NASA-funded sounding rockets to investigate the habitable zones of nearby stars

Sounding rocket technology based on captured World War II era, German V-2 rockets are not only still relevant 75 years later, but are now on the cutting edge of astrobiology and exoplanetary exploration.

A NASA-funded team led by the University of Colorado at Boulder (UC Boulder) will launch two more sounding rockets equipped with half-meter optical telescopes this summer to determine if our nearest stellar neighbors have inner solar systems that could support life. support.

The UC Boulder teams are focusing specifically on nearby stars Alpha Centauri A & B, hoping to characterize their stellar ultraviolet environments to determine whether such stars’ hypothetical habitable zones could be suitable for life.

The goal is an ongoing-sounding rocketry campaign to determine whether spectral-type F, G, and K stars — the ones most similar to our own sun — would be so active even in full maturity that they could destroy all the planets they harbor. can accommodate, would strip. solar system of their atmospheres over time periods of a few million years.

Here in our own solar system, NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars has finally determined that the energetic protons of our own young sun have stripped our red planet of almost all of its atmosphere within a few hundred million years. Earth is protected by a very robust magnetic field, but Mars has never been able to maintain a global magnetic field for long.

UC Boulder astrophysicist Kevin France and colleagues will travel to a new launch site in Northern Australia this summer to send several 60-foot sounding rockets some 280 km into sub-orbit.

Including a new science payload, each launch costs about $2.5 million, France, NASA’s campaign scientist for the Australia launches, told me in his office. In Australia, he and his colleagues will use a far-ultraviolet spectrograph instrument to examine the high-energy environment around two of our closest stars.

We’re essentially going to observe the full ultraviolet spectrum of Alpha Centauri A & B at wavelengths that the Hubble Space Telescope doesn’t observe, France says. “Right now we have no hard evidence that there is actually a planet nearby [Alpha Centauri A or B]France said.

We are not looking for planets; we basically understand the stellar host environment to see how active it is; how that would affect the evolution of life, France says.

“Just having a planet is only part of the game; it must be a planet that has its atmosphere,” France said.

Over the past decade, new technology on the sounding rockets has allowed for incredible control over the aiming of the onboard telescope.

Today, we have star trackers with high-precision gyroscopes and real-time control systems with small gas jets to keep everything stable, France says. The sightings can be verified from the ground using what amounts to a glorified video game, he says.

When we’re above the atmosphere, there are high-pressure jets on board that are part of the attitude control system that talks to the ground. We can align the telescope with the goal of taking six to seven minutes of observations.

“In steps of six or seven minutes, we can take measurements that we can’t do with Hubble,” France said.

Why are they called “sounding” missiles?

That’s an old nautical term to measure the depth of the stern of a ship. The terminology is now used for sounding rockets because they just go up and hit the altitude and come down there again sounding the space environment.

From launch to landing, the flights take about 20 minutes, France says. The rocket motors are intended for one-time use, he notes, but the science payloads can be launched multiple times (usually 3-4) if recovered in good condition. It will land somewhere about 120 miles away in the jungle, France says. But he notes that all of their sounding missiles use parachutes and have GPS beacons.

The aim of the sounding rocket campaign is to determine whether the highly irradiated environment around nearby sun-like stars could strip all potentially Earth-like planets of their atmospheres on timescales as small as a few million years. If so, our own planet could be an anomaly.

The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) will be very important in telling us whether rocky planets around red dwarfs can hold their atmospheres or whether the atmospheres of these planets will evaporate within a few million years, France says.

But doesn’t a planet’s magnetic field help it hold its atmosphere?

“The issue of magnetic fields and how much protection they provide to a planet is hotly debated,” France said. There’s a conventional wisdom that says you have to have a magnetic field to hold your atmosphere, he says. But France notes that there have been several studies in recent years that indicate that in some cases the presence of a magnetic field can help or hinder you.

What can we expect?

If Webb tells us that red dwarf stars aren’t very promising places to find habitable planets, then we really need to redouble our efforts to develop the technology that will allow us to find and study the planets around g-type stars, France says. G-spectral stars like our own sun, he says, may be the best choice for finding habitable planets.

And that, in turn, may ultimately explain why we’re here to discuss all of this.

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