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Archives for May 2010

UK space doesn't have to return to 'Year Zero'

Jonathan Amos | 12:59 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

We were waiting and wondering, and now we know. The new UK government coalition "believes in space".

Virgin rocketship launchThat was the message from the man with the brief - new science minister David Willetts - after he emerged from his first UK Space Leadership Council meeting on Thursday.

If you've never heard of this group, that's perhaps not surprising: it was only set up in the final days of the last administration.

It was a product of the Space Innovation and Growth Team exercise last year that sought to define a 20-year strategy to develop the UK space industry.

The council is a collection of the "leading lights", and its remit is to drive the Space-IGT strategy forwards and advise government on how best it can help achieve the team's goals.

Thursday's gathering was only the second such meeting, and as science minister, Mr Willetts gets to be co-chair. He gave me a call afterwards and you can read a summary of our conversation here. In short, he wants to maintain momentum.

Many who met the previous science minister will attest that when it came to space, Lord Drayson had something of the "little boy in the sweet shop" approach to the subject. He was a big fan of space. From those in the space sector, there has been a great deal of anxiety these past few months about what a change in government would mean.

This wasn't a party-political thing: it was about the fear of stop-start, of having to re-engage and re-start conversations. David Willetts signalled to the council that he had no intention of returning to "Year Zero":

"Although he's from a different party, I began by paying tribute to Lord Drayson, because I think he was really committed on space; and I emphasised to the business people there that they shouldn't assume we've got to start all over again - if the previous government had done good things, I wasn't going to tear them up just for the sake of it. I thought some of the key reports, especially the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, were a very good guide to action."

David Willetts

This is not too surprising. The last time I saw Mr Willetts before the general election was at the Surrey Space Centre in Guildford. I was heading out of the door having spoken to the scientists and engineers there about its activities; he was heading into the building to do the same thing. His constituency borders the satellite-manufacturing plant of EADS Astrium at Portsmouth and he's been there, too.

Of course, it's all now about delivery. Money will be an issue, as ever; UK governments of every colour have not invested in space at the same levels as the other major European states and the state of the public finances means that this situation is unlikely to change dramatically.

Mr Willetts said he was up-front about this to the Council members, but that he was encouraged by how much of what those members then wanted to talk about didn't involve spending money. This is an important observation.

If you look at the 16 recommendations of the Space-IGT, only a handful are wholly dependent on big money from government. Many simply require government to frame the environment. Some examples are:

• changing the regulations that would allow Virgin's SpaceShipTwo to launch from the UK and make this country a hub for space tourism
• allocating sufficient spectrum to satellite operators so that they can grow their services
• pooling existing government spending and committing that cash to support a privately-operated, indigenous, Earth-observation programme, along the lines of the Skynet military telecommunications project

A|D|S, the UK's AeroSpace, Defence and Security trade organisation, made this point when it issued "a manifesto for the British space sector" on the eve of the general election:

"Industry recognises that much of the investment to launch it on its path to growth will come from industry rather than from government. Private venture capital, resulting from government setting the right climate for such private investment, will take advantage of opportunities offered in commercial markets to meet future government requirements for end-to-end services."

Some aspirations, of course, are reliant on cash from Whitehall. The way the European Space Agency operates its "juste retour" principle of giving out industrial contracts in proportion to the money invested by national governments is a case in point. If you don't put money into some Esa projects, your industry is locked out of the game, no matter how good it is.

And Andy Green, the chief executive of Logica who chaired the Space-IGT, makes the point:

"Where the government does decide to intervene financially and otherwise, the emphasis should be on growing sectors."

All this concerns industry; as my astronomy friends like to ask me: "What about 'space science', Jonathan?" Most of the space science in the UK is directed through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which has struggled to get to grips with its brief following its creation out of the merger between the old Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) with the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC).

Hylas-1 satelliteMatters for them have not been helped by a fall in the value of the pound which has inflated subscriptions to organisations like Esa and put a squeeze on grants. Mr Willetts told me he has the STFC on his agenda and he will be getting round to all of the research councils in due time.

One issue which seems to be close to resolution is the UK funding of certain major international space missions. I blogged about this back in February.

Because of its financial position, the STFC was looking to make a "managed withdrawal" from its operational commitment to the Saturn probe Cassini. Other ventures affected similarly included the Sun-Earth system missions Cluster and Soho, Venus Express and the X-ray telescope XMM-Newton.

It now looks as though the European Space Agency is going to step in and pick up some of these costs. That's not confirmed yet, but it's looking that way.

Anyway, if you have thoughts on what the priorities should be for Mr Willetts, the UK space industry and UK space science - fill the void below.

'Zombie-sat' and the clever orbital dance

Jonathan Amos | 11:45 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The "dead-but-alive" telecommunications satellite, Galaxy-15, has begun to enter the space of neighbouring craft, and their operators are planning evasive action.

Galaxy 15"Zombie-sat" has captured the imagination of the internet space forums these past few weeks. It's probably the nickname that's done it.

When we sit on the sofa skipping across the smorgasbord of channels with our remote-controls, we don't usually give much thought to the "bent pipes" that sit 36,000km above our heads, delivering the televisual feast.

Intelsat's Galaxy-15 satellite was put in geostationary orbit five years ago to re-distribute TV services to cable companies across North America, and also to send navigation data to aeroplanes to improve the accuracy of their GPS receivers.

But the "bird" experienced a major hiccup at the beginning of April.

It's not known precisely what happened. One possibility is that it was damaged by high-speed particles billowing off the Sun in a solar storm - an ever-present danger for orbiting electronics.

The satellite is still operational: it's still "on", but Intelsat cannot control it. Any signal it receives, it re-transmits at high power. It's a very unusual situation.

What doesn't help is the fact that Galaxy-15, which is supposed to sit at 133 degrees West (over the eastern Pacific), is drifting slowing eastwards by about 0.05 degrees a day. This will take it into the path of other satellites, and first to have an issue is AMC-11, another TV services spacecraft operated by SES World Skies.

If SES were to do nothing, Zombie-sat would soon start picking up and retransmitting signals sent to AMC-11. To users on the ground who depend on AMC-11 for their daily dose of MTV, this could lead to a horrendous mash-up.

It would be like trying to listen to two people who are shouting the same conversation at you.

So, SES World Skies will today begin a delicate orbital dance, in which they will allow AMC-11 to drift in tandem with Galaxy-15 while at the same time sneaking up another satellite behind the pair.

SES World Skies plan to evade Galaxy-15 interference

The plan is for the SES controllers to then leapfrog many of the services on AMC-11 across to this other satellite, known as SES-1, thereby minimising the disruption to customers.

The manoeuvres are unprecedented, says Alan Young, the chief technology officer with SES World Skies.

"The closest AMC-11 and Galaxy-15 will come is measured in kilometres, and in space terms that's quite close. But the risk here is not one of collision; we're not at all concerned about that. The problem is that they're so close when viewed from Earth that it's not easy to distinguish between the two satellites and seeing as they both operate in the same frequency band, there will be interference if we're not careful.
 
"We've gone to a number of measures, including moving customers on AMC-11 on to a very large uplink antenna. This means we can very finely discriminate between the two spacecraft so that we can direct all of the energy into AMC-11 and as little energy as possible into Galaxy-15. If you don't put anything into Galaxy-15, you won't get anything out."

AMC-11 will eventually be moved back to its orbital slot to resume normal operations once the zombie has passed through, which should be 7 June.

All satellite operators and comms companies will have to work out what Galaxy-15 means to them. Here at the BBC, we've had to consider how some of our international services like the BBC World News channel might be affected.

This channel is fed through Intelsat's Galaxy-13 platform. The most recent calculations suggest everything should be fine.

Anyone sitting on their sofa in North America should be oblivious to the space waltz that is about to take place.

There are some wider issues, however. For satellite manufacturers, there will be keen interest in understanding exactly what happened to Galaxy-15.

Satellites have redundant, or back-up systems; and when they have major upsets, there are usually modes that will completely re-boot the spacecraft automatically after a period of time.

Galaxy-15 was made by Orbital Sciences, but Patrick Wood, the chief technical officer for EADS Astrium satellites, told me the entire industry had an interest in finding out what went wrong:

"Part of our design review process is to check through the architecture to ensure there isn't a single point that, were it to fail, we'd lose complete control of the spacecraft. Clearly Galaxy-15 has had a major event and most organisations will want to understand what happened. From an industrial point of view, the surprising thing is that Galaxy-15 is locked on full power. This tends to suggest the control/tele-command side of the spacecraft has failed and left the spacecraft in whatever mode it was in when it was last commanded. It's a very unusual case."

And, of course, the whole episode raises once again the issue of orbital space debris. Galaxy-15 will likely end its days in one of the two great "garbage patches" in the sky.

These libration points, as they are known, are located at roughly 105 degrees West and 75 degrees East. They are gravitational "sweet-spots" where drifting objects will naturally coalesce.

The two libration points now contain more than 150 defunct satellites [395Kb PDF].

Satellite operators are urged to put their geostationary spacecraft in a "graveyard orbit" once their missions are complete. This usually means pushing the platforms even higher into the sky.

But of the 21 spacecraft which reached end of life in 2009, only 11 were disposed of in accordance with the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee's (IADC) re-orbiting guidelines [99 Kb PDF].

We may all love our satellite TV, but we're starting to build a problem for ourselves.

Watch this space.

Small satellites keep up their oil watch

Jonathan Amos | 17:15 UK time, Friday, 21 May 2010

The Gulf oil slick is a situation where access to satellite data is absolutely essential to the strategy for dealing with the problem.

Leaving aside the maritime communications and navigation for a moment, it is the fleet of international Earth observers flying over the region that are providing the day-by-day update on the scale and movement of the spill.

As is normal in such cases, signatories to the International Charter [on] Space and Major Disasters have made their satellites available to the US authorities, to provide them with the space-borne data they need to manage the crisis.

DMC image of oil slick

In this instance, that means the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), and the USGS - the US Geological Survey.

Indeed, it was the USGS that triggered the charter on this occasion on behalf of the US Coast Guard. It was the 17th activation of 2010. There have been two further activations since the Deepwater Horizon rig caught fire on 21 April (GMT).

It's not clear how much oil has gushed free. It's at least 23 million litres, more than half the amount the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled in Alaska in 1989; Noaa and other experts believe it's actually substantially more than that.

Radar satellites like Europe's mighty Envisat platform have been especially useful in tracking the spill. Radar sees through cloud and works day and night.

More than that though, the presence of oil in the water works to flatten the surface somewhat and radar can sense this effect.

Radar image of oil spill

It was data from Envisat this week which suggested the oil had now entered the so-called Loop Current, a powerful conveyor belt that flows clockwise around the Gulf of Mexico towards Florida. The obvious worry here is that the pollution could now travel much further afield, even up around Florida and up the eastern seaboard.

This is not to say satellites that view the Earth at other wavelengths, in the infrared and optical, have not been playing their part.

The UK's contribution in this area has, in large part, been exercised through the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) which is managed from Guildford.

The DMC consists of six small imaging satellites that see the planet at resolutions between 4m and 32m, across an ultra-wide 600km-plus swath.

The constellation's strength is its fast return over one location. Clouds permitting, the sextet can build a map the size of Europe in just five days.

The DMC knows the Gulf region very well, having provided important flooding data in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

DMC image of New Orleans after Katrina

Its cameras are particularly well suited to see changes in vegetation. After all, that is the "day job", if you like, for these satellites. When they're not on disaster duty, they perform a lot of "precision agriculture", mapping crop growth to advise farmers where exactly in their fields they should be applying fertilisers.

The USGS has asked if the DMC satellites can continue to image the Gulf region in the weeks ahead to see where oil comes ashore. The brown ooze from the spill has already started to coat the marsh grasses of Louisiana's and Mississippi's wetlands.

DMC images collected over the coming days will be compared with the "reference data" held in the archives to determine the locations of pollution hot-spots, the places where urgent clean-up is required.

Dave Hodgson is the managing director of DMC International Imaging Ltd (DMCii), which operates the constellation:

"We're tracking the slick but we're also imaging a lot of the coastline. Because we know what the vegetation looks like normally, we will see changes straightaway. What usually happens is that our data gets digitised into Geographical Information Systems layers, and then they go to all sorts of agencies and departments. We image in strips. On each orbit, we can take an image of somewhere between about 600km and 3,000km. For example, we can image an area the size of the UK and part of northern France every time we pass over, which is once every five days with a single satellite. With five satellites, you can image that area every day."

The Gulf situation could go on for some time. I notice a top BP executive was quoted on one of the American TV networks on Friday as saying that in the worst-case scenario, the leak could continue for months, until a new well being drilled to cap the flow permanently could be finished.

Brown gooThe DMC consists of satellites belonging to the UK, Spain, Algeria, China and Nigeria; a Turkish satellite is no longer operational after finishing its mission.

The constellation will be boosted at the end of the year by the addition of a seventh platform, NigeriaSat-X. NX, as it's sometimes called, is set to fly in October. And it'll be joined on its Dnepr rocket by an even more capable machine for Nigeria called NigeriaSat-2.

This also will do some DMC work.

All the spacecraft come out of the small satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).

The company is not resting on its laurels, however, and is looking to push the capability of its next generation of platforms.

The aim is to develop a small radar satellite within the next few years.

That's a challenge because you need a lot of power to operate a radar instrument. Access to kilowatts is not a problem if you're an eight-tonne behemoth like Envisat; it is a big problem if you're a 100kg, 60cm cube like a DMC satellite.

The interesting news out of SSTL is that its engineers think they now know how to make a small radar satellite.

Watch this space.

Here's the shipping forecast for space

Jonathan Amos | 12:30 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Not so much an armada, more like a flotilla.

Artist's impression of IkarosWe're going to see a series of spacecraft launch in the next year or so that try to demonstrate the principle of solar sailing.

These craft will deploy very large, ultra-thin membranes to catch the light of our star to push them through space.

The idea has long been discussed and now a few groups are very close to showing us the reality. Or so we hope.

First out of the space marina is Japan's Ikaros, which will be launched on the same rocket as the nation's new probe to Venus (just as soon as the weather at the Tanegashima spaceport obliges).

In the coming weeks, this 1.6m-diameter spacecraft will run out an almost 200-square-metre solar sail.

Photons, or particles of light, falling on this highly reflective, ultra-thin (7.5 microns) surface will exert a pressure.

This force will be tiny...but it'll be continuous and it'll be free; and over time, the acceleration gained should amount to quite a kick.

Ikaros will chase after the main probe to Venus.

Solar sails will never replace conventional propulsion systems like chemical thrusters, but they do have the potential to play a much greater role in certain types of space mission.

Louis Friedman, from the space advocacy group The Planetary Society, is a big fan of the technology. The society's LightSail-1, a much smaller venture than Ikaros, could launch by the year's end. Louis told me:

"The potential that we all seek is the ultra-lightweight, very fast spacecraft that doesn't use fuel. That's the future of interstellar travel; that's the long-term goal. The intermediate goals are to be able to use this technology to 'hover' in interplanetary space at particular points for monitoring, say, the Sun or monitoring the Earth's geomagnetic poles or magneto-tail; and then also to fly between the planets without using fuel."

Already some satellites in geostationary orbit above the Earth use flaps on the ends of their solar panels to catch the pressure of sunlight to maintain their correct attitude.

This leads to a considerable saving on the fuel that would otherwise have to be sent surging through the satellites' thrusters, and operators have found this strategy can extend the longevity of some missions by many months.

British forces in Afghanistan are talking through communications spacecraft right now (their Skynet 5 series) that use precisely this technique.

Helping a satellite to point in the right direction is one thing, however; using sunlight to drive an interplanetary probe is a very different kind of challenge.

Just deploying these sails is a big ask. In order for sunlight to provide sufficient pressure to propel a spacecraft forward, a solar sail must capture as much sunlight as possible. This means that the surface of the sail must be big - very big.

And packing up that enormous structure for launch and then getting it out again in space is tricky. Ikaros is going to use a spin technique.

The disc-shaped craft will be despatched with the sail wrapped around it. The plan is to unbutton the four weighted corners of the membrane and allow them to fly outwards as the central module turns. This should pull the sail taught.

Diagram of solar sail deployment

Dr Vaios Lappas is working on a British project called CubeSail which should launch next year. The UK mission will be slightly smaller than LightSail-1 but both experiments will use booms, or ribs, to unfurl their membranes and keep them flat.

Dr Lappas is excited to see how the Japanese approach works.

"We thought about doing it the same way but decided in the end it was higher risk. Ikaros relies on gyroscopic stiffness. This satellite will need to be continuously spinning and when you've got large structures spinning, things can go wrong. Think of a fishing line with a mass at the tip of it and you're rotating it with your hand. That whole structure looks like a disc but just a tiny little movement from your hand can introduce a wobble. It's an interesting concept and I wish them well. I really hope it works."

Nasa did a study [PDF] a few years back in which they worked out that a 200kg spacecraft with a solar sail 400 metres across could get to 200 times the Sun-Earth distance in about 15 years. By comparison, the Voyager-1 spacecraft, which is the most distant man-made object, left our planet 32 years ago and is still only 113 times the Sun-Earth distance.

The futurologists envision solar sail spacecraft being driven out of the Solar System by the additional impetus of a powerful laser beam directed at them from Earth.

We're some way away from that. Let's see first if Ikaros gets a fair wind.

The Japanese space agency (Jaxa) is being cautious about its milestones. Just getting Ikaros to deploy properly will be some achievement. But the sail then has some added extras which will be fascinating to see if they work.

Embedded in the sail are LCDs to change the reflectivity of the membrane. The idea is that by introducing some asymmetry, the sail can be trimmed and the direction of the spacecraft changed.

Also embedded in the sail are some solar cells. The idea here is to prove the principle of generating power from a solar sail.

Jaxa's thinking is that future craft could be equipped not only with a solar membrane but with an ion propulsion engine as well.

Under this scenario, sunlight would push on the sail whilst at the same time providing the electricity to accelerate a charged gas, thus providing additional thrust. Neat.

Watch this space.

The last (planned) flight of space shuttle Atlantis

Jonathan Amos | 16:50 UK time, Thursday, 13 May 2010

So, we get down to the "first of the lasts". Friday's launch of the space shuttle Atlantis is expected to be the final outing for this particular orbiter before retirement.

Atlantis launchingIt won't go to a museum straightaway on its return from the space station, however. It will go back into the processing flow, as they say, and made ready as the "launch on need" rescue shuttle should November's Endeavour flight get into trouble.

As I've already discussed in this blog, there is some talk in the US as to whether having gone to the trouble of prepping Atlantis in this way, Nasa should just fly it out anyway.

The extra spares and supplies would be gratefully received at the station and were the ship to sustain damage itself - a holed wing on lift-off, for example - the small crew (just four individuals) could return to Earth in Soyuz capsules.

That's a decision for later in the year. President Obama still has to convince Congress that his new strategy for space exploration is the correct one and that the shuttle fleet should be stood down as planned.

Some politicians persist in trying to get orbiter operations extended, so nothing can yet be said to be a done deal

But the assumption of many is that this mission (STS-132) will be the last for Atlantis.

The commander on the flight, Kenneth "Hock" Ham, speaking for his crew put it thus:

"The six of us are calling this the 'first last flight of Atlantis' and I think that's appropriate because we really don't know what she's going to do next."

One man who would certainly like to see Atlantis make one further "last hurrah" is Jerry Ross.

During his astronaut career, he flew seven shuttle missions, five of them on Atlantis - more than anyone else. Naturally enough, he calls the ship his "favourite".

In a media conference last week, he listed some of the orbiter's key achievements and numbers, and it's worth repeating them here:

  • The name: Honours the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's primary research vessel which operated from 1930 to 1966
  • The Atlantis shuttle even took a sample of decking from the ketch into orbit on one flight
  • Manufacturing started: 30 March 1980; the fourth orbiter
  • First flight: 3 October 1985
  • Total distance travelled (to date): 115,770,929 miles (186,315,249km)
  • Total number of days in orbit: 282
  • Total number of orbits: 4,462
  • Total number of flights: 31
  • Total number of crew members: 185
  • Number of dockings at the Russian Mir space station: 7
  • Number of dockings at the International Space Station: 10

    And the notable missions:

  • It launched the first interplanetary probe from a shuttle - Magellan to Venus
  • It launched from orbit the Galileo spacecraft to go to Jupiter
  • It put in orbit the Compton Gamma-ray Observatory
  • It made the first shuttle docking at Mir
  • It delivered the Destiny and Columbus science labs to the ISS
  • It conducted the last servicing mission to Hubble

    Jerry Ross recalls a great story about his very first Atlantis flight on 26 November, 1985. It was a mission to put three satellites in orbit and to test some of the construction techniques needed to assemble large structures in space.

    This was back when the astronauts climbed aboard the orbiter in light clothing, not the orange pressure suits we're familiar with today:

    "My first shuttle flight on Atlantis was the 23rd overall shuttle flight. So, I had listened to 22 crews come back and give us very excruciating details of what they saw, what they felt and what they learnt on each of those missions.
     
    "I put all that information in my think-tank and every time I'd go out running I'd day-dream about what it was going to be like to strap that puppy on and go for a ride. And I can frankly tell you that about 20 seconds after lift-off, I was thinking to myself, 'Ross, what in the world are you doing here?'.
     
    "That was back when we were still launching in a cloth flight suit and a motorcycle helmet. We didn't have our launch and entry suits [used on later flights]; we weren't in a pressurised environment inside that little cocoon that gives us.
     
    "Those suits really do muffle out a lot of the sounds and a lot of the vibrations that the vehicle generates during first stage. And so for me that first ride was a pretty exciting ride. A lot of rumbling and shaking."

    A launch is always special, including for those just watching. The crowds on all the approach roads and along the beach near the Kennedy Space Center have reportedly increased in size for the last few shuttle lift-offs.

    Jonathan stands under Atlantis in the OPF at KennedyQuite where Atlantis will live out her retirement is not entirely clear - whenever that happens. Nasa will make all the orbiters safe for display and then ship them to their final homes. Museums interested in taking an orbiter were told this process would cost about $30m.

    Space shuttle Discovery has already been promised to the National Air and Space Museum which also has possession of Enterprise, the test shuttle that never actually went into space.

    Atlantis is the vehicle I've got closest to, having inspected it in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy shortly after its return from servicing Hubble last year.

    "Magnificent" is the word that springs to mind as you walk under its belly. The patchwork of heat-resistant tiles immediately catches the eye, as does the immense nozzles of the main engines at the rear.

    I agree with the "Nasa Brit" on this flight - Piers Sellers - who thinks the orbiters are among the most remarkable machines ever built:

    "It's tough because we're right in the middle of it, but we're aware that there is a sense of history here. These three surviving shuttles are a piece of history. We've been to the USS Constitution and HMS Victory, for myself - these old ships which marked the state of technology. Well, these three ships will go down in history, too."
  • Herschel paints the cosmic landscape

    Jonathan Amos | 09:25 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

    I was wallowing in the latest Herschel images and it struck me that there was something familiar about them - in the swirls and colours. J M W Turner? I don't know. Perhaps my imagination has run wild.

    Herschel looks to the Eagle constellation

    A Hi-GAL image looking towards the inner galaxy in the Eagle constellation. Centre and left are two massive star-forming regions

    It does bring to mind, however, some research presented in 2005 that looked at the way Hubble images were prepared, and the influences of those who did the colouring.

    Dr Elizabeth A. Kessler suggested Hubble pictures had the look of romantic 19th Century landscape paintings. Being something of a cultural desert, I can't speak to the aesthetics of Herschel's images, but I can appreciate the stunning science in them.

    It will be the observatory's first birthday next week and astronomers from across Europe, and from across the world, have been in Holland this week to assess the first research results. This is why we have the latest - and very welcome - release.

    Herschel as you probably know by now goes after the "cold cosmos". Unlike Hubble, which is tuned to see the Universe in the same light that is visible to our eyes, the European observatory is sensitive to much longer wavelength radiation - in the far-infrared and sub-millimetre range.

    This means it can detect the emission coming from really frigid stuff, less than 40 kelvin (minus 233 Celsius).

    The first two images on this posting come from a Herschel project called the "HiGAL" survey, which has been looking inwards along the plane of our galaxy at the store of material available for star production.

    Already, it's showing us how great filaments of gas and dust fragment into the tight knots that eventually produce stars.

    You can best see that filamentary structure in the top right-hand corner of the image just below, although at the resolutions we're able to show it's perhaps not that easy.

    Herschel looks to the constellation of Vulpecula

    A Hi-GAL image showing filaments of gas and dust fragmenting to form knots of starbirth

    By far the biggest survey on Herschel, however, is a project called Atlas. Unlike Hi-GAL its main focus is outside our Milky Way Galaxy.

    It's trying to assess how rates of star formation have changed through cosmic time, and hopefully explain why. To do this, it's mapping galaxies. Huge numbers of them. In the image below, the dots are galaxies. There are 6,000 in there.

    Some are quite close; others are billions of light-years away.

    Our own galaxy is a pretty sedate place these days. It makes a new star or two every year, but look back three billion years into the past (ie look deeper into the Universe) and you'll see galaxies that make stars a hundred times that rate.

    Atlas image of 6,000 galaxies

    Thousands of galaxies pictured in an Atlas image. Some galaxies are close by to our own, some are 12 billion light-years distant

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    The images above are made using two of Herschel's instruments - Pacs and Spire. The telescope's third instrument is called HiFi. It's a spectrograph. It doesn't produce pretty pictures, just wiggly lines of data that are a much tougher PR sell.

    That's a shame because HiFi is also returning some exceptional science.

    It's the instrument that can fingerprint all the chemical elements and molecules swirling around in those Turner-like clouds of gas and dust pictured above.

    It tells you what state these species are in as well.

    One of its key marker molecules is water, and it's recently been watching water ions - water molecules that have lost electrons - in stellar nurseries. It's the intense ultraviolet light from hot young stars that's caused the water to become electrically charged.

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    The galactic bubble known as RCW 120

    A colossal star many times the mass of our own Sun is seen growing in a bubble of excited gas

    If you haven't seen the final image here yet, I've written more extensively about it on the news pages. And if you want to read more about Herschel's best pictures, I recommend the Online Showcase of Herschel Images.

    It's where the very best Herschel images over the next two and a half years will be accessible. You can also download various sizes. Nice if you fancy cosmic wallpaper.

    The Moon enjoys its moment in the Sun

    Jonathan Amos | 10:01 UK time, Tuesday, 4 May 2010

    Mr Obama is not so excited by the Moon. "We've been there before" was how he dismissed Earth's satellite as a priority destination for US astronauts.

    Artist's impression of a lunar landerInstead, he wants to send humans to more distant, "increasingly demanding targets", starting with an asteroid in the mid-2020s.

    It's hard to imagine, though, that we would bypass the Moon altogether.

    For one thing, it's close by and a great place to test technology. There's also the comfort of knowing that if something goes wrong, home is just a short hop away.

    More than that, scientifically speaking, the Moon is downright "sexy" again.

    I'm spending a few days this week at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna. Lunar science is a big a draw, and that's really no surprise.

    The new wave of robotic missions - Smart-1, Kaguya, Chang'e-1, Chandrayaan-1, LRO and LCROSS - have put the Moon in a new context, particularly with the recent discoveries of water-ice in the lunar soil.

    And this wave is only the beginning. Many more robotic missions are set to follow in this decade, and not just orbiters. There will be landers and rovers, too.

    For Europe, a key focus will be on its polar lander. Costing several hundred million euros, this could launch in 2018. The effort is just in the planning stage at the moment - the broad outline of the mission has been scoped out, but not the detail.

    It would see a 700-750kg robotic spacecraft launch from French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket. It would travel to the Moon and then attempt a fully automated, precision landing. That's to say, the spacecraft would have to make its own decisions about where it was safe to put down.

    Dr James Carpenter [1.4KB PDF] is working on the European Space Agency project:

    "As it starts to descend to the surface of the Moon, to an area we have identified, the mission becomes completely automated. As it descends, it looks down and recognises landmarks. It also scans the surface and analyses the surface in real time, identifying potential hazards in terms of boulders, craters or steep slopes. If there are dangers there, it will scan around the landing site, identify an area that is safe and navigate itself to that location."

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    The lunar lander is intended to pave the way for future human exploration of the Moon. Indeed, this is a project which is currently funded out of the human spaceflight directorate at Esa.

    Astronaut covered in dustThis means the goals of the roughly 60kg scientific payload are geared towards the needs of future astronauts.

    Experiments will examine the soil for signs of resources that could be exploited by humans, and instruments will test the environmental challenges that will confront them.

    These include the dangers posed by radiation and lunar dust. The Apollo astronauts found out just how irritating dust could be. Look at any pictures of them on the lunar surface and you'll instantly understand the issue. The astronauts became covered in the stuff.

    Professor Brian O'Brien from the University of Western Australia designed a dust detector for the Apollo missions [1.4KB PDF]. He told me:

    "'Dust is the number one environmental problem on the Moon'. That's Harrison Schmidt's statement. It stopped vacuum samples being taken back to Earth, for example, because the dust got into the seals. It was a hazard for the astronauts: it got into the chronometer; it chaffed their wrist-guards; it stuck to everything. The average size of the grains is about 70 microns (millionths of a metre), about the width of a human hair; but it goes down into the nanometres (billionths of a metre)."

    Such small grains are a potential health hazard if breathed in. Any humans that lived on the surface for long periods would have to have effective measures to deal with the dust, not just to protect their well-being but to maintain their equipment in good working order.

    Current lander designs

    Current lander designs from OHB System (L) and EADS Astrium (R)

    The Esa lander would look to build considerably on the knowledge gained by the Apollo Dust Detector Experiments.

    The robot is being targeted at the lunar south pole because it has locations that enjoy extended periods of sunlight.

    In general, the Moon's surface has a cycle of two weeks of light followed by two weeks of darkness. For Esa, this is a potential show-stopper. Europe does not possess the radioisotope space technology capable of generating the power and heat needed by robots to survive these long nights. Therefore, its lander must go somewhere that works for solar panel and battery technology.

    This could be found on a ridge close to Shackleton Crater. There's a peak there that almost certainly experiences months on end when the Sun never sets completely beneath the horizon.

    The location is pictured here in a perspective rendering of data acquired by Europe's Smart-1 orbiter. The spacecraft took 133 images of the peak over 18 months, and in only four of those pictures was the peak found to be in darkness.

    Smart-1 Peak near Shackleton Crater

    So, it's a possible location for the lander. It's also a great destination to do science.

    The south pole is where researchers would like to send a fleet of robots. Thanks to Nasa's recent LCROSS impact experiment, we know that many of the craters probably hide vast reserves of ice deep in their shadows.

    Dr Bernard Foing, Smart-1's principal investigator [1.4 KB PDF], says retrieving a sample of this ice would be a huge prize.

    "My dream is to go there and make a core of this ice. Our understanding is that every time a comet or water-rich asteroid impacts the Earth, it creates a layer which is then covered by dust. So with a two-metre core at the Moon, you could sample a hundred comets and asteroids at once. You could analyse the water, to see where it came from in the Solar System, and how much organics are there. It would be a great robotic mission."

    One day, perhaps. First, scientists and engineers must develop further their design for the polar lander. A fully costed mission proposal is likely to go before Europe's space ministers for approval in 2012.

    Quite how it will fit in with the new exploration strategy outlined by President Obama this year is not entirely clear. But then one gets the feeling that US space policy at the Moon and beyond is not exactly settled at the moment.

    Watch this space.

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