Today is a day busy with much preparation for the launch of the Solar Orbiter on Sunday, and we also learn how scientists creatively found ways to study a massive galaxy that exhausted itself very early in its lifetime.

Trailer for the ESA-NASA Solar Orbiter mission Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Genna Duberstein. Animation by ESA/ATG Medialab.
Download this video in HD formats from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio

All because it’s the weekend, doesn’t mean people in space science get to look forward to a couple days off. No, just the opposite. We’re going to be working this weekend as everyone looks toward the Sunday night launch of Solar Orbiter, a new NASA/ESA joint mission to study the Sun. Missions like this are often launched on weekends and scheduled to encounter exciting targets on holidays, forcing the science communications community to work weird days, so that more people will be able to see launches and watch events live. Yes folks, the science is scheduled for you.

I’m not bitter. Well, maybe a little.

This particular mission has high resolution cameras, instruments to detect different kinds of particles, and magnetometers to study magnetic fields. This suite of detectors is designed to complement what we’re seeing from other missions and telescopes. It’s real advance comes in how it will be orbiting. This mission will be launched out of the plane of the solar system so that it can fly within view of the sun’s poles, allowing it to study parts of the Sun’s magnetic field we’ve never been able to study before.

But first, it does need to launch. Currently, weather and rocket permitting, we’re looking at an 11:03 pm Eastern launch, with live coverage starting 30 minutes before. We’ll be doing a watch party on and all of you are invited. Solar Orbiter will be launching on a highly reliable Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, and if all goes will, it will set off on a 7 year mission. The first 3.5 years of this mission will be spent refining its orbit, using gravitational assists from Earth and Venus, so that it can fly on a 150 day orbit that carries it closer to the Sun than Mercury on a path tilted 25 to 34 degrees above the plane of the planets. 

This image set shows the possible evolution of XMM-2599, from a massive, dusty, star-forming galaxy (left), to an inactive red galaxy (center), and then perhaps turning into a bright cluster galaxy (right). CREDIT: NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. SAXTON; NASA/ESA/R. FOLEY; NASA/ESA/STSCI, M. POSTMAN/CLASH

Not a lot of science has tried to complete with the Solar Orbiter in today’s news cycle, but one cool story has emerged from the early universe. Astronomers using Keck observatory’s MOSFIRE Spectrograph have detected a massive galaxy that had already exhausted its star formation just 1.8 billion years after the universe had formed. They believe this system, XMM-2599, may have created stars at a rate of 1000 stars a year when it was in its prime. There are multiple explanations for what stopped the star formation, with the likely culprit being a blast of energy from the system’s active galactic nuclei. If we saw this system in the local universe, we’d refer to it as a ‘red and dead galaxy.’ This particular, much more distant system, may have a different future. It’s possible that this massive galaxy in the early universe will seed a galaxy cluster, becoming a central cluster galaxy as it’s gravity pulls other systems into orbit. It may also just stay alone – we can’t know, but it’s tantalizing to imagine. This research shows us just how fast galaxies could live and die in the early universe, and fills in one more piece of the puzzle about when large scale structure was able to form.

This is one more example of scientists finding ways to use existing telescopes to start doing the research we expected the JWST to start doing 10 years ago. With it’s decade of delays, technology has advanced and folks have gotten creative in how they are doing infrared astronomy in the restricted wavelengths we can see from Earth. 

This isn’t an ideal situation for doing science, but it turns out that curious scientists will always find a way to answer to explore.


And that rounds out our show for today.

Thank you all for listening. The Daily Space is written by Pamela Gay, produced by Susie Murph, and is a product of the Planetary Science Institute, a 501(c)3 non profit dedicated to exploring our Solar System and beyond. We are here thanks to the generous contributions of people like you. Want to become a supporter of the show? Check us out at 

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