Europa – Our Potential Habitable Environment

What is the first criterion to defining a habitable environment for humans? Water to sustain life. Through NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, scientists were able to observe water vapor above the south polar region of Europa, providing the first solid evidence of the existence of an ocean under Europa’s icy crust.

Photo by Lunar and Planetary Institute

Photo by Lunar and Planetary Institute

Researchers are able to speculate that the water vapor is most likely generated when water plumes erupted on the surface. If these findings are proven to be true, this would make Europa the second moon in the solar system known to have water vapor plumes. Also, the evidence provides a general idea of the chemical makeup of Europa and its potential of becoming a habitable environment, without digging through the layers of ice.

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Since this moon has a strong gravitational pull, majority of the -40°F vapor would fall back onto the surface, rather than escaping into space. This new observation, if confirmed, can demonstrate the reliability and power of the Hubble Space Telescope, and its ability to explore new worlds for potentially habitable environments in our solar system.

Medium-sized Black Holes

Did you and your Blaster know that black holes come in two extremes – the petite ones with a mass that is only 10 times that of our sun, and monstrous ones that have a mass equivalent to 10 billion suns? However, NASA recently found some interesting data that shows that we may found a new medium-sized category of black holes.

Photo by Hubble Heritage

Photo by Hubble Heritage

Although scientists is yet to determine what caused the formation of intermediate-sized black holes, with theories surrounding the notion of clustering and merging of stars, evidence shows that the proposed medium-sized black holes came from objects called ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs), where the black hole feeds off a normal star. The feeding process is similar to that of supermassive black holes, but less messy. While supermassive black holes are located at the cores of galaxies, ULXs are scattered throughout the galaxies.

Astronomers found that a ULX located 13 million light-years away has a mass that is about 100 times of our sun, which puts it right at the border between small and medium black holes. However, some scientists made the conclusion that the evidence showing the ultraluminous quality of these objects are caused by the high rate of material absorption, not from the size. Therefore, the existence of medium-sized black holes has yet to be determined.

Latest Space Finding: Jets in our Supermassive Black Hole

Do not mistake these jets as a type of plane that we can see flying through Earth’s skies. In this case, the term “jet” refers to high-energy particles that can be found in space. Categorized under a branch of scientific study, called particle physics, these jets are believed to be produced when materials that were originally falling towards a black hole are redirected outwards. In fact, this amazing occurrence plays an important role in transporting energy and regulating the rate of new star formations.

Photo by NASAblueshift

Photo by NASAblueshift

Why is finding a jet so important to scientists? It helps them determine the direction of the black hole’s spin axis, which allows them to make more accurate assumptions about the growth and history of the black hole. Since the study found that the black hole is pointing to the same direction as the Milky Way, astronomers are able to insinuate that gas and dust have migrated steadily into the black over instead of colliding with large galaxies.

Since the activity of the giant black hole has been relatively low over the past few hundred years, the jets surrounding appears to be weak. However, scientists speculate that the jet may brighten dramatically when the black hole starts consuming material more actively.

The Final Frontier: NASA’s Spacecraft the First to Enter the Interstellar Space

After 35 years of travelling through space, NASA’s Voyager 1 made a historical leap out of our solar system, making it the first spacecraft to venture into what is known as interstellar space. Interstellar space refers to the area between giant stars that died millions of years ago. It is a space that is dominated by plasma or ionized gas. Recent data shows that the Voyager is currently in this transitional region right outside of our solar system, which is 19 billion kilometers away from our sun.

Photo by NASAblueshift

Photo by NASAblueshift

Although the Voyager’s plasma sensor has been ineffective since 1980, the massive burst of solar wind and magnetic field from our sun made the plasma around the spacecraft to vibrate, allowing the researchers to understand the density of the plasma. From this incident, scientists are able to determine the vibration of the plasma is 40 times denser than the measurement taken in the outer layer of the heliosphere, which is a sort of bubble of charged particles that surrounds our sun. The change in density indicates a new region in space and the new data matches very well with what the researchers expect to find in interstellar space.

The NASA engineers carefully calculated and managed the Voyager’s resources to ensure that it can still send data back to Earth at least through 2020. The signals emitted from Voyager 1 are weak, at about 23 watts, which is the power of a refrigerator light bulb. Even traveling at the speed of light, it takes about 17 hours for the signals to reach Earth.

Voyager 1 has gone beyond any probe has ever gone, and it is continuing to reach for the undisturbed part of interstellar space, where there is no influence from our sun. Although scientists are not certain whether Voyager 1’s twin, Voyager 2, can cross into interstellar space, they believe it is very close behind.

A Caterpillar-shaped Star Discovered by NASA

Have you and your Blasters been keeping up with recent space news? NASA recently found a protostar that is a light-year-long and shaped like a caterpillar. Protostars are knots in its early evolutionary stage, and by collecting gas, dust and other materials from its surrounding region, a protostar may eventually evolve and become young stars.

Cosmic Caterpillar

Photo by NASA

The irregular shape of the star “wanna-be” is caused by the harsh winds from 65 of the hottest, brightest known stars, classified as O-type stars. These stars are blasting ultraviolet radiation at the protostar, effectively dissolving the envelop around it. This sculpts the gas and dust surrounding the protostar into its elongated shape.

Spectroscopic observations show that the protostar is still collecting materials to bulk up its mass. Scientists predict that the final masses of these young stars from that region of the universe may be 1 to 10 times that of our Sun. However, if the O-type stars continue to erode the envelop with radiation, the final masses may reduce. Moreover, to tell whether the stars formed will be “heavy” or “light”, we can only wait.

NASA Discovers Black Hole Cluster in Neighboring Galaxy

In our neighboring sister galaxy of Andromeda, NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory has identified 26 black hole candidates, the largest number to date in a galaxy outside our own.  Using over 150 images spanning more than 13 years, Chandra has been able to observe this large cluster of black holes that scientists believe to be just the tip of the iceberg.  The reason why this finding is so exciting to researchers is that black holes generally will not have close companions and will be invisible to detection.

The black holes found by Chandra belong to the stellar mass category, meaning they formed from the deaths of extremely large stars and usually have masses 5 to 10 times that of our sun.  As material is pulled from nearby stars and heated up to create radiation before being engulfed by the black hole, scientists are able to use this radiation to detect these otherwise invisible objects.  Researchers engaged in a couple steps to identify these clusters as a stellar mass system in the Andromeda galaxy.

ChandraFirst, utilizing a technique focusing on the brightness and variability of X-ray sources in Chandra’s data, astronomers were able to classify the black holes as a stellar mass system in the Andromeda galaxy as opposed to supermassive black holes elsewhere.  Second, analyzing the X-ray sources, researchers noted two important characteristics: they were brighter than a certain high level of X-rays and possessed a distinct color.  Chandra’s advanced X-ray technology played a vital role in locating the black holes that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

One critical aspect to the black hole cluster’s research was observing over 13 years of images from Chandra.  This long exposure allowed astronomers to test whether the objects were black holes or neutron stars, which possess similar characteristics.  Using data provided by Chandra, scientists had previously found 9 black holes and with this new cluster the total has increased to 35.

Researchers are extremely excited about this discovery that they have spent years searching for.  While black holes remain a mysterious phenomena, the findings made by the Chandra X-ray observatory may play a key role in unraveling more secrets about black holes and the galaxies they reside in.

Rare Unplanned Spacewalk for NASA

The work that NASA has accomplished throughout the years has given society incredible insight into the world around us. In addition to this, there is no doubt that all of NASA’s work has been characterized by methodology, regulations, and plans. This type of planning and preparation, however, was disrupted recently by an unplanned spacewalk on the international space station.

On Saturday, May 11, two astronauts made an unplanned spacewalk in order to find more information about ammonia snowflakes that were appearing in space over a span of two days.

It was found that the space station cooling system had sustained a leak. Over time, the damage caused by the leak increased, prompting this spacewalk. The leak resulted in a loss of ammonia coolant, causing one of the eight power systems that provide electricity to the space station to shut down.

Luckily, the space station and its crew were never in any danger. Also, the two astronauts that went on this spacewalk were two experienced spacewalkers who had actually worked on the damaged part of the station. The spacewalk was also significant because it was very unique and rare for NASA. Normally, NASA’s actions are planned out and deliberate, while this spacewalk was thought out in a quicker-than-usual manner.

During the five and a half-hour spacewalk, the two astronauts located the potential leak and replaced a pump in the station. More time is needed to ascertain whether or not this replacement pump fixed the leak in the space station. After the spacewalk mission was completed, the station took great care to make sure that no residual ammonia remained on the space suits. This is because the ammonia would have been toxic if it entered the station.

All of the aspects of this recent story from NASA could serve as a potential learning tool for your child. Ask your child questions, such as how they would approach fixing the issue at the space station, or even about what they think about the after-mission process the astronauts had to go through. Also, do not forget to incorporate their favorite science and math activities during these learning opportunities.