Extreme probes

Let’s hope that title gets the right sort of google traffic…

When the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes first ventured into the Jupiter system, what hit them, quite literally, was the radiation trapped within the influence of the Jovian magnetic field. The moon Io had been pumping out lots of volcanic material that then got ionised by the Sun and was forced to follow the lines of magnetic influence in the magnetosphere of Jupiter. When the probes themselves passed into the same region, they were fried. Though both of them survived the encounter, it led to other spacecraft researching the Jovian environment to be a little bit more careful, either staying outside of the magnetosphere or receiving a bit of extra protection against its influence.

Juno is the latest satellite with a nose for Jupiter. Designed to investigate the aurorae and interior of the planet, it is presently undergoing armour plating and other methods of protection to keep out the nasty radiation it will encounter. Its orbit has been calculated to minimise the risks and other measures will be taken so that when it arrives at Jupiter in 2016, having blasted off about a year from now, it won’t be left adrift.

Meanwhile, even satellites living in a safer part of the solar system are suffering occasional bursts of slightly too intense radiation. The Swift satellite‘s job is to stare into spare and look for Gamma Ray Bursts. These violent rages in space occur roughly once a day and occasionally with an optical counterpart. The trouble is the afterglow doesn’t last very long and swift exists to identify when one has gone off so other telescopes and networks can be turned to study it (or searches through the archives of other facilities can be made).

Some of these things can be rather bright. Up until the recent event, the brightest seen was GRB 080319B in March 2008, and event whose afterglow was so bright it could be seen with the naked eye (though everyone seemed to have missed it, it was found as an extra star in the sky in archive data). This new event, seen on the 21st of June this year, was seven times brighter in Swift’s x-ray eyes, though entirely normal for an average GRB in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

The burst was twice as close to us as the previous bright glow, but still one and a half times as bright intrinsically. For one fifth of a second, the burst also outshone the brightest recorded steady x-ray emitter by one hundred and forty times. The intensity of the x-rays, at a rate equivalent to 143,000 a second, was such that the data analysis software shut down. When it booted up again, it recorded only the fading glow. The image of the GRB 100621A, although overexposed in the centre, had better quantified edges allowing the overall brightness to be determined after the event.

The event occurred halfway across the observable universe, five billion light years from us, before the solar system had come into being. It was likely sparked off by a massive star collapsing straight into a black hole.

Some missions are however a little more sedate. Locked away in their sealed box, the six members of the Mars500 crew, simulating the psychological and technological challenges of isolation over the 520 days a simulated mission to Mars takes, have been cleaning their living quarters, as recorded on ESA’s Youtube Channel:


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