This week in space: Pluto, Europa, and 96 nanosats

By Jessica Hall
India just set a world record by sending 104 satellites into space in a single launch. One hundred and three of them were nanosats, but they were crated beside Cartosat-2D: a three-quarter-ton beast the Indian government is going to use for cartography, imaging and maybe weather mapping. Ninety-six of the 103 were actually American spacecraft from a company called Planet, which was founded by ex-NASA scientists to “image the entire Earth every day.” Counting the 96 new ones, that brings Planet’s constellation to 149, which is also a world record.
The latest news on Proxima b is that scientists have revised the odds on its habitability, probably downward. The reason is its parent star: Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf. To call a red dwarf’s early life violent would be an understatement of British proportion. X-ray and extreme UV (XUV) “superflares” wreak themselves upon any hapless planets in their paths, ionizing and driving away the lighter elements in the atmosphere: trivial stuff like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Proxima Centauri is likely no exception to this rule, which means that it probably roasted Proxima b to a crisp and drove off its atmosphere long ago.
Also, it was an extremely schmoopy week. Given that Tuesday was Valentine’s day, everyone wanted to talk about the “biggest heart in the Solar System” — the huge heart-shaped basin on Pluto. It’s probably filled with nitrogen ice, and it’s brightly reflective even so far away from the sun. Some scientists have speculated that Pluto could play host to a subsurface ocean, a la Enceladus and Europa.
Speaking of Europa, there’s been movement on NASA’s Europa lander. NASA’s Planetary Science Division has been keen to explore Europa for a long while, because there’s a lot of evidence that it has a global saltwater ocean. The latest idea is a lander probe that could detect signs of life below the icy crust. But getting there is, as usual, no picnic. So NASA put together a team of engineers and asked them for a “workable” list of science objectives and measurements. Now that team has delivered their recommendations.
Does this count as attempting a landing? Asking for a friend.
“Given that Europa has no atmosphere,” NASA officials explain, “the team developed a concept that could deliver its science payload to the icy surface without the benefit of technologies like a heat shield or parachutes.” That science payload would include a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, a Raman spectrometer, a microscope, and a lidar package, among others (PDF). The next step will be to put the matter in front of the scientific community at large, which NASA intends to do at the upcoming Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas on 19 March, and then again on 23 April at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Arizona.
This week in space: Pluto, Europa, and 96 nanosats Reviewed by Bizpodia on 14:08 Rating: 5

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