By Benjamin Vermette

The above is an artist's depiction of the view from "Planet Nine". Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The above is an artist's depiction of the view from "Planet Nine". Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Is there a 9th planet in our solar system?

Caltech researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown have found evidence of a ninth planet in our solar system. 

The planet, dubbed Planet Nine, would have a mass 10 times that of Earth and take 10,000 to 20,000 years to make a single revolution around the Sun, hence its late discovery (which shouldn’t be called a discovery yet). Planet Nine would be orbiting the Sun 20 times further out than does Neptune – the outermost planet –, if it exists, and on a highly-elliptical orbit.

Note that the planet was not observed directly: strange behaviours of some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) lead to the conclusion that a ninth planet might be required. "Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there," says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science. "For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system's planetary census is incomplete."

Evidence and a mathematical model was enough to get some astronomers – amateurs and professionals – started on a quest for the observation of Planet Nine.

The whole story started in 2014, when a student of Mike Brown found out that orbital features of some KBOs (small celestial objects beyond Pluto) were similar and thus suggested the presence of a small planet to explain this phenomenon.

Brown, an observer, took the problem to Batygin, who is a theorist, and for a year and a half they worked the problem out. Brown observed the sky as well as the KBOs while Batygin worked out what was possible on the physical standpoint using math and physics. “I would bring in some of these observational aspects; he would come back with arguments from theory, and we would push each other. I don't think the discovery would have happened without that back and forth," says Brown.

Shown here is the possible orbit of Planet Nine along with other distant bodies of our solar system with highly-eccentric elliptical orbits. Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) 

Shown here is the possible orbit of Planet Nine along with other distant bodies of our solar system with highly-eccentric elliptical orbits. Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) 

Note the irony: Mike Brown, potential discoverer of Planet Nine (if it gets officially discovered), was one of the active astronomers who led to Pluto losing its ‘planet’ status, hence his Twitter handle @plutokiller.

Even if the scientific community isn’t sure the planet exists yet, Brown showed a little confidence on his Twitter profile: “OK, OK, I am now willing to admit: I DO believe that the solar system has nine planets,” he wrote.

Evidence is evidence. Astronomers worldwide are on it: stay tuned for facts.


New Canadian vision system for the ISS

On January 7 the Government of Canada awarded a $1.7-million contract to Neptec Design Group Ltd. of Ottawa, Ontario, to design and build a new high-technology space vision system for the International Space Station (ISS).

Mounted on Dextre, the vision system will be used to support the inspection and maintenance of the ageing structure of the ISS, as small meteorites and space debris regularly hit the Station. It’s not the first time that Neptec’s vision systems are used in space: it previously designed a laser camera system that, mounted on Canadarm2, was used to inspect the tiles of the retired US Space Shuttle while it was in space.

Using a combination of three sensors – an infrared and a high-definition camera, as well as a 3D laser – the vision system will also assist spacecrafts as they dock with the ISS.

Showing Dextre on the right held by Canadarm2 and holding the vision system (www.asc-csa.gc.ca). 

Showing Dextre on the right held by Canadarm2 and holding the vision system (www.asc-csa.gc.ca). 

As the system will launch to the ISS in 2020, its imagery will be available to the public, offering a new view of the station no one ever saw before.

“The Government of Canada is pleased to contribute this new technology that combines these strengths, while giving the world a new vantage point on the International Space Station," said the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

This investment enforces Canada’s role as a reliable space-technology innovator and as a driving force of the world’s space activities.


SpaceX failed to land their rocket on a barge-ship

The promising private company SpaceX, owned by ambitious billionaire Elon Musk, succeeded in landing its rocket on a steady landing platform in Cape Canaveral on December 21st (Refer to my previous post on January 15 for details on this.)

But that was ‘easy’, they wanted a more challenging test: landing their rocket on a drone-like barge-ship, sailing freely on the sea, for example. 

On January 17, after flawlessly launching and deploying the Jason-3 ocean-mapping satellite, the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket called the ball. Hovering through 3- to 4-meter waves, the football-field-sized landing platform waited patiently for the booster to perform the final ‘touchdown’. 

The booster found the platform, deployed its landing legs and landed for a couple seconds, and then this happened. The linked video, posted on Elon Musk's instagram page, shows footage of Falcon 9's landing attempt.

This was the third time SpaceX tried to land the Falcon on a ship, and it was almost a charm.


As Musk said on his Instagram and Twitter accounts, a defective collet might have been the mishap’s cause. Collets are intended to secure the locking of the landing legs. As the leg was not locked tightly enough, it could not support the aircraft's weight, and down it went. The root cause may be that condensation from heavy fog at launch got in there and then froze when it got colder in the upper atmosphere, perhaps cracking the collet.

This is a hypothesis, but one thing is for sure: “Definitely harder to land on a ship. Similar to [land on] an aircraft carrier [versus on the ground]: much smaller target area [on the ship], [which is] also translating & rotating,” Musk tweeted.

It’s still a success to me. Launching a rocket at high speeds and making it deploy a satellite takes some innovation, especially when it’s a private company. But making the rocket flip-over in space and come back to Earth from more than 100 km of altitude, making it slow down and find the barge using its fins to control itself and deploy its landing legs is indeed a success to me.

“It’s a freakin’ technological triumph that they can get anywhere near a landing,” wrote Phil Plait, blogger for Slate.


The Dream Chaser has won the ISS resupply contract award!

On January 14, after delaying the announcement multiple times, NASA finally awarded the second round contract of resupplying the International Space Station (ISS) to three commercial cargo companies. The first round contract was awarded to SpaceX and Orbital ATK in 2008.

The Dream Chaser, previously designed to be a human-carrying spacecraft, was adapted to be unmanned for the possible future cargo missions to the ISS, in case it won the second round contract. And it did!

This amazingly designed spaceship, owned by Sierra Nevada Corporation, will join SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the two other recipients, in 2019, date when the contract will begin service.

Designed by a 50-year-old soviet space shuttle mockup, the Dream Chaser will deliver up to 5500 kg of cargo to the ISS per trip. It will launch on top of a rocket, dock with the station, and when it’s ready it will detach from the orbiting lab and perform a runway landing, just like the American Space Shuttle did.

Image of the cargo version of the Dream Chaser docked to the ISS. (SNC)

Image of the cargo version of the Dream Chaser docked to the ISS. (SNC)

Since the Dream Chaser has never flown into orbit, Sierra Nevada said they would drop the spacecraft from a helicopter for it to perform a landing demonstration in the coming months.

Originally, the contract was intended to only have two recipients, but having three is more advantageous. “One of the considerations from an operational standpoint with ISS is it’s really important to have more than one supply chain, and multiple offerers means that at any given time, the sequence of flights could be one Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, Orbital ATK, so if you lose one, you have the ability for another one being right after it from a dissimilar redundancy, or a different supplier, so that’s a big help to us,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The contract provides a minimum of six flights per selectee, from 2019 to 2024, but “it is likely we will buy more than 18 flights, so we have three winners, and if we need more than 18 flights, then we’ll talk about what happens on those flights,” said Shireman.

The exact value of each recipient’s contract is not precisely known, but Orbital ATK said in a press conference that its six original flights are valued at $1.2 to $1.5 billion USD.

 

 

By Benjamin Vermette 

Landing of first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 on December 21, 2015. (spacex.com)

Landing of first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 on December 21, 2015. (spacex.com)

Third time’s a charm: SpaceX landed their rocket! 

After two failed attempts in January and April 2015, the private company SpaceX finally succeeded in landing their… rocket!

Owned by young billionaire Elon Musk, SpaceX rewrote history books on December 21st as they performed a vertical landing of the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket back at Cape Canaveral, about 10 minutes after it launched.

The second stage of the rocket (the upper part) carried 11 small communication satellites while the first stage (the bottom part) had 9 SpaceX Merlin engines to power them into orbit.

Once the first stage burn was over, the two stages cleanly separated while the bottom one turned around and started an engine burn to slow down as it was headed to the landing zone in Florida.

As it was trying to steady itself, the first stage deployed four landing struts and touched down safely at precisely 9 minutes 44 seconds after it departed: 

It may seem an easy thing to do, but don’t fool yourself: nothing in space is easy. As Miles O’Brien, science reporter, pointed out in an interview with CNN, “this is like balancing a broom pole on your nose, and only harder, lots harder.”

Still not convinced? Look at this video Musk took after the landing, it shows how huge the rocket is!

Minutes after the rocket landing, the second stage completed the mission: it successfully deployed the 11 communication satellites. What a wonderful comeback for SpaceX as their last mission on June 28 was a complete disaster: the rocket blew up in the sky and all the cargo was lost (Read my previous column for more details on this). 

Such a performance is a major breakthrough: it reduces launch cost while creating a 100% reusable rocket!

"Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral." Musk said on Instagram on January 1st. "No damage found, ready to fire again."

We need private companies like SpaceX to lead the way in attempting risky and futuristic feats such as a vertical rocket landing: only then will modern spaceflight evolve.

Congrats SpaceX on such a milestone!


Einstein’s theory of General Relativity turns 100… Relative to Earth

“Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein's General theory of Relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out.” - Professor Stephen Hawking

Basically everything you know about gravity is wrong – unless you’re a physicist, in which case I’m sorry for the offense.

In 1905, shortly after working as a patent clerk, the young Albert Einstein proposed a new theory: the Special theory of Relativity, or STR (not to confound with the General theory of Relativity).

Briefly, it proposes a connection between space and time, which translates into a breathtaking phenomenon. For instance, according to STR, the faster you go, the slower time passes (note that this was tested multiple times, and turns out to be true). Imagine: you’re in a spaceship, going 50% the speed of light (about 150 000 km/s) and you decide to go around our solar system for a while. After a certain amount of time (relative to you) you decide to come back on Earth for a drink (because you’re feeling it). However, when you come back, it is possible, depending on the amount of time you just spent at high speeds, that humanity is gone, or that the Earth is gone, or just that your grandkids are older than you. That’s simple STR fun facts.

However, gravity didn’t seem to apply to Einstein’s STR, so he decided to create a whole new theory which completely changed the world’s way of seeing space and time. 10 years later, on November 25th, 1915, Einstein published his final paper on his theory of General Relativity, just before lecturing his colleagues at the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin.

The major breakthrough of General Relativity from a popular standpoint is that it defines gravity. We know Isaac Newton discovered, in the XVIIth century, a mysterious force: gravity. He wrote a couple mathematical laws describing this force (which is still used today) without further knowing what it was.

Einstein showed – I recall, 100 years ago – that space is something, like a fabric, and it can get bent, distorted, ripped apart, or compressed, by matter. And the bending of space is what causes gravity.

So forget everything you heard in high school (maybe not): two masses don’t attract each other. Masses bend space around them; think of it like a bowling ball on a mattress. What happens if you slide a golf ball next to the bowling ball on your mattress? It curves. Its path will change, like the Moon around the Earth, like the Earth around the Sun, and so on. Did its path bend because of a force of attraction between the two? No! It followed its natural motion.

You don’t stand on the Earth because you are attracted by it, you are just falling, and following your natural motion.  The Earth merely stops you from falling.

Anyway, just try to generally see it that way: matter tells space how to bend, and space tells matter how to move.

In sum, Einstein showed space can warp, causing gravity, and he also showed time can warp. So, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity just turned 100 relative to Earth. At another place in space, in may only be 1 year old!

Everything is… relative!


1st mirror now installed on promising James Webb Space Telescope

With a primary mirror 6 times larger in area than Hubble’s, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the biggest and most powerful astronomical observation-object of all times. With its full structure as big as a tennis court, it will be placed between the Earth and the Sun at a Lagrange point, 1.5 million km from Earth, as Hubble orbits at about 250 km of altitude. Currently in the process of construction, it has a ticket to launch in 2018. 

A full scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space telescope to ever be built, was on display in Austin, Texas in the Southwest Interactive Festival. (wikipedia)

A full scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space telescope to ever be built, was on display in Austin, Texas in the Southwest Interactive Festival. (wikipedia)

Recently, towards the end of November, NASA successfully installed the first of 18 mirrors on the JWST, initiating a major construction breakthrough.

The engineers of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland strategically used a robot arm to install a 1.3-meter hexagonal-shaped gold-plated mirror. Along with another 17 of its kind, this mirror will form what is called the primary mirror, which is 6.5-meter long (for comparison, this is 2.7 times larger than Hubble’s one). The full assembly of these mirrors should be completed towards the beginning of 2016. 

Assembly of the telescope's mirror in NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. (nasa.gov)

Assembly of the telescope's mirror in NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. (nasa.gov)

“After a tremendous amount of work by an incredibly dedicated team across the country, it is very exciting to start the primary mirror segment installation process," said Lee Feinberg, JWST optical telescope element manager at Goddard. "This starts the final assembly phase of the telescope."

The gold coating on the mirrors were chosen for its capacities to reflect infrared light, as the mirrors are primarily made of lightweight beryllium, chosen for its usefulness in extremely low temperatures.

The JWST is a major technological achievement, and will surely answer big cosmological questions, such as: how did the universe begin and evolve, how will it end (or will it end?), how did our solar system form and will help astronomers and scientists on the search for extraterrestrial life.

We, Canadians, can be proud: the Canadian Space Agency works with NASA and the international science community to make this project reality! 


Japanese spacecraft finally enters Venus’ orbit 5 years after its 1st try

What a show of interplanetary mechanics-application and perseverance.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) finally succeeded – after a first try five years ago to the day, in December 2010 – to place its Akatsuki spacecraft in Venus’ orbit.

Back then, on its initial try on December 6 2010, Akatsuki – which means “Dawn” – brushed past Venus at high speeds on what was supposed to be a lovely orbital catch. JAXA’s engineers later determined that this failure was due to the probe’s main engine incapacity to generate power in reason of a cracked valve in the propulsion system.

The following five years was for Akatsuki somehow a bright “dark” period. In orbit around the Sun, it was depressively waiting for the mission’s officials to make a decision about its fate. But as you may have guessed, the team didn’t give up: they gave Akatsuki a second opportunity to complete its tasks.

On December 6, 2015 this time, the spacecraft relied on the firing of its minor thrusters to escape the Sun’s orbit and head towards the cloud-covered planet. And it worked! Even if the probe isn’t as close as previously planned to Earth’s sister, it will still be able to fulfill its scientific objectives – as long as it stays in good shape – such as studying the planet’s greenhouse gas-filled and toxic atmosphere.

It’s like being on a commercial flight and trying to land a second time 5 years after the first attempt!