Avi Loeb: What's causing mysterious radio bursts in space? Don’t rule out any options yet, including aliens

Preparing to set foot in an environment lacking gravity and essential tools for survival is not an easy feat and can bring many serious side effects as a result. Learn about some of the major changes astronauts experience when putting their bodies on the line to traverse the universe beyond our planet.

It is very rare that astronomers discover a new population of sources in the sky. A notable example involves the most compact stars known, neutron stars. Even though these stars weigh up to twice the mass of the sun, they occupy a region with the length of Manhattan. Some of these stars generate a beam of radio waves that sweep across our sky periodically like a lighthouse.

In 1967, a 24-year old scientist, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, noticed radio pulses that repeated periodically in her data. Temporarily dubbed “Little Green Man 1,” the source she discovered is now known as a spinning neutron star. It is a member of a vast population of neutron stars, hundreds of millions in our own Milky Way galaxy alone. These are relics from the collapse of massive stellar progenitors which, after consuming the nuclear fuel in their bellies, give birth to neutron stars in a supernova explosion. The regularity of their radio bips made pulsars the best clocks available, up until the last few years when human-made atomic clocks overperformed them.

In the neutron star example, mother nature was far more imaginative than we were. Could history be repeating itself?

In 2007, the astronomer Duncan Lorimer asked his undergraduate student to look through archival data taken in 2001 by the Parkes radio dish in Australia and discovered a bright radio burst. Although the burst lasted a few thousandths of a second similar to the pulse of a pulsar, it did not repeat and it also appeared to have traversed a much larger column of material than the Milky Way can provide. This implied that its source must be located very far away, possibly at the edge of the observable universe. At that distance, the source would need to be billions of times brighter than pulsars, which are mostly detectable within the confines of our own galaxy. In fact, if such a bursting source was placed in the Milky Way, we could have detected it with a cell phone!

Subsequently, many similar bursts were discovered across the sky. They were all labeled as Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) for lack of a clue regarding their mysterious origin. The universe produced one such burst per second. A small fraction of the known FRBs are repeating, allowing us to pinpoint their distant host galaxy. One source repeats periodically every 16 days.

What is the nature of FRB sources? Should we dub them “Little Green Man 2?”?We have no clue. They could be a mixed bag.

Astronomers are conservative. Given the lack of evidence, the most popular interpretation is that FRBs are newly born neutron stars, only decades old, with an extraordinary magnetic field that generates their powerful radio emission.

But until we uncover a “smoking gun” that produced an FRB, other options should be left on the table. That includes the far-out possibility of an artificial production by an advanced technological civilization. In such a case, the radio beam is most likely not intended for communication because of a simple reason. It takes billions of years for a message to cross the vast scale of the universe.  Nobody would have the patience to wait that long for a response. If the message was meant to be received across a much shorter distance, then why waste so much energy on it? The amount required is comparable to the total power of sunlight intercepted by the Earth, converted into a tightly collimated beam of radio waves. This would necessitate a huge engineering project that can only be rationalized for propulsion purposes. Indeed, a powerful beam of light could be used to push a sail that carries a giant spacecraft to the speed of light. In that case, we are detecting the leakage of radiation beyond the boundary of the light-sail as the beam sweeps across our sky. But altogether, given the exceptional amount of power involved, FRBs are not likely to be signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, unless some of them originate nearby.

The enigmatic nature of FRBs illustrates why science is so exciting. As scientists, we should be humble and not be guided by prejudice but by evidence. After all, if we expect the future interpretation of FRBs to resemble the past interpretation of pulsars we will never discover something new.

There are two avenues for a future breakthrough in our understanding of FRBs. One would stem from the detection of nearby sources that are extremely bright and whose environments can be studied in great detail. The second involves the detection of FRBs in other bands of light, such as visible, infrared or x-rays. Any qualitatively new information might offer us a revealing glimpse at the central engine of these beasts.

NASA stares into dark, freaky pit on Mars

If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze into you. Nietzsche could have been talking about Mars.

mromarspit
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter stared into the darkness of this pit on Mars.NASA/JPL/UArizona

I used to have reoccurring nightmares about falling into a pit. A new image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft (aka the MRO) pushes all my childhood scary-dream buttons. 

The image, acquired Jan. 24 by the MRO’s HiRise camera, shows a startling black pit against a lighter expanse of surface. These leads to a big question: What’s hiding down there in the dark depths?

The HiRise team at the University of Arizona performed a brightness enhancement to see into the abyss. 

“The floor of the pit appears to be smooth sand and slopes down to the southeast,” HiRise co-investigator Ross Beyer wrote in a Friday statement. “The hope was to determine if this was an isolated pit, or if it was a skylight into a tunnel, much like skylights in the lava tubes of Hawai’i.”

mromarspitresolved
This side-by-side view shows the pit on the left and the brightness-enhanced version on the right.NASA/JPL/UArizona

Scientists suspect Mars is home to volcanic caves, which could be fascinating destinations for future rovers or human explorers. Pits like the one the MRO is investigating could be gateways to these underground worlds. 

This particular chasm isn’t giving up any secrets just yet. “We can’t obviously see any tunnels in the visible walls, but they could be in the other walls that aren’t visible,” Beyer wrote.

What lies beneath? For now that’ll have to remain a Mars mystery.   

What's up with that rock? China's moon rover finds something strange on the far side.

Rock fragments, including one specimen (circled) targeted for analysis, discovered by the Yutu-2 rover. Rock fragments, including one specimen (circled) targeted for analysis, discovered by the Yutu-2 rover.(Image: © CNSA/CLEP/Our Space)

China’s Yutu-2 lunar rover has discovered what appear to be relatively young rocks during its recent exploration activities on the lunar far side.

The Chang’e-4 mission’s rover imaged the scattered, apparently lighter-colored rocks during lunar day 13 of the mission, in December 2019, according to the Chinese-language ‘Our Space‘ science outreach blog. 

The specimens, which are quite different from those already studied by the rover, could round out the team’s insights into the geologic history and evolution of the area, called Von Kármán crater.

Closer inspection of the rocks by the rover team revealed little erosion, which on the moon is caused by micrometeorites and the huge changes in temperature across long lunar days and nights. That anomaly suggests that the fragments are relatively young. Over time, rocks tend to erode into soils.

The relative brightness of the rocks also indicated they may have originated in an area very different to the one Yutu-2 is exploring

Chang’e-4 made a historic, first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon in January 2019. Von Kármán, a roughly 110-mile-wide (180 kilometers) crater, is around 3.6 billion years old. Lava has flooded it multiple times since its formation, leaving it relatively smooth and dark. The crater itself lies within the South Pole-Aitken Basin, an even more massive and more ancient impact crater.

A rock fragment viewed by a Yutu-2 obstacle-avoidance camera.
A rock fragment viewed by a Yutu-2 obstacle-avoidance camera. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP/Our Space)

Dan Moriarty, NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said the size, shape and color of the rocks provide clues to their origin.

“Because [the rocks] all look fairly similar in size and shape, it is reasonable to guess that they might all be related,” he told Space.com. “Chang’e-4 landed on a volcanic mare, [a] basalt patch, and those volcanic materials are much darker than normal lunar highlands crust. If these rocks are indeed brighter than the soil, it could mean that they are made up of a higher component of bright, highlands crust materials than the surrounding volcanic-rich soils.”

Image of the surface of Von Kármán crater from Yutu-2, released in February 2020.
Image of the surface of Von Kármán crater from Yutu-2, released in February 2020. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP)

Moriarty noted that higher-resolution images of the rock would provide more information. “If the rock has the appearance of many heterogeneous fragments ‘welded’ together, this would indicate a regolith breccia,” which are formed by the immense heat of a meteorite impact, he said. “If the rock appears more coherent, then it might be a primary crustal rock excavated by the impact.”

China recently published a huge batch of data and amazing images from the Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover. However, the release did not include data from day 13, meaning high-resolution images of these intriguing specimens are not yet public.

Regarding the age of the rocks, Moriarty said that “fresh” is a relative term: In this case, it means that the rocks formed after the major resurfacing events in Von Kármán crater. “So that could be 10-100 million years [ago] or 1-2 billion years. It’s really hard to say definitively.” Click here for more Space.com videos…China’s Historic Moon Landing Captured by Probe’s CameraVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

To learn more, the Yutu-2 team navigated the rover in order to analyze one of the specimens with its Visible and Near-infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS) instrument, which detects light that is scattered or reflected off materials to reveal their makeup.

Because the fragments are small and the lunar terrain is very challenging, the team made careful calculations and fine adjustments in order to get the rocks into the VNIS field of view, according to Our Space. This may account for the relatively short distance Yutu-2 traveled during lunar day 13: 41.3 feet (12.6 meters). Overall, Yutu-2 has driven 1,170 feet (357 m) since arriving in Von Kármán crater.

Yutu-2 looks back over tracks it made in the lunar soil.
Yutu-2 looks back over tracks it made in the lunar soil. (Image credit: CNSA/CLEP)

Earlier in 2019, Yutu-2 made numerous approaches to an unidentified rock sample, which Our Space described as “gel-like.”

The Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 completed their 14th lunar day of science and exploration on Jan. 31, ahead of sunset over the landing area in Von Kármán crater. Day 15 began on Feb. 17, with Yutu-2 due to head to the northwest and then southwest to reach a designated target point.

China plans to launch Chang’e-5, a sample-return mission, in the second half of this year. It will collect around 4 lbs. (2 kilograms) of samples from Oceanus Procellarum on the moon’s near side before returning to Earth. If this is successful, the backup Chang’e-6 mission could attempt to retrieve samples from the South Pole-Aitken Basin or the lunar south pole around 2023.

Asteroid Pallas' violent history revealed in new images

A huge, heavily cratered asteroid known as Pallas has a violent history, scientists revealed in a new study.

Pallas, which is third largest object in the asteroid belt and named after the Greek goddess of wisdom, can be seen in detailed images published Monday in a study in Nature Astronomy.

Researchers believe that the asteroid’s pockmarked surface is a result of its unique orbit. Pallas has a tilted orbit, so it is basically smashing through the asteroid belt at an angle, unlike most other similar objects.

“Pallas’ orbit implies very high-velocity impacts,” Michaël Marsset, the paper’s lead author and a postdoctoral student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, told MIT News. “From these images, we can now say that Pallas is the most cratered object that we know of in the asteroid belt. It’s like discovering a new world.”

A pair of images show two views of Pallas with its pock-marked surface. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

A pair of images show two views of Pallas with its pock-marked surface. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

The astronomers obtained 11 series of images, observing Pallas from different angles as it rotated. After pulling the images together, the researchers generated a three-dimensional reconstruction of the shape of the asteroid, in addition to a crater map of its poles.

Thirty-six craters larger than 30 kilometers in diameter were identified, the study notes.

The asteroid’s craters seem to cover at least 10 percent of its surface, which the researchers state in their paper is “suggestive of a violent collisional history.”

There Could be Meteors Traveling at Close to the Speed of Light When They Hit the Atmosphere

It’s no secret that planet Earth is occasionally greeted by rocks from space that either explode in out atmosphere or impact on the surface. In addition, our planet regularly experiences meteor showers whenever its orbit causes it to pass through clouds of debris in the Solar System. However, it has also been determined that Earth is regularly bombarded by objects that are small enough to go unnoticed – about 1 mm or so in size.

According to a new study by Harvard astronomers Amir Siraj and Prof. Abraham Loeb, it is possible that Earth’s atmosphere is bombarded by larger meteors – 1 mm to 10 cm (0.04 to 4 inches) – that are extremely fast. These meteors, they argue, could be the result of nearby supernovae that cause particles to be accelerated to sub-relativistic or even relativistic speeds – several thousand times the speed of sound to a fraction of the speed of light.

Their study, titled “Observational Signatures of Sub-Relativistic Meteors“, recently appeared online and is being considered for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. Their work addresses an ongoing mystery in astrophysics, which is whether or not the ejecta created by a supernova can be accelerated to relativistic speeds and travel through the interstellar medium to reach Earth’s atmosphere.

Artist’s concept of the meteorite entering Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: University of Oxford

The existence of these kinds of meteors, which would measure about 1 mm in diameter (0.04 inches), has been proposed by several astronomers in the past (like Lyman Spitzer and Satio Hayakawa). The question of whether or not they could survive the trip through interstellar space has also been studied at length. As Siraj explained to Universe Today via email:

“Empirical evidence indicates that at least one supernova has rained heavy elements on Earth in the past. Supernovae are known to release significant quantities of dust at sub-relativistic speeds. We also see evidence of clumpiness or ‘bullets’ in supernova ejecta. The fraction of mass contained in small clumps is unknown, but if just 0.01% of the dust ejecta is contained in objects of millimeter size or larger, we would expect one to appear in the Earth’s atmosphere as a sub-relativistic meteor every month (based on the rate of supernovae in the Milky Way galaxy).”

Despite having a sound theoretical basis, the question remains as to whether or not meteors larger than a grain of dust enter Earth’s atmosphere at sub-relativistic or relativistic speeds. These would be meteors that measure 1 mm (0.04 in), 1 cm (0.4 in), or 10 cm (4 in) in diameter. Much of the problem has to do with our current search methodology, which is simply not set up to look for these kinds of objects.

“Meteors typically travel near 0.01% of the speed of light,” said Siraj. “Therefore current searches are tuned to find signals from objects moving at that speed. Meteors from supernovae would travel a hundred times faster (around 1% of the speed light), and so their signals would be significantly different from typical meteors, making them easily missed by current surveys.”

Meteors are pieces of comet and asteroid debris that strike the atmosphere and burn up in a flash. Credit: Jimmy Westlake A brilliant Perseid meteor streaks along the Summer Milky Way as seen from Cinder Hills Overlook at Sunset Crater National Monument—12 August 2016 2:40 AM (0940 UT). It left a glowing ion trail that lasted about 30 seconds. The camera caught a twisting smoke trail that drifted southward over the course of several minutes.

For the sake of their study, Siraj and Loeb developed a hydrodynamic and radiative model to track the evolution of hot plasma cylinders that result from sub-relativistic meteors passing through our atmosphere. From this, they were able to calculate what kind of signals would be produced, thereby providing an indication of what astronomers should be on the lookout for. As Siraj explained:

“We find that a sub-relativistic meteor would give rise to a shock wave that could be picked up by a microphone, and also a bright flash of radiation visible in optical wavelengths – both lasting for about a tenth of a millisecond. For meteors as small as 1mm, a small optical detector (1 square centimeter) could easily detect the flash of light out to the horizon.”

With this in mind, Siraj and Loeb went on to outline the kind of infrastructure that would allow astronomers to confirm the existence of these objects and study them. For instance, new surveys could incorporate infrasound microphones and optical-infrared instruments that would be able to detect the acoustic signature and optical flashes created by these objects entering our atmosphere and the resulting explosions.

Based on their calculations, they recommend that a global network of about 600 detectors with all-sky coverage could detect a few of these types of meteors per year. There is also the option of searching through existing data for signs of sub-relativistic and relativistic meteors. Last, but not least, there is the possibility of using existing infrastructure to look for signs of these objects.

Map displaying location and energy of meteor explosions detected by CNEOS. Credit: NASA/CNEOS

A good example of this, Siraj explained, is to be found in NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) network and database:

In addition, we note that the U.S. government’s global classified network of sensors (including microphones and optical detectors) that provides the CNEOS Fireball and Bolide Database likely comprises a capable existing infrastructure. We urge the U.S. government to declassify broader swaths of the CNEOS data so scientists can search for sub-relativistic meteors without spending more taxpayer money to develop a new global network – with one already in operation!

The payoff for this would be nothing less than the ability to study an entirely new set of objects that regularly interact with Earth’s atmosphere. It would also provide a new perspective to the study of supernovae by allowing astronomers to place important constraints on the ejecta they produce. With this in mind, a low-cost, global network of all-sky cameras seems well worth the investment!

Scientists are trying to open a portal to a parallel universe

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee are trying to open a portal to a parallel universe.

The project — which has been compared to the Upside Down in the Netflix blockbuster “Stranger Things” — hopes to show a world identical to ours where life is mirrored.

Leah Broussard, the physicist leading the experiment, told NBC the plan is “pretty wacky” but will “totally change the game,” ahead of a series of experiments she plans to run this summer.

Broussard’s experiment will fire a beam of subatomic particles down a 50-foot tunnel. The beam will pass a powerful magnet and hit an impenetrable wall, with a neutron detector behind it.

If the experiment is successful, particles will transform into mirror images of themselves, allowing them to burrow right through the impenetrable wall.

This would prove that the visible universe is only half of what is out there, Broussard said, but she also admitted that she expects the test to “measure zero.”

In “Stranger Things,” portals began opening, connecting a US town to a dark alternate dimension called the Upside Down.

In reality, if a mirror world exists, it would have its own laws of mirror physics and its own mirror history, according to NBC.

However, there wouldn’t be an alternate version of you. Current theory, the outlet explains, only hypothesizes that mirror atoms and mirror rocks are possible — and perhaps even mirror planets and stars.

NASA BRINGS VOYAGER 2 FULLY BACK ONLINE, 11.5 BILLION MILES FROM EARTH

“Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.”

IN AN INCREDIBLE FEAT of remote engineering, NASA has fixed one of the most intrepid explorers in human history. Voyager 2, currently some 11.5 billion miles from Earth, is back online and resuming its mission to collect scientific data on the solar system and the interstellar space beyond.

On Wednesday, February 5 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, NASA’s Voyager Twitter account gave out the good news: Voyager 2 is not only stable, but is back at its critical science mission.

“My twin is back to taking science data, and the team at @NASAJPL is evaluating the health of the instruments after their brief shutoff,” the account tweeted.

Voyager 2 is sister craft to Voyager 1. Both have been traveling through the solar system — and now beyond it — for the last four decades. Together, they have transformed our understanding of our stellar neighborhood and are already revealing unprecedented information about the interstellar space beyond the Sun’s sphere of influence.NASA Voyager@NASAVoyager

Good vibes! Voyager 2 continues to be stable, and communications between Earth and the spacecraft are fine.

My twin is back to taking science data, and the team at @NASAJPL is evaluating the health of the instruments following their brief shutoff. http://go.nasa.gov/3bjo76S 

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In a statement, NASA confirmed that Voyager 2 is back in business.

“Mission operators report that Voyager 2 continues to be stable and that communications between the Earth and the spacecraft are good.”

“The spacecraft has resumed taking science data, and the science teams are now evaluating the health of the instruments,” the agency said.

The fix is no mean feat: It takes 17 hours one-way to communicate with Voyager 2 from Earth, which is the second furthest away manmade object in space (Voyager 1 is the most far manmade object). That means a single information relay takes 34 hours.

WHAT HAPPENED TO VOYAGER 2?

The spacecraft had run into trouble on January 28, when NASA revealed that it had unexpectedly — and for unknown reasons — shut down. The world held its breath.NASA Voyager@NASAVoyager

Here’s the skinny: My twin went to do a roll to calibrate the onboard magnetometer, overdrew power and tripped software designed to automatically protect the spacecraft.

Voyager 2’s power state is good and instruments are back on. Resuming science soon. http://go.nasa.gov/38O37mC 

View image on Twitter

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As Inverse reported at the time, Voyager 2 went black right before it was scheduled for a maneuver in which the spacecraft rotates 360 degrees in order to calibrate one of its instruments onboard.

But the spacecraft didn’t make the move. As a result, two of its systems — both of which consume a lot of power — were running at the same time, according to a statement by NASA.

The likeliest problem was that the spacecraft was using up too much of its available power supply, which triggered protection software. The software automatically turns off Voyager 2’s science instruments when there is a power overload to save on power. It only has a finite supply, after all.

As of writing, NASA hasn’t confirmed or denied whether that is what actually happened. Only time will tell whether the agency ever gets an answer to what went wrong. But for now, we can all rest assured that Voyager 2‘s mission is far from over yet. If all goes well, it should have another five years of life left, meaning five more years of data collection from an area of space we humans have no other way of studying.

NASA’s New Horizons mission sheds new light on how planets form

NASA’s New Horizons mission is providing scientists with fresh insight into how planets form.

The mission is also boosting scientific knowledge about the formation of planetesimals, described by NASA as “the building blocks of the planets.”

In a statement, the space agency explained that on Jan. 1, 2019 the New Horizons spacecraft flew past an object in the Kuiper Belt, dubbed Arrokoth or 2014 MU69. The flyby, which took place more than 4 billion miles from Earth, provided a wealth of detailed data on Arrokoth’s shape, geology, color and composition, according to NASA.

“Arrokoth is the most distant, most primitive and most pristine object ever explored by spacecraft, so we knew it would have a unique story to tell,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., in the statement. “It’s teaching us how planetesimals formed, and we believe the result marks a significant advance in understanding overall planetesimal and planet formation.”

Composite image of Arrokoth from New Horizons Spacecraft Data

Composite image of Arrokoth from New Horizons Spacecraft Data (NASA)

Images from the spacecraft’s flyby show that Arrokoth has two connected lobes, a smooth surface and a uniform composition. By studying data provided by New Horizons, scientists have worked out that the lobes “were once separate bodies that formed close together and at low velocity, orbited each other, and then gently merged to create the 22-mile long object New Horizons observed,” NASA says.

“This indicates Arrokoth formed during the gravity-driven collapse of a cloud of solid particles in the primordial solar nebula, rather than by the competing theory of planetesimal formation called hierarchical accretion,” the space agency explained. “Unlike the high-speed collisions between planetesimals in hierarchical accretion, in particle-cloud collapse, particles merge gently, slowly growing larger.”

Scientists have presented their findings in three papers in the journal Science.

“Just as fossils tell us how species evolved on Earth, planetesimals tell us how planets formed in space,” said William McKinnon, a New Horizons co-investigator from Washington University in St. Louis and lead author of an Arrokoth paper in Science. “Arrokoth looks the way it does not because it formed through violent collisions, but in more of an intricate dance, in which its component objects slowly orbited each other before coming together.”

Initially (and somewhat controversially) nicknamed “Ultima Thule,” the object was officially named Arrokoth, which means “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language, in a ceremony on Nov. 19, 2019.

The New Horizons mission launched in January 2006. The spacecraft is now 4.4 billion miles from Earth.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., designed and built New Horizons and is managing the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute is leading the New Horizons science team and payload operations.

Hearts in Space!

The Heart NebulaIC 1805Sharpless 2-190, lies some 7500 light years away from Earth and is located in the Perseus Arm of the Galaxy in the constellation Cassiopeia. It was discovered by William Herschel on 3 November 1787.[1] It is an emission nebula showing glowing ionized hydrogen gas and darker dust lanes.[2]

The brightest part of the nebula (a knot at its western edge) is separately classified as NGC 896, because it was the first part of the nebula to be discovered. The nebula’s intense red output and its morphology are driven by the radiation emanating from a small group of stars near the nebula’s center. This open cluster of stars, known as Melotte 15, contains a few bright stars nearly 50 times the mass of our Sun, and many more dim stars that are only a fraction of our Sun’s mass.[1]

Scientists just watched a newfound asteroid zoom by Earth. Then they saw its moon.

One of Earth’s premier instruments for studying nearby asteroids is back to work after being rattled by earthquakes, and its first new observations show that a newly discovered space rock is actually two separate asteroids.

The instrument is the planetary radar system at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The observatory was closed for most of January, after a series of earthquakes hit the island beginning on Dec. 28, 2019. The observatory reopened on Jan. 29. Meanwhile, on Jan. 27, scientists using a telescope on Mauna Loa in Hawaii spotted an asteroid that astronomers hadn’t seen before. The team dubbed the newfound space rock 2020 BX12 based on a formula recognizing its discovery date. 

Because of the size of 2020 BX12 and the way its orbit approaches that of Earth, it is designated a potentially hazardous asteroid. However, the space rock has already come as close to Earth as it will during this pass (2.7 million miles or 4.3 million kilometers); astronomers have calculated the asteroid’s close approaches with Earth for the next century, and all will be at a greater distance than this one was.

Radar images show the binary asteroid 2020 BX12, which scientists discovered this year.
Radar images show the binary asteroid 2020 BX12, which scientists discovered this year. (Image credit: Arecibo Observatory/NASA/NSF)

The asteroid’s flyby wasn’t a threat to life on Earth, but it was an opportunity for scientists who were hoping to learn more about space rocks. On Feb. 4 and 5, the radar station at Arecibo set its sights on 2020 BX12. Based on the observations, the scientists discovered that 2020 BX12 is a binary asteroid, with a smaller rock orbiting the larger rock. About 15% of larger asteroids turn out, on closer inspection, to be binary, according to NASA.

The larger rock is likely at least 540 feet (165 meters) across, and the smaller one is about 230 feet (70 m) wide, according to the observations gathered by Arecibo. When the instrument observed the two space rocks on Feb. 5, they appeared to be separated by about 1,200 feet (360 m).

Scientists couldn’t gather enough data to be sure, but they suspect that the two rocks might complete an orbit of each other in 45 to 50 hours and that the smaller rock may be brighter than, and tidally locked with, its companion, meaning the same side always faces the larger object.

Existential dread is a key motivator for asteroid discoveries, and planetary defense experts hope that, by surveying nearby space rocks, they will identify a threat with enough time for us to protect ourselves. But asteroids are also scientifically interesting, since they represent rubble from the formation of the solar system.

NASA has a plan for yearly Artemis moon flights through 2030. The first one could fly in 2021.

The above image was taken by a NASA astronaut on board the International Space Station.

The above image was taken by a NASA astronaut on board the International Space Station. (NASA)

The first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion crew capsule — and the first big step in putting astronauts back on the moon — was originally scheduled to launch this year, but the mission is now expected to slip to 2021.

A new document from NASA explaining President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request for the agency lists the uncrewed test flight, known as Artemis 1, as scheduled to launch in 2021. Although NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other agency officials have said they expect the mission to be delayed, an updated launch target has not yet been officially announced.

An updated timeline for that mission is currently under review, and NASA expects to present its new plan to Congress about six weeks from now, Doug Loverro, the director of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, told reporters at a State of NASA event at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday (Feb. 10).

Despite the delays, NASA is still aiming to put “the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024” with its Artemis program, Bridenstine said during his State of NASA speech at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on Monday, repeating a motto that he shares just about every time he has a microphone and an audience.

According to a graphic published in NASA’s FY 2021 budget documents, the first crewed flight of SLS and Orion, called Artemis 2, is poised to launch on a lunar flyby mission in 2022, followed by a crewed lunar landing, Artemis 3, in 2024.

While NASA prepares to put astronauts on the lunar surface, the agency will also be working to launch the various components of its Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will serve as an orbiting outpost near the moon. To reach the lunar surface, astronauts will first dock with the Gateway in their Orion spacecraft before boarding a lander that will ferry them the rest of the way down to the moon.

So, the Gateway — or at least a few vital components of it — will need to be assembled in lunar orbit before astronauts can land on the moon. The first piece of the Gateway, its power and propulsion element (PPE), is scheduled to launch in 2022. Then, in 2023, NASA plans to launch the habitation and logistics outpost (HALO) module, which will serve as the crew quarters for astronauts at the Gateway.

During the last few months before NASA launches Artemis 3, three additional components will join the Gateway via three separate commercial rocket launches. Those launches will transport a transfer vehicle that will ferry landers from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit, a descent module that will bring the astronauts to the lunar surface and an ascent module that will bring them back up to the transfer vehicle, which will then return them to the Gateway.

Once all of those pieces are put together in orbit, NASA will have all the infrastructure it needs to send astronauts to the lunar surface, which Loverro said he is confident the agency will do by the end of 2024.

However, some continue to criticize NASA’s ambitious timeline for the moon landing. Years of SLS delays aside, the agency has barely started constructing critical elements of the Gateway, and NASA has yet to begin building a human-rated lunar lander.

The agency solicited proposals for crew landers last fall, and so far Boeing and a team led by Blue Origin have revealed their ideas. Once NASA chooses which lander (or landers) it will use for the Artemis program, construction will begin at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Meanwhile, Boeing is still working on building the first SLS rocket for Artemis 1, and NASA has requested that the company build at least 10 more SLS rockets for the entire Artemis program. With Artemis, NASA aims to build a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface after the landing in 2024.

Pluto's mysterious 'beating heart' is controlling winds on the dwarf planet, study says

There is a debate in the scientific community over whether Pluto should be a planet again. But a new study affirms that the dwarf planet’s “beating heart” is impacting its atmospheric circulation patterns.

The research notes that the heart-shaped structure, known as Tombaugh Regio, is in charge of the wind patterns on the dwarf planet. Much of it comes from the left part of the structure (known as Sputnik Planitia), which causes nitrogen winds to blow. Nitrogen is the majority of Pluto’s atmosphere, combined with carbon monoxide and methane. During the day, the nitrogen ice warms and turns into vapor, but by night, it condenses and reforms as ice.

“This highlights the fact that Pluto’s atmosphere and winds – even if the density of the atmosphere is very low – can impact the surface,” said the study’s lead author, Tanguy Bertrand, in a statement. The winds also carry heat, particles of haze and grains of ice, the study added.

Four images from NASA’s New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this global view of Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Four images from NASA’s New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this global view of Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Bertrand and the other researchers looked at the data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which discovered the feature in July 2015, to come up with the determination.

Pluto has an eastward spin on its axis, but the westward direction of the wind blowing likely suggests that the dwarf planet has a more interesting and diverse terrain than previously thought.

“Before New Horizons, everyone thought Pluto was going to be a netball – completely flat, almost no diversity,” Bertrand added. “But it’s completely different. It has a lot of different landscapes and we are trying to understand what’s going on there.”

Understanding the atmospheric conditions on Sputnik Planitia’s western edge could be as important as understanding the Earth’s oceans, Bertrand continued.

“Sputnik Planitia may be as important for Pluto’s climate as the ocean is for Earth’s climate,” Bertrand continued. “If you remove Sputnik Planitia – if you remove the heart of Pluto – you won’t have the same circulation.”

The study has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

Pluto, which has a multilayered atmosphere, moons and other features commonly associated with planets, is influenced by Neptune’s gravity, which caused it to lose its status as a planet in 2006.

However, several in the scientific community, including NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, have argued that it should be a planet and not a dwarf planet.

Pilot Claims to Have Filmed UFO Over Medellín, Colombia

People tend to give more credibility to UFO sightings by airplane pilots than any other sort of person. There are a few likely reasons for this. One, both pilots and UFOs are in the sky. Pilots are, objectively, more similar to UFOs than farmers. And if there’s anyone that’s supposed to know what does and doesn’t belong in the sky, it’s a pilot. This brings us to reason two: we really, really want to believe that the people at the controls of our airplanes are reasonable, rational human beings. Now, I would submit that one would have to be clinically insane to want to pilot an airplane, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s talk about UFOs.

A Colombian commercial airline pilot recently shared footage of a UFO he claims to have filmed over Medellín, Colombia. César Murillo Pérez, a pilot for the Colombian airline Viva Air, says he filmed this bizarre black sphere floating some 30,000 feet in the air over Colombia. According to Pérez, the sighting occurred on January 1, 2020, but he only recently posted the footage to the social media site TikTok.

It’s a weird one for sure. Being that the UFO in the footage looks like a simple black sphere, it would be fairly easy to write it off as a balloon. Yet Pérez says that it’s doubtful that a balloon could reach 30,000 feet. There are balloons that do reach those heights, such as weather balloons or whatever weird stuff Google is launching into the atmosphere, but all of those balloons are fitted with detection systems that allow airplanes to identify and track them. At the start of the video, Pérez pans the camera to the plane’s monitors to show that the object is not showing up. Pérez says:

“I would think it was a balloon, but the conditions do not lend itself to it. I doubt it, above all, because of the altitude and the physical characteristics.”

It’s also hard to tell exactly what shape the UFO is when it passes by so quickly.

The UFO looks very similar to other claimed sightings, including some of the sightings reported by US Navy pilots.

But some have questioned the authenticity of the video. The Colombian Civil Aeronautics agency requires all pilots to report mysterious, unidentified objects in the sky where they shouldn’t be. Usually, these reports are rogue balloons or drones. But the agency says that no such report was filed for this incident.

Pérez maintains that the video is genuine and says that he still has the raw footage on his phone. He also says that he wouldn’t be capable of faking a video like that, because he simply doesn’t know how. He says:

“I have seen that they have said that it is a very well done [fabrication], but I am a pilot, I do not know about [fabrications] or anything like that.”

So is it a UFO? Who knows. If the footage is in fact genuine, then it’s a pretty good one. Of course, it’s still hard to tell exactly what is being shown in the video. And just because it didn’t show up on the plane’s monitoring system doesn’t mean it isn’t a balloon. The ID system may have malfunctioned, or it could just be something not following the rules. Either way, if I saw that thing hanging out at 30,000 feet, I’d be a little freaked out.

Something in Deep Space Is Sending Signals to Earth in Steady 16-Day Cycles

Scientists have discovered the first fast radio burst that beats at a steady rhythm, and the mysterious repeating signal is coming from the outskirts of another galaxy.

A mysterious radio source located in a galaxy 500 million light years from Earth is pulsing on a 16-day cycle, like clockwork, according to a new study. This marks the first time that scientists have ever detected periodicity in these signals, which are known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), and is a major step toward unmasking their sources.

FRBs are one of the most tantalizing puzzles that the universe has thrown at scientists in recent years. First spotted in 2007, these powerful radio bursts are produced by energetic sources, though nobody is sure what those might be. FRBs are also mystifying because they can be either one-offs or “repeaters,” meaning some bursts appear only once in a certain part of the sky, while others emit multiple flashes to Earth.

Pulses from these repeat bursts have, so far, seemed somewhat random and discordant in their timing. But that changed last year, when the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment Fast Radio Burst Project (CHIME/FRB), a group dedicated to observing and studying FRBs, discovered that a repeater called FRB 180916.J0158+65 had a regular cadence.

The CHIME/FRB team kept tabs on the repeating burst between September 2018 and October 2019 using the CHIME radio telescope in British Columbia. During that period, the bursts were clustered into a period of four days, and then seemed to switch off for the next 12 days, for a total cycle of about 16 days. Some cycles did not produce any visible bursts, but those that did were all synced up to the same 16-day intervals.

“We conclude that this is the first detected periodicity of any kind in an FRB source,” the team said in a paper published on the preprint server arXiv in late January. “The discovery of a 16.35-day periodicity in a repeating FRB source is an important clue to the nature of this object.”

Scientists recently tracked down this particular FRB to a galaxy called SDSS J015800.28+654253.0, which is a half a billion light years from Earth. That may seem like a huge distance, but FRB 180916.J0158+65 is actually the closest FRB ever detected.

But while we know where it is, we still don’t know what it is. To that point, the beat of the FRB suggests that it might be modulated by its surroundings. If the source of the FRB is orbiting a compact object, such as a black hole, then it might only flash its signals toward Earth at a certain point in its orbital period. That scenario could potentially match this recognizable 16-day cycle.

It’s also possible that we are witnessing a binary system containing a massive star and a super-dense stellar core known as a neutron star, according to a study published on arXiv on Wednesday by a separate team that looked at the same data. In that model, the neutron star would emit radio bursts, but those signals would be periodically eclipsed by opaque outflowing winds from its giant companion.

Another scenario is that the FRB rhythm isn’t tempered by another object, and is sending out the pulses directly from the source. Scientists have previously suggested that flares from highly magnetized neutron stars, called magnetars, might be the source of some FRBs. But since magnetars tend to rotate every few seconds, a 16-day cycle does not match the expected profile of a magnetar-based FRB.

Ultimately, the CHIME/FRB team hopes to find similar patterns in the handful of known repeating bursts to see if these cycles are common. The researchers also plan to keep a careful eye on FRB 180916.J0158+6 while it is active in order to spot any other details that might point to its identity.

FRBs have baffled scientists for more than a decade, but new facilities such as CHIME are revealing new details about these weird events every year. While we still don’t know what is blasting out these bizarre signals, the discovery of a clear tempo from one of these sources provides a significant lead for scientists to follow.

Radio signal sparks alien life speculation

Mysterious radio signals from deep space detected

Highly magnetised rotating neutron star: This could be a source of the signals
Image captionArtwork: A highly magnetised rotating neutron star. Astronomers say one of these could be a source of the signals

Astronomers have revealed details of mysterious signals emanating from a distant galaxy, picked up by a telescope in Canada.

The precise nature and origin of the blasts of radio waves is unknown.

Among the 13 fast radio bursts, known as FRBs, was a very unusual repeating signal, coming from the same source about 1.5 billion light years away.

Such an event has only been reported once before, by a different telescope.

“Knowing that there is another suggests that there could be more out there,” said Ingrid Stairs, an astrophysicist from the University of British Columbia (UBC).

“And with more repeaters and more sources available for study, we may be able to understand these cosmic puzzles – where they’re from and what causes them.”

The CHIME observatory, located in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, consists of four 100-metre-long, semi-cylindrical antennas, which scan the entire northern sky each day.

The telescope only got up and running last year, detecting 13 of the radio bursts almost immediately, including the repeater.

Canada's new radio telescope, CHIME
Image captionCanada’s new radio telescope, CHIME

“We have discovered a second repeater and its properties are very similar to the first repeater,” said Shriharsh Tendulkar of McGill University, Canada.

“This tells us more about the properties of repeaters as a population.”

FRBs are short, bright flashes of radio waves.

So far, scientists have detected about 60 single fast radio bursts and two that repeat. They believe there could be as many as a thousand FRBs in the sky every day.

There are a number of theories about what could be causing them.

They include a neutron star with a very strong magnetic field that is spinning very rapidly, two neutron stars merging together, and, among a minority of observers, some form of alien spaceship.

What did NASA's New Horizons discover around Pluto?

New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers mission category, larger and more expensive than the Discovery missions but smaller than the Flagship Program. The cost of the mission (including spacecraft and instrument development, launch vehicle, mission operations, data analysis, and education/public outreach) is approximately $700 million over 15 years (2001–2016).[37] The spacecraft was built primarily by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The mission’s principal investigator is Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (formerly NASA Associate Administrator).

After separation from the launch vehicle, overall control was taken by Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County, Maryland. The science instruments are operated at Clyde Tombaugh Science Operations Center (T-SOC) in Boulder, Colorado.[38] Navigation is performed at various contractor facilities, whereas the navigational positional data and related celestial reference frames are provided by the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station through Headquarters NASA and JPLKinetX is the lead on the New Horizons navigation team and is responsible for planning trajectory adjustments as the spacecraft speeds toward the outer Solar System. Coincidentally the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station was where the photographic plates were taken for the discovery of Pluto’s moon Charon; and the Naval Observatory is itself not far from the Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered.

New Horizons was originally planned as a voyage to the only unexplored planet in the Solar System. When the spacecraft was launched, Pluto was still classified as a planet, later to be reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Some members of the New Horizons team, including Alan Stern, disagree with the IAU definition and still describe Pluto as the ninth planet.[39] Pluto’s satellites Nix and Hydra also have a connection with the spacecraft: the first letters of their names (N and H) are the initials of New Horizons. The moons’ discoverers chose these names for this reason, plus Nix and Hydra’s relationship to the mythological Pluto.[40]

In addition to the science equipment, there are several cultural artifacts traveling with the spacecraft. These include a collection of 434,738 names stored on a compact disc,[41] a piece of Scaled Composites‘s SpaceShipOne,[42] a “Not Yet Explored” USPS stamp,[43][44] and a Flag of the United States, along with other mementos.[45]

About 30 grams (1 oz) of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard the spacecraft, to commemorate his discovery of Pluto in 1930.[46][47] A Florida-state quarter coin, whose design commemorates human exploration, is included, officially as a trim weight.[48] One of the science packages (a dust counter) is named after Venetia Burney, who, as a child, suggested the name “Pluto” after its discovery.

To find intelligent alien life, humans may need to start thinking like an extraterrestrial

alien world artist illustration

If extraterrestrials are living on alien worlds, what types of signals would they send us? Our human biases might limit what we can imagine.(Image: © NASA)

HONOLULU — Our hunt for aliens has a potentially fatal flaw — we’re the ones searching for them.

That’s a problem because we’re a unique species, and alien-seeking scientists are an even stranger and more specialized bunch. As a result, their all-too human assumptions may get in the way of their alien-listening endeavors. To get around this, the Breakthrough Listen project, a $100-million initiative scouring the cosmos for signals of otherworldly beings as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), is asking anthropologists to help unmask some of these biases. 

“It’s kind of a joke at Breakthrough Listen,” Claire Webb, an anthropology and history of science student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said here on Jan. 8 at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Honolulu. “They tell me: ‘We’re studying aliens, and you’re studying us.'”

Since 2017, Webb has worked with Breakthrough Listen to examine how SETI researchers think about aliens, produce knowledge, and perhaps inadvertently place anthropocentric assumptions into their work. 

She sometimes describes her efforts as “making the familiar strange.” 

For instance, your life might seem perfectly ordinary — maybe involving being hunched over at a desk and shuttling electrons around between computers — until examined through an anthropological lens, which points out that this is not exactly a universal state of affairs. At the conference, Webb presented a poster looking at how Breakthrough Listen scientists use artificial intelligence (AI) to sift through large data sets and try to uncover potential technosignatures, or indicators of technology or tool use by alien organisms. 

“Researchers who use AI tend to disavow human handicraft in the machines they build,” Webb told Live Science. “They attribute a lot of agency to those machines. I find that somewhat problematic and at the worst untrue.”

Any AI is trained by human beings, who present it with the types of signals they think an intelligent alien might produce. In doing so, they predispose their algorithms to certain biases. It can be incredibly difficult to recognize such thinking and overcome its limitations, Webb said. 

Most SETI research assumes some level of commensurability, or the idea that beings on different worlds will understand the universe in the same way and be able to communicate about it with one another, Webb said. Much of this research, for example, presumes a type of technological commensurability, in which aliens broadcast messages using the same radio telescopes we have built, and that we will be able to speak to them using a universal language of science and math. 

But how universal is our language of science, and how inevitable is our technological evolution?  Do alien scientists gather in large buildings and present their work to one another via slides and lectures and posters? And what bearing do such human rituals have on the types of scientific knowledge researchers produce?

It was almost like trying to take the perspective of a creature on another planet, who might wonder about humanity and our odd modern-day practices. “If E.T. was looking at us, what would they see?” Webb asked. 

The assumptions and anxieties of alien-hunters can creep in in other ways. Because of the vast distances involved in sending a signal through space, many SETI researchers have imagined receiving a message from an older technological society. As astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan famously said in his 1980 book and television series “Cosmos,” that might mean E.T. has lived through a “technological adolescence” and survived nuclear proliferation or an apocalyptic climate meltdown.

But those statements are based on the specific anxieties of our era, namely nuclear war and climate change, and we can’t automatically assume that the history of another species will unfold in the same way, Webb said. 

Veteran SETI scientist Jill Tarter has told Webb that, in some ways, we are looking for a better version of ourselves, speculating that a message from the heavens will include blueprints for a device that can provide cheap energy and help alleviate poverty.

The ideal of progress is embedded in such narratives, Webb said, first of scientific and technological progress, but also an implicit assumption of moral advancement. “It’s the idea that, as your technology develops, so does your sense of ethics and morality,” she said. “And I think that’s something that can be contested.”

Even our hunt for organisms like ourselves suggests “a yearning for connectivity, reflective to me of a kind of postmodern loneliness and isolation in the universe,” she said. 

Webb joked that SETI researchers don’t always understand the point of her anthropological and philosophical examinations. But, she said, they are open to being challenged in their ideas and knowing that they are not always seeing the whole picture. 

“One thing Jill [Tarter] has said many times is, ‘We reserve the right to get smarter,'” she said. “We are doing what we think makes sense now, but we might one day be doing something totally different.”

Ultimately, the point of this work is to get SETI researchers to start “noticing human behavior in ways that could push SETI to do novel kinds of searches,” Webb said. “Inhabiting other mindscapes is potentially a very powerful tool in cultivating new ways to do science.”

Perhaps beings on another planet might use gravitational waves, or neutrinos, or even some other unknown aspect of reality we have yet to come across to send messages into the heavens. 

British 'X-Files' of UFO sightings is going public

Artist's impression of a UFO

Artist’s impression of a UFO (PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock)

From the early 1950s until 2009, a department in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) documented and investigated reports of UFOs. Now, more than a decade after the program ended, many of those formerly classified files about UFO sightings will be made available to the public for the first time.

Previously, some MoD files about UFOs had been published online at the U.K. National Archives website, The Telegraph reported. However, all of the agency’s UFO reports will be released this year on “a dedicated gov.uk web page,” a spokesperson for the British Royal Air Force (RAF) told The Telegraph.

The decision came after PA Media, a British news agency, filed a request for the UFO files under the Freedom of Information Act, according to The Telegraph. MoD officials decided “it would be better to publish these records, rather than continue sending documents to the National Archives,” the RAF spokesperson said.

The U.K.’s fascination with UFOs spiked around 1950, prompting the MoD to form the Flying Saucer Working Party to address the phenomenon, according to the U.K. National Archives. UFOs in the early 1950s even captured the attention of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who sent a memo to his air minister in 1952 asking, “What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?”

The flying saucer group concluded that UFOs were hoaxes, delusions or ordinary objects that were misidentified, recommending “that no further investigation of reported mysterious aerial phenomena be undertaken.” Nevertheless, other MoD divisions continued the work of official UFO investigation in the U.K., ushering such efforts into the 21st century, The National Archives reported.

The last UFO report to be published online by the MoD dates to 2009, covering sightings that took place from January through the end of November of that year. These included “a silver disc-shaped light” (reported in January 2009), “up to 20 orange and red glowing lights” (reported in June), “a large bright silver/white ball/sphere” (reported in July) and “three blazing gold orbs in a diagonal line in the sky” (reported in September).

After MoD enacted a policy change on Dec. 1, 2009, the agency no longer recorded or investigated UFO sightings, according to the report. But what they did find — including many recent UFO reports that were previously available only as hard copies — will be published online within the next few months, said Nick Pope, a former UFO investigator for the MoD.

“There should be some interesting nuggets in these new files,” Pope told The Express.

And Now a Study Suggests Universe Is Not Flat – It's Curved!

Cosmology in crisis as evidence suggests our universe isn’t flat, it’s actually curved

Cosmology in crisis as evidence suggests our universe isn’t flat, it’s actually curved

No matter how elegant your theory is, experimental data will have the last word. Observations of the retrograde motion of the planets were fundamental to the Copernican revolution, in which the sun replaced Earth at the centre of the solar system. And the unusual orbit of Mercury provided a spectacular confirmation of the theory of general relativity. In fact, our entire understanding of the universe is built on observed, unexpected anomalies.

Now our new paper, published in Nature Astronomy, has come to a conclusion that may unleash a crisis in cosmology – if confirmed. We show that the shape of the universe may actually be curved rather than flat, as previously thought – with a probability larger than 99 percent. In a curved universe, no matter which direction you travel in, you will end up at the starting point – just like on a sphere. Though the universe has four dimensions, including time.

The result was based on recent measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the light left over from the Big Bang, collected by the Planck Satellite. According to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, mass warps space and time around it. As a result, light rays take an apparent turn around a massive object rather than traveling in a straight line – an effect known as gravitational lensing.

The Cosmic Microwave Background temperature fluctuations from the seven-year WMAP data over the sky. NASA/WMAP

There is much more such lensing in the Planck data than there should be, which means the universe could contain more dark matter – an invisible and unknown substance – than we think. In our study, we showed that a closed universe can provide a physical explanation to this effect, because it is able to host a lot more dark matter than a flat universe. Such a universe is perfectly compatible with general relativity.

Major headache

Not all cosmologists are convinced by a closed universe though – previous studies have suggested the cosmos is indeed flat. And if a spherical universe is a solution to the lensing anomaly, then we have to deal with several significant consequences. First of all, we have to revise a fundamental cornerstone of cosmology – the theory of cosmological inflation. Inflation describes the first instants after the Big Bang, predicting a period of exponential expansion for the primordial universe.

The theory was developed over the past 40 years to explain why distant parts of the universe look the same and have the same temperature, when they are too far apart to ever have been in contact. Inflation solves the problem because it means that far-flung regions of the universe would once have been connected. But the period of rapid expansion that hurled these regions apart is also thought to have also brought the universe to flatness with exquisite precision.

If the universe is closed, standard inflation is in trouble. And that means we lose our standard explanation for why the universe has the structure it has.

Possible shapes of the universe: top one is curved and closed, as suggested in the new study. wikipedia

Once we assume that the universe is curved, the Planck data is essentially in disagreement with all other datasets. This all boils down to a real crisis for cosmology, as we say in our paper. For these reasons, cosmologists are cautious – and many of them prefer to attribute the results to a statistical fluke that will resolve when new data from future experiments are available.

Could we be wrong?

It is certainly possible that we turn out to be wrong. But there is one main reason, in our opinion, why this anomaly should not be merely discarded. In particle physics, a discovery should reach an accuracy of at least five “sigmas” to be accepted by the community. Here we are slightly above three sigmas, so we are clearly below this acceptance level. But while the standard model of particle physics is based on known and proven physics, the standard cosmological model is based on unknown physics.

Perhaps not? coldcreation, CC BY-SA

At the moment, the physical evidence for the three pillars of cosmology – dark matter, dark energy (which causes the universe to expand at an accelerated rate) and inflation – comes solely from cosmology. Their existence can explain many astrophysical observations.

But they are not expected either in the standard model of particle physics that governs the universe on the smallest scales or in the theory of general relativity that operates on the large scales. Instead, these substances belong to the area of unknown physics. Nobody has ever seen either dark matter, dark energy or inflation – in the laboratory or elsewhere.

So while an anomaly in particle physics can be regarded as a hint that we may need to invent completely new physics, an anomaly in cosmology should be regarded as the only way we have to shed light on completely unknown physics.

Therefore, the most interesting result of our paper is not that the universe appears to be curved rather than flat, but the fact that it may force us to rearrange the pieces of the cosmic puzzle in a completely different way.

Mars’ water may have been packed with minerals and salt, possibly supporting life, study says

NASA has already found evidence of an oasis on Mars, but a new study notes that ancient waters on the Red Planet had the right conditions to support life.

The research, published in Nature Communications, suggests the water that once resided in the Gale Crater on Mars contained salt, had a mild pH level capable of supporting life and had a redox state (the measure of gases such as hydrogen or oxygen) reminiscent of a semiarid climate.

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“Assuming that post-depositional sulfate-rich fluids interacted with the sediments, the redox disequilibria in secondary minerals suggest infiltration of oxidizing fluids into reducing sediments,” researchers wrote in the study’s abstract.

The annotated area in this illustration shows where water ice is located near the surface of Mars.

The annotated area in this illustration shows where water ice is located near the surface of Mars. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The Curiosity rover is exploring the Gale Crater, having celebrated its seventh anniversary on the Red Planet in August. Last month, it got stuck on Mars during a set of activities, but it has since begun operating normally.

The Gale Crater is believed to be between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years old and previous studies have looked at it to show the difference between the wet climate on ancient Mars and the desolate, arid climate it has today.

The Curiosity rover has made several remarkable discoveries, including finding “unusually high” levels of methane and a “shiny” object believed to be a meteorite.

NASA hopes the Curiosity rover, which “has a few more years before its nuclear power system degrades enough to significantly limit operations,” can provide additional clues about the planet prior to the launch of the Mars 2020 rover mission.

In November, NASA announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 rover will land on the Red Planet. The rover is expected to reach the Martian surface on Feb. 18, 2021. NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.

What Will Voyager One & Two Encounter Next?

Interstellar Mission

This artist’s concept shows the general locations of NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 1 (top) has sailed beyond our solar bubble into interstellar space, the space between stars. Its environment still feels the solar influence. Voyager 2 (bottom) is still exploring the outer layer of the solar bubble.
This artist’s concept shows the outer layers of our solar bubble, or heliosphere, and nearby interstellar space. NASA’s Voyager 1 is currently exploring a region of interstellar space, which is the space between stars that still feels charged particle and magnetic field influences from the heliosphere. The magnetic field lines (yellow arcs) appear to lie in the same general direction as the magnetic field lines emanating from our sun.

This artist’s concept shows the general locations of NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 1 (top) has sailed beyond our solar bubble into interstellar space, the space between stars. Its environment still feels the solar influence. Voyager 2 (bottom) is still exploring the outer layer of the solar bubble. Click here to read more about this image. › Larger image

Mission Objective

The mission objective of the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM) is to extend the NASA exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the Sun’s sphere of influence, and possibly beyond. This extended mission is continuing to characterize the outer solar system environment and search for the heliopause boundary, the outer limits of the Sun’s magnetic field and outward flow of the solar wind. Penetration of the heliopause boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar medium will allow measurements to be made of the interstellar fields, particles and waves unaffected by the solar wind.

Mission Characteristic

The VIM is an extension of the Voyager primary mission that was completed in 1989 with the close flyby of Neptune by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Neptune was the final outer planet visited by a Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 1 completed its planned close flybys of the Jupiter and Saturn planetary systems while Voyager 2, in addition to its own close flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, completed close flybys of the remaining two gas giants, Uranus and Neptune.

At the start of the VIM, the two Voyager spacecraft had been in flight for over 12 years having been launched in August (Voyager 2) and September (Voyager 1), 1977. Voyager 1 was at a distance of approximately 40 AU (Astronomical Unit – mean distance of Earth from the Sun, 150 million kilometers) from the Sun, and Voyager 2 was at a distance of approximately 31 AU.

It is appropriate to consider the VIM as three distinct phases: the termination shock, heliosheath exploration, and interstellar exploration phases. The two Voyager spacecraft began the VIM operating in an environment controlled by the Sun’s magnetic field with the plasma particles being dominated by those contained in the expanding supersonic solar wind. This is the characteristic environment of the termination shock phase. At some distance from the Sun, the supersonic solar wind is held back from further expansion by the interstellar wind. The first feature encountered by a spacecraft as a result of this interstellar wind/solar wind interaction was the termination shock where the solar wind slows from supersonic to subsonic speed and large changes in plasma flow direction and magnetic field orientation occur.

Voyager 1 is escaping the solar system at a speed of about 3.6 AU per year, 35 degrees out of the ecliptic plane to the north, in the general direction of the Solar Apex (the direction of the Sun’s motion relative to nearby stars). Voyager 2 is also escaping the solar system at a speed of about 3.3 AU per year, 48 degrees out of the ecliptic plane to the south. To check Voyager 1 and 2’s current distance from the sun, visit the mission status page.

Passage through the termination shock ended the termination shock phase and began the heliosheath exploration phase. The heliosheath is the outer layer of the bubble the sun blows around itself (the heliosphere). It is still dominated by the Sun’s magnetic field and particles contained in the solar wind. Voyager 1 crossed the termination shock at 94 AU in December 2004 and Voyager 2 crossed at 84 AU in August 2007. After passage through the termination shock, the Voyager team eagerly awaited each spacecraft’s passage through the heliopause. which is the outer extent of the Sun’s magnetic field and solar wind.

In this region, the Sun’s influence wanes and the beginning of interstellar space can be sensed. It is where the million-mile-per-hour solar winds slows to about 250,000 miles per hour—the first indication that the wind is nearing the heliopause.

On Aug. 25, 2012, Voyager 1 flew beyond the heliopause and entered interstellar space, making it the first human-made object to explore this new territory. At the time, it was at a distance of about 122 AU, or about 11 billion miles (18 billion kilometers) from the sun. This kind of interstellar exploration is the ultimate goal of the Voyager Interstellar Mission. Voyager 2, which is traveling in a different direction from Voyager 1, crossed the heliopause into interstellar space on November 5, 2018.

The Voyagers have enough electrical power and thruster fuel to keep its current suite of science instruments on until at least 2020. By that time, Voyager 1 will be about 13.8 billion miles (22.1 billion kilometers) from the Sun and Voyager 2 will be 11.4 billion miles (18.4 billion kilometers) away. Eventually, the Voyagers will pass other stars. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light-years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis which is heading toward the constellation Ophiuchus. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 1.7 light-years (9.7 trillion miles) from the star Ross 248 and in about 296,000 years, it will pass 4.3 light-years (25 trillion miles) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The Voyagers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wander the Milky Way.

NASA's Plan to Save Earth From Killer Asteroids

A 2013 meteor explosion above Chelyabinsk, Russia injured more than 1,700 people. It was completely unexpected — and it could happen again. Here’s what NASA’s doing to make sure we know how to act when (not if) the next one hits.

The Chelyabinsk meteor was a superbolide that entered Earth’s atmosphere over Russia on 15 February 2013 at about 09:20 YEKT (03:20 UTC). It was caused by an approximately 20 m (66 ft) near-Earth asteroid with a speed of 19.16 ± 0.15 kilometres per second (60,000[5]–69,000 km/h or 40,000[5]–42,900 mph).[6][7] It quickly became a brilliant superbolide meteor over the southern Ural region. The light from the meteor was brighter than the Sun, visible up to 100 km (62 mi) away. It was observed over a wide area of the region and in neighbouring republics. Some eyewitnesses also felt intense heat from the fireball.

Due to its high velocity and shallow angle of atmospheric entry, the object exploded in an air burst over Chelyabinsk Oblast, at a height of around 29.7 km (18.5 mi; 97,000 ft).[7][8] The explosion generated a bright flash, producing a hot cloud of dust and gas that penetrated to 26.2 km (16.3 mi), and many surviving small fragmentary meteorites, as well as a large shock wave. The bulk of the object’s energy was absorbed by the atmosphere, with a total kinetic energy before atmospheric impact estimated from infrasound and seismic measurements to be equivalent to the blast yield of 400–500 kilotons of TNT (about 1.4–1.8 PJ) range – 26 to 33 times as much energy as that released from the atomic bomb detonated at Hiroshima.[9]

The object was undetected before its atmospheric entry, in part because its radiant was close to the Sun. Its explosion created panic among local residents, and about 1,500 people were injured seriously enough to seek medical treatment. All of the injuries were due to indirect effects rather than the meteor itself, mainly from broken glass from windows that were blown in when the shock wave arrived, minutes after the superbolide’s flash. Some 7,200 buildings in six cities across the region were damaged by the explosion’s shock wave, and authorities scrambled to help repair the structures in sub-freezing temperatures.

With an estimated initial mass of about 12,000–13,000 tonnes[7][8][10] (13,000–14,000 short tons, heavier than the Eiffel Tower), and measuring about 20 m (66 ft) in diameter, it is the largest known natural object to have entered Earth’s atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska event, which destroyed a wide, remote, forested, and very sparsely populated area of Siberia. The Chelyabinsk meteor is also the only meteor confirmed to have resulted in a large number of injuries. No deaths were reported.

The earlier-predicted and well-publicized close approach of a larger asteroid on the same day, the roughly 30 m (98 ft) 367943 Duende, occurred about 16 hours later; the very different orbits of the two objects showed they were unrelated to each other.

5 Asteroids in Direction to Earth And Its Date Of Collision.

Asteroids, those dangerous objects capable of wiping out the entire civilizations, are found in millions in space.

Most of them revolve around the solar system, mainly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. But the frightening thing is that according to different data collected by science, there are a number of asteroids that are approaching the earth and some of them even have a date for their collision with our planet.

Get ready, because this time, we will review some asteroids that are in the direction of the earth and their possible date of collision. Before we start, we don’t want to alarm you, as many asteroids have passed through the earth throughout history and have rarely posed a threat to the planet. Although some of the asteroids listed below have an impact date, this is not accurate, as many of them change their trajectory over the years.

Possible meteor seen streaking across Southern California sky

A bright light streaking across the sky in Southern California Wednesday evening lit up social media with what amateur astronomers identifying it as a possible meteor.

Residents from Los Angeles to San Diego caught the event on camera.

“Saw the most crazy meteor I’ve ever seen!! It blew into pieces and burned up in the atmosphere!!,” one woman wrote on Twitter. “Oh My Lanta that was SO COOL!!!!! And I caught the end on camera!!”Summer C@summerrabel

Saw the most crazy meteor I’ve ever seen!! It blew into pieces and burned up in the atmosphere!! Oh My Lanta that was SO COOL!!!!! And I caught the end on camera!!#meteor

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1,481Twitter Ads info and privacy372 people are talking about thiskimmy@renfriiiii

My boyfriend caught this video of the meteor shower in california and wanted me to post it!! ☄️ #meteor #SanDiego

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4,242Twitter Ads info and privacy1,157 people are talking about thisKelcey@badddgalkeke

Y’ALL I was really thinking it was the end of the world…. This thing was huge #meteor

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SCIENTISTS JUST DISCOVERED GIANT 790,000-YEAR-OLD METEOR CRATERJon Burton@JonTt

My Tesla caught the LA #meteor on my way along the PCH tonight…

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KABC-TV reported it was likely either a meteor or space debris, but there has been no official confirmation on the unidentified object yet.

Tarantula Nebula stuns in new view from the Spitzer Space Telescope

NASA has released an incredible high-resolution image of the distant Tarantula Nebula captured by the soon-to-be-retired Spitzer Space Telescope.

The space agency notes that the Nebula was one of the first targets studied by the Spitzer Space Telescope following its launch in 2003. The infrared observatory will be retired on Thursday.

This image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Tarantula Nebula in two wavelengths of infrared light.

This image captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Tarantula Nebula in two wavelengths of infrared light. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The image uses data from a number of Spitzer observations, the most recent of which were captured in February and September of last year.

“I think we chose the Tarantula Nebula as one of our first targets because we knew it would demonstrate the breadth of Spitzer’s capabilities,” said Michael Werner, Spitzer’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement. “That region has a lot of interesting dust structures and a lot of star formation happening, and those are both areas where infrared observatories can see a lot of things that you can’t see in other wavelengths.”

In 2012, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured a “star-filled web” within the Tarantula Nebula, Space.com reports.

Scientists Have Found Some Strange Object In Space

Astronomers have cataloged eight planets, 6,500 comets and more than 525,000 asteroids, but a mysterious thing happened on October 19, 2017 in Hawaii that grabbed the attention of millions of people and scientists around the world because what they discovered was unlike anything seen before. The first ever recorded interstellar object was found to have entered our solar system somewhere from deep space. It was given the name Oumuamua, named after the Hawaiian term for ‘scout’ or ‘messenger from afar’, and its path showed that it was not gravitationally bound to our own solar system. But what was this strange object, and where did it come from?

Beer Nebulae Cloud… the biggest bar in the Universe

Every now and then you hear something which grabs your attention.  This captured my attention: There is a cloud of alcohol (ethyl alcohol – the happy juice found in beer, wine, and spirits) floating in space.  This isn’t a small cloud either.  There is enough alcohol in this cloud to fill 400 trillion trillion pints of beer.  That is one hell of a keg party.

That’s the good news.

Imagine a whole space cloud filled with beer. An intergalatic kegger!

The bad news is it is 10,000 light years away in the constellation of Aquila.  It’s unlikely we could get to the cloud any time soon.  The booze cloud, known as G34.3, is so large (1000 times the size of our solar system) our solar system could drown itself inside many times over.

Space alcohol was discovered back in 1975 by Dr. Ben M. Zuckerman of the University of California at Los Angeles, so it’s not a recent discovery.  The booze cloud was found in 1995 by Drs. Tom Millar, Geoffrey MacDonald and Rolf Habing.  What makes this cloud so interesting is the massive amounts of alcohol in the cloud.  There are other compounds in this cloud, 32 in all, but alcohol is the most abundant.

Scientists theorize simpler compounds collect on bits of dust.  When these compounds get close enough, they are able to react with each other forming more complex molecules like alcohol.  These reactions can take place over 10,000 years, thus beating the longest fermentation you or anyone else has ever experienced.

In the center of the cloud is a young and very drunk star (not Paris Hilton).  Scientists believe the grains of dust carrying the alcohol drifted near the young star, and were warmed up enough to cause the alcohol to turn into its gas state creating the massive clouds of booze.  That or space aliens are planning for one crazy Oktoberfest!

Super-Earth Planet Likely Made of Diamond

Illustration of the Interior of 55 Cancri e

Illustration of the interior of 55 Cancri e — an extremely hot planet with a surface of mostly graphite surrounding a thick layer of diamond, below which is a layer of silicon-based minerals and a molten iron core at the center.(Image: © Haven Giguere)

Move over, Hope Diamond. The most famous gems on Earth have new competition in the form of a planet made largely of diamond, astronomers say.

The alien planet, a so-called “super-Earth,” is called 55 Cancri e and was discovered in 2004 around a nearby star in our Milky Way galaxy. After estimating the planet’s mass and radius, and studying its host star’s composition, scientists now say the rocky world is composed mainly of carbon (in the form of diamond and graphite), as well as iron, silicon carbide, and potentially silicates.

At least a third of the planet’s mass is likely pure diamond.

“This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth,” lead researcher Nikku Madhusudhan of Yale University said in a statement. “The surface of this planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite.”

55 Cancri e is the first likely “diamond planet” to be identified around a sun-like star, though such worlds have been theorized before. Planets like this are vastly different from our Earth, which has relatively little carbon.

“By contrast, Earth’s interior is rich in oxygen, but extremely poor in carbon — less than a part in thousand by mass,” said study co-author and Yale geophysicist Kanani Lee.

55 Cancri e is what’s known as a super-Earth, with a radius twice as wide as that of our own planet, and a mass eight times greater. It speeds around its host star, making a full orbit in just 18 hours (Earth takes 365 days). It is so close in to the star that its surface temperature reaches a scorching 3,900 degrees Fahrenheit (2,100 degrees Celsius), making it probably way too hot for life. [Oozing Super-Earth: Images of Alien Planet 55 Cancri e]

Previous studies of this planet suggested it might actually be covered with oozing “supercritical fluids” — high-pressure liquid-like gases — seeping out from its rocks. But this idea was based on the assumption that 55 Cancri e had a similar chemical makeup as Earth, Madhusudhan said. The new findings suggest the planet has no water at all.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 4 seconds PLAY SOUND

The revelation of the planet’s diamond nature means that it could have very different thermal evolution and plate tectonics processes than Earth, which could create bizarre types of volcanism, seismic activity, and mountain formation.  

55 Cancri e is one of five planets encircling a sun-like star called 55 Cancri, which lies about 40 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cancer. This star is so close it is visible to the naked eye in the night sky.

The researchers hope to make follow-up observations of this star system to better determine the star’s composition and to analyze 55 Cancri e’s atmosphere. This information could bolster the idea that the planet is a diamond world.

A paper reporting the new findings has been accepted for publication in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Great news! Asteroid 16 Psyche contains enough GOLD, NASA plans to launch space probe

The asteroid 16 Psyche, which is located in the primary asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, could contain precious metals such as gold and platinum, which may be worth thousands of billions of pounds.

Representative image Representative image

Asteroid called 16 Psyche could hold thousands of billions of pounds worth of gold? Yes, you read it right. The NASA is planning to send a probe to the asteroid that could hold thousands of billions of pounds worth of gold, platinum and other special metals. The asteroid 16 Psyche, which is located in the primary asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, could contain precious metals such as gold and platinum, which may be worth thousands of billions of pounds.

Daily Express reported that the NASA is planning to launch a solar powered space probe towards the asteroid in 2022, which should arrive in 2026. It would then spend two years investigating the asteroids metallic composition.

According to NBC News, experts believe the asteroid could contain precious metals such as gold and platinum, which may be worth thousands of billions of pounds.

In March, US Vice President Mike Pence announced that he wanted to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024, despite setting his previous goal at 2028. US President Donald Trump, however, is yet to make it clear whether he supports the mission.

Scott Moore, who heads up EuroSun Mining, said the sheer amount of gold in the asteroid threatens to throw the gold industry into chaos.

“The ‘Titans of Gold’ now control hundreds of the best-producing properties around the world,” he told Oil Price.

“But the 4-5 million ounces of gold they bring to the market every year pales in comparison to the conquests available in space.”

 Dubbed the Discovery Mission, it will arrive at Psyche 16 around 2026. But bringing back an asteroid of this value could completely wipe out our global economy.

Huge star ate its dead neighbor, creating brightest supernova ever, scientists say

An exploding star that blazed to life 240 million light-years away in the Perseus constellation may have consumed its dead neighbor, new research shows.

Although the blast, officially known as SN 2006gy, grew brighter and measured hundreds of times more powerful than a typical supernova, scientists were unsure what characteristics made the incident so unique.

A bright supernova flares across the sky in this illustration.

A bright supernova flares across the sky in this illustration. (Science Photo Library – MEHAU KULYK via Getty Images)

In new research published Thursday in the Science journal, astronomers analyzed for a second time the emission lines emanating from the explosion.

The astronomers found large deposits of iron in the emissions, Live Science reported, which they believe could be the result of the supernova interacting with a different layer of stellar material that was ejected hundreds of years earlier.

Researchers have one theory that SN 2006gy actually began with two stars, not one.

“A candidate scenario to explain this is [the] evolution of a binary progenitor system, in which a white dwarf spirals into a giant or supergiant companion star,” the researchers wrote in the study.

This NASA illustration shows what the super-luminous supernova SN 2006gy may have looked like.

This NASA illustration shows what the super-luminous supernova SN 2006gy may have looked like.

A collision among stars that orbit around one another would reportedly be quite rare, happening once every 10,000 years or so in the Milky Way.

The mystery behind a superbright supernova may just have been solved

The explosion likely occurred within a dense shell of matter shed by a companion star.

 The supernova SN 2006gy was the brightest and most energetic stellar explosion ever recorded when it was discovered in 2006. At top, an artist's illustration shows how SN 2006gy may have appeared at a close distance. The bottom left panel is an infrared image by the Lick Observatory of NGC 1260, the galaxy containing SN 2006gy. The panel to the right shows an X-ray image of the same field of view captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

The supernova SN 2006gy was the brightest and most energetic stellar explosion ever recorded when it was discovered in 2006. At top, an artist’s illustration shows how SN 2006gy may have appeared at a close distance. The bottom left panel is an infrared image by the Lick Observatory of NGC 1260, the galaxy containing SN 2006gy. The panel to the right shows an X-ray image of the same field of view captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.(Image: © X-ray: NASA/CXC/UC Berkeley/N.Smith et al.; IR: Lick/UC Berkeley/J.Bloom & C.Hansen)

One of the most luminous stellar explosions ever detected may now be explained. It came from the detonation of a dead star within the dense shell of matter ejected from that sun’s companion star, a new study suggests.

Supernovas are explosions that can happen when stars die, either after the stars burn all their fuel or gain a sudden influx of new fuel. These outbursts can briefly outshine all of the other suns in these stars’ galaxies, making them visible from halfway across the universe.ADVERTISING

Recently, scientists discovered a rare class of exploding star known as superluminous supernovas. These explosions are up to 100 times brighter than regular supernovas but account for less than 0.1% of all supernovas.

Much remains unknown about what powers superluminous supernovas; they release far more energy than any standard mechanism for powering supernovas can explain. To learn more about what drives these extraordinary explosions, scientists focused on SN 2006gy, one of the first known superluminous supernovas. SN 2006gy occurred in a galaxy 240 million light-years away and was the brightest and most energetic supernova ever recorded when it was discovered, in 2006.

A little more than a year after SN 2006gy was spotted, researchers detected an unusual spectrum of light from the supernova. Now, scientists have deduced that this light came from an envelope of iron around the supernova, revealing clues as to what might have caused the explosion.

The researchers developed computer models of what kind of light would be generated by envelopes of iron with various masses, temperatures, clumping patterns and other properties. They found that the wavelengths and energies of light seen from SN 2006gy likely came from a huge amount of iron — “over a third of the sun’s mass” — expanding at about 3,355 mph (5,400 km/h), study lead author Anders Jerkstrand, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, told Space.com.

Initial analysis of SN 2006gy suggested that the supernova happened after a giant star ran out of fuel, with the star’s core then collapsing under its own weight into an extraordinarily dense nugget in a fraction of a second and rebounding with a giant blast outward. However, such a “core-collapse” supernova likely would not have generated an iron envelope with the kind of mass and expansion rate that the new study calculated.

Instead, a scenario consistent with the new findings suggests that SN 2006gy was a so-called Type Ia supernova, which occurs when one star pours enough fuel onto a dead star known as a white dwarf to trigger an extraordinary nuclear explosion. (White dwarfs are the superdense, Earth-size cores of stars that exhausted all their fuel and shed their outer layers without catastrophic explosions.)

Specifically, the scenario called for a white dwarf in a close binary orbit with a hydrogen-rich companion star. “Such systems are in fact well known and common — the so-called cataclysmic variables, of which we know of several hundred,” Jerkstrand said.Click here for more Space.com videos…‘We Don’t Planet’ Episode 12: Type-1a SupernovaeVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

When such a companion star gets old, it swells, trapping the white dwarf in its expanding shell. The resulting friction “causes the white dwarf to spiral towards the center, and at the same time, the envelope material is ejected,” Jerkstrand said.

Normally in such binary systems, the white dwarf may spend millions or billions of years spiraling toward the center of its companion before exploding as a Type Ia supernova, Jerkstrand said. However, with SN 2006gy, the researchers suspected that the white dwarf may have exploded “within only about a century since the initiation of the inspiral phase,” he said.

This supernova then slammed into the dense shell of material ejected from the white dwarf’s companion star, which was still relatively nearby. Striking this envelope would have been “like hitting a brick wall, and most of the motion energy of the supernova was transformed into light in this collision,” explaining why SN 2006gy was so bright, Jerkstrand said.

A few other superluminous supernovas share similar properties with SN 2006gy. That similarity suggests that these supernovas also share the same underlying mechanics, the researchers said.

Future research can investigate how binary systems that might give rise to such superluminous supernovas may form. Researchers could also look into what exactly might trigger a Type Ia supernova from white dwarfs in such systems only a century or so after they spiral toward the centers of their companions.

“Did the supernova occur as the inspiraling white dwarf encountered another compact object

at the center of the companion, or did it accrete matter until it became too massive and exploded?” Jerkstrand said.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Jan. 24 issue of the journal Science.

China releases huge batch of amazing Chang'e-4 images from moon's far side

lunar surface chang'e missionAn image taken by China’s Chang’e-4 mission on the moon.(Image: © CNSA)

China’s long-lived lunar robots Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 are once again at work on the far side of the moon, where they woke up for their 14th day on Jan. 18 and 19 respectively.

And those of us here on Earth can take a new look through the lander’s and rover’s lunar eyes, as China released a huge batch of data on Monday (Jan. 20). The data release includes high-resolution images of the moon from the Chang’e-4 lander’s terrain camera and the panoramic camera on the Yutu-2 rover. 

Chang’e-4 just reached the first anniversary of its historic landing in Von Kármán Crater, within the gigantic South Pole-Aitken basin. The newly published photos cover nearly a year of pioneering exploration on the far side of the moon, where no previous mission has landed.

The China Lunar Exploration Program made the data available online at a dedicated website for the country’s moon missions. 

Doug Ellison, engineering camera team lead for the Curiosity Mars Rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, downloaded a range of the data and tweeted out processed images.Doug Ellison@doug_ellison · Replying to @doug_ellison

The first 6 images from the rover panoramic camera. These are actually color – need to debayer them. Will reply down this thread. Data : http://moon.bao.ac.cn .

View image on Twitter

Doug Ellison@doug_ellison

Oh – this is so pretty.

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Ellison also stitched together single shots to produce larger images, along with cylindrical and azimuth panoramas. His gallery of Chang’e-4 images is viewable here.

Images include close-up views of craters and regolith, or lunar soil, in Von Kármán Crater, as well as various shots of the lander and rover, the distant skyline and Yutu-2’s roving tracks. Andrew Jones@AJ_FI

Four pics of Von Kármán crater from a couple thousand images released from the Chang’e-4 rover Yutu-2’s PCAM. Thanks to @doug_ellison for the instructions & check out the amazing stuff in his thread (processing, 3D models, panoramas…) https://twitter.com/doug_ellison/status/1213627914635231232 …

View image on Twitter
View image on Twitter
View image on Twitter
View image on Twitter

Techniques Spatiales, a French space-related Twitter account, converted data from the lander’s camera into image files that can be accessed here.

Philip Stooke, a cartographer at the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University in Ontario, has used the new data to refine maps charting the roving route of Yutu-2. Over its first 13 lunar days, Yutu-2 drove 1,171 feet (357 meters).Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

The Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover have completed 13 lunar days on the moon. The solar-powered duo awaken between 24 and 48 hours after sunrise over the mission landing site and power down about 24 hours before sunset. Searing-hot lunar days and the brutally cold nights each last around 14 Earth days. 

Yutu-2 began its 14th lunar day on Jan. 18, and the lander did so on Jan. 19, according to the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. Both the rover and lander have now exceeded their design lifetimes of three months and one year and continue to operate with all science payloads in a healthy condition, according to the China National Space Administration.

lunar surface chang'e mission
A view of the moon’s far side from China’s Chang’e 4 lander and rover, which have survived more than a year in the lunar environment. (Image credit: CNSA)

Because the lunar far side never faces the Earth, data from the spacecraft are relayed via the Queqiao communications satellite, which is positioned around a gravitationally stable point beyond the moon. With the spacecraft on the lunar surface performing well, Queqiao has recently kicked off a pioneering low-frequency radio-astronomy experiment.

Yutu-2 drive map to the end of lunar Day 13.
This map by Phil Stooke shows the driving activity of China’s Yutu-2 rover on the far side of the moon as of the mission’s Day 13.  (Image credit: Phil Stooke)

Next up in its lunar campaign, China is preparing to launch its Chang’e-5 sample-return mission late this year. Chang’e-5 will launch on the huge Long March 5 rocket and will be the first mission to retrieve samples from the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976.

Were Alien Secrets Hidden in Roswell and Area 51? 'Project Blue Book' UFO Hunters Investigate.

Two locations are legendary among UFO seekers. One is Roswell, New Mexico, where sightings of a so-called flying saucer electrified the town in 1947. The other is Area 51 near Groom Lake, Nevada, where the U.S. government has long maintained a secret base that some say hides UFO-related technology and experiments.

Both of these mysterious and much-discussed sites are front-and-center in the second season of “Project Blue Book,” the History Channel drama based on an actual U.S. Air Force program by the same name, in which teams of experts investigated reports of UFOs from 1952 to 1969. 

In the new season, premiering tonight (Jan. 21), Aidan Gillen returns as Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the astrophysicist and professor who served as the real Project Blue Book program’s science advisor decades ago; Hynek is known to many as the “father of UFOlogy.” As Hynek and his colleagues continue their search for the truth about UFOs, they uncover new layers of government deception and cover-ups, set against the backdrop of an intensifying Cold War. At the same time, the show incorporates historic UFO stories that still stir the imagination today, according to the History Channel.

Related: 15 Far-Out Facts About Area 51

Aidan Gillen returns in the second season of "Project Blue Book," as UFO investigator Dr. J. Allen Hynek.
Aidan Gillen returns in the second season of “Project Blue Book,” as UFO investigator Dr. J. Allen Hynek. (Image credit: Photo by Eduardo Araquel/HISTORY Copyright 2020)

While the first season of “Project Blue Book” was an introduction to the strange phenomenon of UFOs, “the second season is about going back to the beginning, to understand where the conspiracy was,” said show co-writer and executive producer Sean Jablonski. To do that, “Project Blue Book” went to Roswell, drawing from eyewitness accounts of people who lived there at the time of the alleged UFO crash and subsequent military cover-up, Jablonski told Live Science.

Though the events at Roswell took place six years before the real Project Blue Book investigation began, the story is so intertwined with America’s UFO lore that the writers felt compelled to include it, said show creator, writer and co-executive producer David O’Leary.

“It’s in many ways the granddaddy of UFO cases,” O’Leary told Live Science.Accounts of a “flying saucer” in Roswell, New Mexico, were later disputed by U.S. Army officials, who claimed the UFO was a weather balloon. (Image credit: Roswell Daily Record)

The so-called Roswell Incident took place in July 1947. Following a thunderstorm, strange debris found northwest of Roswell was swiftly collected by military personnel at Roswell Army Air Field, according to the city’s official website. A press release issued by public information officer Lt. Walter Haut on July 8, 1947, described “a flying saucer” that was now in the army’s possession. 

However, another press release appeared the next day, this one issued by Lt. Gen. Roger Ramey. According to the new report, the recovered object was a weather balloon. 

“That was the start of the best known and well-documented UFO cover-up,” according to Roswell’s website.

Other episodes of “Project Blue Book” were inspired by actual locations that boast equally compelling associations with UFOs, such as the mysterious Area 51 and Skinwalker Ranch in Ballard, Utah. Another memorable case highlights multiple UFO encounters that took place not on land, but over the Atlantic Ocean, during a series of NATO maneuvers in September 1952 called Operation Mainbrace, O’Leary said.

At the center of Project Blue Book — in the series and in the Air Force program — was Hynek. He knew very early on that government officials were concealing information about UFOs from the public, “but he stayed with the program, because he was a scientist.” O’Leary explained. 

“This was a way for him to gain access to cases, even as he was being complicit in the cover-up itself. So it’s a bit like, ‘How do you expose the greatest cover-up of all time when you’re a part of it?'” said O’Leary.

“See them aliens”

The real Project Blue Book ended decades ago, but public fascination with UFOs still runs high; in September 2019, more than 1.5 million people RSVP’d to a sketchy-sounding festival in Rachel, Nevada, called “Storm Area 51” (also called “Alien Stock”) with the intent of breaching the perimeter of Area 51 to “see them aliens,” Live Science previously reported. (Only a few thousand people actually showed up, and there was no gate-storming and no aliens in sight, according to Vox.)

Footage from U.S. Navy pilots’ 2004 encounters with UFOs, recently shared online, further fueled speculation about the government’s own experiences with these enigmatic sightings and how many were still being kept under wraps. Indeed, evidence surfaced in 2017 suggesting that the U.S. government had been secretly investigating UFOs since 2007

Then, on Jan. 13 of this year, a spokesperson from the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) confirmed the existence of at least one video and several top-secret documents regarding the 2004 UFO encounter. The spokesperson further noted that submitting these materials to public scrutiny “would cause exceptionally grave damage to the National Security of the United States.”Advertisement

It would seem that along with a resurgence in public interest in UFOs is a renewed recognition that the government knows more about UFOs than it’s letting on, and is withholding important information, O’Leary said. For that reason, the world of “Project Blue Book” and its UFO cover-ups now seems especially relevant, Jablonski added.

“Project Blue Book, in a way, was the origin of fake news,” Jablonski said. “It was the government’s program to put out stories that say, ‘Whatever you think you saw, you didn’t see.’ This notion of who controls the truth — and the fight over that — is something that probably, above all else, is what resonates today.”

Season two of “Project Blue Book” airs on the History Channel beginning on Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT.

Are the aliens us? UFOs may be piloted by time-traveling humans, book argues

The great distances covered by visiting “aliens” may be ones of time rather than space, a recent book argues.

Close encounters with our future selves?Close encounters with our future selves?(Image: © thortful.com)

Unidentified flying objects (UFOs) have captured the public’s attention over the decades. As exoplanet detection is on the rise, why not consider that star-hopping visitors from afar might be buzzing through our friendly skies by taking an interstellar off-ramp to Earth?

On the other hand, could those piloting UFOs be us — our future progeny that have mastered the landscape of time and space? Perhaps those reports of people coming into contact with strange beings represent our distant human descendants, returning from the future to study us in their own evolutionary past. 

The idea of us being them has been advanced before. But a recent book, “Identified Flying Objects: A Multidisciplinary Scientific Approach to the UFO Phenomenon” (Masters Creative LLC, 2019), takes a fresh look at this prospect, offering some thought-provoking proposals.

"Identified Flying Objects: A Multidisciplinary Scientific Approach to the UFO Phenomenon" (Masters Creative LLC, 2019) argues that UFOs may be piloted by time-traveling humans.
Identified Flying Objects: A Multidisciplinary Scientific Approach to the UFO Phenomenon” (Masters Creative LLC, 2019) argues that UFOs may be piloted by time-traveling humans. (Image credit: Masters Creative LLC, 2019)

Multidisciplinary approach

The book was written by Michael Masters, a professor of biological anthropology at Montana Technological University in Butte. Masters thinks that – given the accelerating pace of change in science, technology, and engineering –  it is likely that humans of the distant future could develop the knowledge and machinery necessary to return to the past. 

The objective of the book, Masters said, is to spur a new and more informed discussion among believers and skeptics alike. 

“I took a multidisciplinary approach in order to try and understand the oddities of this phenomenon,” Masters told Space.com. “Our job as scientists is to be asking big questions and try to find answers to unknown questions. There’s something going on here, and we should be having a conversation about this. We should be at the forefront of trying to find out what it is.”

Human evolution

Dubbing these purported visitors “extratempestrials,” Masters notes that close-encounter accounts typically describe UFO tenants as bipedal, hairless, human-like beings with large brains, large eyes, small noses and small mouths. Further, the creatures are often said to have the ability to communicate with us in our own languages and possess technology advanced beyond, but clearly built upon, today’s technological prowess. 

Masters believes that through a comprehensive analysis of consistent patterns of long-term biocultural change throughout human evolution — as well as recent advances in our understanding of time and time travel — we may begin to consider this future possibility in the context of a currently unexplained phenomenon. 

“The book ties together those known aspects of our evolutionary history with what is still an unproven, unverified aspect of UFOs and aliens,” he said.

But why not argue that ET is actually a traveler from across the vastness of space, from a distant planet? Wouldn’t that be a simpler answer?

“I would argue it’s the opposite,” Masters responded. “We know we’re here. We know humans exist. We know that we’ve had a long evolutionary history on this planet. And we know our technology is going to be more advanced in the future. I think the simplest explanation, innately, is that it is us. I’m just trying to offer what is likely the most parsimonious explanation.”

Artist's view of an aerial encounter with an unidentified flying object.
Artist’s view of an aerial encounter with an unidentified flying object. (Image credit: MUFON)

Archaeological tourism

As an anthropologist who has worked on and directed numerous archaeological digs in Africa, France and throughout the United States, Masters observes that it is easy to conceptualize just how much more could be learned about our own evolutionary history if we currently possessed the technology to visit past periods of time. 

“The alleged abduction accounts are mostly scientific in nature. It’s probably future anthropologists, historians, linguists that are coming back to get information in a way that we currently can’t without access to that technology,” Masters said. 

“That said, I do think that some component of it is also tourism,” he added. “Undoubtedly in the future, there are those that will pay a lot of money to have the opportunity to go back and observe their favorite period in history. Some of the most popular tourist sites are the pyramids of Giza and Machu Picchu in Peru … old and prehistoric sites.”

Masters calls his UFO research “an evolving project.”

“There’s certainly still missing pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “There are aspects of time that we don’t yet understand. Wanted is a theory of quantum gravity, and we can meld general relativity and quantum mechanics. I’m just trying to put forth the best model I can based on current scientific knowledge. Hopefully, over time, we can continue to build on this.” 

Solve this mystery

“Masters postulates that using a multidisciplinary scientific approach to the UFO phenomenon will be what it takes to solve this mystery once and for all, and I couldn’t agree more,” said Jan Harzan, executive director of the nonprofit Mutual UFO Network (MUFON).

“The premise that UFOs are us from the future is one of many possibilities that MUFON is exploring to explain the UFO phenomenon. All we know for sure is that we are not alone,” Harzan added. “Now the question becomes, ‘Who are they?’ And Masters makes a great case for the time-traveler hypothesis.” Advertisement

Tic-Tac-shaped objects were recently reported zipping through the sky by jet-fighter pilots and radar operators. The Pentagon's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) was created to research and investigate Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), including numerous videos of reported encounters, three of which were released to the public in 2017.
Tic-Tac-shaped objects were recently reported zipping through the sky by jet-fighter pilots and radar operators. The Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) was created to research and investigate Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), including numerous videos of reported encounters, three of which were released to the public in 2017. (Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense/To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science)

‘Highly dubious claim’

But not everybody is on board with the idea, as you might imagine.

“There is nothing in this book to take seriously, as it depends on the belief that ‘time travel’ is not only possible, but real,” said Robert Sheaffer, a noted UFO skeptic.

Supposedly our distant descendants have mastered time travel, Sheaffer said, and have traveled back in time to visit us. “So, according to Masters, you just spin something fast enough and it will begin to warp space, and even send stuff backwards in time. This is a highly dubious claim,” he said.

Moreover, Sheaffer said that Masters tries to deduce aliens’ evolutionary history from witness descriptions, “suggesting that he takes such accounts far too literally.”

The problem of ‘if’

David Darling is a British astronomer and science writer who has authored books on a sweeping array of topics – from gravity, Zen physics and astrobiology to teleportation and extraterrestrial life.

“I’ve often thought that if some UFOs are ‘alien’ craft, it’s just as reasonable to suppose that they might be time machines from our own future than that they’re spacecraft from other stars,” Darling told Space.com. “The problem is the ‘if.’

Darling said that, while some aerial phenomena have eluded easy identification, one of the least likely explanations, it seems to him, is that they’re artificial and not of this world.

“Outside of the popular mythos of flying saucers and archetypal, big-brained aliens, there’s precious little credible evidence that they exist,” Darling said. “So, my issue with the book is not the ingenuity of its thesis, but the fact that there’s really no need for such a thesis in the first place.”

Reported UFOs take on all shapes and sizes.
Reported UFOs take on all shapes and sizes.  (Image credit: U.K. National Archives sightings chart, circa 1969)

Exotic physics?

Larry Lemke, a retired NASA aerospace engineer with an interest in the UFO phenomenon, finds the prospect of time-travelling visitors from the future intriguing.

“The one thing that has become clear over the decades of sightings, if you believe the reports, is that these objects don’t seem to be obeying the usual laws of aerodynamics and Newtonian mechanics,” Lemke said, referring to the relationship, in the natural world, between force, mass and motion. 

Toss in for good measure Einstein’s theory of general relativity and its consequences, like wormholes and black holes, along with other exotic physics ideas such as the Alcubierre warp-drive bubble

“There’s a group of thinkers in the field of UFOs that point out that phenomena reported around some UFOs do, in fact, look exactly like general relativity effects,” Lemke said. Missing time is a very common one.”

Lemke said that the idea that somebody has figured out how to manipulate space-time, on a local scale with a low-energy approach, would explain a lot of things across the UFO phenomenon, including those baffling Tic-Tac-shaped objects recently reported by jet-fighter pilots and radar operators. 

“No matter how much knowledge we have, how much we think we know, there’s always some frontier beyond,” he said. “And to understand that frontier is getting more and more esoteric.”

Physicists have discovered that rotating black holes might serve as portals for hyperspace travel

  • Scientists once thought that traveling into a black hole would kill you.
  • But now, physicists have run computer simulations to show that certain types of black holes — large, rotating ones — could serve as portals for hyperspace travel.
  • Some physicists believe that you’d arrive at a remote part of the Milky Way or perhaps in another galaxy altogether.
  • One of the safest passageways might be the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, called Sagittarius A*.

Narrator: Black holes skirt the line between science fiction and science fact. On the one hand, scientists have seen real black holes in action, consuming unsuspecting stars that pass too close. But where reality ends and fiction takes over is at the edge of a black hole — a place called the event horizon, where no spacecraft has ever gone.

So, whatever happens beyond that boundary, inside of a black hole, is anyone’s guess. Scientists agree that if you travel far enough into a black hole, gravity will eventually become so strong that it kills anything in its path. But sci-fi films are more optimistic, depicting black holes as portals through space and time or gateways to other dimensions. And it turns out, some scientists now think the sci-fi buffs may be onto something. Black holes might be suitable for hyperspace travel, after all; it just takes the right kind of black hole.

At the center of every black hole is a point of infinite density, called a singularity. It’s what gives black holes their strong gravitational pull. And for decades, scientists thought singularities were all the same, so anything that passed the event horizon would be destroyed the same way: by being stretched and pulled like an infinitely long piece of spaghetti.

But that all changed in the early 1990s when different research teams in Canada and the US discovered a second singularity called a “mass inflation singularity.” It still has a strong gravitational pull, but it would only stretch you by a finite amount, and potentially NOT kill you in the process, meaning, you might survive the trip through a black hole. More specifically, through a large, rotating black hole, which is where these types of singularities exist.

Now, astronomers obviously can’t travel through a black hole yet to test this theory. In fact, the best place to test this is at the supermassive black hole in the center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, which is 27,000 light years away. Not conveniently close to the least.

Therefore, scientists instead run computer simulations to see what would happen if we did manage to reach an isolated, rotating black hole, and now, for the first time, a team of scientists at UMass Dartmouth and Georgia Gwinnett College has done exactly that.

Lior Burko: “You would feel a slight increase in temperature, but it would not be a dramatic increase. It’s just that you don’t have enough time to respond to the very strong forces. It would just go through you too quickly.”

Narrator: He added that passing through a weak singularity is like quickly running your finger through a candle flame that’s 1,000 degrees Celsius. If you hold your finger in the flame long enough, you’ll get burned, but pass your finger through quickly, and you’ll barely feel a thing. Similarly, if you pass through a weak singularity with the right speed and momentum, and at the right time, you may not feel much at all.

As for what happens once you get through to the other side, no one really knows, but Burko has his own ideas. He says one possibility is that we’d arrive at some other remote part of our galaxy, potentially light years away from any planets or stars, but a second, and perhaps more intriguing, possibility is that we’d arrive in a different galaxy altogether. That’s if you even make it that far.

Scientists say more research is needed before we’re anywhere close to successfully traveling through a black hole. But when we are ready, one of the safest passageways might be the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy called Sagittarius A*, and it might just be our ticket out of the Milky Way.

SpaceX Explodes A Rocket To Show That It's Safe

SpaceX’s In Flight Abort Test was a long awaited demonstration of the launch escape system which would carry crew to safety in the event of a failure.

The test resulted in a simulated rocket failure around 85 seconds into flight, then saw the Crew Dragon capsule escape the booster under its own power and land safely in the ocean. The Booster wasn’t so luck and tore itself apart in a fireball, with the second stage falling 40km and crashing into the Ocean at the speed of sound, making a huge explosion.

Thousands of rocket fans turned out to witness this, and document the event with special camera gear, however many missed the explosion as it was obscured by clouds from many ground locations.

Watch Live Crew Dragon Launch Escape Demonstration

SpaceX is targeting Sunday, January 19 for an in-flight test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This test, which does not have NASA astronauts onboard the spacecraft, is intended to demonstrate Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on ascent.

The six-hour test window opens at 8:00 a.m. EST, or 13:00 UTC. A backup opportunity with the same six-hour launch window opening at 8:00 a.m. EST, or 13:00 UTC, is available on Monday, January 20. Current weather data suggests our best opportunity for the launch escape test will be towards the end of the four-hour window, but we will continue to provide updates as new data becomes available.

What is space dust, and can it create life?

NASA recently reported that a cloud of dust was surrounding Mars high above its atmosphere. The authors of the study ruled out Mars itself and its moons Phobos and Deimos as the sources of the dust and concluded that it must come from a larger dust cloud floating around between the planets in our solar system.

This “interplanetary dust” is hugely important. It is thought to have played a crucial role in the formation and evolution of our solar system. What’s more, it may even have provided our planet with water – and kick-started life.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust

Space dust could carry life from planet to planet

We all know how quickly empty spaces fill with dust and, figuratively speaking, the cosmos is no different. Cosmic dust is made up of tiny mineral grains in the nano and micrometer size range (one billionth and one millionth of a metre, respectively). Cosmic dust particles find themselves between the end of one star’s lifetime and at the beginning of the formation of a new solar system.

A star forms from the collapse of a gas cloud made up of hydrogen and helium, elements that were created in the aftermath of the Big Bang. Stars use this hydrogen as fuel, creating heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen and up to the element iron through nuclear fusion processes. These new elements are released at the end of a star’s lifetime, when it collapses under its own gravity and explodes as a supernova. The high energies of such an explosion create additional elements heavier than iron. Some of the heavier elements, metals such as silicon and iron, combine with oxygen to form minerals – which is exactly what dust is.

Our solar system formed from the collapse of a hydrogen and helium gas cloud mixed with dust, otherwise there would not be any rocky planets like Earth and Mars. The fact that Earth contains such heavy elements as gold, lead, or uranium (all heavier than iron) shows that our sun is a third or higher-generation star, preceded by at least one supernova explosion of another nearby star.

Interstellar dust particles, which predate our own solar system, can provide insight into the processes at the end of the lifetime of ancient stars. The interplanetary dust in the inner solar system contains some interstellar dust particles. But the vast majority of interplanetary dust particles in our solar system are released from comets as they approach the sun or from the collision of asteroids in the asteroid belt. They therefore contain clues about the makeup and formation of such “proto-planets”, which are seen as the first steps of planet formation from the huge dust and gas cloud surrounding a new star.

The dust cloud in our solar system gradually moves towards the sun whose gravitational pull acts like a giant vacuum cleaner. On their way, some of the dust particles collide with Mars and Earth. The dust is responsible for the Zodiac light that can be seen after sunset in spring or before sunrise in autumn.

Dust as an origin of life?

Any cosmic dust mineral grain offers a surface for gases, ice or organic matter to stick to. Complex molecules of organic matter as the basic building blocks for life have been documented in intergalactic dust clouds, comets and meteorites.

Understanding the distribution and amount of dust is important because dust could have delivered significant amounts of water and organic matter to the planets in the inner solar system, in particular Earth and Mars. While many researchers think that asteroid and comet impacts may be behind the water and life on Earth, several studies have indicated that dust itself can deliver water and organic matter simultaneously and might have jump-started life. This process would work universally, also on exoplanets in distant solar systems.

So if the dust did jump start life on Earth it is plausible that it could have done so on Mars as well. However, Earth’s magnetic field has protected our atmosphere and water against being destroyed by the solar wind – we get just the right amount of it. Mars has not had a magnetic field for most of its lifetime, and its atmosphere and water have subsequently been lost to space. Without water, organic matter molecules cannot be assembled into the very complex molecules, like DNA and proteins, that make up life. Lack of a thick atmospheric layer also means lack of protection against destruction of organic molecules by UV light and other harmful forms of cosmic radiation. While the jury is still out on whether there was ever life on Mars, it is extremely unlikely that dust could jump start life on Mars today, despite hovering above its atmosphere.

It is obviously important that we learn more about dust. Interplanetary dust particles are actively collected for research by sending planes into the stratosphere or scouring spacecraft returning to land for impacts of these tiny dust particles. If dust particles make it to the ground by themselves, they can be collected as micrometeorites from places where they are recognisable such as ocean or polar sediments.

However, once an interplanetary dust particle enters the Earth’s atmosphere or smashes into a spacecraft, any complex molecules stuck to it are inevitably lost. While we can learn a lot from them about the primordial matter from which our solar system formed as well as the makeup of comets and asteroids, we have to investigate these bodies first-hand to be able to obtain more sensitive information.

A good way to do this is to fly through comet tails. This is what Rosetta did to make the surprise discovery of free oxygen in the coma of comet 67P/Chryumov-Gerasimenko. Meanwhile, NASA’s Stardust mission flew through the tail of comet Wild 2 and returned cosmic dust particles to Earth for analysis in 2006. In 2009, NASA announced that fundamental chemical building blocks of life had been found: glycine, an amino acid.

Additional data like this can hopefully help uncover many more secrets of the dust in the universe – including whether it kick-started life on Earth and whether it could do it again.

7 billion-year-old stardust is oldest material found on Earth

Dust-rich outflows of evolved stars similar to the pictured Egg Nebula are plausible sources of the large presolar grains found in meteorites like Murchison.Dust-rich outflows of evolved stars similar to the pictured Egg Nebula are plausible sources of the large presolar grains found in meteorites like Murchison.(Image: © NASA, W. Sparks (STScI) and R. Sahai (JPL). Inset: SiC grain with ~8 micrometers in its longest dimension. Inset image courtesy of Janaína N. Ávila)

Scientists recently identified the oldest material on Earth: stardust that’s 7 billion years old, tucked away in a massive, rocky meteorite that struck our planet half a century ago. 

This ancient interstellar dust, made of presolar grains (dust grains that predate our sun), was belched into the universe by dying stars during the final stages of their lives. Some of that dust eventually hitched a ride to Earth on an asteroid that produced the Murchison meteorite, a massive, 220-lb. (100 kilograms) rock that fell on Sept. 28, 1969, near Murchison, Victoria, in Australia.  ADVERTISING

New analysis of dozens of presolar grains from the Murchison meteorite revealed a range of ages, from about 4 million years older than our sun — which formed 4.6 billion years ago — up to 3 billion years older than our sun, researchers reported in a new study.

Though the universe abounds with floating stardust, no presolar grains have ever been found in Earth’s rocks. That’s because plate tectonics, volcanism and other planetary processes heated and transformed all the presolar dust that may have collected during Earth’s formation, said lead study author Philipp Heck, the Robert A. Pritzker Associate Curator of Meteoritics and Polar Studies at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. 

When large, orphan space rocks form — such as the asteroid that produced Murchison — they, too, can pick up ancient, interstellar dust. But unlike dynamic planets, Murchison’s parent asteroid is “an almost-inert piece of rock that formed from the solar nebula and hasn’t changed since then,” so the presolar grains haven’t been cooked down into another type of mineral, Heck told Live Science.

Most presolar grains measure about 1 micron in length, or are even smaller. But the grains the scientists analyzed for the study were much bigger, ranging from 2 to 30 microns in length. 

“We call them ‘boulders,'” Heck said. “We can see them with an optical microscope.”

Stellar “baby boom”

For the study, Heck and his colleagues examined 40 of these so-called boulders from Murchison, grinding up bits of the meteorite and adding acid, which dissolved minerals and silicates and revealed the acid-resistant presolar grains. 

“I always compare it to burning down the haystack to find the needle,” Heck said.

The researchers used a dating technique that measured the grains’ exposure to cosmic rays during their interstellar journey over billions of years. In space, high-energy particles emanate from different sources, bombarding and penetrating solid objects that pass by. Those cosmic rays react with rock to form new elements that accumulate over time. By measuring the quantity of different elements in presolar grains, scientists can estimate how long the dust has been bathing in cosmic rays. 

Think of it this way: Imagine putting a bucket outside during a rainstorm. As long as the rain falls at a steady rate, you could calculate how long the bucket had been outside based on the amount of rain that it collects, Heck explained.

Most of the grains — about 60% — dated to around 4.6 billion to 4.9 billion years ago. One possible explanation for why there were so many grains of this age is that they were all the product of a “little baby boom” of star birth in our galaxy that took place around 7 billion years ago. 

“And then it took about two to two-and-a-half billion years for those stars to become dust producing,” Heck explained. “When a star forms, it doesn’t produce dust. During most of its life, the star doesn’t produce dust. The stars only produce dust at the end of their lives.”

This discovery supports findings by other astronomers that indicate a dramatic spike in star formation around 7 billion years ago, the researchers reported.

What’s more, many of the grains weren’t traveling through space alone; they journeyed as clumps, “almost like granola clusters,” according to Heck. Though it’s uncertain what bound these grains, other studies have shown that some presolar grains are coated with a sticky film of organic matter, which could have cemented these clusters together, Heck said.

Smells like science

Grinding and analyzing bits of space rock also presented the researchers with an unusual by-product — a strong and very pungent smell. The paste of ground-up meteorite released a stench “like rotten peanut butter,” study co-author Jennika Greer, a graduate student at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, said in a statement.

“I’ve never smelled rotten peanut butter,” Heck told Live Science. “But it did smell really strong.”

Another meteorite that was recently added to the Field Museum’s collection, the Aguas Zarcas from Costa Rica, or “cosmic mudball meteorite,” was said to smell like cooked Brussels sprouts. Volatile organic compounds in rocky meteorites that are abiotic — not formed by living organisms — produce these distinctive smells when they are heated or dissolved, Heck said. 

And Murchison was an especially smelly meteorite, Heck said. When he visited the town of Murchison in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the meteorite’s landing, he spoke with people who had witnessed the event or collected fragments of the space rock. Many of them had tales to tell about the meteorite’s distinctive aroma.

“They said the whole town smelled like methylated spirits, a very strong organic smell,” Heck said. “Even those who hadn’t seen the meteorite themselves — they smelled it.”

What Did Cassini See During Its Historic Mission To Saturn?

A thrilling epoch in the exploration of our solar system came to a close today, as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made a fateful plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, ending its 13-year tour of the ringed planet.

“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”

Telemetry received during the plunge indicates that, as expected, Cassini entered Saturn’s atmosphere with its thrusters firing to maintain stability, as it sent back a unique final set of science observations. Loss of contact with the Cassini spacecraft occurred at 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT), with the signal received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna complex in Canberra, Australia. 

Earl Maize, program manager for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, and Julie Webster, spacecraft operations team manager

Earl Maize, program manager for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and Julie Webster, spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, embrace in an emotional moment for the entire Cassini team after the spacecraft plunged into Saturn, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.Credits: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“It’s a bittersweet, but fond, farewell to a mission that leaves behind an incredible wealth of discoveries that have changed our view of Saturn and our solar system, and will continue to shape future missions and research,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which manages the Cassini mission for the agency. JPL also designed, developed and assembled the spacecraft.

Cassini’s plunge brings to a close a series of 22 weekly “Grand Finale” dives between Saturn and its rings, a feat never before attempted by any spacecraft.

“The Cassini operations team did an absolutely stellar job guiding the spacecraft to its noble end,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “From designing the trajectory seven years ago, to navigating through the 22 nail-biting plunges between Saturn and its rings, this is a crack shot group of scientists and engineers that scripted a fitting end to a great mission. What a way to go. Truly a blaze of glory.”

As planned, data from eight of Cassini’s science instruments was beamed back to Earth. Mission scientists will examine the spacecraft’s final observations in the coming weeks for new insights about Saturn, including hints about the planet’s formation and evolution, and processes occurring in its atmosphere.

These images shows where on Saturn NASA’s Cassini spacecraft entered the planet’s atmosphere.

This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. The spacecraft entered the atmosphere at 9.4 degrees north latitude, 53 degrees west longitude.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

“Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “But, we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”

Cassini launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and arrived at Saturn in 2004. NASA extended its mission twice – first for two years, and then for seven more. The second mission extension provided dozens of flybys of the planet’s icy moons, using the spacecraft’s remaining rocket propellant along the way. Cassini finished its tour of the Saturn system with its Grand Finale, capped by Friday’s intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons – particularly Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity – remain pristine for future exploration.

While the Cassini spacecraft is gone, its enormous collection of data about Saturn – the giant planet, its magnetosphere, rings and moons – will continue to yield new discoveries for decades to come.

“Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” Spilker said. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime.”

An online toolkit with information and resources for Cassini’s Grand Finale is available at:

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/grandfinale

​Watch Cassini’s final view of Saturn at:

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

-end-

Proxima Centauri, the sun's nearest neighbor, may host a 2nd alien planet. Meet Proxima c.

The newly detected icy world remains a candidate planet for now.

An artist’s illustration of the Proxima Centauri planetary system. Portrayed on the right is the newly discovered exoplanet candidate Proxima c, which orbits the red-dwarf host star once every 5.2 Earth years. The system also includes the smaller Proxima b, on the left, a confirmed world that was discovered in 2016.An artist’s illustration of the Proxima Centauri planetary system. Portrayed on the right is the newly discovered exoplanet candidate Proxima c, which orbits the red-dwarf host star once every 5.2 Earth years. The system also includes the smaller Proxima b, on the left, a confirmed world that was discovered in 2016.(Image: © Lorenzo Santinelli)

Proxima b may not be an only child after all.

In August 2016, astronomers announced that a roughly Earth-size exoplanet circles the closest star to the sun, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, which lies a mere 4.2 light-years from us. (For perspective, the Milky Way galaxy’s spiral disk is about 100,000 light-years wide.)

That world, called Proxima b, orbits in Proxima Centauri’s “habitable zone,” the just-right range of distances from a star where liquid water could be stable on a world’s surface. So, there’s a chance that life as we know it may have taken root in the next solar system over from us. (How good that chance is remains a matter of considerable debate, however. For example, Proxima b is tidally locked to its host star, meaning it has a hot dayside and a cold nightside. And red dwarfs are very active stars, so powerful flares may have stripped the planet’s atmosphere long ago.)

Proxima b’s discoverers analyzed “radial velocity” data gathered over multiple years by instruments called HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) and UVES (Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph), which are installed on telescopes operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. The scientists noticed that Proxima Centauri was being tugged slightly by the gravity of an orbiting planet: Proxima b.

The team, led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé of Queen Mary University London, didn’t see any signs of other worlds orbiting the red dwarf at the time, but they couldn’t rule that prospect out. And now, a new study reports that the closest exoplanet to Earth may indeed have a companion.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 12 seconds PLAY SOUND

A frigid super-Earth candidate

In the new study, which was published online today (Jan. 15) in the journal Science Advances, a team led by Mario Damasso and Fabio Del Sordo (and including Anglada-Escudé, who’s a co-author) re-examined the old HARPS and UVES observations, along with a series of new HARPS measurements. 

The researchers subjected the data to new analyses that tracked Proxima Centauri’s light spectrum over time, looking for regular oscillations that could betray the presence of an undiscovered planet. (Damasso and Del Sordo also presented their results at the Breakthrough Discuss conference in Berkeley, California, last April, before the paper had been accepted for publication.)

There was a lot of information to go through; the combined HARPS and UVES measurements spanned about 17.5 years.

This painstaking work unearthed a possible planet called Proxima c, which is at least 6 times more massive than Earth and may therefore be a type of world known as a super-Earth. Proxima c completes one lap around Proxima Centauri every 5.2 Earth years, making it a poor prospect for life as we know it.

“Given the low luminosity of the host star and the orbital radius of the planet, it receives a very low insolation,” said Damasso, who’s based at the Astrophysical Observatory of Turin, which is run by Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics.

“A simple estimate of the equilibrium temperature gives T~40 K,” Damasso told Space.com via email. (Forty degrees K, or Kelvin, is equivalent to minus 388 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 233 Celsius.)

But Damasso and Del Sordo both stressed that habitability is a difficult topic to address, given the many factors that go into it and the paucity of information available about most exoplanetary systems. For example, to gauge a world’s true life-supporting ability, you’d need to know how thick its atmosphere is and what the air is made of, as well as how active its star is (as the Proxima b example shows). 

In addition, worlds that don’t lie in the traditional “habitable zone” may still be able to harbor life as we know it. After all, the Jupiter moon Europa and Saturn satellite Enceladus are covered by icy shells, but both possess huge subsurface oceans of liquid water.

In addition, the habitability talk generally assesses a world’s suitability for Earth-like life, and there’s certainly no guarantee that aliens in other systems share our biochemistry.

“I am convinced there are so many unknown scenarios to be discovered about planetary features that go beyond our imagination,” Del Sordo, who’s based at the University of Crete, told Space.com via email. “But at the moment this conviction has nothing to do with science; it is only my personal point of view.”

More work needed

Proxima c remains a candidate for now, Damasso and Del Sordo emphasized; confirming its existence will require additional information. That information will ideally come from the European Space Agency’s star-mapping Gaia spacecraft, the researchers said.

“According to our study, if Gaia will deliver the data with the expected quality, and in the absence of any unknown impediment, the detection can be reliably confirmed or dismissed,” Damasso said.

The study team is also assessing how additional HARPS and UVES data might aid the confirmation effort, he added. In addition, the researchers are considering searching for Proxima c via direct imaging — in particular, in photos captured by SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch), a tool installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.Advertisement

“This is really a challenging task, almost impossible for a blind search with the present capabilities, but having details about the candidate’s orbit can help looking for the planet’s reflected light in the right places,” Damasso said.

The difficulty of directly imaging Proxima c means that the lack of a detection by SPHERE would not be a significant strike against the candidate planet’s existence, Del Sordo added. And the team’s data do suggest that it’s probably there, waiting to be found.

“According to our calculation, at the moment the two-planet model is five times more probable than the one-planet model to explain the data,” Del Sordo said. “It means it is 83% probable planet c exist[s]. Of course, follow-up will be crucial, as Mario said.”

Top-secret UFO files could 'gravely damage' US national security if released, Navy says

The truth is out there… but you’re still not allowed to see it.

In 2017, a video of the Nimitz UFO encounter was publicly released.This infamous video of the USS Nimitz UFO encounter may not be the only one out there…(Image: © To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science)

In November 2004, several U.S. Navy pilots stationed aboard the USS Nimitz encountered a Tic-Tac-shaped UFO darting and dashing over the Pacific Ocean in apparent defiance of the laws of physics. Navy officials dubbed the strange craft an “unidentified aerial phenomenon,” but they have remained mum on what, exactly, that phenomenon could’ve been. Now, unsurprisingly to anyone who’s ever considered making a hat out of tinfoil, the military has confirmed they know more than they’re letting on.

In response to a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a spokesperson from the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) confirmed that the agency possesses several top-secret documents and at least one classified video pertaining to the 2004 UFO encounter, Vice reported. ADVERTISING

According to the ONI spokesperson, these documents were either labeled “SECRET” or “TOP SECRET” by the agencies that provided them, and that sharing the information with the public “would cause exceptionally grave damage to the National Security of the United States.”

These top-secret files included several “briefing slides” about the incident, provided to the ONI by an unnamed agency. (Because ONI officials did not classify the slides personally, they are unable to declassify them, the spokesperson added). 

The ONI also admitted to possessing at least one video of unknown length, classified as “secret” by the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). ONI didn’t reveal whether this footage is the same 1-minute video that was leaked online in 2007 and widely released by The New York Times in 2017. However, in November 2019, several naval officers who witnessed the incident aboard the Nimitz told Popular Mechanics that they had seen a much longer video of the encounter that was between 8 and 10 minutes long. These original recordings were promptly collected and erased by “unknown individuals” who arrived on the ship by helicopter shortly after the incident, one officer said.

Luis Elizondo, a former Pentagon staffer who helped make the Navy video public, told Vice that “people should not be surprised by the revelation that other videos exist and at greater length.”

The FOIA request, submitted in October 2019 by an independent researcher, asked for access to any nonclassified records or portions of records regarding the 2004 UFO encounter. No additional documents were mentioned in the ONI’s response besides the classified briefing and video.

A Mars sample-return mission is coming. Scientists want the public to know what to expect.

Artist's illustration of NASA's planned Mars Ascent Vehicle launching samples off the surface of the Red Planet.Artist’s illustration of NASA’s planned Mars Ascent Vehicle launching samples off the surface of the Red Planet.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltch)

The first pristine pieces of Mars won’t be coming down to Earth for at least another decade, but the time to start preparing society for the epic arrival is now, scientists say.

NASA’s 2020 Mars rover is scheduled to launch in July of this year and land inside the Red Planet’s 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater next February. The six-wheeled robot will do a variety of work once it gets there, but its headline task is hunting for signs of ancient Mars life. ADVERTISING

Mars 2020 will do this on the ground in Jezero, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago. The rover will also collect and cache promising samples for eventual return to Earth, where scientists in well-equipped labs around the world can scrutinize them in exacting detail for any evidence of Martian organisms.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will work together to get those samples here. The current plan, which is not yet official, envisions two key launches in 2026. These will send ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) and NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) mission toward the Red Planet.

ERO will make its way to Mars orbit, whereas SRL will drop a stationary lander, the ESA-provided Sample Fetch Rover (SFR), and a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) near the Mars 2020 landing site.

The SFR will pick up the cached Mars 2020 samples, which will be encased in sealed tubes, and haul them back to the MAV. Mars 2020 may store some of its samples on its body; if that’s the case, the NASA rover could roll over to the MAV and make a deposit as well. 

The MAV will then launch into Mars orbit, where it will deploy the container harboring the samples. The ERO will pluck this precious cargo out of the void and haul it back toward Earth, jettisoning the container once our planet is in the crosshairs. The samples will land here in 2031, if all goes according to this preliminary plan.

This touchdown will be a momentous occasion. Engineers will glory in the tremendous technological achievement — we’ve returned samples from the moon, but that’s quite a bit closer to Earth — and scientists will revel in the chance to learn a great deal about ancient Mars and, perhaps, find out whether Earth life is alone in the universe. 

(Researchers have examined Mars material before: meteorites blasted off the Red Planet by asteroid or comet strikes that ended up landing here on Earth. But those Mars rocks aren’t pristine — they endured trips through two planetary atmospheres and lots of time in deep space — and they weren’t specially chosen for their potential to host evidence of life.)

The public will doubtless be excited, too. But if the arrival catches folks off guard, there will probably be considerable fear, anxiety and confusion as well, said Sheri Klug Boonstra of Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility. So, the members of the international Mars sample-return team need to start educating and engaging laypeople about the effort now, said Klug Boonstra, a science-education specialist who’s the principal investigator of NASA’s Lucy Student Pipeline and Competency Enabler Program.

“The public has to be a major part of the equation,” she told Space.com last month at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, where she gave a presentation on this very topic

For example, some people will likely worry that the samples could harbor some sort of infectious microbe that could get loose and unleash a deadly plague on humanity. The sample-return team has thought about this remote possibility, of course, and is doing its best to ensure it could never come to pass. 

After arriving on Earth, the Mars material will first be vetted at a specially constructed Sample Receiving Facility, which will be designed to prevent contamination in both directions: Nothing unwanted can get in to taint the samples, and nothing from the samples can get out into the wider world. The SRF hasn’t been built; indeed, a site for it hasn’t even been chosen yet. But the sample-return project can use existing Biosafety Level 4 labs — the most secure ones, which keep nasty viruses such as Ebola from spilling out — as a baseline, team member Tim Haltigin of the Canadian Space Agency told Space.com at the AGU meeting.

The public needs to know that such safety measures will be taken, Klug Boonstra said. And it’s also important to get across the potential scientific bounty represented by those little tubes of Mars material, she added. 

The sample-return team is still working out what engagement strategies to employ. Klug Boonstra said the project would like to organize some opt-in focus groups to learn which tacks to take — for example, if activities in schools would be particularly useful in getting the word out.

And that needs to start happening soon, she stressed. It could well take a decade to get Mars sample return fully socialized, especially since our society seems to be getting less science-literate and more sound-bite-driven.

“We don’t want to be in the position where we’re just getting the information out when the public hears that the rocks are coming back,” Klug Boonstra said.

Has the Kepler Space Telescope Discovered an Alien Megastructure?

The artist's concept shows NASA's planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in a new mission profile called K2.

The artist’s concept shows NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operating in a new mission profile called K2.(Image: © NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle)

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is tasked with finding small, rocky worlds orbiting distant stars. However, exoplanets aren’t the only thing Kepler can detect — stellar flares, star spots and dusty planetary rings can also pop up in the mission’s observations.

By surrounding their star with swarms of energy-collecting satellites, advanced civilizations could create Dyson spheres. [Read the Full Dyson Sphere Infographic Here.]
By surrounding their star with swarms of energy-collecting satellites, advanced civilizations could create Dyson spheres. [Read the Full Dyson Sphere Infographic Here.] (Image credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

But there’s also been speculation that Kepler may have the ability to detect more than natural phenomena; if they’re out there, Kepler may also detect the signature of artificial structures orbiting other stars. Imagine an advanced civilization that’s well up on the Kardashev scale and has the ability to harness energy directly from its star. This hypothetical alien civilization may want to construct vast megastructures, like supersized solar arrays in orbit around their host star, that could be so big that they blot out a sizable fraction of starlight as they pass in front.ADVERTISING

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When Kepler detects an exoplanet, it does so by sensing the very slight dip in starlight from a given star. The premise is simple: an exoplanet orbits in front of star (known as a “transit”), Kepler detects a slight dimming of starlight and creates a “lightcurve” — basically a graph charting the dip in starlight over time. Much information can be gleaned from the lightcurve, such as the physical size of the transiting exoplanet. But it can also deduce the exoplanet’s shape.

Normally the shape of an exoplanet isn’t particularly surprising because it’s, well, planet-shaped. It’s round. The physics of planetary formation dictate that a planetary body above a certain mass will be governed by hydrostatic equilibrium. But say if Kepler detects something that isn’t round. Well, that’s when things can get a bit weird.

For the most part, any dip in star brightness can be attributed to some kind of natural phenomenon. But what if all possibilities are accounted for and only one scenario is left? What if that scenario is this object appears to be artificial? In other words, what if it’s alien?

In a chilling article written by Ross Andersen of The Atlantic, at first glance, it seems we may be at this incredible juncture.

The research paper is thorough, describing the phenomenon, pointing out that this star is unique – we’ve seen nothing like it. Kepler has collected data on this star steadily for four years. It’s not instrumental error. Kepler isn’t seeing things; the signal is real.

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctorate researcher at Yale University and lead author, told The Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

The Planet Hunters volunteers are depended on to seek out transits in Kepler’s stars in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. This is a huge quantity of data, from over 150,000 stars in Kepler’s original field of view, and you can’t beat the human eye when identifying a true dip in starlight brightness. The Planet Hunters described KIC 8462852 as “bizarre,” “interesting” and a “giant transit.” They’re not wrong.

Follow-up studies focus on two interesting transit events at KIC 8462852, one that was detected between days 788 and 795 of the Kepler mission and between days 1510 to 1570. The researchers have tagged these events as D800 and D1500 respectively.

The D800 event appears to have been a single transit causing a star brightness drop-off of 15 percent, whereas D1500 was a burst of several transits, possibly indicating a clump of different objects, forcing a brightness dip of up to 22 percent. To cause such dips in brightness, these transiting objects must be huge.

The transit data for KIC 8462852, featuring the obvious transit features D800 and D1500.
The transit data for KIC 8462852, featuring the obvious transit features D800 and D1500. (Image credit: Boyajian et al.)

The researchers worked through every known possibility, but each solution presented a new problem. For example, they investigated the possibility of some kind of circumstellar disk of dust. However, after looking for the infrared signal associated with these disks, no such signal could be seen.

Also, the star is a mature F-type star, approximately 1.5 times the size of our sun. Circumstellar disks are usually found around young stars.

The researchers also investigated the possibility of a huge planetary collision: could the debris from this smashup be creating this strange signal? The likelihood of us seeing a planetary collision is extremely low. There is no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) that a collision happened, creating a very tiny window of opportunity between WISE’s mission end and the beginning of Kepler’s mission (of a few years) for an astronomically unlikely cosmic event like this to occur.Advertisement

The only natural explanation favored by the researchers seems to focus on an intervening clump of exocomets.

“One way we imagine such a barrage of comets could be triggered is by the passage of a field star through the system,” write the researchers.

Indeed, they argue, there’s a nearby star that might have tidally disturbed otherwise dormant comets in the outermost regions of the KIC 8462852 star system. This small star is located around 1,000 AU from KIC 8462852 and whether it’s a binary partner or an interstellar visitor, its presence may have caused some cometary turmoil. Like the other scenarios, however, the exocomet explanation still falls short of being fully satisfactory.

This research paper focuses only on natural and known possible causes of the mystery transit events around KIC 8462852. A second paper is currently being drafted to investigate a completely different transit scenario that focuses around the possibility of a mega-engineering project created by an advanced alien civilization.

This may sound like science fiction, but our galaxy has existed for over 13 billion years, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to think that an alien civilization may be out there and evolved to the point where they can build megastructures around stars.

“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build,” Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, told The Atlantic.

Indeed, hunting down huge structures that obscure the light from stars is no new thing. The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT) is one such project that does just this. Only recently, a survey of the local universe focused on the hope of detecting the waste heat generated by a technologically advanced civilization, specifically a Type II Kardashev civilization.

On the Kardashev scale, a Type II civilization has the ability to utilize all the available energy radiating from a star. Using a vast shell or series of rings surrounding a star, a Dyson sphere-like structure may be constructed. This has the effect of blotting out the star from view in visible wavelengths, but once the solar energy has been used by the alien civilization, the energy is shifted to longer wavelengths and likely lost as infrared radiation.

This recent search for aliens’ waste heat drew a blank, reaching the conclusion that as there appears to be no alien intelligence cocooning stars to harvest their heat, there’s likely no Type II civilization nearby.

But as KIC 8462852 is showing us, there may be something else out there — possibly an alien intelligence that is well on its way to becoming a Type II civilization, which is setting up some kind of artificial structure around its star.

Of course, these mystery transit events are nowhere near “proof” of an alien civilization. In fact, it’s barely evidence and a lot more work needs to be done.

The next step is to point a radio antenna at KIC 8462852, just to see whether the system is generating any artificial radio signals that could indicate the presence of something we’d define as “intelligent.” Boyajian and Wright have now teamed up with Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, to get a radio telescope to listen into the star and if they detect an artificial signal, they will request time on the Very Large Array (VLA) to deduce whether any radio signals from that star are the chatter of an alien civilization.

It might be a long shot, and the phenomenon is more likely a clump of comets or some other natural phenomenon that we haven’t accounted for blocking star light from view, but it’s worth investigating, especially if there really is some kind of alien intelligence building structures, or perhaps, ancient structures of a civilization long-gone, around a star only 1,500 light-years away from Earth.

TESS Satellite Discovered Its 1st World Orbiting 2 Stars

Researchers working with data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) have discovered the mission’s first circumbinary planet, a world orbiting two stars. The planet, called TOI 1338b, is around 6.9 times larger than Earth, or between the sizes of Neptune and Saturn. It lies in a system 1,300 light-years away in the constellation Pictor.

The stars in the system make an eclipsing binary, which occurs when the stellar companions circle each other in our plane of view. One is about 10% more massive than our Sun, while the other is cooler, dimmer and only one-third the Sun’s mass. TOI 1338b’s transits are irregular, between every 93 and 95 days, and vary in depth and duration thanks to the orbital motion of its stars.

TESS only sees the transits crossing the larger star — the transits of the smaller star are too faint to detect. Although the planet transits irregularly, its orbit is stable for at least the next 10 million years. The orbit’s angle to us, however, changes enough that the planet transit will cease after November 2023 and resume eight years later.

Let's Put A Space Station Around The Moon!

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is part of the Artemis program to return to the moon and stay. It will serve as a waypoint between Earth and the moon and a gateway to deep space and Mars missions.

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway is a proposed NASA program that would bring astronauts to the moon to operate a lunar space station. The concept has generated a wealth of research and numerous political discussions since 2017, especially because NASA’s stated goal under the Trump administration is to return to the moon before going to Mars.

The hardware and mission design are still in the early stages of development, but as of mid-2018, NASA envisions a lunar outpost (supplied by Space Launch System rockets) that would hold four people. Unlike the International Space Station, the outpost would not always have a crew on board and would have the capability to perform scientific experiments autonomously. The prime contractor for the first module should be announced in 2019.

In August 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that astronauts could fly to the lunar space station as early as 2024; however, it’s likely that date will change as design and construction plans proceed.

In the same month as Pence’s announcement, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters that the cost of the gateway won’t be nearly as much as the cost of the crewed Apollo missions in the 1960s. NASA’s current budget is now about 0.5 percent of annual federal funds, compared to its former height of 4.5 percent in the mid-1960s. The agency plans to begin the Gateway project without drawing on increased federal funding.

First steps to a gateway

In 2012, NASA publicly discussed the idea of a lunar station on the moon’s far side — called the Deep Space Habitat. A few years later, in 2014 and 2015, NASA began to consider the idea of “cislunar habitats” as a way to fly humans on longer missions in the 2020s. The agency envisioned a small shelter where astronauts could assemble telescopes, operate rovers and perform scientific research.

In March 2015, NASA awarded several contracts under its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program to companies developing concepts for lunar modules. The goal was to build modules would attach to the Orion spacecraft (a deep-space vehicle under development by NASA) and allow for missions of about 60 days in duration. The agency also discussed cislunar habitats in a “Journey to Mars” report published in October 2015.

One of the earliest mentions of a lunar space station, then known as the Deep Space Gateway, was in an article published on NASA’s website in March 2017. As NASA described it at the time: “The agency is … looking to build a crew tended spaceport in lunar orbit within the first few missions that would serve as a gateway to deep space and the lunar surface. This deep space gateway would have a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, docking capability, an airlock, and [would be] serviced by logistics modules to enable research.”

NASA is planning a deep-space habitat around the moon called the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway, as the next destination for astronauts. The cis-lunar space station will be a waypoint for future missions to the moon and beyond. (Image credit: NASA)

The agency said the gateway would be useful not only for lunar orbiting missions, but also for increasing the breadth and depth of space exploration in general. “The area of space near the moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for human missions that push farther into the solar system, access the lunar surface for robotic missions but with the ability to return to Earth if needed in days rather than weeks or months.”

In July 2017, NASA issued a competitive request for information about the Power and Propulsion Element, the module that is expected to supply electrical power and chemical and electrical propulsion to the gateway. As a result, five study contracts were issued in November 2017.

That September, NASA and Roscosmos (the Russian space agency) signed a joint cooperation agreement to explore the moon and deep space, which included use of the gateway.

Back to the moon

NASA’s mission to return to the moon was bumped up in the agency’s priority list after President Donald Trump’s first space policy directive was announced in December 2017. Trump directed the agency to focus on returning to the moon before attempting to reach Mars (reaching Mars had been the primary goal during President Barack Obama’s administration).

Trump’s announcement was in line with a previous recommendation from the newly reconstituted National Space Council. The council, which hadn’t been active since the early 1990s, was re-formed in June 2017. Later that year, its members concluded that lunar exploration should be NASA’s primary goal.

The Deep Space Gateway was renamed the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in February 2018, when NASA made its 2019 budget request. That document also suggested that the International Space Station should conclude operations in 2024 to make budgetary room for the gateway.

NASA held a Deep Space Gateway Science Workshop from Feb. 27 to March 1, 2018, in Denver, which helped the agency formulate a science plan for the lunar complex. Also in 2018, NASA launched the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages (RASC-AL) design competition for university students, which focused on developing concepts for the gateway.

The agency is also encouraging the development of international gateway partnerships, especially from the current International Space Station partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada), as it formulates the concept of the gateway.

SpaceX Starship Update- Elon Musk details SpaceX progress and flight timelines

Elon Musk details SpaceX progress on latest Starship spacecraft build and flight timelines Starship, the SpaceX stainless steel behemoth set to send humans to Mars, could end up taking humans to the Moon in just five years time.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made the declaration back in March 2019, amid growing interest in what the company was developing at its Boca Chica facility in Texas. SpaceX Starship was pitched in its original “BFR” form back in September 2017, but the new rocket taking shape at Boca Chica had a uniquely shiny design.

It was a response to American vice president Mike Pence, who had declared at the time that NASA would return humans to the Moon within the next five years. In response to a question about whether SpaceX Starship could send humans in that same time period, Musk stated “I think so.” As development of the SpaceX Starship continues, these plans have gradually come into focus.

The holidays might be a time of slowed activity for most companies in the tech sector, but for SpaceX, it was a time to ramp production efforts on the latest SpaceX Starship prototype — “Starship serial number 1” as it’s called, according to Elon Musk . This flight design prototype of SpaceX Starship is under construction at SpaceX’s Boca Chica development facility, and Musk was in attendance over the weekend overseeing its build and assembly. In this video Engineering Today will discuss SpaceX’s latest Starship where CEO Elon Musk details SpaceX progress on this spacecraft build and flight timelines.

Let’s get started.

Origin of deep-space radio flash discovered, and it's unlike anything astronomers have ever seen

An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007, and pinpointed two of them. (Credit: NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech); B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007, and pinpointed two of them. (Credit: NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech); B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF)

HONOLULU — Mysterious ultra-fast pinpricks of radio energy keep lighting up the night sky and nobody knows why. A newly discovered example of this transient phenomenon has been traced to its place of origin — a nearby spiral galaxy — but it’s only made things murkier for astronomers.

The problem concerns a class of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them heavenly events known as fast radio bursts (FRBs). In a few thousandths of a second, these explosions produce as much energy as the sun does in nearly a century. Researchers have only known about FRBs since 2007, and they still don’t have a compelling explanation regarding their sources.

“The big question is what can produce an FRB,” Kenzie Nimmo, a doctoral student at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said during a news briefing on Monday (Jan. 6) here at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Scientists were given some help in 2016, when they discovered an FRB that repeated its quick-pulsing radio tune in random bursts. All previous examples had been one-off events.

The repeating FBR was eventually traced back to a dwarf galaxy with a high rate of star formation 3 billion light-years away, Nimmo said. The galaxy contains a persistent radio source, possibly a nebula, that could explain the FRB’s origin, she added.

Astronomers have also managed to determine that three non-repeating FRBs came from distant massive galaxies with little star formation going on. This seemed to provide evidence that repeating and non-repeating FRBs arose from different types of environments, Nimmo said. But the new discovery challenges this simple story.

FRB 180916.J0158+65, as the object is known, is a repeating FRB discovered by the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) observatory, a radio telescope near Okanagan Falls in British Columbia that Nimmo called “the world’s best FRB-finding machine.”

Follow-up observations by a network of telescopes in Europe allowed the research team to produce a high-resolution image of the FRB’s location. This location turned out to be a medium-sized spiral galaxy like our Milky Way that is surprisingly nearby, only 500 million light-years away, making it the closest-known FRB to date. The results were published yesterday (Jan. 6) in the journal Nature.

Despite precisely locating the FRB, the team was unable to detect any radio sources in the spiral galaxy that could explain the mysterious outbursts. Even worse, this new entity seems not to fit the patterns established by previous repeating and non-repeating FRBs.

“This is completely different than the host and local environments of other localized FRBs,” Benito Marcote, a radio astronomer at the Joint Institute for VLBI European Research Infrastructure Consortium and lead author of the Nature paper, said during the news briefing.

The researchers hope that subsequent data might help them get a handle on what this FRB is telling them. But until then, they might have to continue scratching their heads over these puzzling phenomena.

NASA planet hunter finds Earth-size habitable-zone world

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface.


This illustration of TOI 700 d is based on several simulated environments for an ocean-covered version of the planet. | Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

This illustration of TOI 700 d is based on several simulated environments for an ocean-covered version of the planet.Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface. Scientists confirmed the find, called TOI 700 d, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and have modeled the planet’s potential environments to help inform future observations.

The three planets of the TOI 700 system orbit a small, cool M dwarf star. TOI 700 d is the first Earth-size habitable-zone world discovered by TESS. Found by TESS and confirmed by the Spitzer space telescope TOI-700 D is third-closest potentially terrestrial, habitable-zone planet known.

TOI 700 d is one of only a few Earth-size planets discovered in a star’s habitable zone so far. Others include several planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system and other worlds discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

“TESS was designed and launched specifically to find Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Planets around nearby stars are easiest to follow-up with larger telescopes in space and on Earth. Discovering TOI 700 d is a key science finding for TESS. Confirming the planet’s size and habitable zone status with Spitzer is another win for Spitzer as it approaches the end of science operations this January.”

TESS monitors large swaths of the sky, called sectors, for 27 days at a time. This long stare allows the satellite to track changes in stellar brightness caused by an orbiting planet crossing in front of its star from our perspective, an event called a transit.

TOI 700 is a small, cool M dwarf star located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. It’s roughly 40% of the Sun’s mass and size and about half its surface temperature. The star appears in 11 of the 13 sectors TESS observed during the mission’s first year, and scientists caught multiple transits by its three planets.

The star was originally misclassified in the TESS database as being more similar to our Sun, which meant the planets appeared larger and hotter than they really are. Several researchers, including Alton Spencer, a high school student working with members of the TESS team, identified the error.

“When we corrected the star’s parameters, the sizes of its planets dropped, and we realized the outermost one was about the size of Earth and in the habitable zone,” said Emily Gilbert, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. “Additionally, in 11 months of data we saw no flares from the star, which improves the chances TOI 700 d is habitable and makes it easier to model its atmospheric and surface conditions.”

Gilbert and other researchers presented the findings at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Societyin Honolulu, and three papers — one of which Gilbert led — have been submitted to scientific journals.

The innermost planet, called TOI 700 b, is almost exactly Earth-size, is probably rocky and completes an orbit every 10 days. The middle planet, TOI 700 c, is 2.6 times larger than Earth — between the sizes of Earth and Neptune — orbits every 16 days and is likely a gas-dominated world. TOI 700 d, the outermost known planet in the system and the only one in the habitable zone, measures 20% larger than Earth, orbits every 37 days and receives from its star 86% of the energy that the Sun provides to Earth. All of the planets are thought to be tidally locked to their star, which means they rotate once per orbit so that one side is constantly bathed in daylight.

A team of scientists led by Joseph Rodriguez, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, requested follow-up observations with Spitzer to confirm TOI 700 d.

“Given the impact of this discovery — that it is TESS’s first habitable-zone Earth-size planet — we really wanted our understanding of this system to be as concrete as possible,” Rodriguez said. “Spitzer saw TOI 700 d transit exactly when we expected it to. It’s a great addition to the legacy of a mission that helped confirm two of the TRAPPIST-1 planets and identify five more.”

The Spitzer data increased scientists’ confidence that TOI 700 d is a real planet and sharpened their measurements of its orbital period by 56% and its size by 38%. It also ruled out other possible astrophysical causes of the transit signal, such as the presence of a smaller, dimmer companion star in the system.

Rodriguez and his colleagues also used follow-up observations from a 1-meter ground-based telescope in the global Las Cumbres Observatory network to improve scientists’ confidence in the orbital period and size of TOI 700 c by 30% and 36%, respectively.

Because TOI 700 is bright, nearby, and shows no sign of stellar flares, the system is a prime candidate for precise mass measurements by current ground-based observatories. These measurements could confirm scientists’ estimates that the inner and outer planets are rocky and the middle planet is made of gas.

Future missions may be able to identify whether the planets have atmospheres and, if so, even determine their compositions.

While the exact conditions on TOI 700 d are unknown, scientists can use current information, like the planet’s size and the type of star it orbits, to generate computer models and make predictions. Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, modeled 20 potential environments of TOI 700 d to gauge if any version would result in surface temperatures and pressures suitable for habitability.

Their 3D climate models examined a variety of surface types and atmospheric compositions typically associated with what scientists regard to be potentially habitable worlds. Because TOI 700 d is tidally locked to its star, the planet’s cloud formations and wind patterns may be strikingly different from Earth’s.

One simulation included an ocean-covered TOI 700 d with a dense, carbon-dioxide-dominated atmosphere similar to what scientists suspect surrounded Mars when it was young. The model atmosphere contains a deep layer of clouds on the star-facing side. Another model depicts TOI 700 d as a cloudless, all-land version of modern Earth, where winds flow away from the night side of the planet and converge on the point directly facing the star.

When starlight passes through a planet’s atmosphere, it interacts with molecules like carbon dioxide and nitrogen to produce distinct signals, called spectral lines. The modeling team, led by Gabrielle Englemann-Suissa, a Universities Space Research Association visiting research assistant at Goddard, produced simulated spectra for the 20 modeled versions of TOI 700 d.

“Someday, when we have real spectra from TOI 700 d, we can backtrack, match them to the closest simulated spectrum, and then match that to a model,” Englemann-Suissa said. “It’s exciting because no matter what we find out about the planet, it’s going to look completely different from what we have here on Earth.”

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Space operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at IPAC at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

The modeling work was funded through the Sellers Exoplanet Environments Collaboration at Goddard, a multidisciplinary collaboration that brings together experts to build comprehensive and sophisticated computer models to better analyze current and future exoplanet observations.

Plasma Drive Cuts Trip To Mars Dramatically

plasma propulsion engine is a type of electric propulsion that generates thrust from a quasi-neutral plasma. This is in contrast to ion thruster engines, which generate thrust through extracting an ion current from the plasma source, which is then accelerated to high velocities using grids/anodes. These exist in many forms (see electric propulsion). Plasma thrusters do not typically use high voltage grids or anodes/ cathodes to accelerate the charged particles in the plasma, but rather uses currents and potentials which are generated internally in the plasma to accelerate the plasma ions. While this results in a lower exhaust velocity by virtue of the lack of high accelerating voltages, this type of thruster has a number of advantages. The lack of high voltage grids of anodes removes a possible limiting element as a result of grid ion erosion. The plasma exhaust is ‘quasi-neutral’, which means that ion and electrons exist in equal number, which allows simply ion-electron recombination in the exhaust to neutralise the exhaust plume, removing the need for an electron gun (hollow cathode). This type of thruster often generates the source plasma using radio frequency or microwave energy, using an external antenna. This fact, combined with the absence of hollow cathodes (which are very sensitive to all but the few noble gases) allows the intriguing possibility of being able to use this type of thruster on a huge range of propellants, from argon, to carbon dioxide, air mixtures, to astronaut urine.[1]

Plasma engines are better suited for long-distance interplanetary space travel missions.[2]

In recent years, many agencies have developed several forms of plasma-fueled engines, including the European Space AgencyIranian Space Agency and Australian National University, which have co-developed a more advanced type described as a double layer thruster.[3][4] However, this form of plasma engine is only one of many types.