‘Cosmic Serpent’ dancing with stellar winds

This serpentine swirl, captured by the VISIR instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), has an explosive future ahead of it; it is a Wolf-Rayet star system, and a likely source of one of the most energetic phenomena in the Universe — a long-duration gamma-ray burst (GRB).

This is the first such system to be discovered in our own galaxy,” explains Joseph Callingham of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), lead author of the study reporting this system. “We never expected to find such a system in our own backyard”.

The system, which comprises a nest of massive stars surrounded by a “pinwheel” of dust, is  officially known only by unwieldy catalogue references like 2XMM J160050.7-514245. However, the astronomers chose to give this fascinating object a catchier moniker — “Apep”.

Apep got its nickname for its sinuous shape, reminiscent of a snake coiled around the central stars. Its namesake was an ancient Egyptian deity, a gargantuan serpent embodying chaos — fitting for such a violent system. It was believed that Ra, the Sun god, would battle with Apep every night; prayer and worship ensured Ra’s victory and the return of the Sun.

GRBs are among the most powerful explosions in the Universe. Lasting between a few thousandths of a second and a few hours, they can release as much energy as the Sun will output over its entire lifetime. Long-duration GRBs — those which last for longer than 2 seconds — are believed to be caused by the supernova explosions of rapidly-rotating Wolf-Rayet stars.

Some of the most massive stars evolve into Wolf-Rayet stars towards the end of their lives. This stage is short-lived, and Wolf-Rayets survive in this state for only a few hundred thousand years — the blink of an eye in cosmological terms. In that time, they throw out huge amounts of material in the form of a powerful stellar wind, hurling matter outwards at millions of kilometres per hour; Apep’s stellar winds were measured to travel at an astonishing 12 million km/h.

These stellar winds have created the elaborate plumes surrounding the triple star system — which consists of a binary star system and a companion single star bound together by gravity. Though only two star-like objects are visible in the image, the lower source is in fact an unresolved binary Wolf-Rayet star. This binary is responsible for sculpting the serpentine swirls surrounding Apep, which are formed in the wake of the colliding stellar winds from the two Wolf-Rayet stars.

Compared to the extraordinary speed of Apep’s winds, the dust pinwheel itself swirls outwards at a leisurely pace, “crawling” along at less than 2 million km/h. The wild discrepancy between the speed of Apep’s rapid stellar winds and that of the unhurried dust pinwheel is thought to result from one of the stars in the binary launching both a fast and a slow wind — in different directions.

This would imply that the star is undergoing near-critical rotation — that is, rotating so fast that it is nearly ripping itself apart. A Wolf-Rayet star with such rapid rotation is believed to produce a long-duration GRB when its core collapses at the end of its life.

Astronomers revealed Super-Earth Orbiting Barnard’s Star

A planet has been detected orbiting Barnard’s Star, a mere 6 light-years away. This breakthrough — announced in a paper published today in the journal Nature — is a result of the Red Dots and CARMENES projects, whose search for local rocky planets has already uncovered a new world orbiting our nearest neighbour, Proxima Centauri.

The planet, designated Barnard’s Star b, now steps in as the second-closest known exoplanet to Earth. The gathered data indicate that the planet could be a super-Earth, having a mass at least 3.2 times that of the Earth, which orbits its host star in roughly 233 days. Barnard’s Star, the planet’s host star, is a red dwarf, a cool, low-mass star, which only dimly illuminates this newly-discovered world. Light from Barnard’s Star provides its planet with only 2% of the energy the Earth receives from the Sun.

Despite being relatively close to its parent star — at a distance only 0.4 times that between Earth and the Sun — the exoplanet lies close to the snow line, the region where volatile compounds such as water can condense into solid ice. This freezing, shadowy world could have a temperature of –170 ℃, making it inhospitable for life as we know it.

Named for astronomer E. E. Barnard, Barnard’s Star is the closest single star to the Sun. While the star itself is ancient — probably twice the age of our Sun — and relatively inactive, it also has the fastest apparent motion of any star in the night sky]. Super-Earths are the most common type of planet to form around low-mass stars such as Barnard’s Star, lending credibility to this newly discovered planetary candidate. Furthermore, current theories of planetary formation predict that the snow line is the ideal location for such planets to form.

Previous searches for a planet around Barnard’s Star have had disappointing results — this recent breakthrough was possible only by combining measurements from several high-precision instruments mounted on telescopes all over the world.

“After a very careful analysis, we are 99% confident that the planet is there,” stated the team’s lead scientist, Ignasi Ribas (Institute of Space Studies of Catalonia and the Institute of Space Sciences, CSIC in Spain). “However, we’ll continue to observe this fast-moving star to exclude possible, but improbable, natural variations of the stellar brightness which could masquerade as a planet.”

Among the instruments used were ESO’s famous planet-hunting HARPS and UVES spectrographs. “HARPS played a vital part in this project. We combined archival data from other teams with new, overlapping, measurements of Barnard’s star from different facilities,” commented Guillem Anglada Escudé (Queen Mary University of London), co-lead scientist of the team behind this result“The combination of instruments was key to allowing us to cross-check our result.”

The astronomers used the Doppler effect to find the exoplanet candidate. While the planet orbits the star, its gravitational pull causes the star to wobble. When the star moves away from the Earth, its spectrum redshifts; that is, it moves towards longer wavelengths. Similarly, starlight is shifted towards shorter, bluer, wavelengths when the star moves towards Earth.

Astronomers take advantage of this effect to measure the changes in a star’s velocity due to an orbiting exoplanet — with astounding accuracy. HARPS can detect changes in the star’s velocity as small as 3.5 km/h — about walking pace. This approach to exoplanet hunting is known as the radial velocity method, and has never before been used to detect a similar super-Earth type exoplanet in such a large orbit around its star.

“We used observations from seven different instruments, spanning 20 years of measurements, making this one of the largest and most extensive datasets ever used for precise radial velocity studies.” explained Ribas. ”The combination of all data led to a total of 771 measurements — a huge amount of information!”

Most Detailed Observations of Material Orbiting close to a Black Hole

ESO’s GRAVITY instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) Interferometer has been used by scientists from a consortium of European institutions, including ESO [1], to observe flares of infrared radiation coming from the accretion discaround Sagittarius A*, the massive object at the heart of the Milky Way. The observed flares provide long-awaited confirmation that the object in the centre of our galaxy is, as has long been assumed, a supermassive black hole. The flares originate from material orbiting very close to the black hole’s event horizon — making these the most detailed observations yet of material orbiting this close to a black hole.

While some matter in the accretion disc — the belt of gas orbiting Sagittarius A* at relativistic speeds [2] — can orbit the black hole safely, anything that gets too close is doomed to be pulled beyond the event horizon. The closest point to a black hole that material can orbit without being irresistibly drawn inwards by the immense mass is known as the innermost stable orbit, and it is from here that the observed flares originate.

It’s mind-boggling to actually witness material orbiting a massive black hole at 30% of the speed of light,” marvelled Oliver Pfuhl, a scientist at the MPE. “GRAVITY’s tremendous sensitivity has allowed us to observe the accretion processes in real time in unprecedented detail.

These measurements were only possible thanks to international collaboration and state-of-the-art instrumentation [3]. The GRAVITY instrument which made this work possible combines the light from four telescopes of ESO’s VLT to create a virtual super-telescope 130 metres in diameter, and has already been used to probe the nature of Sagittarius A*.

Earlier this year, GRAVITY and SINFONI, another instrument on the VLT, allowed the same team to accurately measure the close fly-by of the star S2 as it passed through the extreme gravitational field near Sagittarius A*, and for the first time revealed the effects predicted by Einstein’s general relativity in such an extreme environment. During S2’s close fly-by, strong infrared emission was also observed.

ESO’s exquisitely sensitive GRAVITY instrument has added further evidence to the long-standing assumption that a supermassive black hole lurks in the centre of the Milky Way. New observations show clumps of gas swirling around at about 30% of the speed of light on a circular orbit just outside its event horizon — the first time material has been observed orbiting close to the point of no return, and the most detailed observations yet of material orbiting this close to a black hole.

Wide-field view of the centre of the Milky Way. [ESO]

We were closely monitoring S2, and of course we always keep an eye on Sagittarius A*,”  explained Pfuhl. “During our observations, we were lucky enough to notice three bright flares from around the black hole — it was a lucky coincidence!

This emission, from highly energetic electrons very close to the black hole, was visible as three prominent bright flares, and exactly matches theoretical predictions for hot spots orbiting close to a black hole of four million solar masses [4]. The flares are thought to originate from magnetic interactions in the very hot gas orbiting very close to Sagittarius A*.

Reinhard Genzel, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, who led the study, explained: “This always was one of our dream projects but we did not dare to hope that it would become possible so soon.” Referring to the long-standing assumption that Sagittarius A* is a supermassive black hole, Genzel concluded that “the result is a resounding confirmation of the massive black hole paradigm.

Optimist Solutions to 2030 Global Water Crisis (Part 2)

The world’s fresh water is very unevenly distributed. Look at water rich countries

Before talking about product efficiency and less environmental damage, it is the duty of water independent countries to share its resources. Positive outcome of sharing water though agreements is examined in Part 1. For the benefit of regional development, water rich countries needs its neighbors to get stronger especially for those whose main need is water. 

Virtual Water Calculation Creates Mindful Consumption of Water

Almost all product contains virtual water. It is not visible from outside, but the amount of water required to produce a product is immense. From the start to the finish this hidden water is mainly neglected. For example it doesn’t seems visible but a simple jeans production uses more virtual water than its own texture.

Explained Series, water usage 

Total water consumption contains actual water plus virtual water. That’s why experts are working on finding ways for the calculation of virtual water consumption.

Virtual water is normally divided into three categories for classification: blue, green and grey. Blue water is water contained in rivers and lakes and is processed by the water companies to supply public and commercial demand. This water is used mainly in the food processing industry. Green water is water supplied through rainfall and contained in soils. Most of the agricultural production is based on this water. The concept of grey water is traditionally wastewater, from domestic or commercial sources. It is mildly contaminated with detergents or other pollutants.

We should target protecting blue virtual water usage. A concrete example, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Brazil uses green water resources for rain-fed agriculture. However, Thailand uses blue water to produce rice for export, this puts additional pressure on the country’s national water resources. That’s why importing products produced with high ratio’s green water versus blue virtual water saves global blue water resources. More info.

Therefore, consumers should be informed about how much blue water a product contains. Products with more blue water should be more expensive. This will reduce the usage of blue water sources and put pressure on producers.

Optimist Examples of Existing Solutions

  1.  It seems very basic but turning off the tap while we brush our teeth, can save 6 liters of water per minute per person.
  2. Climate change reduces rainfall and increases evaporation. More studies should be done on the increase part of  water supply to rivers and lakes in the short to medium term. For instance, future flows in the River Thames at Kingston shows a possible 11% increase over the next 80 years relative to the last 60 years. [1] How can this increase in water benefit the future of blue water?
  3. We should work more on climate damages caused by climate change. As an example the map shows the contribution of glacier melts to water supplies.
  4. In most cities, rain is simply channeled into sewers, but storm water can be recycled and reused—as can wastewater cities such as Singapore treat and use to meet %40 of total water needs.[2]
  5. Water containment systems are essential for areas with no other reliable water sources. Efficient irrigation’s methods can help in reorganizing better the water sources. We have almost %50 of unnecessary leakages. Some governments promote subsidies for the water sector such as Philadelphia to control inefficient and wasteful water use.
  6. Israel can produce %50 more drinkable water than needed by their population thanks to desalination plants. Saudi Arabia could be fostering a new kind of desalination with its recent announcement to use solar-powered plants.
  7. Water resources could be used more efficiently in a basin-wide approach such as upper stream countries having more favorable production conditions in exchange of importing their hydropower to downstream countries, they can benefit from financial services in return.
  8. The U.S. government is considering expanding the Clean Water Act to ensure more protections. Russia has approved waste discharges in Lake Baikal, one of the world’s largest bodies of freshwater.

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Call For Action

Big gains come from small changes. The current tendency of developed countries changing the diet to meat consumption needs 10 times more water than plants. Therefore, we can change our diet to once a week meat consumption rather than every day. This is one of the simple optimist engagement.

Second optimist suggestion is raising water prices will help firstly reducing the environmental exploitation but also lowering waste and pollution especially for active industries. Not only for luxury products or alcohol, but the water should also benefit a special tax as well. If a beer company uses more water in their product (because nearly all products contain water) they should pay consumption tax. Eventually, the shop and the clients have to pay more too. But this way the governments won’t treat water as if it is unlimited in nature.

The states have to stop offering free water usage in exchange for calling investments in their countries. This favoritism is not in favor of the environment but in favor of business. Water belongs to every one and states should only take important decision with the citizen’s full consent. We suggest the optimist use of water whoever uses more has to pay more. Another necessary step is not growing crops that don’t make sense like in arid places such as a desert. This is just a waste of more water. These exciting solutions permit us to be optimistic and prevent an upcoming water crisis.

[1] https://www.ceh.ac.uk/our-science/projects/future-flows-and-groundwater-levels

[2] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2018-03-20/how-solve-global-water-crisis

 

Water Sharing Agreements Bring Peace for 2030 Global Water Crisis (Part 1)

Water as a Peace-building Tool

Everybody knows how vital the water is for living things. Water cannot be comparable to any other commodity such as gold, petroleum or diamond. Even though the world is surrounded by %70 of seas only %2 is a drinkable water for all of us. That’s what makes water rare and obviously no one can go without it up to three days. Nations not only need to be careful of not polluting this priceless source but also search for agreements to tackle the water sharing problems. In two exemplary cases (Uganda and Israeli-Palestinian) solidarity played a mutual support role for a common interest.

The Factual Approach to Water

In India, Jordan and Syria some villagers must travel up to 40 km to arrive at the water supply. More than 1.2 billion people today lack access to clean drinking water. 1 out of 8 people search water sources every day. 1 out of 6 people have no access to a toilet in the world. Every 20 second a child dies because of an unclean water. %50 of the sub-Saharan African population don’t have access at all to clean water.

Consequently, fight over water becomes today’s reality.

We observe 14 of the world’s 20 mega-cities started to experience water scarcity. Since the beginning of 2000’s cities such as Los Angeles, São Paulo, Cape Town, California, Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Gaza city search solutions for their water insufficiency. Lake Chad, Aral Sea, Lake Popoo, Urmia, the Great Salt Lake, Burdur, Egirdir, Aksehir, Acigol, Tanganyika, Assal, Faguibine, The Dead Sea and Titicaca are examples of lakes which shrink and hereby reducing flows into water levels.

Door Steps to Global Water Crisis 2030

According to the experts in one side the planet is getting dry, the demand for water will arise %40 by 2030. The scenario of 2 billion new people joining us, will increase the water demand drastically even before 2030. This urge of “not having enough” vital source of life, forces the world to form a better solidarity. Starting from today we should use water sources carefully!

Demographic increase has repelled UN to define the access to water and sanitary as a human right.

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4 Main Area Of Water Disputes

Water conflict generally occurs in four main levels on the world: internationally, globally, locally and national level.

International: The conflict is between different states over the use of shared water resources. Examples include tension and hostilities between upstream/downstream states. Over the use of shared rivers and water including underground aquifers creating threats. Nile basin water utilization between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia is an example of international water dispute. Mekong River Basin dispute between China and Laos is also counted as an international level of water conflict.

Global: The conflict is between marginalized and affluent populations, in which conflicts result when resources are distributed from marginalized populations on the periphery to more privileged sectors comprising the core. We can show trans-boundary water disputes between Afghanistan and Iran as an example of a global problem or even armed conflict involve like in the example of Somalia.

Local: The conflict is between societal groups competing for water in a specific area. It can be also be between a state and its citizens in a defined area. Cauvery River between the Indian states Karnataka and Tamil Nadu or water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia are examples of that type of local conflict.

National: The conflict is between different interest groups especially in relation to national policies affecting water management. [1] Yemen anti-state grievances can be an example of national water conflict.

The world’s fresh water is very unevenly distributed. Look at water rich countries:

fao.org/docrep/005/y4473e/y4473e0g.gif

Before even talking about product efficiency and less environmental damages, it is the duty of water independent countries to share its resources with its neighbors. Starting with the basics specially for those whose main need is water, it can also bring peace to  other types of conflicts.

Optimist Role of Politics on Global Water Crisis

Maximizing utility as a consumer making high profit as producer stays as the biggest aim of capitalism. Sharing our surplus water with other countries, without thinking about high profits will save ourselves. Sharing will fundamentally increase our regions technical, economic, political and ethical values. Because water is life, it shouldn’t be seen as an exchange commodity. Water is the key for continuation of our basic existence. Regional sustainable development on equal water sharing will bring region wealth. From bottom to top, it will save all forms of life on earth.

According to the ScienceDaily, approximately 20% of the global population has experienced a significant increase in water availability due to human interventions, such as building water storage and alleviating water scarcity by common projects. The canals that have constructed to transfer water or man-made reservoirs are other examples. Humans should be proud of themselves. But there is still alot of more to do.

Reconciliation needs efforts in order to create mutually acceptable resources through win-win policy making. Regional approaches to the common problems is essential to understand firstly that water can serve as means for reconciliation. For example water sharing agreements between countries that share the same river have helped to avoid about 1,800 conflicts in the past 50 years, according to the World Water Council (WWC).[2]

Water: Conflict Resolution in Uganda Case Study

At the national level, many of the conflicts that Uganda has experienced, including the conflicts in Northern and North-Eastern Uganda, have been fueled by certain groups or areas feeling marginalized and neglected by central government. There are several examples of such conflicts across Uganda, including competition for water resources in the water-stressed cattle corridor areas which lead to fighting. And there are tensions between cultivators and pastorals in Kasese, Sembabule, and Luweero. Some politicians told people that they failed to get water facilities because they voted for the ‘wrong’ person or belong to the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. Today thanks to the establishment of the Umbrella Organisations for Water and Sanitation (UOWS) in some regions of Uganda appears to have been quite successful so far in co-ordinating and supporting different private companies and NGOs involved in operation. [3]

Water: Tool for Peace-building in Israeli-Palestinian Case

According to the World Health Organization %90 of Gaza water is unfit for  human consumption. That’s why in that region conflict over water was natural. But Israel can produce %50 more drinkable water than needed by its population thanks to desalination plants. According to the water project called Red SeaDead Sea Conveyance signed in 2017, Israel started to sell 32 million cubic meters of water to the Palestinian Authority from Mediterranean desalination plants. 10 million to Gaza and 22 million to to the West Bank in 2017. [1]The $900m pipeline project is expected to be completed in five years. [2]

It shows that good water sharing agreements such as Israel and Palestinian, can bring peace before even waiting for the water wars start in 2030.

Conclusion

Water can be a source of conflict or a real catalyst for peacebuilding.

Rivers and streams don’t accept human made frontiers. Only decision makers can find optimal solutions on how to manage regional water resources. Solidarity between neighbors can tackle future water problems. In our century global population has experienced a significant increase in water availability due to human interventions. With the power of negotiation and mediation there is still hope to overcome water scarcity before it arrives in 2030. Uganda and Israel case studies are exemplary in that dream of world free of water disputes.

APPENDIX:

[1] https://www.crs.org/sites/default/files/tools-research/water-and-conflict.pdf

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-world-water-forum-water-confli/river-sharing-deals-mean-water-war-is-a-myth-says-global-water-body-idUSKBN1GZ2DX

[3] https://www.saferworld.org.uk/resources/publications/325-water-provision-as-a-peacebuilding-tool 

[4] https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-palestinians-reach-landmark-water-deal-for-west-bank-gaza-strip/

[5] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/07/israel-palestinian-authority-reach-water-sharing-deal-170713165223323.html

 

€17 Million Fund to Power European Detection and Imaging Innovation

To trigger disruptive innovation, the ATTRACT project will commit €17 million as seed funding for 170 projects developing breakthrough detection and imaging technologies in Europe.

ESO builds and operates a suite of the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical telescopes, and thus relies on cutting-edge detection and imaging technology. As a partner in the ATTRACT, ESO stands to benefit from detector breakthroughs fostered by the ATTRACT project.

The process of developing new science into technologies that enable breakthrough innovation often happens by chance. ATTRACT aims to create and deploy mechanisms and a permanent pipeline for systematically achieving such transformation,” says Henry Chesbrough, who coined the term “Open Innovation” and is a special advisor to ATTRACT. “In contrast to incremental innovation, which generates reactive or adaptive responses to a problem, breakthrough innovation is driven by a desire to anticipate emerging or future needs.

The ATTRACT seed fund is open to researchers and entrepreneurs from organisations all over Europe. The call for proposals is already open and will collect breakthrough ideas until 31 October 2018. A high-level, independent Research, Development and Innovation Committee will evaluate proposals and select those to be funded based on a combination of their scientific merit, innovation readiness and potential societal impact. The successful proposals will be announced in early 2019.

A new way to monitor climate change is on the way

The 170 breakthrough projects funded by ATTRACT will have one year to develop their ideas. During this phase, business and innovation experts from the ATTRACT Project Consortium’s Aalto University, EIRMA and ESADE Business School will help project teams explore how their disruptive technology can be transformed into breakthrough innovations with strong market potential.

Most scientific advances, technical applications, commercially worthwhile products and businesses targeting emerging societal challenges rely on detection and imaging technologies in some way. Disruptive innovations emerging from ATTRACT will trigger transformations that will have real impact on people’s lives.

Examples of future applications for society could include: portable scanners for out-patient treatment; sensors to help the visually impaired navigate the world more easily; networks of sensors to make agriculture more productive and less energy-intensive; smarter use of monitoring and big data analysis to make factories work more efficiently; better forms of online learning; and new ways to accurately monitor climate change.

First Successful Test of Einstein’s General Relativity Near Supermassive Black Hole

Obscured by thick clouds of absorbing dust, the closest supermassive black hole to the Earth lies 26 000 light-years away at the centre of the Milky Way. This gravitational monster, which has a mass four million times that of the Sun, is surrounded by a small group of stars orbiting around it at high speed. This extreme environment — the strongest gravitational field in our galaxy — makes it the perfect place to explore gravitational physics, and particularly to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

New infrared observations from the exquisitely sensitive GRAVITY [1]SINFONI and NACO instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have now allowed astronomers to follow one of these stars, called S2, as it passed very close to the black hole during May 2018. At the closest point this star was at a distance of less than 20 billion kilometres from the black hole and moving at a speed in excess of 25 million kilometres per hour — almost three percent of the speed of light [2].

Looking closely at the star near Sagittarius A*

The team compared the position and velocity measurements from GRAVITY and SINFONI respectively, along with previous observations of S2 using other instruments, with the predictions of Newtonian gravity, general relativity and other theories of gravity. The new results are inconsistent with Newtonian predictions and in excellent agreement with the predictions of general relativity.

These extremely precise measurements were made by an international team led by Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, in conjunction with collaborators around the world, at the Paris Observatory–PSL, the Université Grenoble AlpesCNRS, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the University of Cologne, the Portuguese CENTRA – Centro de Astrofisica e Gravitação and ESO. The observations are the culmination of a 26-year series of ever-more-precise observations of the centre of the Milky Way using ESO instruments [3].

“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic centre. But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution,” explains Genzel. “We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects.

The new measurements clearly reveal an effect called gravitational redshift. Light from the star is stretched to longer wavelengths by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole. And the change in the wavelength of light from S2 agrees precisely with that predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This is the first time that this deviation from the predictions of the simpler Newtonian theory of gravity has been observed in the motion of a star around a supermassive black hole.

Observations made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time revealed the effects predicted by Einstein’s general relativity on the motion of a star passing through the extreme gravitational field near the supermassive black hole in the centre of the Milky Way.

This simulation shows the orbits of stars very close to the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. One of these stars, named S2, orbits every 16 years and is passing very close to the black hole in May 2018. This is a perfect laboratory to test gravitational physics and specifically Einstein’s general theory of relativity. [ESO]

A first ever observation in astronomy

The team used SINFONI to measure the velocity of S2 towards and away from Earth and the GRAVITY instrument in the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) to make extraordinarily precise measurements of the changing position of S2 in order to define the shape of its orbit. GRAVITY creates such sharp images that it can reveal the motion of the star from night to night as it passes close to the black hole — 26 000 light-years from Earth.

Our first observations of S2 with GRAVITY, about two years ago, already showed that we would have the ideal black hole laboratory,” adds Frank Eisenhauer (MPE), Principal Investigator of GRAVITY and the SINFONI spectrograph. “During the close passage, we could even detect the faint glow around the black hole on most of the images, which allowed us to precisely follow the star on its orbit, ultimately leading to the detection of the gravitational redshift in the spectrum of S2.

More than one hundred years after he published his paper setting out the equations of general relativity, Einstein has been proved right once more — in a much more extreme laboratory than he could have possibly imagined!

Françoise Delplancke, head of the System Engineering Department at ESO, explains the significance of the observations: “Here in the Solar System we can only test the laws of physics now and under certain circumstances. So it’s very important in astronomy to also check that those laws are still valid where the gravitational fields are very much stronger.

Continuing observations are expected to reveal another relativistic effect very soon — a small rotation of the star’s orbit, known as Schwarzschild precession — as S2 moves away from the black hole.

Xavier Barcons, ESO’s Director General, concludes: “ESO has worked with Reinhard Genzel and his team and collaborators in the ESO Member States for over a quarter of a century. It was a huge challenge to develop the uniquely powerful instruments needed to make these very delicate measurements and to deploy them at the VLT in Paranal. The discovery announced today is the very exciting result of a remarkable partnership.

The Most Tragic Space Accident Of The Cold War Era: Soyuz-1

Following the victory over Nazi Germany in WW2, United States and the Soviet Union wasted no time gathering trophies all over Germany, including many rocket scientists and middle and long-range rocket designs.

While US recruited the famous German rocket scientists Wernher Von Braun, best known as the designer of Saturn V rocket which took the man to the Moon, the Soviets were satisfied their technology lust by capturing hundreds of German engineers and seizing A-4 rockets. The Truman Doctrine accepted by the US government in 1947 marked the beginning of the Cold War era, as the political aggression between the two countries found new ground to unleash itself: Space exploration.

The first breakthrough gained by the German technology was Sputnik 1 satellite which was launched in 1957. The first-ever satellite launched into space made such an impact on the US that their answer came just a year later with the establishment of the governments’ exclusive search and development agency, DARPA.

The cold and exhausting space exploration period came with Sputnik 1 witnessed the death of dozens of astronauts and cosmonauts. One of them, maybe the most remarkable story of this period is Vladimir Komarov, whose death clearly depicts the extreme conditions of the space race between the Soviets and the US.

The interior design of Sputnik-1.

The Architects of A Catastrophy: Vain and Impatience

After Yuri Gagarin gained the title of “the first man in space” in April 1961 (US astronaut Alan Shepard was launched into the low orbit just after 23 days of Gagarin’s success), the new target was to reach the Moon. Soviets had a glorious plan for the first manned mission towards the Moon: Two spacecraft would be launched with a one day gap and rendezvous in the orbit. Later, they would connect in the orbit and continue with an EVA mission (extravehicular activity).

For the historical mission, Soviets were planning to use the “Soyuz” spacecraft, designed by the leader of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolev and defined as the “machine of the future.” The man who would take part in this mission was Vladimir Komarov, who was among the top three cosmonauts of Soviet Russia.

Komarov entered the First Moscow Special Air Force School when he was only 15. Upon completing his basic education and training, Komarov joined the Soviet Air Forces as a lieutenant. In March 1960, he was among the 20 candidates chosen among 3.000 candidates for the Vostok programme. Komarov was put behind in the line by Korolev just because he was older than the preferred age limit. Thus, Gagarin became the first among the chosen ones and made history by being the first man in space.

His first major career success came on 12 October 1964 when Komarov flew over Earth inside the Voskhod 1 spacecraft. The seventh manned space mission in the history of Soviet Russia came with many achievements, while carrying the first signals of the incoming tragedy.

Voskhod 1.

Voskhod 1 was the first-ever spacecraft with more than 1 crew capacity and broke the altitude record as it reached 336 kilometres above the ground. Commander Komarov, flight engineer Konstantin Feoktistov and doctor Boris Yzegorov were sent to space without proper spacesuits. The reason was the stubbornness of the Russian officials to stuff three cosmonauts into a spacecraft which was actually designed for two. They wanted the launch of the first mission including a space engineer and a doctor. Komarov managed to make radio transmissions for the Tokyo Olympic Games on 10th of October and successfully landed Voskhod 1 after a very uncomfortable journey.

Voskhod 1 crew.

Challenging the Impossible

After his success in the Voskhod-1 mission, Komarov was chosen for the Soyuz 1 programme along with Yuri Gagarin in 1966. The mission made Komarov anxious from the beginning, nevertheless, his arms were tied against the arrogance of the Russian officials. The same year Sergey Korolev, the only person who could delay the mission, passed away.

Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov.

Russian officials were terribly impatient due to the 10 manned Gemini space missions the US launched between 1965-1966. An urgent answer was a must and it must be a big one to counter the Gemini space programme. The first step of the plan was to launch Komarov to space with Soyuz 1. A day later, Soyuz 2 with three crew members would be launched and connect with Soyuz 1 in low orbit. Then, cosmonauts would perform EVA.

Unfortunately, Soyuz 1 went through a very hasty development process and no matter how many times Komarov had an argument over the technical issues they were left unaddressed. According to space historian Amy Shira Teitel, there were in total 203 technical issues with Soyuz 1. Opening his thoughts to his friend Venyamin Russayev before the mission, Komarov said: “he was going to die.” Yet, he rejected the idea of withdrawing from the mission to not be replaced by his close friend Yuri Gagarin and endanger his life.

The first unmanned test of Soyuz 1 was launched in November 1966. The prototype, “Cosmos 133’s” control systems failed. In 1967, a 300 mm hole opened on the heat shield of another prototype named Cosmos 140, while it was entering the atmosphere. Ignoring all the technical failures, Russian officials gave the green light for the mission.

The Hardest Moments of a Cosmonaut

The plan of the Soyuz 1 mission was on global news months before the launch, while Russian engineers were busy trying to come up with a solution to get cosmonauts through the 66mm wide door. They were not aware, at that moment that it wouldn’t be necessary to find a solution.

Soyuz 1 was launched on 23 April 1967 at 03:35 local time. In the following minutes, the spacecraft reached an altitude of 220 kilometres. Soviet media announced the successful launch with joy. In the following hours, however, a disaster was going to hit the Soviet space exploration very hard.

The first problem emerged just after Soyuz 1 reached the orbit. One of the solar panels failed to open. Moments later, the telemetry antenna failed and worst, the sensors responsible for positioning Soyuz 1 craft were not working. It wouldn’t be possible to connect with Soyuz 2. Komarov desperately tried to re-position the spacecraft by looking at the horizon while it was floating without control due to the failed solar panel. With the last hope, he started to kick the walls of the spacecraft to trigger the solar panels mechanism. That didn’t work either.

Soyuz 1.

The launch of Soyuz 2 was cancelled and all the attention focused on bringing Komarov back to Earth. Komarov tried to start the engines for the first time on 24th of April at 02:56 local time. His attempts were denied by the automatic control system of the spacecraft on the 16th, 17th and 18th orbits. Frustrated, Komarov started to lose his nerve as he cursed the “ominous spacecraft.” In his message to the ground station, he simply said: “nothing in this spacecraft is working.”

Nevertheless, Komarov managed to enter Earth’s orbit during the 19th tour around the planet. At 05:59 Moscow time, landing motors were ignited to provide a secure descent for some time. After the engines stopped, a report from the Yevpatoriya station in Crimea included a message of Komarov having lost all the control of his spacecraft.

The descent module was separated with a two minutes delay from Soyuz 2. After this moment, the module was supposed to land with its parachute. While being under 8G pressure during 06:18 and 06:20, Komarov sounded very confident in his transmission. But his relief lasted only a few seconds.

The wreckage of Soyuz 1.

The emergency parachute was opened but it couldn’t drag the main parachute from its chamber. The second parachute wrapped around the cordons of the emergency parachute. Soyuz 1 was descending with a speed of 640 kilometres per hour as its parachutes and sensors failed and ran out of fuel. It impacted 65 kilometres east of Orsk, at the south of Ural Mountains with a force equal to a 2,8-ton meteor (51°21′41.67″N 59°33′44.75″E). After the flames were put out, the descent module of Soyuz 2 was reduced to a 70mm debris from a 2-metre metal cabin.

There are claims related to Komarov’s last words after he desperately shouted to the ground stations when the parachutes failed. It is not known for certain, that he “cursed all the people who put him inside a malfunctioning spacecraft.”

The parachute simulation:

https://youtu.be/hw56mLN2Ezc

His Last Moments Are Still A Mystery

The book, ‘Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin’ claims that the last words of Komarov were recorded by the US National Security Agency (NSA) based in İstanbul. The book includes the comments of Perry Fellwock from 1972, who was stationed in the facility. According to him, not only Komarov but the engineers on the ground saw his survival chance very low. Komarov is claimed to have talked to then Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin and his wife. He told his wife what she needs to do after his death and how to take care of their children. Fellwock describes that moment as “in total despair.” Komarov was totally lost in his last seconds and Kosygin was crying.

Space historian Asif Siddiqi rejects most of the information given in the Starman book. The book states that the date of the Soyuz 2 mission was chosen by Soviet leader of the day Leonid Brejnev and he insisted on the date to have it on the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Siddiq on the contrary says that the date was set by engineers of the mission and it was first meant to be launched in 1965. The other claim Siddiqi rejects is the “video phone” call between Komarov and Kosygin, along with his wife. Videophones came into use only in 1968.

One last myth is the heroic attempt of Yuri Gagarin to replace Komarov in the last second before the mission. According to unknown sources, Gagarin appeared on the launch platform just before Komarov was about to get inside his spacecraft and offered to replace him. Yaroslav Golovanov, the Pravda correspondent who was at the scene said: “This never happened.”

Remains of Vladimir Komarov.

His Memory Rests On The Moon

The most significant detail made the Soyuz 1 tragedy unforgettable is the remains of Komarov found at the impact site. The photo showing the Russian officials staring upon the remains is believed to be taken before the funeral. The funeral took place on 26th of April and the ashes of Komarov were buried inside the Kremlin Wall Cemetery in the Red Square. A soldier and a cosmonaut, Komarov was awarded several medals including the Red Star Medal.

The same year Komarov lost his life, NASA astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee burned to death during the Apollo 1 test. All these men significantly increased the survival chance of the astronauts and cosmonauts came after them. Yet, the tragedies didn’t end there. In June 1971, the Soviets lost all crew members of Soyuz 11 in the last phase of the mission.

The first man to ever step on the surface of the Moon, Neil Armstrong, left a few things for the memory of Komarov and Apollo 1 astronauts. The commander of Apollo 15 mission David Scott also left a plaque in the memory of all the people who lost their lives for space exploration up until that year. The plaque containing the names of 14 people, sits near an astronaut model and is called “the Fallen Astronaut.”

References:

[1]http://www.russianspaceweb.com/rockets_ussr_germany.html
[2]http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history
[3]http://www.darpa.mil/about-us/darpa-history-and-timeline
[4]http://www.astronautix.com/k/komarov.html
[5]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As0fzcCs7oY
[6]http://www.russianspaceweb.com/spacecraft_manned_lunar.html
[7]http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/space-disasters/soyuz-1/tragic-death-vladimir-komarov/
[8] http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/05/02/134597833/cosmonaut-crashed-into-earth-crying-in-rage
[9]http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/05/02/134735091/questions-questions-questions-more-on-a-cosmonauts-mysterious-death
[10]http://io9.gizmodo.com/5791437/what-really-happened-to-cosmonaut-vladimir-komarov-who-died-crashing-to-earth-in-1967
[10]http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/astronaut-vladimir-komarov-man-fell-space-1967/
[12]https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo1.html