NASA Deploys Tiny Satellite To Scour The Halo Of The Milky Way

After the trailblazing MarCO mini satellites blasted off from Earth’s orbit to journey to Mars, NASA is announcing yet another adventurous CubeSat mission — this time with an even more daring quest ahead.

Dubbed HaloSat, the tiny spacecraft has already been deployed from the International Space Station (ISS) on July 13, with the task of studying the halo of the Milky Way.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, the tiny HaloSat made its way onto the ISS via the Cygnus OA-9 resupply vehicle, shipped into space on May 21 by Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman).

While the cargo ship is currently on a secondary mission to deploy several other CubeSats before heading back to Earth, as reported by the Inquisitr last week, the HaloSat has its own thing going on.

The mini satellite will be orbiting Earth every 90 minutes to soak up as much data as possible on the X-rays produced by the solar wind — an outflow of highly charged particles coming from the sun, explains NASA — as they interact with the uncharged particles in our planet’s atmosphere.

The same type of X-ray emissions is thought to exude from the Milky Way’s halo, a cloud of hot gas surrounding our galaxy and which can reach temperatures of up to two million degrees Celsius (3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit).

Fried Egg Or Sphere?

According to HaloSat co-investigator Kip Kuntz, from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, solar wind emissions make their way into all the scientific observations conducted in space. But since these emissions vary with time and depending on solar wind conditions, they’re typically very hard to calculate.

An in-depth look at the X-rays produced by solar wind will help the tiny HaloSat get a clearer picture of what goes on inside our galaxy’s halo, so that the satellite can determine its true shape.

Does the Milky Way’s halo look more like a fried egg or like a sphere? We’re bound to find out once the tiny Cubesat is done with its high-precision X-ray measurements.

“If you think of the galactic halo in the fried egg model, it will have a different distribution of brightness when you look straight up out of it from Earth than when you look at wider angles,” said HaloSat co-investigator Keith Jahoda.

“If it’s in some quasi-spherical shape, compared to the dimensions of the galaxy, then you expect it to be more nearly the same brightness in all directions,” explained Jahoda, who is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Chasing The Night

To get around the solar wind X-rays and minimize their effect, HaloSat is programmed to collect most of science data during the 45 minutes of nighttime spent orbiting our planet.

In the rest of the time, the tiny CubeSat will be charging its solar batteries and checking in with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia — from where it was first launched into space — to relay its findings.

“HaloSat will be the first astrophysics mission that minimizes the effects of X-rays produced by solar wind charge exchange,” NASA announced in the news release.

Unlike the X-ray telescopes that NASA has flying around in space — such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the NICER mission, which is attached to the ISS and earlier this year discovered an X-ray pulsar with the fastest-known orbit, as reported by the Inquisitr — HaloSat won’t be looking at individual sources of X-rays, but rather it will scope out the entire sky, “100 square degrees at a time.”

This will help settle the matter of how our galaxy’s halo is shaped, so that scientists can determine its mass and find out the answer to one of cosmology’s burning questions and the true mission of the HaloSat spacecraft.

Search For The Universe’s Missing Matter

At 4-by-8-by-12 inches (about 10-by-20-by-30 centimeters) and 26 pounds (12 kilograms), this tiny CubeSat managed by the University of Iowa (UI) in Iowa City is small enough to fit in a large bag. But its purpose is greater than its dwarf size might suggest.

The intrepid HaloSat will be helping out cosmologists locate the missing matter in the universe — the unaccounted-for particles that make up the physical objects in the cosmos and which scientists believe could be hiding in the space between galaxies, as reported by the Inquisitr.

This intergalactic space is occupied by the galaxies’ individual halos — and taking a close look at our own might help unravel more about the “normal” matter (as opposed to dark matter and dark energy) missing in the universe.

According to the cosmic microwave background (CMB) — the oldest light in the universe shining all the way back from the early days of the cosmos, when our universe was just 400,000-years-old — normal matter protons, neutrons, and other subatomic particles make up five percent of the cosmos.

However, the added estimated mass of all the physical objects in the universe — planets, stars, and entire galaxies — only accounts for about half the mass that cosmologists have calculated should be there.

“We should have all the matter today that we had back when the universe was 400,000 years old,” said Philip Kaaret, HaloSat’s principal investigator at UI. “Where did it go? The answer to that question can help us learn how we got from the CMB’s uniform state to the large-scale structures we see today.”