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The Marshall Star for November 1, 2023

Two of NASA’s X-ray space telescopes have combined their imaging powers to unveil the magnetic field “bones” of a remarkable hand-shaped structure in space.

NASA, AAS Talk Present, Future of Space Exploration During 3-Day Symposium

By Jessica Barnett

Hundreds of students, scientists, and other stakeholders recently gathered for a three-day symposium featuring some of the leading minds in space exploration and packed with updates and discussions about an array of space topics.

Hundreds of students, scientists, and other stakeholders listen in person and online as NASA leaders discuss the Artemis missions during the 2023 von Braun Space Exploration Symposium held Oct. 25–27 at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
NASA/Charles Beason

The 2023 von Braun Space Exploration Symposium was held Oct. 25–27 at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and featured 10 panel discussions with additional keynote and luncheon speakers, networking opportunities, and award presentations. This year’s theme was “Advancing Space: From LEO to Lunar and Beyond.”

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center partnered with the American Astronautical Society to organize the event, along with the National Space Club of Huntsville and UAH. Marshall Acting Center Director Joseph Pelfrey, who helped kick off the symposium and moderated one of its panels, called it a true success.

“I want to thank everyone from Marshall, AAS, UAH, and the NSC for all their hard work planning the event,” Pelfrey said. “I enjoyed networking with our private, academic and government partners.”

Jason Turpin, senior technical leader of propulsion at Marshall, far right, discusses advances in propulsion during the 2023 von Braun Space Exploration Symposium. Joining him onstage, from left, are Eric Paulson, who manages the Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine program at the Air Force Research Laboratory, and Tabitha Dodson, who manages the DRACO (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations) program for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).
NASA/Charles Beason

Attendees could listen to the symposium live in person at UAH’s Charger Union Theater or online via Zoom. The event lineup included more than 60 speakers who shared their insights on recent space exploration achievements, future objectives, career opportunities, and more.

“It was especially motivating to see all the engaged students who represent the Artemis Generation,” Pelfrey said. “I feel confident they will continue building on the strong foundation of space exploration we have laid out for them, leading the way for generations to come.”

NASA and AAS will team up for another three-day event early next year. Learn more about the 61st annual Goddard Space Sciences Symposium, currently planned for March 20–22, 2024, in College Park, Maryland.

Barnett, a Media Fusion employee, supports the Marshall Office of Communications.

Marshall Exhibits Inspire Thousands of Youths at STEAMfest

By Celine Smith

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Huntsville Science Festival collaborated to bring thousands to the 3rd Annual STEAMfest (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics Festival), an event created to engage students of all ages in the world of science, technology, and art.

The event was hosted in downtown Huntsville at the Von Braun Center’s East Hall on Oct. 28.

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center team members representing Technology Demonstration Missions and SERVIR engage visitors to the NASA booth during the 3rd  Annual Huntsville STEAMfest event Oct. 28 in downtown Huntsville.
NASA/Chris Blair

Marshall played a key role in the event by providing information and exhibits about STEAM in the space industry. Organizations such as Technology Demonstration Missions, SERVIR, the Human Landing System, SLS (Space Launch System), and the Science & Technology Forum participated in the event to inform people about their functions and importance at NASA.

Before anyone entered the East Hall, they encountered an RS-25 engine placed in the parking lot. NASA was the first booth upon entry, housing informational brochures about rockets the Chandra Observatory, the Artemis missions, and more. The NASA booth featured free stickers and interactive booklets for kids teaching how to draw the SLS, as well as inflatables for photo opportunities.

“From the very beginning NASA has been an incredible partner,” said Joe Iacuzzo, founder and director of the Huntsville Science Festival, which is associated with the SFA (Science Festival Alliance). “Without NASA’s participation and incredible generosity this event would be nowhere near what it is today,”

STEAMfest is a national event started by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SFA (Science Festival Alliance) with the goal to provide a free event for children to learn and be inspired to pursue an education and career in the world of science.

“The first STEAMfest in Huntsville took place online in 2020, garnering 4,500 virtual attendees,” Iacuzzo said. “Last year, we had 7,300 people attend, and this year we’re anticipating the same amount if not more.”

To inform and invite the public, STEAMfest interacts with about 35,000 people in Huntsville through schools, companies, and non-profits also striving toward the goal of encouraging young people to pursue STEAM. Their mission is to encourage underserved students who have not thought of pursuing a technological degree and career.

Nearly 4,000 visitors enjoyed learning about NASA missions during the 3rd annual Huntsville STEAMfest event Oct. 28 in downtown Huntsville.
NASA/Chris Blair

STEAMfest featured three science stage entertainers, who demonstrated exciting science experiments such as using an artificial lightning generating device to pop hydrogen-filled balloons creating fireballs in mid-air. An art installation inspired by science and technology was there for viewing. Two professors from UAH (University of Alabama in Huntsville) performed and discussed the music made with synthesizers they built and Dr. Scott Persons, a dinosaur paleontologist, brought fossils for viewing and learning.

Several secondary schools and institutions of higher learning provided details about their STEAM-based opportunities and programs. Other federal agencies and industry members also shared information about STEAM careers. “If STEAM doesn’t reach the kids, then kids won’t reach for STEAM,” said Gayla Suddarth, who serves as a Huntsville Science Festival member and director for Tennessee Valley’s chapter of Women in Defense.

Smith, a Media Fusion employee, supports Marshall’s Office of Communications.

IXPE Untangles Theories Surrounding Historic Supernova Remnant

By Rick Smith

NASA’s IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer) telescope has captured the first polarized X-ray imagery of the supernova remnant SN 1006, expanding scientists’ understanding of the relationship between magnetic fields and the flow of high-energy particles from exploding stars.

“Magnetic fields are extremely difficult to measure, but IXPE provides an efficient way for us to probe them,” said Dr. Ping Zhou, an astrophysicist at Nanjing University in Jiangsu, China, and lead author of a new paper on the findings, published Oct. 27 in The Astrophysical Journal. “Now we can see that SN 1006’s magnetic fields are turbulent, but also present an organized direction.”

A red and orange circle on a black starry background. A portion of the upper left is purple with lines on it.
This new image of supernova remnant SN 1006 combines data from NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The red, green, and blue elements reflect low, medium, and high energy X-rays, respectively, as detected by Chandra. The IXPE data, which measure the polarization of the X-ray light, is show in purple in the upper left corner, with the addition of lines representing the outward movement of the remnant’s magnetic field.
X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO (Chandra); NASA/MSFC/Nanjing Univ./P. Zhou et al. (IXPE); IR: NASA/JPL/CalTech/Spitzer; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J.Schmidt

Situated some 6,500 light-years from Earth in the Lupus constellation, SN 1006 is all that remains after a titanic explosion, which occurred either when two white dwarfs merged or when a white dwarf pulled too much mass from a companion star. Initially spotted in spring of 1006 CE by observers across China, Japan, Europe, and the Middle East, its light was visible to the naked eye for at least three years. Modern astronomers still consider it the brightest stellar event in recorded history.

Since modern observation began, researchers have identified the remnant’s strange double structure, markedly different from other, rounded supernova remnants. It also has bright “limbs” or edges identifiable in the X-ray and gamma-ray bands.

“Close-proximity, X-ray-bright supernova remnants such as SN 1006 are ideally suited to IXPE measurements, given IXPE’s combination of X-ray polarization sensitivity with the capability to resolve the emission regions spatially,” said Douglas Swartz, a Universities Space Research Association researcher at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “This integrated capability is essential to localizing cosmic-ray acceleration sites.”

Previous X-ray observations of SN 1006 offered the first evidence that supernova remnants can radically accelerate electrons, and helped identify rapidly expanding nebulae around exploded stars as a birthplace for highly energetic cosmic rays, which can travel at nearly the speed of the light.

Scientists surmised that SN 1006’s unique structure is tied to the orientation of its magnetic field. They theorized that supernova blast waves in its northeast and southwest sectors move in the direction aligned with the magnetic field, and more efficiently accelerate high-energy particles.

IXPE’s new findings helped validate and clarify those theories, said paper coauthor Dr. Yi-Jung Yang, a high-energy astrophysicist at the University of Hong Kong.

“The polarization properties obtained from our spectral-polarimetric analysis align remarkably well with outcomes from other methods and X-ray observatories,” Yang said.

For the first time, we can map the magnetic field structures of supernova remnants at higher energies with enhanced detail and accuracy – enabling us to better understand the processes driving the acceleration of these particles.

Dr. Yi-Jung Yang

Dr. Yi-Jung Yang

High-energy astrophysicist at the University of Hong Kong

Researchers say the results demonstrate a connection between the magnetic fields and the remnant’s high-energy particle outflow. The magnetic fields in SN 1006’s shell are somewhat disorganized, per IXPE’s findings, yet still have a preferred orientation. As the shock wave from the original explosion passes through the surrounding gas, the magnetic fields become aligned with the shock wave’s motion. Charged particles are trapped by the magnetic fields around the original point of the blast, where they quickly receive bursts of acceleration. These speeding high-energy particles, in turn, transfer energy to keep the magnetic fields strong and turbulent.

IXPE has observed three supernova remnants – Cassiopeia A, Tycho, and now SN 1006 – since launching in December 2021. Its findings have helped scientists develop a more comprehensive understanding of the origin and processes of the magnetic fields surrounding these phenomena.

IXPE is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency with partners and science collaborators in 12 countries. IXPE is led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Spacecraft operations are jointly managed by Ball Aerospace in Broomfield, Colorado, and the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.

Smith, a Manufacturing Technical Solutions employee, supports the Marshall Office of Communications.

NASA X-ray Telescopes Reveal the ‘Bones’ of a Ghostly Cosmic Hand

Rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields, or pulsars, serve as laboratories for extreme physics, offering high-energy conditions that cannot be replicated on Earth. Young pulsars can create jets of matter and antimatter moving away from the poles of the pulsar, along with an intense wind, forming a “pulsar wind nebula”.

This release features a composite image of a pulsar wind nebula, which strongly resembles a ghostly purple hand with sparkling fingertips. A pulsar is a highly magnetized collapsed star that rotates and creates jets of matter flowing away from its poles. These jets, along with intense winds of particles, form pulsar wind nebulae. Here, the pulsar wind nebula known as MSH 15-52 resembles a hazy purple cloud set against a black, starry backdrop. Both NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) have observed MSH 15-52. Their observations revealed that the shape of this pulsar wind nebula strongly resembles a human hand, including five fingers, a palm and wrist. The bright white spot near the base of the palm is the pulsar itself. The three longest fingertips of the hand-shape point toward our upper right, or 1:00 on a clock face. There, a small, mottled, orange and yellow cloud appears to sparkle or glow like embers. This orange cloud is part of the remains of the supernova explosion that created the pulsar. The backdrop of stars was captured in infrared light.
 In 2001, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory first observed the pulsar PSR B1509-58 and revealed that its pulsar wind nebula (referred to as MSH 15-52) resembles a human hand. Now Chandra’s data of MSH 15-52 have been combined with data from NASA’s newest X-ray telescope, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) to unveil the magnetic field “bones” of this remarkable structure.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al. (Chandra); NASA/MSFC (IXPE); Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DECaPS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt)

In 2001, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory first observed the pulsar PSR B1509-58 and revealed that its pulsar wind nebula (referred to as MSH 15-52) resembles a human hand. The pulsar is located at the base of the “palm” of the nebula. Now Chandra’s data of MSH 15-52 have been combined with data from NASA’s newest X-ray telescope, IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer) to unveil the magnetic field “bones” of this remarkable structure, as reported in this press release. IXPE stared at MSH 15-52 for 17 days, the longest it has looked at any single object since it launched in December 2021.

In a new composite image, Chandra data are seen in orange (low-energy X-rays), green, and blue (higher-energy X-rays), while the diffuse purple represents the IXPE observations. The pulsar is in the bright region at the base of the palm and the fingers are reaching toward low energy X-ray clouds in the surrounding remains of the supernova that formed the pulsar. The image also includes infrared data from the second data release of the Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey (DECaPS2) in red and blue.

This release features a composite image of a pulsar wind nebula, which strongly resembles a ghostly white hand with sparkling fingertips
By combining data from Chandra and IXPE, astronomers are learning more about how a pulsar is injecting particles into space and shaping its environment. The X-ray data are shown along with infrared data from the Dark Energy Camera in Chile. Young pulsars can create jets of matter and antimatter moving away from the poles of the pulsar, along with an intense wind, forming a “pulsar wind nebula”. This one, known as MSH 15-52, has a shape resembling a human hand and provides insight into how these objects are formed.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al. (Chandra); NASA/MSFC (IXPE); Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DECaPS; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt

The IXPE data provides the first map of the magnetic field in the ‘hand’. It reveals information about the electric field orientation of X-rays determined by the magnetic field of the X-ray source. This is called “X-ray polarization”.

An additional X-ray image shows the magnetic field map in MSH 15-52. In this image, short straight lines represent IXPE polarization measurements, mapping the direction of the local magnetic field. Orange “bars” mark the most precise measurements, followed by cyan and blue bars with less precise measurements. The complex field lines follow the `wrist’, ‘palm’ and ‘fingers’ of the hand, and probably help define the extended finger-like structures.

The amount of polarization — indicated by bar length — is remarkably high, reaching the maximum level expected from theoretical work. To achieve that strength, the magnetic field must be very straight and uniform, meaning there is little turbulence in those regions of the pulsar wind nebula. 

One particularly interesting feature of MSH 15-52 is a bright X-ray jet directed from the pulsar to the “wrist” at the bottom of the image. The new IXPE data reveal that the polarization at the start of the jet is low, likely because this is a turbulent region with complex, tangled magnetic fields associated with the generation of high-energy particles. By the end of the jet the magnetic field lines appear to straighten and become much more uniform, causing the polarization to become much larger.

A paper describing these results by Roger Romani of Stanford University and collaborators was published in The Astrophysical Journal on Oct. 23 and is available at IXPE is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency with partners and science collaborators in 12 countries. IXPE is led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Ball Aerospace, headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, manages spacecraft operations together with the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder.

Marshall manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

Read more from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

How NASA Is Protecting Europa Clipper from Space Radiation

When NASA’s Europa Clipper begins orbiting Jupiter to investigate whether its ice-encased moon, Europa, has conditions suitable for life, the spacecraft will pass repeatedly through one of the most punishing radiation environments in our solar system.

Hardening the spacecraft against potential damage from that radiation is no easy task. But on Oct. 7, the mission put the final piece of the spacecraft’s “armor” in place when it sealed the vault, a container specially designed to shield Europa Clipper’s sophisticated electronics. The probe is being put together, piece by piece, in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory ahead of its launch in October 2024.

This illustration depicts NASA’s Europa Clipper as it flies by Jupiter’s moon Europa. The mission is targeting an October 2024 launch.
This illustration depicts NASA’s Europa Clipper as it flies by Jupiter’s moon Europa. The mission is targeting an October 2024 launch.

“Closing the vault is a major milestone,” said Kendra Short, Europa Clipper’s deputy flight system manager at JPL. “It means we’ve got everything in there that we have to have in there. We’re ready to button it up.”

Just under a half-inch thick, the aluminum vault houses the electronics for the spacecraft’s suite of science instruments. The alternative of shielding each set of electronic parts individually would add cost and weight to the spacecraft.

“The vault is designed to reduce the radiation environment to acceptable levels for most of the electronics,” said JPL’s Insoo Jun, the co-chair of the Europa Clipper Radiation Focus Group and an expert on space radiation.

Jupiter’s gigantic magnetic field is 20,000 times as strong as Earth’s and spins rapidly in time with the planet’s 10-hour rotation period. This field captures and accelerates charged particles from Jupiter’s space environment to create powerful radiation belts. The radiation is a constant, physical presence – a kind of space weather – bombarding everything in its sphere of influence with damaging particles.

“Jupiter has the most intense radiation environment other than the Sun in the solar system,” Jun said. “The radiation environment is affecting every aspect of the mission.”

That’s why when the spacecraft arrives at Jupiter in 2030, Europa Clipper won’t simply park in orbit around Europa. Instead, like some previous spacecraft that studied the Jovian system, it will make a wide-ranging orbit of Jupiter itself to move away from the planet and its harsh radiation as much as possible. During those looping orbits of the planet, the spacecraft will fly past Europa nearly 50 times to gather scientific data.

The radiation is so intense that scientists believe it modifies the surface of Europa, causing visible color changes, said Tom Nordheim, a planetary scientist at JPL who specializes in icy outer moons – Europa as well as Saturn’s Enceladus.

“Radiation on the surface of Europa is a major geologic modification process,” Nordheim said. “When you look at Europa – you know, the reddish-brown color – scientists have shown that this is consistent with radiation processing.”

So even as engineers work to keep radiation out of Europa Clipper, scientists like Nordheim and Jun hope to use the space probe to study it.

“With a dedicated radiation monitoring unit, and using opportunistic radiation data from its instruments, Europa Clipper will help reveal the unique and challenging radiation environment at Jupiter,” Jun said.

Nordheim zeroes in on Europa’s “chaos terrain,” areas where blocks of surface material appear to have broken apart, rotated, and moved into new positions, in many cases preserving preexisting linear fracture patterns.

Deep beneath the moon’s icy surface is a vast liquid-water ocean, scientists believe, that could offer a habitable environment for life. Some areas of Europa’s surface show evidence of material transport from the subsurface to the surface. “We need to understand the context of how radiation modified that material,” Nordheim said. “It can alter the chemical makeup of the material.”

Because Europa’s ocean is locked inside an envelope of ice, any possible life forms would not be able to rely directly on the Sun for energy, as plants do on Earth. Instead, they’d need an alternative energy source, such as heat or chemical energy. Radiation raining down on Europa’s surface could help provide such a source by creating oxidants, such as oxygen or hydrogen peroxide, as the radiation interacts with the surface ice layer.

Over time, these oxidants could be transported from the surface to the interior ocean. “The surface could be a window into the subsurface,” Nordheim said. A better understanding of such processes could provide a key to unlock more of the Jupiter system’s secrets, he added: “Radiation is one of the things that makes Europa so interesting. It’s part of the story.”

Europa Clipper’s main science goal is to determine whether there are places below Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, that could support life. The mission’s three main science objectives are to determine the thickness of the moon’s icy shell and its surface interactions with the ocean below, to investigate its composition, and to characterize its geology. The mission’s detailed exploration of Europa will help scientists better understand the astrobiological potential for habitable worlds beyond our planet.

Managed by Caltech in Pasadena, California, NASA’s JPL leads the development of the Europa Clipper mission in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. APL designed the main spacecraft body in collaboration with JPL and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center executes program management of the Europa Clipper mission.

Salts and Organics Observed on Ganymede’s Surface by NASA’s Juno

NASA’s Juno mission has observed mineral salts and organic compounds on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Data for this discovery was collected by the JIRAM (Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper) spectrometer aboard the spacecraft during a close flyby of the icy moon. The findings, which could help scientists better understand the origin of Ganymede and the composition of its deep ocean, were published on Oct. 30 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Larger than the planet Mercury, Ganymede is the biggest of Jupiter’s moons and has long been of great interest to scientists due to the vast internal ocean of water hidden beneath its icy crust. Previous spectroscopic observations by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope as well as the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope hinted at the presence of salts and organics, but the spatial resolution of those observations was too low to make a determination.

On June 7, 2021, Juno flew over Ganymede at a minimum altitude of 650 miles. Shortly after the time of closest approach, the JIRAM instrument acquired infrared images and infrared spectra (essentially the chemical fingerprints of materials, based on how they reflect light) of the moon’s surface. Built by the Italian Space Agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, JIRAM was designed to capture the infrared light (invisible to the naked eye) that emerges from deep inside Jupiter, probing the weather layer down to 30 to 45 miles below the gas giant’s cloud tops. But the instrument has also been used to offer insights into the terrain of moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (known collectively as the Galilean moons for their discoverer, Galileo).

The JIRAM data of Ganymede obtained during the flyby achieved an unprecedented spatial resolution for infrared spectroscopy – better than 0.62 miles per pixel. With it, Juno scientists were able to detect and analyze the unique spectral features of non-water-ice materials, including hydrated sodium chloride, ammonium chloride, sodium bicarbonate, and possibly aliphatic aldehydes.

“The presence of ammoniated salts suggests that Ganymede may have accumulated materials cold enough to condense ammonia during its formation,” said Federico Tosi, a Juno co-investigator from Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome and lead author of the paper. “The carbonate salts could be remnants of carbon dioxide-rich ices.”

Previous modeling of Ganymede’s magnetic field determined the moon’s equatorial region, up to a latitude of about 40 degrees, is shielded from the energetic electron and heavy ion bombardment created by Jupiter’s hellish magnetic field. The presence of such particle fluxes is well known to negatively impact salts and organics.

During the June 2021 flyby, JIRAM covered a narrow range of latitudes (10 degrees north to 30 degrees north) and a broader range of longitudes (minus 35 degrees east to 40 degrees east) in the Jupiter-facing hemisphere.

“We found the greatest abundance of salts and organics in the dark and bright terrains at latitudes protected by the magnetic field,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “This suggests we are seeing the remnants of a deep ocean brine that reached the surface of this frozen world.”

Ganymede is not the only Jovian world Juno has flown by. The moon Europa, thought to harbor an ocean under its icy crust, also came under Juno’s gaze, first in October 2021 and then in September 2022. Now Io is receiving the flyby treatment. The next close approach to that volcano-festooned world is scheduled for Dec. 30, when the spacecraft will come within 932 miles of Io’s surface.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a division of Caltech, manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The Italian Space Agency funded the Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built and operates the spacecraft.