Author: Gabriele Betancourt

Scientists using NASA-NSF Telescope Discover Gravitational Waves from Big Bang – UPDATE

Scientists using NASA-NSF Telescope Discover Gravitational Waves from Big Bang – UPDATE

UPDATE, February 2, 2015:  After further analysis, scientists involved in this “discovery” retracted it.    The Associated Press quotes Brian Keating as saying “we’re essentially retracting the claim” in a new paper.  “It’s disappointing … but it’s important to know the truth.

ORIGINAL STORY, March 20, 2014: Scientists using a telescope in Antarctica equipped with sensors developed by NASA announced on Monday that they discovered evidence of gravitational waves produced by the Big Bang that many believe created our universe.

Understanding the origin and evolution of the universe is a scientific quest dating back centuries.  Today, most scientists believe an event called the Big Bang started it all, though what created the Big Bang is unknown and only theories exist about what happened in the first moments afterwards.

Based on observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the universe is calculated to be 13.8 billion years old and NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have peered back through about 13.3 billion of those years.  NASA’s COBE and WMAP satellites as well as the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Planck mission have studied light – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – that originated from an even younger universe and began to stream through space 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

What happened before that remains a mystery.  One theory is that in the fractions of a second after the Big Bang, a period of “inflation” took place where theoretical particles called “inflatons” pushed space-time apart.  Eventually stars, galaxies, planets and the other objects and phenomena observable today formed.  Some scientists theorize that the inflatons continued to form new universes in a process dubbed “eternal inflation” with “infinite pocket universes” creating a multiverse.  Andrei Linde of Stanford was quoted by New Scientist as saying that “[i]f inflation is there, the multiverse is there.”

The findings from the BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica announced this week by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) relate to an infinitesimal period of time – a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second – after the Big Bang.  Inflation theory posits that the events occurring at that time created gravitational waves that can still be detected today.  The observations with BICEP2 support that theory.

BICEP2 found a characteristic swirly pattern in the polarization of the light left over from the Big Bang (the CMB) that could only be caused by gravitational waves. Waves of light are polarized when they tend to wiggle in one particular direction.  Gravitational waves – ripples in space-time caused by the motion of massive objects like those being flung outward during the violent expansion of inflation – would polarize light as they swept through the universe.  The Harvard-Smithsonian CfA announcement said the BICEP2 data “represent the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time.”

BICEP2 is a radio telescope funded by NSF, which also runs the South Pole Station where BICEP2 is located.  NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed the superconductor-based BICEP2 detectors.  Jamie Bock, who has joint appointments with JPL and Caltech, is co-director of the project and said that it already was known that the Big Bang produced density waves, but these observations are the first to show that gravitational waves were also produced.

The BICEP2 findings support inflation theory, but remain to be corroborated by subsequent studies, a sine qua non of the scientific process.  Nonetheless, the astrophysics community is energized.

In the meantime, assuming the result holds, the implications are tantalizing: it solidifies the theory of inflation and greatly narrows the pool of inflation models that can be correct. Furthermore, it again proves Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves.

BICEP2 is not the only telescope searching for signs of inflation.  Among the others is NSF’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), a large ground-based experiment designed to detect gravitational waves directly.  Work is now being done to upgrade the detectors in the facility and “Advanced LIGO” should begin operations this year.  The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) is a potential NASA-ESA mission that would seek to detect gravitational waves directly using three separated spacecraft.  It received a relatively low priority (priority 3) in the National Research Council’s most recent Decadal Survey for astrophysics because the technology is not mature.  ESA plans to launch a technology demonstration for such a mission, LISA Pathfinder, next year.

BICEP2 is an international collaboration involving 11 institutions: Caltech, JPL, UC San Diego, Harvard, NIST Boulder, Stanford, University of British Columbia, University of Chicago, University of Minnesota, University of Toronto and University of Wales Cardiff.  BICEP stands for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation.  This was the second phase of the BICEP experiment, hence the designation BICEP2.

ISPCS: Constrained Budgets Have Upside — Innovation

ISPCS: Constrained Budgets Have Upside — Innovation

Established and entrepreneurial space companies met last week at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight  (ISPCS), where innovation was touted as one solution to budgetary constraints both in industry and the government.

NASA was not represented at the symposium because of the government shutdown, but Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, expressed the constraints on NASA’s budget by comparing it to how much the nation spends yearly on beer — $18 billion for NASA versus about $100 billion on beer.  Industry faces similar funding challenges, but Jon Gertner, Editor-at-Large of the magazine Fast Company, and others said that has one good side-effect: innovation.

In his keynote address, Gertner used a narrative about the development of the transistor at Bell Labs as a metaphor for how innovations are often under-rated at the beginning:  “Even when we think we understand the value of a breakthrough, we probably don’t.”  During a session entitled “Environments that Foster Innovation,” panelists Cassie Kloberdanz of Sierra Nevada, Makenzie Lystrup of Ball Aerospace, and Chris Boshuizen of Planet Labs discussed various elements of their current and past work environments that led to better innovation.  (Planet Labs is a small start-up that is planning to launch a constellation of 28 earth imaging cubesats and provide free, real-time data about the planet.) They include promoting inclusivity, allowing workers to find their passion and grow into their positions, and modeling the business practices and faster turnaround time after other industries that are experiencing success.

Unexpected breakthroughs like the ones Gertner mentioned are a subset of the “unknown unknowns” that were discussed at ISPCS.  Failures encountered along the way are another.  Safety and reliability are paramount in the commercial and personal spaceflight business, participants emphasized.  There seemed to be consensus that human fatalities would be difficult for the industry if they happened relatively early on.  Alan Ladwig, who recently retired from NASA and founded To Orbit Productions, spoke of the inherent risks of spaceflight in his keynote address, and recommended that the space tourism industry develop a comprehensive contingency plan in case of an accident.  He also wondered aloud why deaths related to spaceflight are perceived so differently from deaths due to automobile accidents or military activities.  Perhaps, he suggested, equating space tourism with more commonplace activities would reduce that disparity.

One area of debate at the symposium was whether space is inherently interesting to the average person.  Some believe it is.  Pat Hynes of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium mentioned an upcoming reality show where contestants will compete for a ticket to space.  Sean Mahoney from Masten Space Systems said that people are excited about space worldwide: “[space] is our new exploration story.”

Others, however, lamented that the public no longer feels the excitement of the space race era.  Duane Ratliff of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and Shotwell remarked that in the 1960s and 1970s, things were different; the public was much more engaged with the space program.  Ratliff noted that in that era, children owned lunchboxes with astronauts on the side. These days, he said, it is harder to generate excitement among the public about the International Space Station, for example, because they cannot see or touch it and therefore it must be made more accessible.   CASIS is a non-profit whose purpose is to find non-NASA users for the ISS.

Although “international” is part of the symposium’s title, there was no obvious international showing in attendees or presenters.  Even in the dialogue, the American focus was evident: Ratliff talked about how decisions on what experiments will fly on the ISS should benefit U.S. citizens; Paul Guthrie of the Tauri Group discussed how innovation contributes to the U.S. economy; and Bob Allen of Innovation, Design, Entertainment, Art and Storytelling (IDEAS) exclaimed at one point that “We [Americans] own space. Like it or not, we do.”  About the only mention of international space activities was by Boeing’s John Elbon, who praised the international partnership that built and operates the International Space Station.

ISPCS 2013 is a familial symposium, and break times certainly hummed with both greetings from friends and acquaintances and networking powwows.   Although many attendees were from large, well-known corporations, there was also a strong showing of emerging small startups, eager to find their niche and make their mark on the field.

It is difficult to say whether the tone would have been different if NASA representatives had been present, but perhaps it is symbolic that even with government shut down, the symposium went on and was a success.The symposium agenda can be found on the ISPCS website and videos of the sessions should be uploaded there soon.

Curiosity Finds No Methane on Mars

Curiosity Finds No Methane on Mars

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has not yet found signs of methane on Mars, the agency reports.  Methane is of interest to scientists because it may be a sign of life.

The lack of methane came as a surprise to some scientists, since in the past decade several reported observing signatures of methane through observations using Earth-based telescopes and instruments on spacecraft orbiting Mars.

Curiosity, however, is analyzing samples in-situ—on the surface of Mars.  Given the sensitivity of the instrument that the rover used to analyze six samples of the Martian atmosphere at surface level, the lack of detection means that the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is no more than 1.3 parts per billion. This is nearly six times less than recent measurements made by other scientists, and 50 million times less than the amount of methane on Earth.

The finding greatly reduces the probability that there are methane-producing microbes on Mars, but does not mean there is no chance for life there.  Many types of microbes do not produce methane.

More than 90 percent of the methane on Earth is produced biologically as living organisms digest nutrients.  Although the Mars environment is much harsher than that of Earth, it has been postulated that microbial life may exist under the Martian surface, shielded from the cold, dry, and radiation-bathed surface.  Methane can also be produced by geologic processes such as volcanoes or even impacts from comets and meteorites laced with methane.  Methane has been found on several other planets in our solar system, as well as some of their moons.  It has even been observed at a planet outside of our solar system.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or MAVEN, a NASA mission that is scheduled to launch in November, will analyze how the atmosphere of Mars has changed with time, but will not be equipped to specifically search for methane. However, a European satellite with the objective to search for gases such as methane is anticipated to arrive at Mars in 2016.  The ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was initially part of a long-term collaboration between NASA and ESA involving a suite of Mars spacecraft for launch in 2016, 2018 and 2020.  NASA had to withdraw from that collaboration for budgetary reasons, but is providing Electra communications relay and navigation equipment for the TGO mission.

Technical Experts Weigh In On NASA's Asteroid Retrieval Mission

Technical Experts Weigh In On NASA's Asteroid Retrieval Mission

On Tuesday,  Ball Aerospace held the second “Target NEO” workshop on the technical challenges and opportunities of exploring Near Earth Objects (NEOs), especially asteroids and NASA’s new Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM).

The workshop was a follow-up to the February 2011 Target NEO workshop sponsored by the George Washington University Space Policy Institute and Ball Aerospace.  That workshop was in response to President Obama’s 2010 call to send humans to an asteroid by 2025. The agenda for that workshop centered around gathering information to achieve that goal.

Tuesday’s “Target NEO 2” workshop focused on the Obama Administration’s latest iteration of that goal—deploying a robotic probe to capture an asteroid, redirecting it into lunar orbit, and sending astronauts there to study and possibly extract a sample of it. This is variously referred to as the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, Asteroid Return Mission, or Asteroid Redirect Mission, and is part of what NASA calls an asteroid strategy that in turn is part of an asteroid initiative.

The six sessions featured a variety of policy, science, and management experts.

The workshop started off optimistically with a presentation by William Gerstenmaier, the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, on the current thoughts and capabilities for ARM. The proposed timeframe is to launch a robotic probe by 2017 to travel to the asteroid and capture it, with the possibility of redirecting it into lunar orbit and launching a crew to visit it in 2021, which is the first time the Space Launch System is scheduled to send an Orion spacecraft with a crew into space.

Gerstenmaier stressed that ARM is a valuable mission because it would build upon technologies that NASA has already marked as priorities and that are currently in development, such as solar electric propulsion. He made it clear that the main thrust behind this effort is not science, but rather demonstrating that the United States can send people to Mars by the 2030s.  He asserted that this mission would build off already-existing infrastructure and personnel, while at the same time expanding the country’s operational and technical capabilities in ways that activities on the International Space Station cannot.

Later sessions delved into questions about the technical and scientific feasibility of an asteroid retrieval mission. Determining how many NEOs are suitable for this mission requires a combination of modeling and observation. The criteria for a satisfactory target asteroid are tough: the orbit must be close to the Earth (less than about .05 astronomical units, or about 20 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon), have a low velocity relative to that of the Earth (less than about 2.5 kilometers per second) as well as a fairly circular orbit, and should not be tumbling or spinning very quickly. Not surprisingly, models suggest that an asteroid with these characteristics will be hard to find, even though William Bottke of Southwest Research Institute said that observations discover about eight times more ARM candidates than models predict. Still, out of the 1,000 near-Earth asteroids observed each year, only about 2.5 of those meet the criteria to be a potential target, Paul Chodas from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said.

A large mission design driver comes from the physical properties of the target asteroid, but even after a target is identified, which may be as late as 6 months before launch, various panelists showed that the size, mass, orbital path, and tumbling motion will still be very uncertain.  Andrew Rivkin of the Applied Physics Lab (APL) said that scientists have rarely been able to directly measure the size of an asteroid. Instead, the absolute magnitude, or brightness as seen from the earth, is used as a proxy for the size. Furthermore, if scientists cannot determine the composition of the target, the mass will be uncertain. Rivkin said this uncertainty might be by a factor of up to 25-30. Carlos Roithmayr from NASA’s Langley Research Center and Stephen Broschart from JPL reminded the audience that this greatly affects the propellant required for the mission; an asteroid that is too massive to retrieve with the planned fuel budget may render the mission impossible. The composition of the asteroid also affects the technology used on the spacecraft: a “sand bar” must be treated very differently than a rock.

Towards the end of the day-long workshop, panelists expressed mixed feelings about ARM.  Gentry Lee, Chief Engineer for the Planetary Sciences Directorate of JPL, reminded the audience that the uncertainties in the mission, such as mass and composition of the asteroid, would translate into the need for a time consuming and expensive test program prior to launch.  At the same time, Lee was hopeful that a mission like this could restore the type of collaboration among NASA’s field centers to what it was during the Apollo era in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Former astronaut Tom Jones pointed out that this mission could demonstrate U.S. leadership in space while at the same time providing an opportunity to forge international collaboration. He also believes it will generate excitement for space exploration from the public and Congress. Conversely, other panelists worried that the proposed schedule was too aggressive and the funding situation is questionable.   But Gentry Lee offered that perhaps some progress in the field of human spaceflight is better than being stalled; since this mission now has visibility and support from the administration, it may be worthwhile to pursue.

A written report from the workshop will be released in about a month. In the meantime, the public can comment on the draft, which will be uploaded onto the workshop website:

Editor’s Note: welcomes Gabriele Betancourt-Martinez as a correspondent for the website.   She is a third year PhD student studying astrophysics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and does her research at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Before starting graduate school, she was a Lloyd V. Berkner Space Policy Intern with the Space Studies Board of the National Academies, and a consultant for the European Science Foundation, European Space Sciences Committee in Strasbourg, France.  She has a B.S. in Astronomy and Physics from Yale University.