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Coming soon: the telescope big enough to spot signs of alien life on other planets

Coming soon: the telescope big enough to spot signs of alien life on other planets 86

Cerro Armazones is a crumbling dome of rock that dominates the parched peaks of the Chilean Coast Range north of Santiago. A couple of old concrete platforms and some rusty pipes, parts of the mountain’s old weather station, are the only hints that humans have ever taken an interest in this forbidding, arid place. Even the views look alien, with the surrounding boulder-strewn desert bearing a remarkable resemblance to the landscape of Mars.

Dramatic change is coming to Cerro Armazones, however – for in a few weeks, the 10,000ft mountain is going to have its top knocked off. “We are going to blast it with dynamite and then carry off the rubble,” says engineer Gird Hudepohl. “We will take about 80ft off the top of the mountain to create a plateau – and when we have done that, we will build the world’s biggest telescope there.”

Given the peak’s remote, inhospitable location that might sound an improbable claim – except for the fact that Hudepohl has done this sort of thing before. He is one of the European Southern Observatory’s most experienced engineers and was involved in the decapitation of another nearby mountain, Cerro Paranal, on which his team then erected one of the planet’s most sophisticated observatories.

The Paranal complex has been in operation for more than a decade and includes four giant instruments with eight-metre-wide mirrors – known as the Very Large Telescopes or VLTs – as well as control rooms and a labyrinth of underground tunnels linking its instruments. More than 100 astronomers, engineers and support staff work and live there. A few dozen metres below the telescopes, they have a sports complex with a squash court, an indoor football pitch, and a luxurious 110-room residence that has a central swimming pool and a restaurant serving meals and drinks around the clock. Built overlooking one of the world’s driest deserts, the place is an amazing oasis. (See box.)

Now the European Southern Observatory, of which Britain is a key member state, wants Hudepohl and his team to repeat this remarkable trick and take the top off Cerro Armazones, which is 20km distant. Though this time they will construct an instrument so huge it will dwarf all the telescopes on Paranal put together, and any other telescope on the planet. When completed, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and its 39-metre mirror will allow astronomers to peer further into space and look further back into the history of the universe than any other astronomical device in existence. Its construction will push telescope-making to its limit, however. Its primary mirror will be made of almost 800 segments – each 1.4 metres in diameter but only a few centimetres thick – which will have to be aligned with microscopic precision.

It is a remarkable juxtaposition: in the midst of utter desolation, scientists have built giant machines engineered to operate with smooth perfection and are now planning to top this achievement by building an even more vast device. The question is: for what purpose? Why go to a remote wilderness in northern Chile and chop down peaks to make homes for some of the planet’s most complex scientific hardware?

The answer is straightforward, says Cambridge University astronomer Professor Gerry Gilmore. It is all about water. “The atmosphere here is as dry as you can get and that is critically important. Water molecules obscure the view from telescopes on the ground. It is like trying to peer through mist – for mist is essentially a suspension of water molecules in the air, after all, and they obscure your vision. For a telescope based at sea level that is a major drawback.

“However, if you build your telescope where the atmosphere above you is completely dry, you will get the best possible views of the stars – and there is nowhere on Earth that has air drier than this place. For good measure, the high-altitude winds blow in a smooth, laminar manner above Paranal – like slabs of glass – so images of stars remain remarkably steady as well.”

The view of the heavens here is close to perfect, in other words – as an evening stroll around the viewing platform on Paranal demonstrates vividly. During my visit, the Milky Way hung over the observatory like a single white sheet. I could see the four main stars of the Southern Cross; Alpha Centauri, whose unseen companion Proxima Centauri is the closest star to our solar system; the two Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of our own Milky Way; and the Coalsack, an interstellar dust cloud that forms a striking silhouette against the starry Milky Way. None are visible in northern skies and none appear with such brilliance anywhere else on the planet.

Hence the decision to build this extraordinary complex of VLTs. At sunset, each one’s housing is opened and the four great telescopes are brought slowly into operation. Each machine is made to rotate and swivel, like football players stretching muscles before a match. Each housing is the size of a block of flats. Yet they move in complete silence, so precise is their engineering.

Building the four VLTs, which have been named Antu (Sun), Kueyen (Moon), Melipal (Southern Cross) and Yepun (Venus) in the language of Mapuche people of Chile, was a formidable challenge, needless to say. Each has a giant mirror that is 8.2 metres in diameter but only 17cm thick: any thicker, and the mirror would be too heavy to move and point. Such thinness leaves the mirrors liable to deform as temperatures and air pressure fluctuate, however, and so each has 150 actuators fitted to its unpolished side. These push the mirrors to keep them within a few billionths of a centimetre of their proper shape. In addition, ESO astronomers use a laser-based system known as adaptive optics to measure turbulence in the upper atmosphere and to change each telescope’s internal mirror configuration to compensate for any disturbance they can measure.

The result is a cluster of astronomical devices of incredible power and flexibility, one that has been involved in an astonishing number of critically important discoveries and observations over the past decade, as ESO astronomer Olivier Hainaut explains. “Perhaps the VLT’s most spectacular achievement was its tracking of stars at the centre of the Milky Way. Astronomers followed them as they revolved around… nothing. Eventually they were able to show that something incredibly small and dark and massive lay at the centre of this interstellar waltz. This was the first time, we now know, that scientists had directly observed the effect of the supermassive black hole that lies at the heart of our galaxy.”

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Space

In 2021, the Moon will host a car race driven by schoolchildren

In 2021, the Moon will host a car race driven by schoolchildren 99
MAPP project

In 2021, a remote controlled rover race will take place on the lunar surface. At the same time, the development of these cars will be carried out by the famous auto designer Frank Stephenson, who worked with BMW, Ferrari and other whales of the automotive business, and … schoolchildren. Such an amazing statement was made by representatives of the Moon Mark project.

On October 11, 2021, the launch of the Nova-C device, developed by Intuitive Machines, is planned. This probe is slated to land softly on the surface of Selene in the Ocean of Storms.

If successful, it will be the first soft-landing probe designed and manufactured by a private company (not with private money, though).

Nova-C is capable of delivering up to one hundred kilograms of payload to the moon. Most of it is NASA’s scientific instruments, which funded the project. By the way, NASA allocated $ 77 million for the creation and launch of the spacecraft . However, the contract stipulates a certain payload limit, which Intuitive Machines has the right to spend at its discretion.

And eight kilograms of this limit will be allocated to … racing rovers from the Moon Mark company. Each vehicle will weigh 2.5 kilograms, and another three kilograms will be a system for deploying them on the surface of Selena.

This is a very extravagant decision (although how is it worse than sending a car on an interplanetary trip by Elon Musk ?).

Recall that over the past 40 years there have been only five attempts at soft landing on the moon. Of these, two ( Israeli and Indian ) ended in failure. And now it turns out that 8% of the space on the device flying to Selena (and the cost of this 8%, based on the project budget, will amount to more than $ 6 million) will be spent on entertainment for children.

In this place, any scientist who for decades dreamed of delivering his device to the moon for certain scientific research could start banging his head against the wall.

In 2021, the Moon will host a car race driven by schoolchildren 100
Schoolchildren will take part in the design of future rovers. Illustration by Moon Mark.

But the project developers have their own reasons. The race will attract the attention of society to space exploration, and above all of the younger generation. But these are future astronomers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and also voters and even politicians. If today’s children light up with the dream of exploring the Universe, and then carry it into their hearts into their adult life, then this $ 6,000,000 (by the way, not such a large amount by the standards of modern astronautics) will turn out not to be a reckless waste, but a very profitable investment in the future of humanity.

What will this project look like in practice? The lunar surface races will be the main prize of the Moon Mark’s Mission 1 competition, which will feature six teams of high school students. Schoolchildren will compete in drone races, space mission design and other fun things.

The two winning teams will receive the right to operate the racing moon rovers (from Earth, of course). But first, they will take part in their development. The chassis, controls and other important systems will of course be designed by specialists.

It is known for certain that the schoolchildren will work out the body design (here the famous Frank Stevenson will help them). This is also not an easy task. After all, the body must protect the device from damage in accidents and save it from the ubiquitous moon dust. In addition, when designing it, the mass distribution and many other technical parameters must be taken into account.

The prototype of the racing lunar rovers will be the MAPP project from the Lunar Outpost company (it is covered in more detail in the video below). True, the concept will have to be finalized, because the MAPP devices weigh 10 kilograms and move at a speed of only 360 meters per hour, which is by no means dizzying.

Note that the actual pace of the races is a separate issue. The speed of future rovers has not yet been announced. However, the radio signal takes 1.3 seconds to reach the moon and the same time to return. It is unlikely that this way you can control something really fast in real time.

The route of future races is also yet to be laid.

“There is a trail that designs Hermann Tilke, who designed all the latest track,” Formula 1 “around the world” – says Stevenson material New Atlas.

Of course, the path will not be marked in any way on the lunar surface. Perhaps the route will be shown as a line on the screens where young operators will follow the movement of their vehicles.

In any case, the feast of technical thought will not be long. The Nova-C device is not equipped with heaters, which means that the life of its entire payload is one lunar day (about two Earth weeks).

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In December, Earth’s inhabitants will be able to see a rare cosmic phenomenon

In December, Earth's inhabitants will be able to see a rare cosmic phenomenon 101

At the end of the year, astronomers expect to see a rare cosmic phenomenon dubbed the “Christmas star” in the sky. It will be caused by the fact that Saturn and Jupiter come close to each other at a minimum distance and almost collide to become one super-bright point of light.

These two planets became one straight line in the solar system a few weeks ago, but at the end of December they will be on it for observers from Earth. This will happen on December 21, 2020, on the day of the winter solstice, when the daylight hours are the shortest and the night is the longest. Jupiter and Saturn will look like a “double planet” for the first time since the Middle Ages, Forbes writes.

“The conjunctions of the two planets are extremely rare, but this particular conjunction is especially rare because the planets will be very close to each other,” Patrick Hartigan, astronomer at Rice University, USA said. “In order to observe a closer conjunction of these planets in the night sky, we would have to return on March 4, 1226.”

It is noted that the unusual celestial phenomenon can be observed from anywhere on the planet. The main thing is that the sky is clear. The “Christmas Star” can be seen in the western sky about an hour after sunset when viewed from the northern hemisphere.

“On the evening of their closest approach, December 21, they will appear as a twin planet, separated by less than 1/5 the diameter of the full moon,” Hartigan said. “For most amateur astronomers looking at the night sky through a telescope, both planets and several of their largest satellites will be in the same field of view this evening.”

In December, Earth's inhabitants will be able to see a rare cosmic phenomenon 102

Those who want to see Jupiter and Saturn converge in the sky as close, but will be higher above the horizon, will have to wait until March 15, 2080, Hartigan said. After that, a similar configuration for this planetary pair will not be observed until 2400.

Astronomers are already preparing equipment to analyze in detail the upcoming event. Everything is very serious, because the second such rapprochement between Jupiter and Saturn cannot be expected.

Of course, there will not be a collision of planets. You just get the impression that something terrible is about to happen in the solar system. Astronomers have assured that there is no reason to worry.

Is the “Christmas Star” an omen of things to come? Mark your calendars! 

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A giant asteroid worth $ 17.4 billion is approaching Earth

A giant asteroid worth $ 17.4 billion is approaching Earth 103

NASA announced the imminent flight of a potentially dangerous asteroid will pass the Earth. The website of the Center for the Study of Near-Earth Objects says that a celestial body ranging in size from 370 to 820 meters will approach the planet on November 29.

The asteroid, consisting of nickel, iron and cobalt, is approaching the Earth. The cost of minerals in its composition reaches $ 17.4 billion, with reference to the Asterank database, which contains data on 600 thousand asteroids.

The distance between the asteroid 153201 (2000 WO107) and the Earth will be more than 4 million kilometers, the Space Reference specified with reference to NASA data. It is noted that the distance from the Earth to the Moon is 10 times less, and the asteroid is considered dangerous because it crosses the orbit of our planet.

According to the NASA Center for the Study of Near-Earth Objects, the celestial body will approach the Earth on November 29. 

It is noted that this time the asteroid does not pose a threat to the planet, however, it belongs to the group of potentially dangerous ones, since its trajectory crosses the Earth’s orbit.

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