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

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Capture-based sounding rocket technology from the WWII era, German V-2 missiles are not only still relevant 75 years later, but are now at the forefront of astrobiology and science. exoplanetary exploration.

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

UC Boulder teams are specifically targeting nearby stars Alpha Centauri A & B, hoping to characterize their stellar ultraviolet environment to determine if these stars’ hypothetical habitable zones might be suitable for life.

The goal is an ongoing rocket sounding campaign to determine if spectral F-, G-, and K-type stars — those most closely resembling our own Sun — would be so active, even when fully mature, that they would all strip the planets that they could shelter in their interior. 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 energetic protons from our young Sun have stripped our red planet of nearly all of its atmosphere within a few hundred million years. The Earth is protected by a very robust magnetic field, but Mars could never maintain a global magnetic field for long.

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

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

We will essentially observe the full ultraviolet spectrum of Alpha Centauri A & B at wavelengths that the Hubble Space Telescope does not observe, France says. “At the moment, we don’t have any solid evidence that there is actually a planet around either. [Alpha Centauri A or B]“said Frank.

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

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

Over the past decade, new technologies on sounding rockets have allowed incredible control over the pointing of the onboard telescope.

Today we have star trackers with very precise gyroscopes and real-time control systems with small jets of gas to keep everything stable, says France. Observations can be controlled from the ground using what amounts to a glorified video game, he says.

When we are above the atmosphere there are high pressure jets on board which are part of the attitude control system which communicates with the ground. You can align the telescope with the target for six to seven minutes of observations.

“In six or seven minute increments, we can get measurements that we can’t do with Hubble,” France said.

As to why they are called “sounding” rockets?

It’s an old nautical term for measuring the depth of a ship’s stern. The terminology is used now for sounding rockets because they simply go up and touch altitude and just come back down probing the space environment.

From launch to landing, the flights last about 20 minutes, specifies France. Rocket engines are single-use, he notes, but science payloads can be launched multiple times (usually 3-4) if recovered undamaged. It will land about 120 miles away in the jungle somewhere, France says. But he notes that all of their sounding rockets use parachutes and are equipped with GPS beacons.

The goal of the sounding rocket campaign is to determine whether the high-radiation environment around stars near the sun would strip potentially terrestrial planets of their atmospheres on time scales of only a few million years. If so, our own planet may be an anomaly.

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

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

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

What can we expect?

If Webb tells us that red dwarf stars aren’t promising places to find habitable planets, then we really need to work harder to develop the technology that allows us to go find and study the planets around g-type stars. , said France. G-spectral stars like our own Sun, he says, might be the best bet for finding habitable planets.

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

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