An artificial Proba-2 view of the solar north pole

We’ve sent numerous missions into space to study the Sun; past and present solar explorers include ESA’s Proba-2 (PRoject for OnBoard Autonomy 2) and SOHO (SOlar Heliospheric Observatory) probes, NASA’s SDO and STEREO missions (the Solar Dynamics Observatory and Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, respectively), and the joint NASA/ESA Ulysses mission. However, most of these spacecraft have focused mainly on the equatorial regions of the Sun, with the notable exception of Ulysses – this probe observed our star at a wide range of latitudes for nearly two decades, until the mission came to an end in 2009.

Despite Ulysses’ insights, this focus on low solar latitudes has left the Sun’s poles relatively unexplored. A lack of imaging data means that scientists must get creative in piecing together pictures of the Sun’s polar regions – as seen here in this artificial image of the solar north pole.

This image extrapolates low-latitude Proba-2 observations of the Sun to reconstruct a view of the star’s pole. While the poles cannot be seen directly, when spacecraft observe the solar atmosphere they gather data on everything along their line of sight, also viewing the atmosphere extending around the disc of the Sun (the apparent glow around the main disc of the Sun, which also extends over the poles). Scientists can use this to infer the appearance of the polar regions. In order to estimate the properties of the solar atmosphere over the poles, they continuously image the main disc of the Sun and take small slivers of data from the outer and upper regions of the star as it rotates, compensating for the fact that the Sun does not rotate at constant speeds at all latitudes. Over time, these small arrays of data can be combined to approximate a view of the pole, as shown in this view. More in-depth information on the process used to create this image can be found here.

Signs of this patchwork approach can be seen in this image, which comprises data from Proba-2’s extreme-ultraviolet SWAP imager. The line across the middle is created due to small changes in the solar atmosphere that occurred over the timeframe of creating this image. This image also shows a bright bulge on the upper-right side of the Sun; this is created by a low-latitude coronal hole rotating around the solar disc. The polar coronal hole region, which can be seen as the dark patch in the centre of the solar disc, is a source of fast solar wind. It is seen here to contain a subtle network of light and dark structures, which may cause variations in solar wind speed.

While such views go a way towards revealing the secrets of the Sun’s poles – such as how waves propagate across our star, and how it may create phenomena such as coronal holes and ejections that go on to influence space weather around the Earth – direct observations of these regions are needed in order to build on past data gathered by Ulysses. ESA’s Solar Orbiter aims to plug this knowledge gap when it launches in 2020. This mission will study the Sun in detail from latitudes high enough to explore its polar regions, also revealing how its magnetic field and particle emissions impact its cosmic environment – including the area of space that we call home.

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Horizons science – Cimon

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst welcomed a new face to the Columbus laboratory, thanks to the successful commissioning of technology demonstration Cimon. Short for Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN, Cimon is a 3D-printed plastic sphere designed to test human-machine interaction in space.

Developed and built by Airbus in Friedrichshafen and Bremen, Germany, on behalf of German Space Agency DLR, Cimon uses artificial intelligence software by IBM Watson. Its scientific aspects are overseen by researchers at Ludwig Maximilians University Clinic in Munich.

This video shows Alexander’s first interactions with Cimon on board the International Space Station. After introducing himself, where he comes from and what he can do, Cimon tests his free-flying abilities, helps Alexander with a procedure and even plays Alexander’s favourite song ‘Man Machine’ by Kraftwerk. In fact, Cimon likes the music so much, he does not want to stop.

Happy with his initial outing, both Cimon’s developers and Alexander hope to see Cimon back in action again soon. While no further sessions are planned during the Horizons mission at this stage, it could mark the beginning of exciting collaboration between astronauts, robotic assistants and possible future artificial intelligence in space.

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Horizons science – Cimon

ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst welcomed a new face to the Columbus laboratory, thanks to the successful commissioning of technology demonstration Cimon. Short for Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN, Cimon is a 3D-printed plastic sphere designed to test human-machine interaction in space.

Developed and built by Airbus in Friedrichshafen and Bremen, Germany, on behalf of German Space Agency DLR, Cimon uses artificial intelligence software by IBM Watson. Its scientific aspects are overseen by researchers at Ludwig Maximilians University Clinic in Munich.

This video shows Alexander’s first interactions with Cimon on board the International Space Station. After introducing himself, where he comes from and what he can do, Cimon tests his free-flying abilities, helps Alexander with a procedure and even plays Alexander’s favourite song ‘Man Machine’ by Kraftwerk. In fact, Cimon likes the music so much, he does not want to stop.

Happy with his initial outing, both Cimon’s developers and Alexander hope to see Cimon back in action again soon. While no further sessions are planned during the Horizons mission at this stage, it could mark the beginning of exciting collaboration between astronauts, robotic assistants and possible future artificial intelligence in space.

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Mexico City

The Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission takes us over Mexico City. This huge, densely-populated capital can be seen in the top right of the image. It is home to almost nine million people, with the Greater Mexico City area recording a population of over 21 million. This makes it the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.

This striking image has been created using three Copernicus Sentinel-1 acquisitions from 28 July, 27 August and 26 September 2018, overlaid in red, green and blue, respectively. Where we see explosions of colour, changes have occurred between the different acquisitions.

In the left of the image, three bodies of water are shown in black: Villa Victoria, Valle de Bravo, and Tepetitlán. Water is significant to the development of Mexico City, which is thought to have been built over a lake by the Aztecs around 1325.

Today, the city finds itself in a precarious situation in terms of water supply in spite of the regular flash floods and heavy rainfall it experiences during the wet season from June and September.

In the top right, we can see the round structure of El Caracol meaning ‘the snail’ in Spanish. Currently used as a reservoir for industrial facilities within Mexico City, there are plans for this to become a wastewater treatment plant. A 62 km-long sewer tunnel is also due to begin operating this year. 

The Cumbres del Ajusco national park is shown to the southwest of the capital, in an area of the image that shows colourful dots forming a circle. Famous for being up to almost 4000 m above sea level at its highest elevation, it is one of many national parks surrounding the capital.

Volcanoes are also dotted around this area. Popocatépetl, to the south east of Mexico City, last erupted in September 2018.

Sentinel-1 is a two-satellite mission to supply the coverage and data delivery needed for Europe’s Copernicus environmental monitoring programme. The satellites each carry an advanced radar instrument to provide an all-weather, day-and-night supply of imagery of Earth’s surface.

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

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Mexico City

The Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission takes us over Mexico City. This huge, densely-populated capital can be seen in the top right of the image. It is home to almost nine million people, with the Greater Mexico City area recording a population of over 21 million. This makes it the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world.

This striking image has been created using three Copernicus Sentinel-1 acquisitions from 28 July, 27 August and 26 September 2018, overlaid in red, green and blue, respectively. Where we see explosions of colour, changes have occurred between the different acquisitions.

In the left of the image, three bodies of water are shown in black: Villa Victoria, Valle de Bravo, and Tepetitlán. Water is significant to the development of Mexico City, which is thought to have been built over a lake by the Aztecs around 1325.

Today, the city finds itself in a precarious situation in terms of water supply in spite of the regular flash floods and heavy rainfall it experiences during the wet season from June and September.

In the top right, we can see the round structure of El Caracol meaning ‘the snail’ in Spanish. Currently used as a reservoir for industrial facilities within Mexico City, there are plans for this to become a wastewater treatment plant. A 62 km-long sewer tunnel is also due to begin operating this year. 

The Cumbres del Ajusco national park is shown to the southwest of the capital, in an area of the image that shows colourful dots forming a circle. Famous for being up to almost 4000 m above sea level at its highest elevation, it is one of many national parks surrounding the capital.

Volcanoes are also dotted around this area. Popocatépetl, to the south east of Mexico City, last erupted in September 2018.

Sentinel-1 is a two-satellite mission to supply the coverage and data delivery needed for Europe’s Copernicus environmental monitoring programme. The satellites each carry an advanced radar instrument to provide an all-weather, day-and-night supply of imagery of Earth’s surface.

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

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Orion’s service and crew modules – Finally together

After a 24-hour journey from Bremen, Germany with stops in Hamburg and Portsmouth, USA, the European Service Module landed on 6 November 2018 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The shipment from Bremen to Florida is just the beginning – the first leg of an exciting journey that will boost the spacecraft to lunar orbit and back.

The first service module is a key component that will see Orion around the Moon for Exploration Mission-1. It will make the powerful burns required to enter and exit lunar orbit as well as softer burns to allow for space manoeuvring and course correction.

After years of designing, building, and testing in Europe, the powerhouse that will propel NASA’s Orion spacecraft to the Moon will be mated with the rest of the spacecraft to undergo final testing before flight.

ESA’s partnership with NASA takes the European effort to the global stage. For the first time, NASA will use a European-built system as a critical element to power an American spacecraft, extending the international cooperation of the International Space Station into deep space. 

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