Setting sail

The European Columbus module is packed up and loaded for transport to the US in this image from 2006. Built in Turin, Italy, and Bremen, Germany, the completed module was shipped to NASA’s facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida ahead of its February 2008 launch aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Columbus has been providing microgravity research facilities for the past decade. In honour of this milestone, this week’s image celebrates Columbus’ triumph over setbacks. Many events factored into its delayed launch: the bureaucratic challenge of planning and budgeting, construction delays and the tragic 2003 Columbia Shuttle disaster meant Columbus was five years behind schedule by the time it climbed into the sky.

So it was with joy and relief when Columbus inside its climate-controlled container was loaded into the Beluga aircraft, an Airbus A300 named after the whale it resembles.

Among the many who attended its farewell ceremony was German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Once at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the fully integrated module underwent final tests before being loaded into the Shuttle payload bay.

Since its launch in February 2008, the biggest European contribution to human spaceflight has provided a multi-disciplinary, multi-user platform for research in biology, fluidics and physics, and technology demonstrations – and continues to do so today. 

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Simulating turbulence in solar wind plasma

Maybe you’re reading this caption while drinking a coffee. As you stir your drink with a spoon, vortices are produced in the liquid that decay into smaller eddies until they disappear entirely. This can be described as a cascade of vortices from large to small scales. Furthermore, the motion of the spoon brings the hot liquid into contact with the cooler air and so the heat from the coffee can escape more efficiently into the atmosphere, cooling it down.

A similar effect occurs in space, in the electrically charged atomic particles – solar wind plasma – blown out by our Sun, but with one key difference: in space there is no air. Although the energy injected into the solar wind by the Sun is transferred to smaller scales in turbulent cascades, just like in your coffee, the temperature in the plasma is seen to increase because there is no cool air to stop it.

How exactly the solar wind plasma is heated is a hot topic in space physics, because it is hotter than expected for an expanding gas and almost no collisions are present. Scientists have suggested that the cause of this heating may be hidden in the turbulent character of the solar wind plasma.

Advanced supercomputer simulations are helping to understand these complex motions: the image shown here is from one such simulation. It represents the distribution of the current density in the turbulent solar wind plasma, where localised filaments and vortices have appeared as a consequence of the turbulent energy cascade. The blue and yellow colours show the most intense currents (blue for negative and yellow for positive values).  

These coherent structures are not static, but evolve in time and interact with each other. Moreover, between the islands, the current becomes very intense, creating high magnetic stress regions and sometimes a phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection. That is, when magnetic field lines of opposite direction get close together they can suddenly realign into new configurations, releasing vast amounts of energy that can cause localised heating.

Such events are observed in space, for example by ESA’s Cluster quartet of satellites in Earth orbit, in the solar wind. Cluster also found evidence for turbulent eddies down to a few tens of kilometres as the solar wind interacts with Earth’s magnetic field.

This cascade of energy may contribute to the overall heating of the solar wind, a topic that ESA’s future Solar Orbiter mission will also try to address.

In the meantime, enjoy studying turbulent cascades of vortices in your coffee!

More information: Perrone et al. (2013)Servidio et al. (2015) and Valentini et al. (2016).

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Sahara snow

The Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission has captured rare snowfall in northwest Algeria, on the edge of the Sahara desert.

Part of the Sahara was covered with snow on 7 January 2018, despite the desert at times being one of the hottest places on Earth. The snow was reported to be up to 40 cm thick in some places.  Although temperatures plummet during the night, snowfall is very unusual in the Sahara because the air is so dry. It is only the third time in nearly 40 years that this part of the desert has seen snow.

Most of the snow had melted by the end of the next day, but luckily the Sentinel-2A satellite happened to be in the right place at the right time to record this rare event from space. The image was acquired on 8 January.

While snow is common in the High Atlas Mountains, the image shows that, unusually, snow fell on the lower Saharan Atlas Mountain Range. The image is dominated by the orange–brown dunes and mountains dusted with snow.

The town of El Baydah can be seen towards the bottom left. To the east of El Baydah, a cultivated forest is visible as a red rectangle. The image, which has been processed to display vegetation in red, shows that there is very little flora in the region.

The two Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites each carry a high-resolution camera that images Earth’s surface in 13 spectral bands. The mission is largely used to track changes in Earth’s land and vegetation, so useful for monitoring desertification.

This image is featured on the Earth from Space video programme.

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Heavenly palace

This vivid image shows China’s space station Tiangong-1 – the name means ‘heavenly palace’ – and was captured by French astrophotographer Alain Figer on 27 November 2017. It was taken from a ski area in the Hautes-Alpes region of southeast France as the station passed overhead near dusk.

The station is seen at lower right as a white streak, resulting from the exposure of several seconds, just above the summit of the snowy peak of Eyssina (2837 m altitude). Several artefacts in the original have been removed.

Tiangong-1 is 12 m long with a diameter of 3.3 m and had a launch mass of 8506 kg. It has been unoccupied since 2013 and there has been no contact with it since 2016.

The craft is now at about 280 km altitude in an orbit that will inevitably decay some time in March–April 2018, when it is expected to mostly burn up in the atmosphere.

“Owing to the geometry of the orbit, we can already exclude the possibility that any fragments will fall over any spot further north than 43ºN or further south than 43ºS,” says Holger Krag, head of ESA’s Space Debris Office.

“This means that reentry may take place over any spot on Earth between these latitudes, which includes several European countries, for example.”

“The date, time and geographic footprint can only be predicted with large uncertainties. Even shortly before reentry, only a very large time and geographical window can be estimated.”

The station’s mass and construction materials mean there is a possibility that some portions of it will survive and reach the ground.

In the history of spaceflight, no casualties from falling space debris have ever been confirmed.

ESA is hosting a test campaign to follow the reentry, which will be conducted by the Inter Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, a grouping of the world’s top space agencies including ESA, NASA and the China National Space Administration.

More images

More images from Alain Figer via Flickr

Astrophotography group in Flickr

More information

ESA joins re-entry campaign

Space debris at ESA

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Space Bites: The Value of the Moon | Paul D. Spudis

The Moon is a destination, a laboratory for science, a place to learn the skills of planetary exploration, and a source of materials and energy for use on the Moon and in space to create new spacefaring capability. 

Advocate of a human return on the Moon, Paul D. Spudis, Senior Staff Scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston (Texas, USA), will bring us in a journey to rediscover what is the value of lunar exploration, a topic on which he has spent more than 40 years of study, thought and publications. 

The lecture has been held at the Erasmus Innovation Centre in the ESTEC site in The Netherlands in December 11. 

If you want to know more about the lunar exploration you can also visit lunarexploration.esa.int

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Columbus stripped

Inside the cylindrical modules of the International Space Station is the standard stuff of technology. Wires, cables and pumps form the framework of the one-of-a-kind European Columbus laboratory, seen here in its early days of assembly.

The cornerstone of Europe’s contribution to the Space Station, Columbus is a pressurised laboratory that allows astronauts to work in a comfortable and safe environment.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Columbus in orbit. In celebration of its remarkable decade, we will revisit the technological and scientific milestones of the lab in feature images, beginning with this one taken during its construction in 2001.

Like its sister nodes Tranquility and Harmony, Columbus’ assembly began in Turin, Italy. The structure, thermal control and life-support equipment, plumbing and external protection were completed by September 2001.

Columbus then moved to the prime contractor in Bremen, Germany for assembly to be completed before being shipped to the US for testing.

Although Columbus is the Station’s smallest laboratory module, it provides the same payload volume, power, data retrieval, vacuum and venting services as the other modules, an achievement made possible thanks to careful planning.

The lab has been supporting sophisticated research in life and physical sciences, space science, Earth observation and technology demonstrations in weightlessness for the past decade.

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Ocean and atmosphere interlinked

The world’s oceans and atmosphere work as a system, exchanging heat, moisture and gases. Changes in the temperature of sea surface affect atmospheric dynamics, which in turn influence the weather and climate. This is not a one-way process, however, because the atmosphere also affects the oceans and helps to drive ocean circulation, which plays an important role in moderating our climate.

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