once had have more water
  • Water split by sunlight; hydrogen/oxygen escaped to space
  • If it was wetter, could it have had life?

The Venus Express spacecraft is helping planetary scientists investigate whether Venus once had oceans. If it did, it may even have begun its existence as a habitable planet similar to Earth.

These days, Earth and Venus seem completely different. Earth is a lush, clement world teeming with life, whilst Venus is hellish, its surface roasting at temperatures of a furnace.

Venus in the ultraviolet

Sunlight breaks up water molecules in Venus' clouds, letting hydrogen and oxygen atoms to escape into space.

But underneath it all the two planets share a number of striking similarities. They are nearly identical in size and now, thanks to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Venus Express orbiter, planetary scientists are seeing other similarities too.

“The basic composition of Venus and Earth is very similar,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA Venus Express Project Scientist.

One difference stands out—the planet has very little water. Were the contents of Earth’s oceans to be spread evenly across Venus, they would create a layer 3km deep. If you were to condense the current amount of water vapour in Venus’ atmosphere onto its surface, it would create a global puddle just 3cm deep.

Water lost into space

Yet there is another similarity here. Billions of years ago, Venus probably had much more water. Venus Express has confirmed that the planet has lost a large quantity of water into space.

This happens because ultraviolet radiation from the Sun streams into Venus’ atmosphere and breaks the water molecules into their atoms—two of hydrogen and one of oxygen. These then escape to space.

Venus Express has measured the rate of this escape and confirmed that roughly twice as much hydrogen is escaping as oxygen. It’s therefore thought that water is the source of these escaping atoms.

It has also shown that a heavy form of hydrogen, called deuterium, is enriched in the upper echelons of Venus’s atmosphere, because the heavier hydrogen finds it harder to escape the planet’s grip.

Artist's impression of the Venus Express spacecraft

The Venus Express spacecraft is helping scientists study the water history of Venus.

“Everything points to there being large amounts of water on Venus in the past,” says Colin Wilson, Oxford University, UK. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there were oceans on the planet’s surface.

No oceans, but life anyway?

Eric Chassefière, Université Paris-Sud, France, has developed a computer model that suggests the water was largely atmospheric and existed only during the very earliest times, when the surface of the planet was completely molten.

As the water molecules were broken into atoms by sunlight and escaped into space, the subsequent drop in temperature probably triggered the solidification of the surface. In other words, no oceans.

Although it is difficult to test this hypothesis, it does raise a key question. If Venus ever did possess surface water, could planet have had an early habitable period?

Even if true, Chassefière’s model does not preclude the chance that colliding comets might have brought additional water to Venus after its surface solidified, and these could have created bodies of standing water in which life may have been able to form.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / MPS / DLR / IDA / J. Whatmore.

Rosetta’s blind date with Lutetia

Artist’s impression of Rosetta about to rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.

Artist’s impression of Rosetta's rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.

  • Rosetta probe on its way to a comet
  • Will fly past an asteroid on July 10
  • Comet rendezvous due in 2014

ESA’s comet-chaser spacecraft Rosetta is heading for a blind date with asteroid Lutetia. Rosetta does not yet know what Lutetia looks like up-close, but beautiful or otherwise, the two will meet on July10.

Like many first dates, Rosetta will meet Lutetia on a Saturday night, flying to within 3,200 km of the space rock. Rosetta started taking navigational sightings of Lutetia at the end of May so that ground controllers can determine any course corrections required to achieve their intended flyby distance.

The close pass will enable around two hours of good imaging. The spacecraft will instantly begin beaming the data back to Earth and the first pictures will be released later that evening.

Rosetta flew by asteroid Steins in 2008, and other space missions have encountered a handful of asteroids. Each asteroid has proven to be an individual and Lutetia is expected to continue the trend.

An animation of asteroid (2867) Steins

An animation of asteroid (2867) Steins, which was visited by Rosetta in September 2008.

The mystery of Lutetia

Although recent high-resolution ground-based images have given some idea of the overall shape of Lutetia, astronomers no idea what it looks like in detail. Rosetta will tell us that.

Orbiting in the main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, initially it was thought that Lutetia is around 95 km in diameter but only mildly off-circular. Recent estimates suggest 134 km, with a pronounced elongated shape. Rosetta will tell us for certain and will also investigate the composition of the asteroid, wherein lies another mystery.

By any measure, Lutetia is quite large. Planetary scientists believe that it is a primitive asteroid, left on the shelf for billions of years because no planet consumed it as the Solar System formed. Indeed, most measurements appear to back this picture, making the asteroid out to be a ‘C-type’, which contains primitive compounds of carbon.

However, some measurements suggest that Lutetia is an ‘M-type’, which could mean there are metals in its surface. “If Lutetia is a metallic asteroid then we have found a real winner,” says Rita Schulz, ESA Rosetta Project Scientist.

That’s because although metallic asteroids do exist, they are thought to be fragments of the metallic core of larger asteroids that have since been shattered into pieces. If Lutetia is made of metal or even contains large amounts of metal, Dr Schulz says that the traditional asteroid classification scheme will need rethinking. “C-class asteroids should not have metals on their surfaces,” she says.

A busy fly-by

Asteroid science stands to gain once this observational conundrum is resolved because Rosetta’s data will provide a valuable collection of ‘ground truths’ that can be used to resolve conflicting ground-based observations not just for Lutetia but for other asteroids as well.

For 36 hours around the moment of closest approach, Rosetta will be in almost continuous contact with the ground. The only breaks will come as Earth rotates and engineers have to switch from one tracking station to another.

Artist’s impression of Rosetta as it flies by asteroid Steins

Rosetta encountered asteroid Steins in 2008. Next stop is asteroid Lutetia on July 10, 2010.

Good contact is essential because the uncertainties in the asteroid’s position and shape may demand last minute fine-tuning to keep it centred in Rosetta’s instruments during the flyby. “The skeleton of the operation is in place, and we have the ability to update our plans at any time,” says Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager.

Stay in touch with the flyby as it happens by visiting the Rosetta blog.

Mission to a comet

Rosetta’s 11-year expedition began in March 2004, with an Ariane 5 launch from Kourou in French Guiana, and the spacecraft was then sent towards the outer Solar System. The long journey includes three gravity assists at Earth (2004, 2007, 2009), one at Mars (2007), and two asteroid encounters: (2867) Steins (2008) and (21) Lutetia (2010).

After the third Earth-gravity assist and a large deep-space manoeuvre, the spacecraft will go into hibernation (July 2011 – January 2014). During this period, Rosetta will record its maximum distances from the Sun (about 800 million kilometres) and Earth (about 1 thousand million kilometres).

The spacecraft will be reactivated prior to the comet-rendezvous manoeuvre, during which the thrusters will fire for several hours to slow the relative drift rate between the spacecraft and comet to about 25 m/s.

Built by EADS Astrium, the Rosetta probe consists of a 3,065-kg spacecraft (1,578-kg dry mass) designed to enter orbit around the comet’s nucleus in August 2014 after a series of gravity assist manoeuvres to gain enough orbital energy, with three swing-bys at Earth (March 2005, November 2007 and November 2009) and one at Mars (February 2007).

The spacecraft carries 11 science instruments to probe the comet’s nucleus and map its surface in fine detail. It will also land a package of instruments (the Philae Lander) to study some of the most primitive, unprocessed material in the Solar System.

The mission will provide clues to the physical and chemical processes at work during the formation of planets, beginning 4.6 billion years ago.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / C.Carreau / AOES Medialab / J. Huart.

10-billion-year-old cosmos mapped

Thousands of galaxies crowd into this Herschel image of the distant Universe.

Thousands of galaxies crowd into this Herschel image of the distant Universe. Each dot is an entire galaxy containing billions of stars.

  • Early galaxies grouped near dark matter
  • Map made using Herschel Space Observatory
  • Largest telescope ever put into space

For more than a decade, astronomers have been puzzled by bright galaxies in the distant universe that appear to be forming stars at phenomenal rates. What prompted the prolific star creation, they wondered. And what kind of environment did these galaxies inhabit?

Now, using a super-sensitive camera/spectrometer on the Herschel Space Observatory, astronomers have mapped the skies as they appeared 10 billion years ago.

The scientists discovered that these glistening galaxies preferentially occupy regions of the universe containing more dark matter and that collisions probably caused the abundant star production.

“All indications are that these galaxies are…crashing, merging, and possibly settling down at centres of large dark-matter halos,” said Asantha Cooray of the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

The information will enable scientists to adapt conventional theories of galaxy formation to accommodate the strange, star-filled versions.

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope

Artist's impression of the Herschel Space Telescope.

Largest space telescope

The European Space Agency’s Herschel observatory carries the largest astronomical telescope operating in space today; it collects data at far-infrared wavelengths invisible to the naked eye.

One of three cameras on Herschel, SPIRE has let Cooray and colleagues survey large areas of the sky, about 60 times the size of the full Moon.

The data analysed in this study was among the first to come from the Herschel Multi-Tiered Extragalactic Survey, the space observatory’s largest project.

Seb Oliver, a University of Sussex professor who leads the survey, called the findings exciting.

“It’s just the kind of thing we were hoping for from Herschel,” he said, “and was only possible because we can see so many thousands of galaxies. It will certainly give the theoreticians something to chew over.”

The Herschel Multi-Tiered Extragalactic Survey will continue to collect images over larger areas of the sky in order to build up a more complete picture of how galaxies have evolved and interacted over the past 10 billion years.

Adapted from information issued by UC Irvine / ESA & SPIRE Consortium & HerMES consortia.