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A pair of precision-orbiting small satellites will attempt to capture the first views ever of small-scale features near the surface of the Sun that scientists believe drive the heating and acceleration of solar wind.
Heliophysicist Dr. Doug Rabin at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said photon sieves, a technology that can focus extreme ultraviolet light, should be able to resolve features 10 to 50 times smaller than what can be seen today with the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s EUV imager.
Photon sieves like this are cut from a single wafer of silicon or niobium to focus extreme ultraviolet light – a difficult wavelength to capture.NASA / Christopher Gunn To be most effective, however, they must be wide, super-thin, and etched with precise holes to refract light. Working in Goddard’s Detector Development Laboratory, Goddard engineer Kevin Denis developed new ways to create wider and thinner membranes from wafers of silicon and niobium. Each advancement so far has required additional steps to protect the resulting sieves, such as leaving a honeycomb of thicker material to support the membrane and prevent tearing.
“It’s a sheer physical challenge to construct sieves with such precision,” said Goddard Heliophysicist Dr. Doug Rabin. “Their smallest features are a 2-microns across with a 2-micron gap between perforations, that’s about the size of most bacteria.”
New photon sieves consist of a honeycomb structure supporting a super-thin membrane cut to focus extreme-ultraviolet light. In this sieve, the largest gaps and holes can be seen in the center hexagon, but the rest quickly become too small for the human eye to detect.NASA / Christopher Gunn Etched with from the center with ever smaller rings of holes, sieves are built to refract light similarly to Fresnel lenses used in lighthouses. Extreme ultraviolet light passing through this sieve is bent gradually inward to a distant camera. Thin membranes matter for solar science because these sieves transmit more light than thicker materials, Denis said.
He and fellow engineer Kelly Johnson successfully produced a 3-inch (8-cm) diameter silicon sieve, a mere 100 nanometers thick. Now they are experimenting with niobium membranes which can further improve light-gathering efficiency because they transmit up to seven times more light than silicon. They have successfully etched a 5-inch (13 cm) diameter niobium sieve just 200 nanometers thick.
Denis takes inspiration from working closely with scientists to overcome barriers to advancing their field, he said. “They have done a great job using the sieves in near-term science applications while we push the technology for larger and more capable missions.”
Kevin DenisNASA / Christopher Gunn Photon sieves cut from materials as thick as 25 microns are already part of the technology demonstration VISORS – Virtual Super Optics Reconfigurable Swarm – CubeSat mission, expected to launch in 2024. VISORS consists of one compact satellite about the size of a briefcase outfitted with sieves to refract light onto a receiver on a second satellite 130 feet (40 m) away. Maintaining these spacecraft’s high-precision orbit and developing a sunshade are the focus of other Goddard IRAD project.
VISOR’s success could pave the way for a larger future mission, with spacecraft separation measured in kilometers, employing the greater resolution of Denis’s thinner sieves once they are ready for spaceflight.
Another larger photon sieve will be used to calibrate the MUSE – Multi-slit Solar Explorer – spectrometer expected to launch in 2027.
Denis’s work was highlighted in Physics Today, a publication of the American Institute for Physics, and has resulted with two patents already with a third submitted. Goddard Chief Technologist Peter Hughes awarded Denis the FY23 IRAD Innovator of the Year Award during the program’s annual poster session held Nov. 15.
While he continues to push the limits of engineering, Denis said he is looking forward to the MUSE and VISORS launches. “It’s a great motivation to see how they are going to be used for new science even as we continue to improve.”
By Karl B. Hille
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Last Updated Dec 05, 2023 Related Terms
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December’s Night Sky Notes: A Flame in the Sky – the Orion Nebula
Orion constellation Stellarium Web by Kat Troche of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
It’s that time of year again: Winter! Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the clear, crisp sky offers spectacular views of various objects, the most famous of all being Orion the Hunter.
As we’ve previously mentioned, Orion is a great way to test your sky darkness. With the naked eye, you can easily spot this hourglass-shaped constellation. Known as an epic hunter in Greco-Roman antiqity, Orion and all its parts have many names and meanings across many cultures. In Egyptian mythology, this constellation represented the god Sah. The Babylonians referred to it as The Heavenly Shepard. In most cultures, it is Orion’s Belt that has many stories: Shen in Chinese folklore, or Tayamnicankhu in Lakota storytelling. But the Maya of Mesoamerica believed that part of Orion contained The Cosmic Hearth – the fire of creation.
1,500 light years away from Earth sits the star-forming region, and crown jewel of Orion – Messier 42 (M42), the Orion Nebula. Part of the “sword” of Orion, this 24 light year wide cloud of dust and gas sits below the first star in Orion’s Belt, Alnitak, and can easily be spotted with the naked eye under moderate dark skies. You can also use binoculars or a telescope to resolve more details, such as the Trapezium: four stars in the shape of a keystone (or baseball diamond). These young stars make up the core of this magnificent object.
Of course, it’s not just for looking at! M42 is easily one of the most photographed nebulae around, imaged by amateur astrophotographers, professional observatories and space telescopes alike. It has long been a place of interest for the Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra X-ray Space Telescopes, with James Webb Space Telescope now joining the list in February 2023. Earlier this year, NASA and the European Space Agency released a new photo of the Orion Nebula taken from JWST’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera), which allowed scientists to image this early star forming region in both short and long wavelengths.
These Webb images show a part of the Orion Nebula known as the Orion Bar. It is a region where energetic ultraviolet light from the Trapezium Cluster — located off the upper-left corner — interacts with dense molecular clouds. The energy of the stellar radiation is slowly eroding the Orion Bar, and this has a profound effect on the molecules and chemistry in the protoplanetary disks that have formed around newborn stars here. The largest image, on the left, is from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument. At upper right, the telescope is focused on a smaller area using Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument). A total of eighteen filters across both the MIRI and NIRCam instruments were used in these images, covering a range of wavelengths from 1.4 microns in the near-infrared to 25.5 microns in the mid-infrared.
At the very center of the MIRI area is a young star system with a planet-forming disk named d203-506. The pullout at the bottom right displays a combined NIRCam and MIRI image of this young system. Its extended shape is due to pressure from the harsh ultraviolet radiation striking it. An international team of astronomers detected a new carbon molecule known as methyl cation for the first time in d203-506.
ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), PDRs4ALL ERS Team But stars aren’t the only items visible here. In June 2023, JWST’s NIRCam and MIRI (mid-infrared instrument) imaged a developing star system with a protoplanetary disk forming around it. That’s right – a solar system happening in real time – located within the edges of a section called the Orion Bar. Scientists have named this planet-forming disk d203-506, and you can learn more about the chemistry found here. By capturing these objects in multiple wavelengths of light, astronomers now have even greater insight into what other objects might be hiding within these hazy hydrogen regions of our night sky. This technique is called Multi-spectral Imaging, made possible by numerous new space based telescopes.
In addition to the Night Sky Network Dark Sky Wheel, a fun activity you can share with your astronomy club would be Universe Discovery Guide: Orion Nebula, Nursery of Newborn Stars. This will allow you to explain to audiences how infrared astronomy, like JWST, helps to reveal the secrets of nebulae. Or you can use public projects like the NASA-funded MicroObservatory to capture M42 and other objects.
Stay tuned to learn more about what to spy in the Winter sky with our upcoming mid-month article!
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December’s Night Sky Notes: A Flame in the Sky – the Orion Nebula
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5 Min Read Webb Study Reveals Rocky Planets Can Form in Extreme Environments
An international team of astronomers has used NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to provide the first observation of water and other molecules in the highly irradiated inner, rocky-planet-forming regions of a disk in one of the most extreme environments in our galaxy. These results suggest that the conditions for terrestrial planet formation can occur in a possible broader range of environments than previously thought.
Image: Protoplanetary Disk (Artist Concept)
This is an artist’s impression of a young star surrounded by a protoplanetary disk in which planets are forming. ESO/L. Calçada These are the first results from the eXtreme Ultraviolet Environments (XUE) James Webb Space Telescope program, which focuses on the characterization of planet-forming disks (vast, spinning clouds of gas, dust, and chunks of rock where planets form and evolve) in massive star-forming regions. These regions are likely representative of the environment in which most planetary systems formed. Understanding the impact of environment on planet formation is important for scientists to gain insights into the diversity of the different types of exoplanets.
The XUE program targets a total of 15 disks in three areas of the Lobster Nebula (also known as NGC 6357), a large emission nebula roughly 5,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Scorpius. The Lobster Nebula is one of the youngest and closest massive star-formation complexes, and is host to some of the most massive stars in our galaxy. Massive stars are hotter, and therefore emit more ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This can disperse the gas, making the expected disk lifetime as short as a million years. Thanks to Webb, astronomers can now study the effect of UV radiation on the inner rocky-planet forming regions of protoplanetary disks around stars like our Sun.
“Webb is the only telescope with the spatial resolution and sensitivity to study planet-forming disks in massive star-forming regions,” said team lead María Claudia Ramírez-Tannus of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.
Astronomers aim to characterize the physical properties and chemical composition of the rocky-planet-forming regions of disks in the Lobster Nebula using the Medium Resolution Spectrometer on Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). This first result focuses on the protoplanetary disk termed XUE 1, which is located in the star cluster Pismis 24.
“Only the MIRI wavelength range and spectral resolution allow us to probe the molecular inventory and physical conditions of the warm gas and dust where rocky planets form,” added team member Arjan Bik of Stockholm University in Sweden.
Image: XUE 1 spectrum detects water
This spectrum shows data from the protoplanetary disk termed XUE 1, which is located in the star cluster Pismis 24. The inner disk around XUE 1 revealed signatures of water (highlighted here in blue), as well as acetylene (C2H2, green), hydrogen cyanide (HCN, brown), and carbon dioxide (CO2, red). As indicated, some of the emission detected was weaker than some of the predicted models, which might imply a small outer disk radius.NASA, ESA, CSA, M. Ramírez-Tannus (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), J. Olmsted (STScI) Due to its location near several massive stars in NGC 6357, scientists expect XUE 1 to have been constantly exposed to high amounts of ultraviolet radiation throughout its life. However, in this extreme environment the team still detected a range of molecules that are the building blocks for rocky planets.
“We find that the inner disk around XUE 1 is remarkably similar to those in nearby star-forming regions,” said team member Rens Waters of Radboud University in the Netherlands. “We’ve detected water and other molecules like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, and acetylene. However, the emission found was weaker than some models predicted. This might imply a small outer disk radius.”
“We were surprised and excited because this is the first time that these molecules have been detected under these extreme conditions,” added Lars Cuijpers of Radboud University. The team also found small, partially crystalline silicate dust at the disk’s surface. This is considered to be the building blocks of rocky planets.
These results are good news for rocky planet formation, as the science team finds that the conditions in the inner disk resemble those found in the well-studied disks located in nearby star-forming regions, where only low-mass stars form. This suggests that rocky planets can form in a much broader range of environments than previously believed.
Image: XUE 1 Spectrum detects CO
This spectrum shows data from the protoplanetary disk termed XUE 1, which is located in the star cluster Pismis 24. It features the observed signatures of carbon monoxide spanning 4.95 to 5.15 microns. NASA, ESA, CSA, M. Ramírez-Tannus (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), J. Olmsted (STScI)
The team notes that the remaining observations from the XUE program are crucial to establish the commonality of these conditions.
“XUE 1 shows us that the conditions to form rocky planets are there, so the next step is to check how common that is,” said Ramírez-Tannus. “We will observe other disks in the same region to determine the frequency with which these conditions can be observed.”
These results have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
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NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, , Greenbelt, Md.
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Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.
Download full resolution images for this article from the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Research results published in The Astrophysical Journal.
LIfe and Death of Planetary Systems
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Approximately a week ago, TikTok influencer Gkbarry found herself engrossed in promotional recordings. Amidst her busy schedule, she unintentionally captured a spherical object flying through the sky at a remarkable speed.
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Due to the object's fast movement, it was nearly visible in the initial recording. However, upon closer inspection through zooming, both the object and its trajectory became distinctly visible as well as unveiling the flash that occurred moments before its disappearance.
The enhanced zooming, starting at the 0.35-minute mark in the video, provides a clearer view of the mysterious object and the intriguing flash that unfolded during its flight.
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