American Airlines not denying possible UFO spotting, says: ‘Talk to the FBI’

Pilot said it “looked like a cruise missile type of thing”

Pilot described ‘long cylindrical object’ moving over the top of the plane, according to radio transmission

An American Airlines passenger jet traveling from Cincinnati to Phoenix encountered an apparent UFO over northeastern New Mexico Sunday afternoon. 

The pilot on flight 2292 radioed around 1:00 p.m. CST and said that the unidentified object was flying right on top of them, according to a transmission recorded by Steve Douglass on his blog, Deep Black Horizon. American Airlines verified to Fox News that the transmission is from flight 2292.

“Do you have any targets up here? We just had something go right over the top of us,” the pilot said in the radio transmission. 

“I hate to say this but it looked like a long cylindrical object that almost looked like a cruise missile type of thing moving really fast. It went right over the top of us.”

American Airlines confirmed that the radio transmission is authentic, but did not give any further comment on the possible alien encounter. 

“Following a debrief with our Flight Crew and additional information received, we can confirm this radio transmission was from American Airlines Flight 2292 on Feb. 21,” an American Airlines spokesperson told Fox News in a statement. “For any additional questions on this, we encourage you to reach out to the FBI.”

The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

Flight 2292 was around 37,000 feet at the time of the sighting, and Albuquerque Center did not respond because local air traffic interfered, according to Douglass. The flight went on to land in Phoenix, Arizona. 

New Mexico is home to White Sands Missile Range, which is located in the southern part of the state and is described as the Department of Defense’s “largest, fully-instrumented, open air range.” 

Scott Stearns, the chief of public affairs at White Sands Missile Range, said the range was not testing anything on Sunday and also noted the distance between the missile range and northeastern New Mexico, which is about 400 miles. 

“We have no idea what it could have been or if anything similar has been sighted in that area before,” Stearns said in a statement to Fox News. 

Thousands of UFO sightings are reported each year, but encounters by pilots have received increased attention recently. 

In February 2018, two pilots separately encounter an object beaming light at roughly 50,000 feet in eastern Arizona, the Arizona Republic reported

Between 2014 and 2015, Navy pilots encountered numerous UFOs traveling at hypersonic speeds up to 30,000 feet in the air, the New York Times reported

China’s Mars craft enters parking orbit before landing rover

China says its Tianwen-1 spacecraft has entered a temporary parking orbit around Mars in anticipation of landing a rover on the red planet in the coming months.

FILE - This file image made available by the China National Space Administration on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, shows the Tianwen-1 probe en route to Mars. China said on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, that its Tianwen-1 spacecraft has entered a temporary pa
Image IconThe Associated PressFILE – This file image made available by the China National Space Administration on Wednesday…Read More

BEIJING — China says its Tianwen-1 spacecraft has entered a temporary parking orbit around Mars in anticipation of landing a rover on the red planet in the coming months.

That follows the landing of the U.S. Perseverance rover last Thursday near an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater to search for signs of ancient microscopic life.

A successful bid to land Tianwen-1 would make China only the second country after the U.S. to place a spacecraft on Mars. China’s solar-powered vehicle, about the size of a golf cart, will collect data on underground water and look for evidence that the planet may have once harbored microscopic life.

Tianwen, the title of an ancient poem, means “Quest for Heavenly Truth.”

Landing a spacecraft on Mars is notoriously tricky. About a dozen orbiters missed the mark. In 2011, a Mars-bound Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn’t make it out of Earth orbit.

China’s attempt will involve a parachute, rocket firings and airbags. Its proposed landing site is a vast, rock-strewn plain called Utopia Planitia, where the U.S. Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

Tianwen-1’s arrival at Mars on Feb. 10 was preceded by that of an orbiter from the United Arab Emirates. All three of the latest missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment between Earth and Mars that happens only once every two years.

Tianwen-1 represents the most ambitious mission yet for China’s secretive, military-linked space program that first put an astronaut in orbit around Earth in 2003 and last year brought moon rocks back to Earth for the first time since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spacecraft on the little-explored far side of the moon in 2019.

China is also building a permanent space station and planning a crewed lunar mission and a possible permanent research base on the moon, though no dates have yet been proposed.

On Monday, a massive Long March-5B Y2 rocket was moved into place at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan province for assembly and testing before it launches the space station’s core module, christened Tianhe. Launch is scheduled for the first half of this year, the first of 11 missions slated over the next two years for the station’s construction.

China is not a participant in the International Space Station, partly at the insistence of the United States.

The space program is a source of enormous national pride in China and Tianwen-1 has attracted a particularly strong following among the public. Tourists flocked to tropical Hainan island to watch the launch, while others visit mock Mars colonies in desert sites with white domes, airlocks and spacesuits.

The Hope Spacecraft reaches Mars! Overview of the Emirates Mars Mission

What is the Hope Spacecraft? How did it enter orbit around the Red planet? What will it study at Mars? In this video, we discuss the Emirates Mars Mission. Also names Al-amal, or Hope spacecraft, this is a Mars orbiter that is run by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) space agency.

The original idea for the mission came about in 2013, and launched from Japan in 2020. The spacecraft will study Mars’ global climate, looking at weather patterns and how the different layers of the atmosphere interact with one another. The Hope spacecraft is also the first interplanetary mission from an Arab nation. In addition to the specifications of the spacecraft, the video also looks into the orbit that Hope will be in as it monitors Mars. In addition, we talk about why it is hard for a spacecraft to enter orbit around another planet.

More specifically, we look at the Escape Velocity for a planet. On February 9th, 2020, the Hope spacecraft successfully entered orbit about Mars by performing a Mars Orbit injection maneuver, which slowed the spacecraft.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover Provides Front-Row Seat to Landing, First Audio Recording of Red Planet

New video from NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover chronicles major milestones during the final minutes of its entry, descent, and landing (EDL) on the Red Planet on Feb. 18 as the spacecraft plummeted, parachuted, and rocketed toward the surface of Mars. A microphone on the rover also has provided the first audio recording of sounds from Mars.

From the moment of parachute inflation, the camera system covers the entirety of the descent process, showing some of the rover’s intense ride to Mars’ Jezero Crater. The footage from high-definition cameras aboard the spacecraft starts 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the surface, showing the supersonic deployment of the most massive parachute ever sent to another world, and ends with the rover’s touchdown in the crater.

A microphone attached to the rover did not collect usable data during the descent, but the commercial off-the-shelf device survived the highly dynamic descent to the surface and obtained sounds from Jezero Crater on Feb. 20. About 10 seconds into the 60-second recording, a Martian breeze is audible for a few seconds, as are mechanical sounds of the rover operating on the surface.

“For those who wonder how you land on Mars – or why it is so difficult – or how cool it would be to do so – you need look no further,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “Perseverance is just getting started, and already has provided some of the most iconic visuals in space exploration history. It reinforces the remarkable level of engineering and precision that is required to build and fly a vehicle to the Red Planet.” NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission captured thrilling footage of its rover landing in Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. The real footage in this video was captured by several cameras that are part of the rover’s entry, descent, and landing suite. The views include a camera looking down from the spacecraft’s descent stage (a kind of rocket-powered jet pack that helps fly the rover to its landing site), a camera on the rover looking up at the descent stage, a camera on the top of the aeroshell (a capsule protecting the rover) looking up at that parachute, and a camera on the bottom of the rover looking down at the Martian surface. The audio embedded in the video comes from the mission control call-outs during entry, descent, and landing.Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Also released Monday was the mission’s first panorama of the rover’s landing location, taken by the two Navigation Cameras located on its mast. The six-wheeled robotic astrobiologist, the fifth rover the agency has landed on Mars, currently is undergoing an extensive checkout of all its systems and instruments.

“This video of Perseverance’s descent is the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “It should become mandatory viewing for young women and men who not only want to explore other worlds and build the spacecraft that will take them there, but also want to be part of the diverse teams achieving all the audacious goals in our future.”

The world’s most intimate view of a Mars landing begins about 230 seconds after the spacecraft entered the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere at 12,500 mph (20,100 kph). The video opens in black, with the camera lens still covered within the parachute compartment. Within less than a second, the spacecraft’s parachute deploys and transforms from a compressed 18-by-26 inch (46-by-66 centimeter) cylinder of nylon, Technora, and Kevlar into a fully inflated 70.5-foot-wide (21.5-meter-wide) canopy – the largest ever sent to Mars. The tens of thousands of pounds of force that the parachute generates in such a short period stresses both the parachute and the vehicle.

“Now we finally have a front-row view to what we call ‘the seven minutes of terror’ while landing on Mars,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission for the agency. “From the explosive opening of the parachute to the landing rockets’ plume sending dust and debris flying at touchdown, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring.”

The video also captures the heat shield dropping away after protecting Perseverance from scorching temperatures during its entry into the Martian atmosphere. The downward view from the rover sways gently like a pendulum as the descent stage, with Perseverance attached, hangs from the back shell and parachute. The Martian landscape quickly pitches as the descent stage – the rover’s free-flying “jetpack,” which decelerates using rocket engines and then lowers the rover on cables to the surface – breaks free, its eight thrusters engaging to put distance between it and the now-discarded back shell and the parachute.

Then, 80 seconds and 7,000 feet (2,130 meters) later, the cameras capture the descent stage performing the sky crane maneuver over the landing site – the plume of its rocket engines kicking up dust and small rocks that have likely been in place for billions of years. 

“We put the EDL camera system onto the spacecraft not only for the opportunity to gain a better understanding of our spacecraft’s performance during entry, descent, and landing, but also because we wanted to take the public along for the ride of a lifetime – landing on the surface of Mars,” said Dave Gruel, lead engineer for Mars 2020 Perseverance’s EDL camera and microphone subsystem at JPL. “We know the public is fascinated with Mars exploration, so we added the EDL Cam microphone to the vehicle because we hoped it could enhance the experience, especially for visually-impaired space fans, and engage and inspire people around the world.”

The footage ends with Perseverance’s aluminum wheels making contact with the surface at 1.61 mph (2.6 kph), and then pyrotechnically fired blades sever the cables connecting it to the still-hovering descent stage. The descent stage then climbs and accelerates away in the preplanned flyaway maneuver.

“If this were an old Western movie, I’d say the descent stage was our hero riding slowly into the setting Sun, but the heroes are actually back here on Earth,” said Matt Wallace, Mars 2020 Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL. “I’ve been waiting 25 years for the opportunity to see a spacecraft land on Mars. It was worth the wait. Being able to share this with the world is a great moment for our team.”

Five commercial off-the-shelf cameras located on three different spacecraft components collected the imagery. Two cameras on the back shell, which encapsulated the rover on its journey, took pictures of the parachute inflating. A camera on the descent stage provided a downward view – including the top of the rover – while two on the rover chassis offered both upward and downward perspectives.

The rover team continues its initial inspection of Perseverance’s systems and its immediate surroundings. Monday, the team will check out five of the rover’s seven instruments and take the first weather observations with the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer instrument. In the coming days, a 360-degree panorama of Jezero by the Mastcam-Z should be transmitted down, providing the highest resolution look at the road ahead.

More About the Mission

A key objective of Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith.

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

For more about Perseverance:

https://www.nasa.gov/perseverance

and

https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020

For more information about NASA’s Mars missions, go to:

https://www.nasa.gov/mars

To see more images from today’s news release, go to:

https://www.nasa.gov/content/images-from-the-perseverance-mars-rover-feb-22-2021-press-briefing

To see images as they come down from the rover and vote on the favorite of the week, go to:

https://go.nasa.gov/perseverance-raw-images

SCIENTISTS DETECT “RINGING” IN THE EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE

OUR PLANET’S ATMOSPHERE IS RINGING JUST LIKE A BELL.

Air Bell

According to a new study by an international team of researchers, the Earth’s entire atmosphere vibrates much like a ringing bell — a low-pitched fundamental tone alongside higher-pitched “overtones.”

The discovery could help scientists better predict weather patterns and understand the makeup of our atmosphere.

“This finally resolves a longstanding and classic issue in atmospheric science, but it also opens a new avenue of research to understand both the processes that excite the waves and the processes that act to damp the waves,” co-author Kevin Hamilton, a professor at the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii, said in a statement.

Atmo Reso

The atmospheric resonances were first proposed at the beginning of the 19th century by French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace, whose dynamic theory of ocean tides has since allowed scientists to predict deformations in a planet’s atmosphere.

The tones, according to Hamilton and his collaborators, are created by massive pressure waves that travel around the globe. Each wave corresponds to each of these different resonant frequencies.

“Our identification of so many modes in real data shows that the atmosphere is indeed ringing like a bell,” Hamilton said.

Wave Modes

The new study includes a detailed analysis of pressure observations spanning 38 years. The researchers found dozens of separate waves circling the Earth in a checkerboard pattern.

“For these rapidly moving wave modes, our observed frequencies and global patterns match those theoretically predicted very well,” lead author Takatoshi Sakazaki, assistant professor at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Science, said in the statement. “It is exciting to see the vision of Laplace and other pioneering physicists so completely validated after two centuries.”

Mars Madness: A closer look at Jezero Crater, Perseverance’s landing site

Jezero Crater once could have been a prime location for martian microbial mats. And Perseverance aims to find out if any Martian fossils were left behind.

Jezero Crater

Mars’ Jezero Crater was once home to a river delta. That history, and the potential for finding signs of ancient alien life, pushed NASA to pick Jezero as the landing site for its Perseverance rover.NASA/JPL-CaltechBillions of years ago, an enormous space rock struck Mars and excavated a 750-mile-wide (1,200 kilometers) crater now called the Isidis impact basin. But the cosmos wasn’t done yet. Another smaller strike inside the basin later produced an embedded crater that’s since been dubbed Jezero Crater. The overlapping pair of impacts uniquely changed the rocks in the region, helping to create a special landscape that scientists think may have once been friendly to life. 

In just a few short weeks, NASA’s Perseverance rover will begin to survey the area “in person.” 

Jezero Crater: A varied landscape

Based on spacecraft imagery, researchers think Jezero Crater was once home to a lush river delta. Deltas form as rivers drop sediment into relatively placid, larger bodies of water — like lakes and oceans. And that process of deposition creates a number of varied environments.about:blankabout:blank

When Mars was still young and wet, and life was likely just taking hold on Earth, Jezero Crater was home to a 1,600-foot-deep (500 m) lake. Scientists think a network of rivers probably fed into this site, making it a prime place for life to have evolved on the Red Planet. 

And that’s why NASA chose to explore it. The idea of a persistent wetland on Mars was enough to convince astronomers to select Jezero Crater as the landing site for NASA’s Perseverance rover, as well as its companion the Ingenuity helicopter

Jezero Crater — named after the small town of Jezero, Bosnia — spans roughly 28 miles (45 kilometers), giving the rover plenty of room to roam. (More than a decade ago, the International Astronomical Union, the organization responsible for naming planetary bodies, decided to name a number of scientifically important Mars craters after small towns around Earth.)

Perseverance is a nearly car-sized rover that’s designed to characterize Mars’ geology and study its ancient climate. Along the way, it will hunt for signs of ancient alien life — specifically, microbial life — and collect soil and rock samples that will eventually be sent back to Earth for further study at world-class laboratories.  

And Jezero Crater provides the perfect place for Perseverance to pick up an array of promising samples.about:blankabout:blank

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover will land in this ancient river delta inside Jezero Crater.NASA/MSSS/USGS

A long path to landing at Jezero

In 1976, NASA’s twin Viking landers touched down on Mars within just a few months of each other. They didn’t have wheels to roam the surface, yet the missions still changed how astronomers looked at Mars. 

The Viking landers found clear signs of river valleys, wet weather, and erosion. Plus, a soil experiment on Viking even found tentative evidence of microbial life. Scientists later determined that was a false detection, but taken together, the Viking missions’ discoveries served to build excitement for better understanding Mars’ ancient climate. And that excitement help spur further exploration.

In the decades since, NASA has sent a handful of rovers to Mars to build on those findings. And each one has been more sophisticated than the last. 

The latest robotic roamer before Perseverance, NASA’s Curiosity rover, landed in 2012 with the goal if determining “if Mars was ever able to support microbial life.” The robot traversed more than a dozen miles within Gale Crater, a former lakebed, providing new insights into Mars’ ancient climate, current geology, and watery past. 

That’s helped whet astronomers’ appetites for exploring other ancient sites on Mars that once held water. So, in preparation for Perseverance’s trip, astronomers considered some 60 candidate landing sites over the course of several years. Different groups of researchers had their own ideas about which location was best, and the landing site debate was often contentious. But as it played out, it became increasingly clear Jezero Crater has once been a vast wetland. about:blankabout:blank

jezerocrater

Mars’ Jezero Crater is the future landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL

A flowing river delta

In 2015, research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets showed that now-dry Jezero Crater was home to water twice in Mars’ past. 

The scientists used satellite observations to conduct what geologists call a “source to sink” analysis, where they trace a variety of minerals in the martian watershed back to their original source upstream. For example, clays, which form in the presence of water, seem to have been picked up from surrounding areas and dropped into the crater lake by flowing water. 

Interestingly, the team’s analysis showed the Jezero Crater served an active watershed during two separate time periods before the water dried up around 3.5 billion years ago, upping the chances of martian life once gaining a foothold. The water was likely so high at one point that it spilled over the crater walls. A number of papers since then have backed up those findings. 

Astronomers now envision Jezero Crater as a dynamic system, with water flowing both in and out over long periods of time in the past. NASA would love to sample the rocks at the center of the delta, where the water would’ve been the deepest. The muddy deposits there could preserve a record of organic matter, the way similar rocks do on Earth. And perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that Jezero Crater may have once been home to microbial mats, like pond scum forming at a lake’s edge. Certain minerals could’ve preserved that pond scum, forming what scientists call stromatolites — a kind of layered rock that’s essentially a fossil.

The Perseverance rover will keep a careful eye out for this kind of Mars fossil deposits. And — as it pokes, prods, and samples the soil — the rocks in Jezero Crater should offer new clues about whether life once existed in the early, wet days on Mars. 

US Military Shocking Alien Encounters In Iraq Revealed

Today we bring you insane declassified footage from the United States military and their crazy encounter with alien UFO’s in Iraq! You have to see this shocking video to come to your own conclusions, but there is obviously some unexplainable UFO in the skies and if the US military can’t identify it, maybe aliens are finally ready to make contact!

‘Touchdown confirmed!’ Perseverance landing marks new dawn for Mars science

A sky crane gently lowered Perseverance to a safe landing before crashing itself at a far remove. NASA/JPL-CALTECH

‘Touchdown confirmed!’ Perseverance landing marks new dawn for Mars science

It’s a new day on Mars. NASA’s $2.7 billion Perseverance rover has successfully landed in Jezero crater, alighting just 35 meters away from hazardous boulders it had identified during descent. At about 3:55 p.m. EST, confirmation came back of the rover safely touching its wheels down, resulting in exuberant but socially distanced applause from double-masked engineers at the mission’s control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“Touchdown confirmed,” said Swati Mohan, the JPL engineer narrating the landing attempt. “Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars!” Soon after, a camera returned the first image, showing dust, rocks, and the shadow of the rover looming over the black-and-white martian surface.

The rover landed some 2 kilometers southeast of Jezero’s fossilized delta, locating a safe flat spot, tilting only 1.2°, amid a field of hazards (a map in the control room showed spots of safe green swarmed by dangerous red). “We did successfully find that parking lot, and have a safe rover on the ground,” said Allen Chen, the head of the rover’s landing team at JPL. The region is informally dubbed “Canyon de Chelly,” after a national monument in Navajo tribal lands.

The rover’s descent was as dramatic as it was choreographed. Plunging through the martian atmosphere while experiencing temperatures of up to 1300°C, the rover deployed a parachute as big as a basketball court as it approached its 7-kilometer-wide landing zone, the most precisely targeted of any NASA Mars lander. After identifying a safe haven free of dunes and boulders, the rover and its sky crane—a sort of rocket-propelled hovercraft—detached from the parachute.

The sky crane, falling at a walking pace, unspooled the rover to the surface with nylon cords. Finally, moments before touchdown, the rover deployed its six cleated aluminum wheels. The sky crane cut the cords and flew off to crash a safe distance away. The news, relayed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with an 11-minute delay, was greeted with cheers by those in JPL’s control room. Mars had a new martian.

The touchdown marks NASA’s ninth successful landing on the martian surface out of 10 tries. The Soviet Union is the first and only other nation to have performed the feat, in 1971, when its Mars 3 lander survived for 2 minutes. China, whose Tianwen-1 arrived at Mars a week ago, will attempt to put a rover and lander on the surface in several months.

Perseverance’s landing is likely to ensure additional attempts: NASA and the European Space Agency have begun to develop the two multibillion-dollar missions, which could launch in 2026 or 2028, needed to collect the samples gathered by Perseverance. If the samples make it to Earth a few years after that, researchers will analyze them for signs of life that could be preserved in fossilized microbial mats or, more likely, a lumpy distribution of organic molecules. Other minerals could capture the frozen imprint of the martian magnetic field as it failed, which allowed the ancient atmosphere—and, presumably, the warm climate—to escape to space.

Jezero crater is a great place to look for those clues: It holds a playground of habitable environments. Some 3.8 billion years ago, a thicker and warmer martian atmosphere allowed water to flow on the surface: One river penetrated Jezero, creating a delta of sediments and filling the crater nearly to the rim with water. Life could have found a niche in delta deposits, ancient shorelines, or hydrothermal springs exposed in the crater wall—all of which the rover should reach in its first 2 years of operation as it climbs up from the crater floor. It’s a “4-billion-year window into planetary evolution,” says Katie Stack Morgan, the mission’s deputy project scientist at JPL.

Perseverance’s first picture, taken through a transparent lens cap from underneath the rover, shows it avoided hazardous boulders. NASA/JPL-CALTECH

But first the rover rests. Today is Sol 0, as one martian day is called. Perseverance will sit still after the landing, peering through transparent dust covers on its cameras to assess its location and erecting its high-gain antenna, used for direct communication to Earth. And then it will take a nap, using its radioactive thermoelectric generator to recharge its batteries, says Jennifer Trosper, the mission’s deputy project manager at JPL. “The rover’s had a long day.”

Over the next few days, the rover will raise its mast 2 meters above the surface and its main cameras will fix on the Sun, orienting the rover. The team will begin to image the landing site and the rover itself, checking the health of its instruments. By early next week, any video or audio captured during the rover’s landing should be relayed to Earth, the first time any Mars landing has been captured in such detail.

Each martian sol is half an hour longer than 1 day on Earth. To maximize the robot’s operations during daylight hours, the rover team will operate on “Mars time” for the first few months. Eventually, that will cause team members to experience a sort of perpetual jet lag, with team members sleeping during the day and working at night. And, unlike the similar schedule used for Curiosity—Perseverance’s predecessor that landed in 2012—engineers and scientists will largely work from home because of social distancing guidelines. Trosper, a veteran of several rover missions, is ready for the upheaval to her schedule: “I finally purchased a sleep mask,” she says. (She already had earplugs.)

Over the next month, the rover will remain in a commissioning phase. Its five-jointed, 2-meter-long robotic arm, which carries the rover’s rotary-percussive coring drill and several of its most sensitive cameras, will be extended and put through “calisthenics.” And a second robotic arm—this one inside the rover’s gut and designed to manipulate its cache of 43 stored ultraclean sample tubes—will be run through its paces. Sometime after that, it will conduct a first 5-meter test drive.

Illustration of the Perseverance Rover decelerating into the Martian Atmosphere

The first order of business after the monthlong commissioning phase will be loosing the 1.8-kilogram Ingenuity helicopter, currently attached to the rover’s belly. The pint-size Ingenuity is a technology demonstration, a bid to fly a rotor-powered vehicle on another planet for the first time. Perseverance will drive to flat terrain and drop Ingenuity to the surface. The helicopter will then furiously spin its rotors to ascend in the thin martian air. Four additional flights could follow, with the copter expected to have a total of 30 days to demonstrate its chops. “It will be truly a Wright brothers moment, but on another planet,” says MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager at JPL.

After that, Perseverance’s science campaign, which includes an international team of 450 researchers, can begin in earnest. The rover will travel at a swift pace compared with Curiosity, capable of driving 200 meters per day thanks to improved automation and upgraded wheels. By the end of its 2-year primary mission, the team aims to collect at least 20 rock samples. The team has already scouted several possible routes, and the first drilling is likely to come this summer, says Ken Farley, the mission’s project scientist and a geologist at the California Institute of Technology.

The rover landed near a divide between two geological units on the lakebed targeted by the mission. One, the “mafic floor unit,” is potentially volcanic, believed to sit below the lakebed, marking an eruption that occurred before the water arrived. Such rocks contain trace radioactive elements that decay at a certain rate, so lab scientists on Earth could date the eruption and bracket the age of the lake.

The other rocks are rich in olivine and carbonate, potentially formed by ash deposited onto the crater after the water vanished. If the ash is also volcanic, those dates could constrain the lake’s demise. Put together, the two dates would tell a reliable story of the formation of the lake and delta and this wetter period in Mars’s history.

But the geology of each layer— inferred from orbit—is deeply uncertain, with scientists not even agreeing on the order in which they were deposited. That’s why, Farley says, the team is likely to target this boundary. “This is a great place to be because one of the things that scientists love to do is look to see how two different geologic units come together.”

After exploring that interface, the cliffs of Jezero’s fossilized delta will then loom; the fine-grained clay-bearing mudstones buried there would be a natural target. “The delta,” Farley says, “is what brought us to this location in the first place—a spectacular piece of geology.” On Earth, such clays blanket living things and preserve them as fossils. In similar clays at Gale crater, the Curiosity rover—which remains operational—detected traces of complex organic compounds that resembled kerogen, the feedstock of oil. But it could not determine whether the compounds were produced by ancient life or deposited by meteorites.

A new 7 minutes of terror: See the nail-biting Mars landing stages of NASA’s Perseverance rover in this video

There’s a rocket-powered sky crane involved.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is only a few days away from its daring seven-minute landing on Mars, where it will touch down on the most challenging terrain ever targeted by a Red Planet mission. 

On Feb. 18, the car-size Perseverance — the heart of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission — will attempt to land inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater. The entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of a Mars mission is often referred to as “seven minutes of terror,” because the sequence is so harrowing and happens faster than radio signals can reach Earth from Mars. That means the spacecraft is on its own once it enters the Martian atmosphere — and a gripping new video from NASA shows how the rover will pull off such an amazing feat. 

“Space always has a way of throwing us curveballs and surprising us,” Swati Mohan, Mars 2020 guidance, navigation and control operations lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, says in the video. “There are many things that have to go right to get Perseverance on to the ground safely.”

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover landing: Everything you need to know

Diagram of the key steps in the Mars 2020 mission's entry, descent and landing sequence of Feb. 18, 2021.
A diagram of the key steps in the Mars 2020 mission’s entry, descent and landing sequence of Feb. 18, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The EDL phase begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere and ends with a rocket-powered sky crane lowering Perseverance safely to the surface of the Red Planet. The entire EDL sequence takes roughly seven minutes, during which many crucial steps must take place. The stakes are very high on Thursday for Mars 2020, which will hunt for signs of ancient life and collect samples for humanity’s first interplanetary sample-return campaign

“There is a lot counting on this,” Al Chen of JPL, Mars 2020 entry, descent and landing lead, says in the video. “This is the first leg of our sample return relay race — there is a lot of work on the line.”

Shortly before reaching the Red Planet, Perseverance will shed its cruise stage, which helped fly the rover to Mars over the last 6.5 months. The next big milestone is atmospheric entry, when the rover will barrel into the Martian skies at about 12,100 mph (19,500 kph). 

The vehicle is equipped with a heat shield that will protect the rover from the intense heat generated during its initial descent and also help slow the spacecraft down. At about 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the surface, the spacecraft will deploy its 70.5-foot-wide (21.5 meters) supersonic parachute — the largest ever sent to another planet, according to the video. 

Soon after, the heat shield will separate and drop away from the spacecraft, exposing Perseverance to the Martian atmosphere for the first time and jumpstarting the vehicle’s Terrain-Relative Navigation system, which is a new autopilot technology that will help guide the rover to a safe landing on Mars. 

“Perseverance will be the first mission to use Terrain-Relative Navigation,” Mohan says in the video. “While it’s descending on the parachute, it will actually be taking images of the surface of Mars and determining where to go based on what it sees. This is finally like landing with your eyes open — having this new technology really allows Perseverance to land in much more challenging terrain than Curiosity, or any previous Mars mission, could.” 

Perseverance’s EDL sequence is very similar to that of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012. However, Perseverance is slightly bigger and equipped with more advanced scientific instruments, including new technology that will help guide the spacecraft through its difficult landing. 

Scientists believe an 820-foot-deep (250 m) lake filled Jezero Crater about 3.9 billion to 3.5 billion years ago. The area also has a prominent river delta, where water once flowed through and deposited lots of sediment. While this landing site offers geologically rich terrain, the rocks, craters and cliffs make it a very challenging place for Perseverance to land. 

“The science team identified Jezero Crater as basically an ancient lake bed and one of the most promising places to look for evidence of ancient microbial life, and to collect samples for future return to Earth,” JPL’s Matt Smith, flight director for Mars 2020 cruise operations, says in the video. “The problem is, it is a much more hazardous place to land.” 

During the final minute before Perseverance lands on the Red Planet, the mission’s sky-crane descent stage will fire up eight retrorockets, or Mars landing engines. Then, the sky crane will lower the rover safely to the ground on three nylon cables. Once the rover has made landfall, it will cut the cables connecting it to the descent stage, which will then fly off and crash-land safely away from Perseverance. 

“Surviving that seven minutes is really just the beginning for Perseverance,” Chen says in the video. “Its job — being the first leg of sample-return; to go look for those signs of past life on Mars — all that can’t start until we get Perseverance safely to the ground, and then that’s when the real mission begins.” 

Scientists Are Pretty Sure They Found a Portal to the Fifth Dimension

In a new study, scientists say they can explain dark matter by positing a particle that links to a fifth dimension.

Photo credit: Xuanyu Han - Getty Images
Photo credit: Xuanyu Han – Getty Images
  • Dark matter could be the result of fermions pushed into a warped fifth dimension.
  • This theory builds on an idea first stated in 1999, but is unique in its findings.
  • Dark matter makes up 75 percent of matter but has never been observed … yet.

While the “warped extra dimension” (WED) is a trademark of a popular physics model first introduced in 1999, this research, published in The European Physical Journal C, is the first to cohesively use the theory to explain the long-lasting dark matter problem within particle physics.

Our knowledge of the physical universe relies on the idea of dark matter, which takes up the vast majority of matter in the universe. Dark matter is a kind of pinch hitter that helps scientists explain how gravity works, because a lot of features would dissolve or fall apart without an “x factor” of dark matter. Even so, dark matter doesn’t disrupt the particles we do see and “feel,” meaning it must have other special properties as well.

“[T]here are still some questions which do not have an answer within the [standard model of physics],” the scientists, from Spain and Germany, explain in their study. “One of the most significant examples is the so-called hierarchy problem, the question why the Higgs boson is much lighter than the characteristic scale of gravity. [The standard model of physics] cannot accommodate some other observed phenomena. One of the most striking examples is the existence of dark matter.”

The new study seeks to explain the presence of dark matter using a WED model. The scientists studied fermion masses, which they believe could be communicated into the fifth dimension through portals, creating dark matter relics and “fermionic dark matter” within the fifth dimension.

Could dimension-traveling fermions explain at least some of the dark matter scientists have so far not been able to observe? “We know that there is no viable [dark matter] candidate in the [standard model of physics],” the scientists say, “so already this fact asks for the presence of new physics.”

Basically, a key piece of mathematics creates bulk masses of fermions that are manifested in the so-called fifth dimensional warped space. This pocket “dark sector” is one possible way to explain the huge amount of dark matter that, so far, has eluded detection using any traditional measurements designed for the standard model of physics. Fermions jammed through a portal to a warped fifth dimension could be “acting as” dark matter.

How would we observe this kind of dark matter in order to verify it? To date, this is the holdup on many different theories of dark matter. But all it would take to identify fermionic dark matter in a warped fifth dimension would be the right kind of gravitational wave detector, something growing in prevalence around the world. Indeed, the answer to the dark matter conundrum could be just around the corner.

British military’s space campaign picks up steam with ‘Skynet’ upgrade

The British military wants to replace its existing ground station for the Skynet program, pictured here, with new equipment. (Photo by Paul Bennett)

LONDON – Viasat is upgrading Skynet satellite communications capabilities to enable the British military to comply with the latest integrated waveform requirement known as IW Phase 2, the company said on Feb. 8.

The deal was signed in the second quarter of 2020 but the UK arm of the Carlsbad, California-based communications company has only now been able to announce that it is undertaking the upgrade to ultra-high-frequency satellite communications network control stations in the Skynet system.

The upgrade is one in a spate of military-related space announcements in the last few days, which have seen the Ministry of Defence name its first Space Command boss and Lockheed Martin tie up with a rocket supplier for its first vertical launch from a UK spaceport.

The satellite communications contract was awarded by Airbus Defence and Space, the current private finance initiative operator of the Skynet satellites and associated ground control stations.

Airbus operates a clutch of Skynet 4 and 5 satellites and is building another spacecraft known as Skynet 6A.

The Airbus deal to operate Skynet nears its end, and the winner of a competition to operate the ground control stations beyond 2022 is expected soon.

Viasat is supplying its visual integrated satellite communications information, operation and networking software platform, known as Vision, to meet the IW Phase2 requirement.

Britain and its allies are in the process of switching to the new integrated waveform software in order to retain interoperability with U.S. military upgrades.

Last August, Viasat announced it had successfully used Vision in the upgrade of NATO satellite control stations to comply with the new requirement.

Viasat is not a newcomer to Skynet’s supply chain. Airbus has been using earlier versions of the company’s integrated waveform technology in the system since 2012.

Officials hope the upgrade will enhance mission situation awareness and operational insights on the communication system.

Steve Beeching, Viasat UK’s managing director said the upgrade is key to expanding Skynet capabilities.

“With Vision, the network operators will gain more assured, reliable, real-time communications capabilities to reconfigure UHF satellite networks to meet new tactical profiles—as battlefield and warfighter requirements dynamically expand and contract,” Beeching said.

The improved capabilities come at a time of increasing focus on military space by the British. Last year the British government acquired a stake in failed satellite constellation operator OneWeb as part of a deal to revive the operation.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson signaled space as a sector to watch when he announced in a speech last November that the government was intending to raise defense spending by an extra £16.5 billion, or $23 billion, over four years.

In total the British say they are going to raise spending in the defense sector by £24.1 billion over the period.

Space budgets are likely to be a major beneficiary, although details will likely have to await publication of a government integrated review of defense, security, foreign policy and overseas develop policy targeted for the spring.

A defense white paper about defense equipment plans is expected immediately following the review.

Conventional weapon programs are expected to be victims of cuts to make room for investments in space, cyber and other new technologies.

Defense space activities continue to progress here even without spending plan details being public.

Last week the MoD named Air Commodore Paul Godfrey as the first commander of the new UK Space Command.

Godfrey, soon to be promoted to Air Vice-Marshal, is no stranger to the U.S. military. His previous position saw him responsible for the planning and employment of coalition air and space power across the Middle East within the U.S. Air Force Combined Air and Space Operations Center.

Based at RAF High Wycombe, Space Command will be a joint command, staffed from all three arms of the military, the civil service and industry. It brings together under a single two-star military commander: space operations, space workforce generation and space capabilities.

Some of those capabilities may be enhanced by an announcement Feb. 8 that Lockheed Martin UK has contracted ABL Space Systems to launch a rocket from the Shetland Space Centre being created on Britain’s most northerly island.

ABL’s new RS1 rocket is set to become the first ever vehicle to vertically launch small satellites from the UK.

If the Lockheed Martin-led work, known as the UK Pathfinder Launch program, goes to plan, lift-off of the rocket from the Shetland island of Unst is set for next year.

Once the RS1 is in orbit the rocket will release a small launch orbital maneuvering tug built by Reading, southern England-based Moog.

The tug can deploy up to six miniaturized cube satellites. Two of the cubesats deployed will be Lockheed Martin’s own technology demonstration spacecraft.

The RS1 is currently in the final stages of development and a maiden launch is planned for the second quarter of this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.21

Twitter lights up with UFO talk after light seen in Florida sky, turns out to be Navy missile

It’s not the first time a rocket or missile test has been mistaken for aliens

Navy fires trident-II SLBM missile test from a submarine off the coast of Florida

A strange light over the South Florida sky Tuesday evening had many residents bracing for extraterrestrial contact, but it turned out to be the Navy testing a missile. 

Floridians will be disappointed (or maybe relieved) to find out that it was just the Navy testing a Trident-II ballistic missile from a submarine. 

“This test was part of a scheduled, ongoing system evaluation test,” a Navy spokesperson told Fox News. “Launches are conducted on a frequent, recurring basis to ensure the continued reliability of the system. Each test activity provides valuable information about our systems, thus contributing to assurance in our capabilities.” 

The Navy doesn’t announce missile testing beforehand because the info is classified. 

The Federation of American Scientists explains that the Trident-II “is a three-stage, solid propellant, inertially guided FBM with a range of more than 4,000 nautical miles.”

It’s not the first time that a rocket or missile test was mistaken for aliens.

Elon Musk poked fun at the misunderstanding a few years ago when a rocket launched by SpaceX was widely mistaken for a UFO or, as he put it, a “Nuclear alien UFO from North Korea.”

Chinese spacecraft enters Mars’ orbit, joining Arab ship

US rover set to arrive next week amid unusual flurry of activity at ‘Red Planet’

BEIJING – A Chinese spacecraft went into orbit around Mars on Wednesday on an expedition to land a rover on the surface and scout for signs of ancient life, authorities announced in a landmark step in the country’s most ambitious deep-space mission yet.

The arrival of Tianwen-1 after a journey of seven months and nearly 300 million miles (475 million kilometers) is part of an unusual burst of activity at Mars: A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around the red planet on Tuesday, and a U.S. rover is set to arrive next week.

China’s space agency said the five-ton combination orbiter and rover fired its engine to reduce its speed, allowing it to be captured by Mars’ gravity.

“Entering orbit has been successful … making it our country’s first artificial Mars satellite,” the agency announced.

The mission is bold even for a space program that has racked up a steady stream of achievements and brought prestige to China’s ruling Communist Party.

In this undated photo released by the China National Space Administration, a view of the planet Mars is captured by China's Tianwen-1 Mars probe from a distance of 2.2 million kilometers (1.37 million miles). (CNSA/Xinhua via AP)

In this undated photo released by the China National Space Administration, a view of the planet Mars is captured by China’s Tianwen-1 Mars probe from a distance of 2.2 million kilometers (1.37 million miles). (CNSA/Xinhua via AP) ((CNSA/Xinhua via AP))

If all goes as planned, the rover will separate from the spacecraft in a few months and touch down safely on Mars, making China only the second nation to pull off such a feat. The rover, a solar-powered vehicle about the size of a golf cart, will collect data on underground water and look for evidence that the planet may have once harbored microscopic life.

Tianwen, the title of an ancient poem, means “Quest for Heavenly Truth.”

Landing a spacecraft on Mars is notoriously difficult. Smashed Russian and European spacecraft litter the landscape along with a failed U.S. lander. About a dozen orbiters missed the mark. In 2011, a Mars-bound Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn’t make it out of Earth orbit.

Only the U.S. has successfully touched down on Mars — eight times, beginning with two Viking missions in the 1970s. An American lander and rover are in operation today.

China’s attempt will involve a parachute, rocket firings and airbags. Its proposed landing site is a vast, rock-strewn plain called Utopia Planitia, where the U.S. Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.

Before the arrival this week of the Chinese spacecraft and the UAE’s orbiter, six other spacecraft were already operating around Mars: three U.S., two European and one Indian.

The world tallest tower, Burj Khalifa is lit up with a laser show to celebrate the Hope Probe entering Mars orbit as a part of the Emirates Mars mission, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. The spacecraft from the UAE swung into orbit around Mars in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. It is the first of three robotic explorers arriving at the red planet over the next week and a half. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

The world tallest tower, Burj Khalifa is lit up with a laser show to celebrate the Hope Probe entering Mars orbit as a part of the Emirates Mars mission, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. The spacecraft from the UAE swung into orbit around Mars in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. It is the first of three robotic explorers arriving at the red planet over the next week and a half. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

All three of the latest missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment between Earth and Mars that happens only once every two years.

A NASA rover called Perseverance is aiming for a Feb. 18 landing. It, too, will search for signs of ancient microscopic life, collecting rocks that will be returned to Earth in about a decade.

China’s secretive, military-linked space program has racked up a series of achievements. In December, it brought moon rocks back to Earth for the first time since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spacecraft on the little-explored far side of the moon in 2019.

China is also building a permanent space station and planning a crewed lunar mission and a possible permanent research base on the moon, though no dates have yet been proposed.

While most contacts with NASA are blocked by Congress and China is not a participant in the International Space Station, it has increasingly cooperated with the European Space Agency and countries such as Argentina, France and Austria. Early on, China cooperated with the Soviet Union and then Russia.

NASA’s Mars rover is about to land in the perfect place to hunt for alien fossils: an ancient lake bed called Jezero Crater

  • NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to land Thursday in the dried-up Martian lake bed Jezero Crater.
  • It’s ideal for looking for alien fossils because a river deposited microbe-trapping minerals there.
  • Perseverance will search the lake bottom, shorelines, and river delta for signs of ancient microbes.

Billions of years ago, Mars was a water world with rivers and lakes. Microbes might have swum in those waters, leaving their imprints on an ancient Martian lake bed called Jezero Crater.

NASA is sending a rover there to hunt for such fossils. The $2.4 billion SUV-sized robot, called Perseverance, is set to land in Jezero Crater on Thursday.

More than 3.5 billion years ago, rivers spilled over the edge of the 28-mile-wide crater, keeping it filled with water. This alien body of water was about the size of Lake Tahoe. The rivers probably carried clay minerals into Lake Jezero, and if microbes lived in the water, they could have gotten trapped. That would mean that today, there may be distinct fossil rocks called stromatolites at the bottom of the lake bed, along what used to be the shoreline or in the dried-up river delta.

This makes Jezero Crater one of the best places in our solar system to search for evidence of alien life.

On Earth, the oldest signs of life are 3.5 billion-year-old stromatolites found in ancient shallow lake beds — exactly what Perseverance will look for on Mars.

jezero crater mars lake water illustration
An illustration of Jezero Crater as it may have looked billions of years go on Mars, when it was a lake. 

“This is a tantalizing similarity,” Ken Farley, the project scientist for Perseverance, said in a recent press briefing. “It would, of course, be a fabulous scientific discovery to find that life existed beyond Earth.”

Perseverance is designed to scour Jezero Crater, collect about 40 samples that could contain signs of ancient microbes, and cache them in special tubes so that a future mission can bring them to Earth.

NASA had considered the crater as a destination for previous missions, but its steep cliffs, sand dunes, and boulder fields make it a dangerous place for robots to land. Now new technologies equip Perseverance to take on the treacherous terrain.CME GroupLearn moreCME GroupLearn more

A journey from the lake bottom to the crater rim

NASA has carved out a roughly 15-mile route for Perseverance on Mars that takes advantage of the diversified landscape of Jezero Crater.

perseverance mars rover path nasa jezero crate
A route Perseverance could take across Jezero Crater. 

“This is a pathway that connects together all of the different habitable environments that we think existed within this lake and in its surroundings,” Farley said. “This is a long traverse. It’ll take many years for us to do this. The reason we do this, though, is that this will allow us to come up with the best possible set of samples to be brought back to Earth, to answer the major questions that we have about Mars and about life.”

Perseverance aims to land near the cliffs of the fan-shaped river delta — a deposit of mud and clay that the river left as it flowed into the lake.

jezero crater river delta mars perseverance rover landing site
The remains of an ancient delta at the edge of Jezero Crater, captured by the ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. 

The rover might land atop the delta’s cliffs, or it could first explore the muddy lake bottom for fossils and then climb to the delta. That depends on which spots its autonomous navigation system chooses for landing.

In the image below, the layer of green between the delta and the crater rim is where scientists think Lake Jezero’s shoreline was. It appears to be rich with carbonates: minerals that are especially good at trapping microbes to form stromatolites.

nasa mars 2020 rover landing site jezero crater
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured colorful spectral data showing clays and carbonates deposited across the Jezero Crater river delta. The green indicates carbonate minerals. 

If that’s the case, Perseverance could simply amble along the carbonate beaches of Lake Jezero, scanning for stromatolites.

The rover’s primary mission to look for signs of life lasts one Martian year (two Earth years). If the robot is still kicking when that’s over, its extended mission will involve climbing the 1,600-foot rim of the crater.

Jezero Crater was most likely originally created when an object (probably a meteorite) collided with Mars. The crash exposed rock layers deep within the planet’s crust. So at the crater rim, Perseverance aims to study these layers to learn more about Martian geology.

perseverance mars rover jezero crater
An illustration of Perseverance beneath the cliffs of Jezero Crater. 

The heat from that impact may have also given rise to hot springs, which would have deposited their own minerals that could also hold signs of aliens.

“That’s why we’re so excited about Jezero Crater, because it has so many different ways that it could preserve signs of life,” Briony Horgan, a geologist on the Perseverance science team, said in the briefing.

Even if Perseverance finds no fossils, that will be a major nonfinding. To date, every habitable environment on Earth that scientists have examined has hosted life.

“If we do a deep exploration of Jezero Crater with the rover and its instruments … and we find no evidence of life, we will have shown that in at least one place, there is a habitable environment that is not inhabited,” Farley said. “If that’s what we find, it would tell us something important: that habitability alone is not sufficient, that something else has to be present — some, perhaps, magic spark — that causes life to occur.”

Machines Are Inventing New Math We’ve Never Seen

Pushing the boundaries of math requires great minds to pose fascinating problems. What if a machine could do it? Now, scientists created one that can.

Machines Are Inventing New Math We've Never Seen

A good conjecture has something like a magnetic pull for the mind of a mathematician. At its best, a mathematical conjecture states something extremely profound in an extremely precise and succinct way, crying out for proof or disproof.

But posing a good conjecture is difficult. It must be deep enough to provoke curiosity and investigation, but not so obscure as to be impossible to glimpse in the first place. Many of the most famous problems in mathematics are conjectures, and not solutions, such as Fermat’s last theorem. 

Now, a group of researchers from the Technion in Israel and Google in Tel Aviv presented an automated conjecturing system that they call the Ramanujan Machine, named after the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who developed thousands of innovative formulas in number theory with almost no formal training. The software system has already conjectured several original and important formulas for universal constants that show up in mathematics. The work was published last week in Nature

One of the formulas created by the Machine can be used to compute the value of a universal constant called Catalan’s number more efficiently than any previous human-discovered formulas. But the Ramanujan Machine is imagined not to take over mathematics, so much as provide a sort of feeding line for existing mathematicians. 

As the researchers explain in the paper, the entire discipline of mathematics can be broken down into two processes, crudely speaking: conjecturing things and proving things. Given more conjectures, there is more grist for the mill of the mathematical mind, more for mathematicians to prove and explain.

That’s not to say their system is unambitious. As the researchers put it, the Ramanujan Machine is “trying to replace the mathematical intuition of great mathematicians and providing leads to further mathematical research.”

The researchers’ system is not, however, a universal mathematics machine. Rather, it conjectures formulas for how to compute the value of specific numbers called universal constants. The most famous of such constants, pi, gives the ratio between a circle’s circumference and diameter. Pi can be called universal because it shows up all across mathematics, and constant because it maintains the same value for every circle, no matter the size.

In particular, the researchers’ system produces conjectures for the value of universal constants (like pi), written in terms of elegant formulas called continued fractions. Continued fractions are essentially fractions, but more dizzying. The denominator in a continued fraction includes a sum of two terms, the second of which is itself a fraction, whose denominator itself contains a fraction, and so on, out to infinity.

Continued fractions have long compelled mathematicians with their peculiar combination of simplicity and profundity, with the total value of the fraction often equalling important constants. In addition to being “intrinsically fascinating” for their aesthetics, they are also useful for determining the fundamental properties of the constants, as Robert Doughtery-Bliss and Doron Zeilberger of Rutgers University wrote in a preprint from 2020. 

The Ramanujan Machine is built off of two primary algorithms. These find continued fraction expressions that, with a high degree of confidence, seem to equal universal constants. That confidence is important, as otherwise, the conjectures would be easily discarded and provide little value. 

Each conjecture takes the form of an equation. The idea is that the quantity on the left side of the equals sign, a formula involving a universal constant, should be equal to the quantity on the right, a continued fraction. 

To get to these conjectures, the algorithm picks arbitrary universal constants for the left side and arbitrary continued fractions for the right, and then computes each side separately to a certain precision. If the two sides appear to align, the quantities are calculated to higher precision to make sure their alignment is not a coincidence of imprecision. Critically, formulas already exist to compute the value of universal constants like pi to an arbitrary precision, so that the only obstacle to verifying the sides match is computing time.

Prior to algorithms such as this, mathematicians would have needed to use existing mathematical knowledge and theorems to make such a conjecture. But with the automated conjectures, mathematicians may be able to use them to reverse engineer hidden theorems or more elegant results, as Doughtery-Bliss and Zeilberger have already shown.

But the researchers’ most notable discovery so far is not hidden knowledge, but a new conjecture of surprising importance. This conjecture allows for the computation of Catalan’s constant, a specialized universal constant whose value is needed for many mathematical problems. 

The continued fraction expression of the newly discovered conjecture allows for the most rapid computation yet of Catalan’s constant, beating out prior formulas, which took longer to crank through the computer. This appears to mark a new progress point for computing, somewhat like the first time that computers beat out the chessmasters; but this time, in the game of making conjectures.

E.T. could already be among us and we wouldn’t know, says NASA

Alien life may be so different from us that we wouldn’t even recognize it as life.

An axolotl

Axolotl (STEPHEN DALTON)

In Episode 146, late in the run of Star Trek — The Next Generation, its writers finally addressed an obvious issue with science fiction: How come no matter where we go out there, aliens look roughly like us? Obviously, the real answer is that they’re played by human actors, but science fiction has helped instill in us a prevalent bias toward expecting extraterrestrial beings to have arms, legs, heads, not to mention spines, skin, and so on. Little green men are still men, after all.

But even on earth, we don’t represent the norm. There are many more insects than there are humans, and in the oceans? Yipes. Consider giant tube worms.

Riftia (NOAA PHOTO LIBRARY)

Consider siphnophorae.

Physonect siphonophore (KEVIN RASKOFF)

Why on earth (sorry) should extraterrestrials look like us, or even be recognizable as living beings to our limited imaginations? How do we know they don’t already live among us, floating, slithering, flying nearby?

The director of NASA’s Astrobiology InstitutePenelope Boston, gave a keynote speech recently at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Symposium.

“It’s not like you can walk into a new environment with your lovely robot on some other planet, look at the ground and go gosh it’s life! Instead it’s ‘gosh it’s blue something, and it’s got a copper signal, and I don’t know’ — and then you have to investigate.”https://b39eab230ecb625036c784370573854b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Boston showed the crowd her own rogue’s gallery of omigosh-is-that-alive earthly creatures found in caves.

Gelatinous Glop and pals (PENELOPE BOSTON)

Boston frames this as the great challenge of astrobiology: Simply being able to recognize life when we see it. Our genetic tools fall short when it comes to examining unknown forms, and with her feeling that off-world life may be weird and microbial, we’ll be essentially clueless about who we’re meeting.

It’s not like we can confidently ascertain life-supporting conditions with our limited knowledge. In harsh environments around the globe, we find living creatures where our current understanding tells us there can’t be.

The astrobiologist ended her talk with he warning that we’d better come up with the technology to recognize life in whatever form it appears before we actually meet up with aliens. If we haven’t already.

Astrobiology’s Biggest Stories of 2020

A lot has been achieved, even in an awful year.

tianwen.jpg
With Chang’e-5 having just returned samples from the moon, China’s next extraterrestrial landing (by Tianwen 1, shown in an artist’s conception) will be on Mars in February 2021. (Xinhua)

The year 2020 was a difficult one for most everyone on the planet—what were the biggest stories related to the search for life beyond Earth? It seems fitting that we start with a loss—of the Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico.

The 305-meter-wide radio telescope, which opened for business in 1963, experienced a catastrophic failure when two supporting cables broke—one in August and another in November. The suspended instrument platform fell and crashed into the giant dish on December 1. Arecibo was the world’s largest telescope for decades, and was used for many studies, many of them ground-breaking. These included discovery of the first exoplanet (orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12) in 1992, the detection and characterization of many near-Earth asteroids, and investigating the nature of Fast Radio Bursts, which have led to heated discussion about whether these puzzling objects might be artificial in origin. Arecibo was also the site from which an interstellar radio message was sent out in 1974, with—at least so far—no answer back. And movie aficionados will recall that Contactand GoldenEye both used the telescope as an unforgettable film location. The loss for radio astronomy is devastating. We will dearly miss Arecibo’s ability to detect anomalies in the radio sky, which may be key to finding technologically advanced extraterrestrial life. The question now is how this loss can be replaced.

On the positive side were several exciting spacecraft missions launched in 2020. China’s Chang’e-5 expedition closed out the year by bringing back rocks and soil from the lunar Ocean of Storms. That should give us a better understanding of the Moon’s history, as the probe collected samples thought to be much younger than those returned by Apollo astronauts who landed in similar flat plains.

Even more exciting from an astrobiological perspective were the multiple missions launched to Mars this year. The most exciting of these is NASA’s Perseverance Rover, the first leg of a campaign to return samples from Mars. The rover will collect rocks and sediment and place them in sealed tubes on the surface, to be retrieved and returned to Earth by a follow-up mission within a few years. The expectation is that we may find hints of past or present life once that cache is analyzed. Perseverance and two other Mars missions, sent by China and the United Arab Emirates, will reach the Red Planet in February. Unfortunately, the second part of Europe’s ExoMars mission—more explicitly focused on astrobiology—had to be postponed until 2022. But once the Rosalind Franklin rover arrives on Mars in June 2023, it will apply the best tools yet to the problem of determining whether traces of life exist on Mars.

The most controversial discovery of the year in regard to astrobiology was the claimed detection of phosphine in the lower clouds of Venus, which hinted at the presence of an aerial biosphere. Based on its hellish environmental conditions, most researchers would have considered that planet utterly lifeless. The attention suddenly paid to Venus was personally gratifying, because I published about the possibility of Venusian cloud life more than a decade ago. The paper did indeed stir up a lot of initial excitement, but how should we evaluate the claim a few months later?

The phosphine detection itself—though challenged from many sides—still stands, although at a lower abundance than initially claimed. My own first reaction to the claim may have been a bit optimistic. But finding phosphine—a molecule indicative of biology on Earth—is still astounding, especially because the gas had not been detected previously on any other terrestrial planet. But it’s far too early to claim we’ve found life on Venus. There are many unknowns about our “twin planet,” which remains largely alien to us. Many processes and chemical reactions are likely occurring in the Venusian atmosphere and on the surface that we don’t yet understand. At present, many of our conclusions are based on models, not actual observations. And the barriers to life in the Venusian atmosphere are formidable: How could it cope with the difficulties of being airborne, along with the hyperacidity, extreme lack of water, and a possible lack of critical nutrients? So, important as this claim is, the year ends with no clear answer—just a hope for future investigations.

Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick succession

Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick succession
In this Monday, July 20, 2020 file photo, men watch the launch of the “Amal” or “Hope” space probe at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The orbiter is scheduled to reach Mars on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, followed less than 24 hours later by China’s orbiter-rover combo. NASA’s rover will arrive on the scene a week later, on Feb. 18, to collect rocks for return to Earth—a key step in determining whether life ever existed at Mars. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

After hurtling hundreds of millions of miles through space since last summer, three robotic explorers are ready to hit the brakes at Mars.

The stakes—and anxiety—are sky high.

The United Arab Emirates’ orbiter reaches Mars on Tuesday, followed less than 24 hours later by China’s orbiter-rover combo. NASA’s rover, the cosmic caboose, will arrive on the scene a week later, on Feb. 18, to collect rocks for return to Earth—a key step in determining whether life ever existed at Mars.

Both the UAE and China are newcomers at Mars, where more than half of Earth’s emissaries have failed. China’s first Mars mission, a joint effort with Russia in 2011, never made it past Earth’s orbit.

“We are quite excited as engineers and scientists, at the same time quite stressed and happy, worried, scared,” said Omran Sharaf, project manager for the UAE.

All three spacecraft rocketed away within days of one another last July, during an Earth-to-Mars launch window that occurs only every two years. That’s why their arrivals are also close together.

Called Amal, or Hope in Arabic, the Gulf nation’s spacecraft is seeking an especially high orbit—13,500 by 27,000 miles high (22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers)—all the better to monitor the Martian weather.

Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick succession
In this Thursday, June 25, 2020 file photo, Mahmood al-Nasser, left, and Mohammad Nasser al-Emadi test the Emirates Mars Mission probe’s “flat sat” at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The spacecraft, named “Amal,” Arabic for “Hope,” will be the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

China’s duo—called Tianwen-1, or “Quest for Heavenly Truth”—will remain paired in orbit until May, when the rover separates to descend to the dusty, ruddy surface. If all goes well, it will be only the second country to land successfully on the red planet.

The U.S. rover Perseverance, by contrast, will dive in straight away for a harrowing sky-crane touchdown similar to the Curiosity rover’s grand Martian entrance in 2012. The odds are in NASA’s favor: It’s nailed eight of its nine attempted Mars landings.

Despite their differences—the 1-ton Perseverance is larger and more elaborate than the Tianwen-1 rover—both will prowl for signs of ancient microscopic life.

Perseverance’s $3 billion mission is the first leg in a U.S.-European effort to bring Mars samples to Earth in the next decade.

“To say we’re pumped about it, well that would be a huge understatement,” said Lori Glaze, NASA’s planetary science director.

Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick succession
This June 1, 2020 illustration provided by Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre depicts the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Mars probe. (Alexander McNabb/MBRSC via AP)

Perseverance is aiming for an ancient river delta that seems a logical spot for once harboring life. This landing zone in Jezero Crater is so treacherous that NASA nixed it for Curiosity, but so tantalizing that scientists are keen to get hold of its rocks.

“When the scientists take a look at a site like Jezero Crater, they see the promise, right?” said Al Chen, who’s in charge of the entry, descent and landing team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “When I look at Jezero, I see danger. There’s danger everywhere.”

Steep cliffs, deep pits and fields of rocks could cripple or doom Perseverance, following its seven-minute atmospheric plunge. With an 11 1/2-minute communication lag each way, the rover will be on its own, unable to rely on flight controllers. Amal and Tianwen-1 will also need to operate autonomously while maneuvering into orbit.

Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick succession
In this Wednesday, May 6, 2015 file photo, Sarah Amiri, deputy project manager of a planned United Arab Emirates Mars mission talks about the project named “Hope,” “Amal” in Arabic, during a ceremony in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Until Perseverance, NASA sought out flat, boring terrain on which to land—”one giant parking lot,” Chen said. That’s what China’s Tianwen-1 rover will be shooting for in Mars’ Utopia Planitia.

NASA is upping its game thanks to new navigation technology designed to guide the rover to a safe spot. The spacecraft also has a slew of cameras and microphones to capture the sights and sounds of descent and landing, a Martian first.

Faster than previous Mars vehicles but still moving at a glacial pace, the six-wheeled Perseverance will drive across Jezero, collecting core samples of the most enticing rocks and gravel. The rover will set the samples aside for retrieval by a fetch rover launching in 2026.

Under an elaborate plan still being worked out by NASA and the European Space Agency, the geologic treasure would arrive on Earth in the early 2030s. Scientists contend it’s the only way to ascertain whether life flourished on a wet, watery Mars 3 billion to 4 billion years ago.

Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick succession
In this Thursday, July 23, 2020 photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, spectators watch as a Long March-5 rocket carrying the Tianwen-1 Mars probe lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province. (Yang Guanyu/Xinhua via AP)

NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, considers it “one of the hardest things ever done by humanity and certainly in space science.”

The U.S. is still the only country to successfully land on Mars, beginning with the 1976 Vikings. Two spacecraft are still active on the surface: Curiosity and InSight.

Smashed Russian and European spacecraft litter the Martian landscape, meanwhile, along with NASA’s failed Mars Polar Lander from 1999.

Getting into orbit around Mars is less complicated, but still no easy matter, with about a dozen spacecraft falling short. Mars fly-bys were the rage in the 1960s and most failed; NASA’s Mariner 4 was the first to succeed in 1965.

Six spacecraft currently are operating around Mars: three from the U.S., two from Europe and one from India. The UAE hopes to make it seven with its $200-plus million mission.

Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick succession
In this Thursday, July 23, 2020 photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a Long March-5 rocket carrying the Tianwen-1 Mars probe lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s Hainan Province. (Guo Cheng/Xinhua via AP)

The UAE is especially proud that Amal was designed and built by its own citizens, who partnered with the University of Colorado at Boulder and other U.S. institutions, not simply purchased from abroad. Its arrival at Mars coincides with this year’s 50th anniversary of the country’s founding.

“Starting off the year with this milestone is something very important for the people” of the UAE, said Sharaf.

China, hasn’t divulged much in advance. Even the spacecraft’s exact arrival time on Wednesday has yet to be announced.

The China Academy of Space Technology’s Ye Peijian noted that Tianwen-1 has three objectives: orbiting the planet, landing and releasing the rover. If successful, he said in a statement “it will become the world’s first Mars expedition accomplishing all three goals with one probe.”

  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionThis July 23, 2019 photo made available by NASA shows the head of the Mars rover Perseverance’s remote sensing mast which contains the SuperCam instrument in the large circular opening, two Mastcam-Z imagers in gray boxes, and next to those, the rover’s two navigation cameras, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The robotic vehicle will hunt for rocks containing biological signatures, if they exist. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionThis image made available by the China National Space Administration on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 shows the Tianwen-1 probe en route to Mars. China’s duo —called Tianwen-1, or “Quest for Heavenly Truth”—will remain paired in orbit until May, when the rover separates to descend to the dusty, ruddy surface. If all goes well, it will be the second country to land successfully on the red planet. (CNSA via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionIn this Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 file photo, a lander is lifted during a test of hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities of a Mars lander at a facility in Huailai in China’s Hebei province. China’s orbiter-rover combo, Tianwen-1, is scheduled to reach Mars on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionThis illustration provided by NASA depicts the Mars 2020 spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover as it approaches Mars. Perseverance’s $3 billion mission is the first leg in a U.S.-European effort to bring Mars samples to Earth in the next decade. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionIn this illustration provided by NASA, the Perseverance rover fires up its descent stage engines as it nears the Martian surface.. This phase of its entry, descent and landing sequence, or EDL, is known as “powered descent.” (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionThis illustration provided by NASA shows the Perseverance rover, bottom, landing on Mars. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land safely on Feb. 18, 2021. Entry, Descent, and Landing, or “EDL,” begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere, traveling nearly 12,500 mph (20,000 kph). EDL ends about seven minutes after atmospheric entry, with Perseverance stationary on the Martian surface. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionIn this Dec. 17, 2019 photo made available by NASA, engineers watch the first driving test for the Mars 2020 rover, later named “Perseverance,” in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (J. Krohn/NASA via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionThis illustration made available by NASA depicts the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars after launching from the Perseverance rover, background left. It will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionThis image made available by NASA depicts a possible area through which the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover could traverse across Jezero Crater. This mosaic is composed of aligned images from the Context Camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionThis July 23, 2019 photo made available by NASA shows the head of the Mars rover Perseverance’s remote sensing mast which contains the SuperCam instrument in the large circular opening, two Mastcam-Z imagers in gray boxes, and next to those, the rover’s two navigation cameras, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The robotic vehicle will hunt for rocks containing biological signatures, if they exist. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
  • Next stop Mars: 3 spacecraft arriving in quick successionThis image made available by the China National Space Administration on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 shows the Tianwen-1 probe en route to Mars. China’s duo —called Tianwen-1, or “Quest for Heavenly Truth”—will remain paired in orbit until May, when the rover separates to descend to the dusty, ruddy surface. If all goes well, it will be the second country to land successfully on the red planet. (CNSA via AP)

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated each step of each spacecraft’s 300 million-mile (480 million-kilometer) journey to Mars. It even kept the European and Russian space agencies’ joint Mars mission grounded until the next launch window in 2022.

The flight control rooms will contain fewer people on the big day, with staff spread over a wider area and working from home. Desks have dividers and partitions. Masks and social distancing are mandatory.

Perseverance’s deputy project manager Matt Wallace, who’s working his fifth Mars rover mission, said the pandemic won’t dampen the mood come landing day.

“I don’t think COVID’s going to be able to stop us from jumping up and down, and fist-bumping,” he said. “You’re going to see a lot of happy people no matter what, once we get this thing on the surface safely.”

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change “fabric of reality”

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

U.S. Navy shipsCredit: Getty Images

  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • He came up with technology that can “engineer” reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.

The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed “the UFO patents,” came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to “engineer reality”. His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.

Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military might also be developing similar advanced gadgets.

Among Dr. Pais’s patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve so by being able to create a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating “quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state,” would help reduce the craft’s inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically reduce any elemental resistance and lead to “extreme speeds,” claims the paper.

Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we’d also be able to “engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level,” states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.

Among Pais’s other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled “Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft,” presents a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become “a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology,” conveys Pais.

High frequency gravitational wave generator.Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais

Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate “an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets”. This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.

Dr. Pais’s ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed “The Pais Effect”. He referred to it in his writings as the “controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients.” In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.

According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his “advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design.” He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the “breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion.”

Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.

A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.Credit: Salvatore Pais

The patents won’t necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.

If you’d like to read through Pais’s patents yourself, check them out here.

Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System

Second Trojan Of Earth Just Discovered By an Amateur Astronomer!

A recently discovered object sharing Earth’s orbital path around the Sun could actually be a trojan asteroid, astronomers have found.

If confirmed, it will be only the second object of its type identified to date, suggesting that there could be more of these hidden asteroids lurking in Earth’s gravitational pockets.

Trojan asteroids are space rocks that share the orbital path of larger planetary bodies in the Solar System, hanging out in gravitationally stable regions known as Lagrangian points.

These are pockets where the gravitational pulls of the planet and the Sun balance perfectly with the centripetal force of any small body in that region to basically hold it in place.

Each two-body system has five Lagrange points, as seen in the diagram below. There are five between Earth and the Moon; and another five between Earth and the Sun.

These are really quite useful, actually – we can put spacecraft in them and be reasonably confident they will stay put. The James Webb Space Telescope, for instance, will be going in the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian.

lagrangian(NASA/WMAP Science Team)

Lagrangians, however, can also capture space rocks, and the phenomenon is well-known in the Solar System.

Jupiter has the most trojans, with well over 9,000 documented, but the other planets are not going without. Neptune has 28, Mars has 9, and both Uranus and Earth have one confirmed apiece.

Earth’s confirmed trojan, named 2010 TK7, is a chunk of rock around 300 metres (984 feet) across, hanging about the Earth-leading L4 Lagrangian in an oscillating tadpole-shaped orbit known as libration.

The new object, named 2020 XL5, which was first observed in November and December of last year, seems similar.

According to amateur astronomer Tony Dunn, who calculated the object’s trajectory using NASA’s JPL-Horizons software, it, too, librates around the Earth-Sun L4 Lagrangian, looping close to the orbit of Mars, and intersecting the orbit of Venus.

In the gif below, the asteroid’s orbit is in teal, with Earth in blue and Mars in orange. Venus and Mercury are both white.

orbit

Because it draws so near to Venus, if 2020 XL5 is a trojan, it may not be stable on long timescales. According to simulations run by Dunn, for a few thousand years, the asteroid will pass above and below the orbital plane of Venus when it intersects, keeping the planet from disrupting its orbit.

Eventually, however, gravitational interactions should move it away from the L4 point. This is supported by simulations run by amateur astronomer Aldo Vitagliano, creator of the Solex and Exorb orbital determination software.

“I can confirm that 2020 XL5 is presently a moderately stable Earth  Trojan (I mean stable on a time scale of 2-4 millennia),” he wrote on the Minor Planets Mailing List.

“I have downloaded the nominal elements and their covariance matrix from the Neodys site, thereby generating 200 clones of the body. All the 200 clones, integrated up to AD 4500, although becoming spread over an orbital arc of more than 120 degrees, keep librating around  the L4 point. The first clone jumps over the L3 point around year 4500, and by year 6000 many of them have done the jump and a few of them are librating around the L5 point.”

2010 TK7 isn’t necessarily stable in its current position long-term, either. A 2012 analysis found that it only became a trojan around 1,800 years ago, and will likely move away from the L4 point in about 15,000 years, into a horseshoe-shaped orbit, or into L5.

Although only one more data point, 2020 XL5 could help us figure out how to search for other potential Earth trojans. We have done so – both the OSIRIS-REx and Hayabusa2 spacecraft scanned the L4 and L5 points respectively in 2017 while en route to their respective targets, but found nothing. Searches from Earth have been nearly as fruitless.

That is not necessarily surprising. Any objects inhabiting the Lagrangians would be moving around a lot, leaving a very large patch of sky to scour looking for relatively small objects. From Earth, also, the placement with respect to the Sun makes detection challenging.

Scientists have ruled out a stable population of primordial trojans hiding since the beginning of the Solar System.

Nevertheless, even with current observational limitations, scientists have estimated that we could be able to detect hundreds of Earth trojans comparable in size to 2010 TK7. Gaining a better idea of how they move around the Lagrangians could help us narrow down where in the sky to look.

What we find – whether it’s a whole bunch of trojans, or a whole bunch of nothing – is bound to tell us more about the dynamics of our Solar System.

After Breathtaking Images and Stupendous Discoveries, Spacecraft Juno Gets 4 More Years to Explore Jupiter

Like an artist whose pleased patron commissions more masterpieces, NASA’s Juno spacecraft just earned an extension after four extraordinary years of discovery. And if you’ve seen any of Juno’s images of Jupiter, you may find the artist reference apt.

Before the Juno mission, little was known about the wind and cloud systems of the polar regions (shown in bluish tones in the above image).The solar-powered robotic probe, whose adventure  exploring the atmosphere and interior of the planet Jupiter was scheduled to end this July, has been granted a four-year extension, through September 2025. It’s mission has also expanded, and it will now investigate the planet’s system of rings and three of its large and remarkable moons.

Juno’s Primary Mission

Since its arrival at Jupiter in 2016, Juno’s observations have focused on dynamics that scientists previously knew very little about: the gas giant’s complex atmosphere and storm systems at the high latitudes of the northern polar region.

Juno has captured breathtaking images of Jupiter’s cloud systems and other atmospheric phenomena at very close range. It’s also probed beneath the visible cloud layers. 

Close-up of clouds and storm systems on Jupiter, captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft during one of its close passes by the gas giant. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt-Seán)

Using instruments that measure Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field and gravitational variations, Juno has divined processes and structures deep within the gaseous world. Among its many discoveries are stupendous strokes of lightning that exploded dozens of miles beneath the planet’s thick layers of clouds; an abundance of water welling up at the equator; mighty auroras surging high in the atmosphere; “packs” of Earth-sized storms spinning around both poles; and wind systems whose roots are buried 1-2,000 miles below Jupiter’s cloud tops.

Juno’s Wild Orbit

Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft cruising by Jupiter. Juno’s 53-day orbit carries it to within 2,600 miles of Jupiter’s cloud tops at closest approach, giving it a unique vantage point from which to study its atmosphere and make measurements of its interior. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

To get close enough to Jupiter to do what it came for, Juno must pass through bands of intense radiation, captured in Jupiter’s surrounding magnetic field. To minimize exposure to radiation damage, NASA placed Juno in a highly elliptical orbit that keeps it well outside the radiation belts most of the time. At the far-flung end of its elongated orbit, Juno is 5 million miles away from Jupiter, 20 times farther than our moon is from Earth.

Once every 53 days, Juno’s orbit carries it swiftly through the danger zone and close to Jupiter, passing only 2,600 miles above the cloud tops in the northern regions, offering a view like no other in the solar system.

With each close pass by Jupiter, Juno’s orbit alters slightly due to interaction with the planet’s gravity. Over time, its point of closest approach has migrated northward, toward the pole, while the long loop of its extended orbit has shifted closer and closer to Jupiter’s large Galilean moons.

Targeting Jupiter’s Mystifying Moons

Over the four additional years of Juno’s extended mission, its shifting orbit will send it past three of Jupiter’s Galilean moons: Ganymede, Europa and Io. No spacecraft has flown close to these small worlds since the Galileo probe two decades ago.

Ganymede will be the first fly-by target, on June 7 this year. Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system, half again bigger than Earth’s moon. Its surface is a patchwork of rough, ancient, cratered terrain overlapped by smooth, probably icy regions. It is the only moon in the solar system with a magnetic field of its own, and its poles are lit up with auroras. Strong evidence exists that a liquid water ocean lies hidden beneath Ganymede’s surface.

Jupiter’s moon Io. This image was captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft during one of its close flybys of this moon. Io is the most volcanically activity object in the solar system. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Io is the most volcanically active moon in the solar system, with hundreds of sulfurous eruptions spewing out lava and gas, in some cases dozens of miles into the sky. Volcanic Io will receive a pair of visits, on Dec. 30, 2023 and Feb. 3, 2024.

Most intriguing of all is Europa, which shelters a saltwater ocean beneath its icy crust. Europa’s ocean may be as much as 100 miles deep, and its waters are thawed by heat emerging from the moon’s interior. Scientists are excited by the possibility that within Europa’s ocean may exist conditions that could support life. On Sept. 29, 2022, Juno will have a close encounter with Europa. 

During its extended mission, Juno will also fly through trails of ions shed into space by Io’s volcanoes, and plumes of water vapor erupting from Europa’s icy crust. By sampling the composition of Europa’s water vapor plumes, scientists hope to better understand the nature of the moon’s ocean.

Recon for Upcoming Missions

Extending Juno’s exploration to include the Jovian moons will help pave the way for two upcoming missions: NASA’s Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency’s JUICE, scheduled to launch later this decade. Both of these spacecraft will investigate the Galilean moons in great detail, with a special focus on Europa and its tantalizing ocean.

Artist illustration of NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper spacecraft, expected to launch this decade on a mission to study the ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By the end of its extended mission in 2025, Juno will have orbited Jupiter 76 times over eight years and collected enough data to keep scientists busy for many more years to come.

Then, Juno will be deliberately driven into Jupiter’s atmosphere, where it will be incinerated in a fiery finale, its atoms forever becoming part of the world it has explored.

MESSENGER Saw a Meteoroid Strike Mercury

Telescopes have captured meteoroids hitting the Moon and several spacecraft imaged Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 smacking into Jupiter in 1994. But impacts as they happen on another rocky world have never been observed.

However, the MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) mission may have seen an impact take place back in 2013. In looking at archival data from the mission, scientists found evidence of a meteoroid impact on Mercury.  While this data isn’t a ‘no-doubt’ photo of the event, it does tell scientists more about impacts and how they affect Mercury’s wispy-thin atmosphere.

“It’s just incredible that MESSENGER could watch this happen,” said Jamie Jasinski, a space physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the lead author on the study, published in Nature Commmunications. “This data plays a really important role in helping us understand how meteoroid impacts contribute material to Mercury’s exosphere.”

Mercury’s surface, as captured here in 2013 by the APL-operated MESSENGER spacecraft, is pockmarked with craters that have formed from millions of years of meteoroid impacts. MESSENGER very likely witnessed one of the most recent of these crater-forming collisions in 2013. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Mercury’s tiny atmosphere, called an exosphere, has a pressure that’s one-quadrillionth of that felt at sea level on Earth. The exosphere forms on Mercury’s Sun-facing side from material originally on the planet’s surface. Scientists think meteoroid impacts, in part, are responsible for putting such material into the exosphere.

The archival data revealed a strange anomaly: on December 21, 2013, MESSENGER’s Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer (FIPS) saw an unusually large number of sodium and silicon ions blowing in the Sun’s solar wind, the powerful charged gases that spew from the Sun. Oddly, these particles were traveling in a tight beam, nearly all in the same direction, and at the same speed.

Using the particles’ speed and direction, the researchers “rewound the clock, tracking the particles’ motion back to their source.” They found the particles clustered in a dense plume, one that had erupted from Mercury’s surface and extended nearly 3,300 miles into space.

They estimate the meteoroid was likely just a little over three feet long, which is relatively small. But computer models suggest something that size would create a plume with a height and density closely matching what FIPS detected.

Interestingly enough, before the MESSENGER mission, scientists expected the spacecraft would capture some impacts on Mercury — perhaps up to two impacts per year during its four years in orbit. But none were seen in images during the mission, which lasted from 2011 to 2015.

Artist view of the spacecraft orbiting the innermost planet Mercury. Credit: NASA

“It just shows how rare it is to have the spacecraft at the right place and time to be able to measure something like this,” said study co-author Leonardo Regoli, from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland — where MESSENGER was built and operated. “This was a special observation, and really cool to see the story come together.”

Perhaps the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission, which launched for Mercury in 2018 and will approach the planet in late 2025, will be able to capture more meteoroid impacts during its mission. Regoli noted that researchers will need to hone their models before using BepiColombo to make new observations, but the opportunity to see another Mercurian impact would be invaluable, he said.

Lead image caption: Artist’s illustration depicting how MESSENGER observed the first meteoroid impact on another planet’s surface. Particles (neutral atoms) ejected by the meteoroid skyrocketed over 3,000 miles above Mercury’s surface, outside the bow shock of Mercury’s magnetosphere. There, photons of light turned the neutral particles into charged particles (ions), which one of MESSENGER’s instruments could detect. Credit: modified from Jacek Zmarz.

Has this woman just invented the rocket that will take us to Mars?

The unique design of the plasma thruster could enable spacecraft to travel to distant planets much faster than they can now.

PPPL physicist Fatima Ebrahimi in front of an artist's conception of a fusion rocket. Credit: Elle Starkman (PPPL Office of Communications) and ITER
Image:Dr Fatima Ebrahimi in front of an artist’s concept of a fusion rocket. Pic: Elle Starkman/PPPL

Dr Fatima Ebrahimi has invented a new fusion rocket thruster concept which could power humans to Mars and beyond.

The physicist who works for the US Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) designed the rocket which will use magnetic fields to shoot plasma particles – electrically charged gas – into the vacuum of space.

According to Newton’s second and third laws of motion, the conservation of momentum would mean the rocket was propelled forwards – and at speeds 10 times faster than comparable devices.

Mars is also known as the red planet
Image:The invention could enable humans to travel to Mars

While current space-proven plasma propulsion engines use electric fields to propel the particles, the new rocket design would accelerate them using magnetic reconnection.

This process is found throughout the universe but is most observable to humanity on the surface of the sun. When magnetic field lines converge there, before separating and then reconnect again, they produce an enormous amount of energy.

Similar energy is produced inside torus-shaped machines known as tokamaks, a magnetic confinement device which is also a leading candidate for a practical nuclear fusion reactor.

“I’ve been cooking this concept for a while,” said PPPL’s principal research physicist Dr Fatima Ebrahimi, whose paper detailing the invention has been published in the Journal of Plasma Physics.

“I had the idea in 2017 while sitting on a deck and thinking about the similarities between a car’s exhaust and the high-velocity exhaust particles created by PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX),” she said.

The NSTX is the forerunner of the laboratory’s present flagship fusion facility, which is being investigated with funding by the US Department of Energy.

“During its operation, this tokamak produces magnetic bubbles called plasmoids that move at around 20 kilometres per second, which seemed to me a lot like thrust,” Dr Ebrahimi added.

Nuclear fusion is the power that drives the sun and stars. It combines light elements in the form of plasma – the hot, charged state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei that represents 99% of the visible universe – to generate massive amounts of energy.

If a reactor functioning on the same principles could be recreated on Earth, it would provide a “virtually inexhaustible supply of power to generate electricity” according to the PPPl.

Handout from the NOAA/National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center shows a solar flare erupting from the sun late January 23 2012. The flare is reportedly the largest since 2005 and is expected to affect GPS systems and other communications when it reaches the Earth's magnetic field in the morning of January 24. (Photo by NOAA/National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center via Getty Images)
Image:The technology uses the same process we see in solar flares

Dr Ebrahimi’s new concept performs much better than existing plasma thrusters in computer simulations – generating exhaust with velocities of hundreds of kilometres per second, 10 times faster than those of other thrusters.

That faster velocity at the beginning of a spacecraft’s journey could bring the outer planets within reach of astronauts, the physicist said.

“Long-distance travel takes months or years because the specific impulse of chemical rocket engines is very low, so the craft takes a while to get up to speed,” she said.

“But if we make thrusters based on magnetic reconnection, then we could conceivably complete long-distance missions in a shorter period of time.”

She stressed that her thruster concept stems directly from her research into fusion energy. “This work was inspired by past fusion work and this is the first time that plasmoids and reconnection have been proposed for space propulsion,” Dr Ebrahimi said. “The next step is building a prototype!”

The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth?

Examining this and other intriguing questions at the start of 2021.

Parkes.jpg
The Parkes Telescope in Australia heard something odd in 2019. Unfortunately, the signal, if it was one, has not been repeated. (John Sarkissian)

As we begin a new year, it seems appropriate to think about big topics. And what could be bigger than asking what observations might count as evidence of intelligent alien beings?

The question is triggered by Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb’s forthcoming book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, as well as the last big science story of 2020, about a mysterious radio astronomy observation known as Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1, the first candidate for an artificial extraterrestrial signal found by the Breakthrough Listen project, the most thorough SETI search ever undertaken.

Let’s start with BLC1, first reported by The Guardian and later picked up by Scientific American and other publications. The detected radio signal had a frequency of about 982 MHz and varied slightly in frequency, which makes it less likely to be a “false positive” emanating from Earth’s surface. It was detected during 30 hours of observation with the Parkes Observatory in Australia in April and May 2019. But it hasn’t been heard again. The signal apparently was coming from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the closest star system to our own. That system has one known exoplanet, but it is likely not habitable due to strong solar flares emitted from the host star.

It’s possible that the signal originated from a greater distance, behind Proxima Centauri. Or, much more mundane, it may have come from one of our own satellites that happened to be passing in front of Proxima Centauri at the time. BLC1 reminds me of the famous Wow! signal of the 1970s that also stirred up a lot of excitement and sparked many different hypotheses. Unfortunately, if a signal like Wow! or BLC1 is never repeated, there’s not much you can do to figure out its source.

Avi Loeb was one of the first scientists to speculate that ʻOumuamua, the first object seen to enter our Solar System from interstellar space, might be an extraterrestrial spacecraft. He pointed to the object’s unusual shape and noted that it was “shiny,” with a motion indicating that something other than simple gravitation might be propelling it. It will be interesting to see if his book offers additional arguments that the object might be artificial rather than an asteroid. Unfortunately, as with the radio signals, any follow-up studies are not likely to provide further insights, because ʻOumuamua is too far away now.

There’s a similar problem with studying Fast Radio Bursts (FRB), which some scientists have suggested may be artificial in nature. Personally, I think they are much more likely to have a natural origin, maybe similar to pulsars. Either way, because they appear to originate from outside our galaxy, further investigations are hampered by their great distance.

Then there’s the UFO phenomenon—or rather, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a term that has less baggage and sounds more neutral. I’m the first to admit that scientists are often a bit arrogant and too quick to dismiss eyewitness reports of lay people or even the military. The main problem for us scientists—when considering the less than 10 percent of these observations that are truly puzzling—is that the scientific method relies heavily on repeatable experiments. And that doesn’t work well for UAPs. Still, I think we need to investigate these observations, or some of them at least, as they may lead to new insights about still unknown natural and atmospheric phenomena. That’s true no matter where one stands on the view that a fraction of them might be extraterrestrial spacecraft.

That brings us to the claims that certain structures on other planets or moons in our Solar System are artificial, or are fossils of higher life forms. I receive a lot of these, but I don’t find them convincing at all. As a trained geologist, I have seen a lot of strange rock structures that resemble animals or artificial constructions.

Having said that, there is one such case that still puzzles me—one of the images taken by the NEAR Shoemaker mission of the asteroid Eros. One object in that image does not look like a rock to me, although mission scientists interpreted it as a boulder. The object is highly reflective, which in places such as Earth or Ceres would not be unexpected. But there is no reason why there should be salt—at least not this amount—on an asteroid such as Eros. The object is rectangular, and again, rocks shaped like that are not uncommon on Earth, mostly because of weathering processes. Basalt columns on our own planet also have very distinct geometric features that from some viewpoints could appear rectangular. But neither kind of rock would be expected on a small, airless asteroid.

The main problem, as often happens, is that no higher resolution images are available. And what looks like an artificial shape at low resolution could turn out to be an oddly shaped boulder at higher resolution after all. What we need, then, is for somebody to fund a cubesat mission to Eros that can return better pictures. Any takers?

Did We Just Discover More ‘Oumuamua Type Objects?

Oumuamua and Borisov are not the only interstellar interlopers. We know of many more. Here’s what we know about them so far.

An interstellar object is an astronomical object in interstellar space that is not gravitationally bound to a star. This term can also be applied to an object that is on an interstellar trajectory but is temporarily passing close to a star, such as certain asteroids and comets.

In November 2018, Harvard astronomers Amir Siraj and Avi Loeb reported that there should be hundreds of ‘Oumuamua-size interstellar objects in the Solar System, based on calculated orbital characteristics, and presented several centaur candidates such as 2017 SV13 and 2018 TL6. These are all orbiting the Sun, but may have been captured in the distant past.

On 8 January 2014, a bolide which has been identified by Loeb and Siraj as a potentially interstellar object originating from an unbound hyperbolic orbit exploded in the atmosphere over northern Papua New Guinea. It had an eccentricity of 2.4, an inclination of 10°, and a speed of 43.8 km/s when outside of the Solar System. This would make it notably faster than ʻOumuamua which was 26.3 km/s when outside the Solar System. The meteor is estimated to have been 0.9 meters in diameter. Other astronomers doubt the interstellar origin because the meteor catalog used does not report uncertainties on the incoming velocity. The validity of any single data point (especially for smaller meteors) remains questionable.

Amir Siraj and Avi Loeb have proposed methods for increasing the discovery rate of interstellar objects that include stellar occultations, optical signatures from impacts with the moon or the Earth’s atmosphere, and radio flares from collisions with neutron stars.

Artificial Intelligence: Cure for What Ails Us, or Looming Threat to the World?

From biological machines to superintelligence.

circuitboard.jpg
AI gets more capable every day. Are we prepared? (Stock)

Two scientific papers impressed me this week, both in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). The first is by researchers led by Sam Kriegman at the University of Vermont, who present a method for designing “biological machines” from the ground up. They emphasize the potential good this might do by allowing the creation of “living machines” that safely deliver drugs inside the human body or assist with cleaning up the environment.

The other paper is a collaboration of the Max Planck Institute in Germany with the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. Led by Manuel Alfonseca, the authors claim that based on computability theory, a superintelligent AI cannot be contained, and thus poses a threat to all of us.

Kriegman’s team calls their biological machines “xenobots,” because the cells used to build them derive from the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). The xenobots consist of 500 to 1,000 living cells that can move in various directions and, when joined together, can push small objects. The researchers programmed a computer to automatically design simulated biological machines, then built the best designs by combining different biological tissues. The program used an AI “evolutionary algorithm” to predict which xenobots would likely perform useful tasks. The noble idea behind this method is that “reconfigurable biomachines” could vastly improve human and environmental health—for example, by cleaning microplastics from the ocean.

But such biomachines raise many ethical concerns. Although they bear little resemblance to organisms or even individual organs, they are clearly alive. For example, they have the ability to repair themselves. (Am I the only one who finds that a bit creepy?) What if they go rogue and interact with the environment in a different way than intended, possibly in harmful ways? Because they are life forms and not mechanical robots, I think it will be difficult to predict how they will interact with the environment. How would we control them? A kill switch? There’s potential for lots of good, but also for lots of danger.

The second paper considers the important question of whether we can, even in principle, control AI, especially a superintelligent AI. Kriegman’s biological machines would not be expected to become superintelligent, but as Alfonseca and colleagues point out, there already are machines that perform advanced tasks independently, without programmers fully understanding how they learned it. Let’s go one step further and imagine the AI connecting to the internet and absorbing all the knowledge it contains. How could a human control, let alone stop an entity that is, in the words of philosopher Nick Bostrom, “smarter than the best human brains in practically every field.”

One way to protect ourselves could be to wall the AI off from the internet. But that defeats the purpose of what the machine is designed to do. Alfonseca considers a different option—using a containment algorithm to guard against the AI becoming a threat. Unfortunately, they conclude that this would be impossible—no single algorithm could determine whether a superintelligent AI might cause harm to the world.

Other possibilities have been considered. We could give all AIs an ethical and moral underpinning—like Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics. But there’s an even worse scenario: What if the superintelligent AI decides that our species is inherently dangerous, and that the best solution is to just stop us from doing more harm? Science fiction writers have long grappled with this problem, as in Jack Williamson’s 1947 novelette With Folded Hands, in which AI “humanoids” relegate our species to sitting around “with folded hands”—so we can’t hurt anything.

Needless to say, these are difficult questions. Computer scientists, philosophers, and science fiction authors will have their hands full exploring them—and lawmakers need to be ready to react—as AI continues to advance.

What did the Soviets photograph on Venus? – Real Images!

In the 1950s, the now legendary race into space began, in which the United States of America and the Soviet Union shifted their strong competition into space. Both sides attempted to gain supremacy in space. Pioneering work was to be done in order to underpin the scientific power of the respective state.

Everyone knows about the race to launch the first orbiting satellite into space and that it ended with a Soviet victory by Sputnik 1. Also the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin – was Soviet. Of course, the fight for the first manned journey to the moon is still in the minds of people all over the world today. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969 and Neil Armstrong took his famous step for mankind, the USA could finally present itself as the winner.

In all these competitions in space, however, another interesting subject area fell behind. For Venus was also studied extensively. The Soviets even succeeded in using probes to take photographs of the planet’s surface.

Earth is about to lose its second moon, forever

Godspeed, SO 2020. Enjoy your journey around the sun.

(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Earth’s second moon will make a close approach to the planet next week before drifting off into space, never to be seen again.

“What second moon,” you ask? Astronomers call it 2020 SO — a small object that dropped into Earth’s orbit about halfway between our planet and the moon in September 2020. Temporary satellites like these are known as minimoons, though calling it a moon is a bit deceptive in this case; in December 2020, NASA researchers learned that the object isn’t a space rock at all, but rather the remains of a 1960s rocket booster involved in the American Surveyor moon missions.

This non-moon minimoon made its closest approach to Earth on Dec. 1 (the day before NASA identified it as the long-lost booster), but it’s coming back for one more victory lap, according to EarthSky.org. Minimoon 2020 SO will make a final close approach to Earth on Tuesday (Feb. 2) at roughly 140,000 miles (220,000 kilometers) from Earth, or 58% of the way between Earth and the moon.

The booster will drift away after that, leaving Earth’s orbit entirely by March 2021, according to EarthSky. After that, the former minimoon will be just another object orbiting the sun. The Virtual Telescope Project in Rome will host an online farewell to the object on the night of Feb. 1.

NASA learned that the object has made several close approaches to Earth over the decades, even coming relatively near in 1966 — the year that the agency launched its Surveyor 2 lunar probe on the back of a Centaur rocket booster. That gave scientists their first big clue that 2020 SO was man-made; they confirmed it after comparing the object’s chemical makeup with that of another rocket booster, which has been in orbit since 1971.

Godspeed, minimoon 2020 SO. We built you. We abandoned you. And now, you abandon us.

‘Odd’ lights spotted in North Carolina sky prompts several theories

The strange lights were seen floating over the state’s Indian Trail community

Could it be?

A mysterious light cluster was spotted in the night sky near Charlotte, N.C., over the weekend, leading to a debate on social media over the possible presence of UFOs in the area, according to a report. 

The strange lights were seen floating over the state’s Indian Trail community and subsequently posted on the “What’s Up Indian Trail?” community Facebook page.

“Anyone know what these lights were tonight?” Alisa Homewood remarked, according to The Charlotte Observer. “No sound at all. They flickered like lanterns, but followed the same exact path up until they disappeared which was odd.”

“My initial thought when I saw the lights was it was the helicopters in the distance, but as the lights got closer there was no sound. Then they went straight up into the sky and disappeared. No smoke, no debris,” she continued.

A few hundred people have since reacted to her post on the community page, offering different opinions for the odd phenomenon, ranging from UFOs to a SpaceX rocket, according to the paper

One of her photos captured a glowing trio of blue lights, which Homewood apparently could not explain. 

“The blue light I didn’t notice until after I took the pictures. In the sky it did not look blue, it looked like a group of bright lights,” she said, according to Charlotte Observer reporter, Mark Price. “I thought it was odd though, that a few people have seen and photographed that same blue-ish grouping of lights.”

The sighting comes as the CIA’s recently decided to declassify more than three decades worth of UFO documents, which one expert called a “real-life X-Files.” 2020 was also arguably the best year ever for UFO coverage.

Scientists Can’t Explain What’s Currently Happening On Jupiter’s Moon Io!

The second smallest and innermost of the four Galilean moons, Io, was first documented by Galileo Galilei in January 1610. Io proved to earthlings, along with the moons Ganymede, Europa and Callisto, that our pale blue point is not the center of the universe, the galaxy or even the solar system, since these four satellites were apparently orbiting Jupiter, unlike us. While Galileo kept his observations secret for years because of the then Catholic Church, his documentation of Io paved the way for some very strange findings about this moon in the following centuries.

Hot, active volcanoes produce almost half of Jupiter’s moon Io’s sulfur atmosphere, according to new observations using the ALMA telescope. The rest comes from cold sulfur deposits that freeze on the surface, then sublimate in sunlight. Sharing is caring!

Bright yellowish and bluish moon in front of dimmer giant planet.

Composite image of Io and Jupiter (Jupiter image from the Cassini spacecraft, Io image from the new research). Sulfur dioxide plumes from Io’s volcanoes are seen in yellow. Image via ALMA (ESO/ NAOJ/ NRAO)/ I. de Pater et al./ NRAO/ AUI NSF/ S. Dagnello/ NASA/ ESA/ UC Berkeley.

Io, one of the four large Galilean moons of Jupiter, is the most volcanically active body in our solar system, even more so than Earth. It has over 400 active volcanoes and is often described as hellish. Io also has an extremely thin atmosphere, composed mostly of sulfur dioxide (SO2). This little world’s volcanoes regularly spew sulfur dioxide into its atmosphere. Still, scientists weren’t sure whether the atmosphere stems from hot sulfur dioxide coming directly from the volcanoes, or cold sulfur dioxide which accumulates on Io’s surface and freezes before sublimating into the atmosphere. Now they’ve determined it’s both.

Using the ALMA telescope in Chile, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have announced that up to half of the sulfur dioxide in Io’s atmosphere comes directly from its volcanoes. The results have been published in two new peer-reviewed papers accepted for publication in The Planetary Science Journal, which you can read here and here.

Astronomer Imke de Pater, who led the study, said in a statement:

It was not known which process drives the dynamics in Io’s atmosphere. Is it volcanic activity, or gas that sublimates from the icy surface when Io is in sunlight? What we show is that, actually, volcanoes do have a large impact on the atmosphere.

The answer, it turns out, is both.

Some of the sulfur dioxide does indeed freeze out onto the surface, the researchers found. This happens when Io passes through Jupiter’s shadow every 42 hours. When Io was being observed by the researchers on March 20, 2018, they noticed that radio emissions from the sulfur dioxide dropped exponentially. This meant that Io’s lower atmosphere, 6-12 miles (10-20 km) in altitude, collapsed and froze onto the surface.

The temperature during this period fell to -270 degrees Fahrenheit (-168 degrees Celsius), cold enough for sulfur dioxide to freeze. Io’s surface is typically about -230 degrees Fahrenheit (-150 degrees Celsius). Cold, but not quite cold enough for the sulfur dioxide to freeze out.

On September 2 and 11, 2018, the sulfur dioxide emissions rose again within 10 minutes after Io emerged from Jupiter’s shadow back into sunlight. De Pater said:

As soon as Io gets into sunlight, the temperature increases, and you get all this SO2 ice subliming into gas, and you reform the atmosphere in about 10 minutes’ time, faster than what models had predicted.

That explains where some of the frozen sulfur dioxide comes from. But the researchers noticed something else as well. ALMA detected abundant sulfur dioxide over the volcanoes, as well as low levels of the gas globally in Io’s atmosphere. This suggested that the more widespread gas was originating from unseen or “stealth” volcanoes. They emit sulfur dioxide, but not other smoke or particles that can be easily seen.

Right now, the researchers think that extra gas is coming from such stealth volcanoes, although they couldn’t completely rule out the possibility that it could be sulfur dioxide that isn’t completely condensing out onto the surface. As de Pater noted:

The SO2 that we see with ALMA when Io is in eclipse is at a very low level, and we can’t say if that is stealth volcanism or caused by SO2 not completely condensing out.

Bright moon pockmarked and blotched in different vivid colors, on black background.

Io, as seen by the Galileo spacecraft on September 19, 1997. Image via NASA/ JPL/ University of Arizona/ NASA Photojournal.

Earlier observations from the Keck Observatory from last July, however, supported the stealth volcanism scenario. Keck detected abundant sulfur monoxide (SO) over the volcanoes, as well as widespread in the atmosphere. The researchers say that sunlight breaks the sulfur-oxygen bond in the sulfur dioxide that has been ejected hundreds of kilometers above the surface, creating the sulfur monoxide. De Pater said:

But then, when we looked at the SO with Keck, we can only explain the SO emissions, which are widespread on the surface, through this stealth volcanism, because excitation of the SO requires a very high temperature.

By observing Io in its orbit around Jupiter as it moved into and then out of Jupiter’s shadow, the researchers were able to figure out how much of the moon’s sulfur dioxide deposits came from freezing out on the surface and how much came from stealth or other volcanoes. Statia Luszcz-Cook from Columbia University in New York said:

When Io passes into Jupiter’s shadow, and is out of direct sunlight, it is too cold for sulfur dioxide gas, and it condenses onto Io’s surface. During that time, we can only see volcanically-sourced sulfur dioxide. We can, therefore, see exactly how much of the atmosphere is impacted by volcanic activity.

Bright moon pockmarked in different vivid colors, with bluish plume on limb, on black background.

A volcanic eruption on Io, caught by Galileo’s cameras on June 28, 1997. Image via NASA.Mottled colored terrain with large plume on the edge, on black background.

A closer look from Galileo at one of Io’s volcanoes, called Pele, as it was erupting. Image via NASA/ JPL/ USGS.

By using ALMA, scientists were able to “see,” for the first time, plumes of both sulfur dioxide and sulfur monoxide coming up from Io’s volcanoes. Two of those volcanoes, Karei Patera and Daedalus Patera, were erupting in March, and a third volcano was active in September.

The researchers now calculate that 30% to 50% of Io’s atmosphere is produced directly by active volcanoes.

A third gas, potassium chloride (KCI), was also detected by ALMA, and is a common component of lava. According to Luszcz-Cook:

We see KCI in volcanic regions where we do not see SO2 or SO. This is strong evidence that the magma reservoirs are different under different volcanoes.

Katherine de Kleer at the California Institute of Technology added:

By studying Io’s atmosphere and volcanic activity, we can understand more about the volcanoes, the tidal heating process and Io’s interior.

Grayish terrain with dark and bright patches.

The volcano Loki Patera, as seen by Voyager 1 in 1979. The dark U-shaped feature is a lava lake about 124 miles (200 km) across. Image via NASA/ JPL/ USGS/ Planetary Science Institute.Many bright spots on dark sphere, on black background, with labeled colored scale on right side.

Infrared view of Io’s active volcanoes from NASA’s Juno spacecraft, currently orbiting Jupiter. Wow! Image via NASA/ JPL-Caltech/ SwRI/ INAF/ The Planetary Society.

The scientists are eager to learn more about Io’s magma as well, and are planning to observe the moon at additional radio wavelengths. These can probe several inches beneath the surface and provide clues about what Io’s magma is composed of and its temperature. They also want to know more about the temperature of Io’s lower atmosphere. De Pater said:

To measure the temperature of Io’s atmosphere, we need to obtain a higher resolution in our observations, which requires that we observe the moon for a longer period of time. We can only do this when Io is in sunlight, since it does not spend much time in eclipse. During such an observation, Io will rotate by tens of degrees. We will need to apply software that helps us make unsmeared images. We have done this previously with radio images of Jupiter made with ALMA and the Very Large Array.

How can a small moon like Io, way out in the outer solar system, have active volcanoes? Io is volcanically active due to tidal heating. The same side of Io faces Jupiter, just like the same side of the moon always faces Earth. The gravitational pull of Jupiter, as well as the moons Europa and Ganymede, creates tremendous friction and heating inside Io.

The new results help to solve the mystery of how Io’s atmosphere forms and how its volcanoes play a major part in that. But there are still many more questions to be answered – and new ones to be asked – about the solar system’s most active volcanic hotspot.

Bottom line: Active volcanoes produce almost half of Io’s sulfur atmosphere, according to new observations using ALMA.

THIS IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ASTEROID DETECTED

If an object measuring 1 km across were to hit our planet, the consequences would be much graver. There were precedents in the history of our Earth and there is no guarantee it will not happen again. Over a thousand celestial bodies are posing a potential threat today. So what would happen if a really large asteroid were to collide with us?

Human life could be wiped out on March 16, 2880 because a huge asteroid is hurtling towards Earth – and experts don’t know how to stop it

  • Asteroid 1950 DA has a 0.3 per cent chance of hitting Earth in 867 years
  • A possible impact date for 1950 DA is on 16 March, 2880, scientists say
  • If it hits, it would do so with a force of 44,800 megatonnes of TNT
  • But scientists say there is no cause for concern as the risk is low
  • Asteroid’s body defies gravity due to forces known as van Der Waals
  • These forces have never been spotted on an asteroid before
  • Scientists say they are now closer to finding out how to stop the rock

The date of Earth’s potential destruction has been set at 16 March 2880, when an asteroid hurtling through space has a possibility of striking our planet.

Researchers studying the rock found that its body rotates so quickly that it should break apart, but somehow remains intact on its Earth-bound trajectory.

They believe it is held together by cohesive forces known as van der Waals – and although this is considered a major breakthrough, scientists still don’t know how to stop it. 

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Nasa won't meet its goal to find 90 percent of potentially dangerous asteroids larger than 460ft (140 metres) in diameter, the agency's Inspector General said+2

Nasa won’t meet its goal to find 90 percent of potentially dangerous asteroids larger than 460ft (140 metres) in diameter, the agency’s Inspector General said

The discovery was made by researchers at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville.

Previous research has shown that asteroids are loose piles of rubble held together by gravity and friction.

WHAT IS ASTEROID 1950 DA?

The asteroid, named 1950 DA, is a rock two-thirds of a mile in diameter, travelling at about 15 km (nine miles) per second relative to the Earth.

It is approximately 3,280ft (1,000 metres) in diameter, but rotates once every two hours and six minutes.

At this rate, the rock should break apart and eventually disintegrate, but it is not showing any signs of doing so. 

In fact, the rotation is so fast that at its equator, 1950 DA effectively experiences negative gravity.

If an astronaut were to attempt to stand on this surface, he or she would fly off into space unless he or she were somehow anchored.

The presence of cohesive forces has been predicted in small asteroids, but definitive evidence has never been seen before.

It is due to swing so close to Earth it could slam into the Atlantic Ocean at 38,000 miles per hour.

It is estimated that if 1950 DA were to collide with the planet, it would do so with an force of around 44,800 megatonnes of TNT.

Although the probability of an impact is only 0.3 per cent, this represents a risk 50 per cent greater than an impact from all other asteroids.

However, the UT team found that the asteroid, called 1950 DA, is spinning so quickly that it defies these forces.

It is approximately 3,280ft (1,000 metres) in diameter, but rotates once every two hours and six minutes.

At this rate, the rock should break apart and eventually disintegrate, but it is not showing any signs of doing so.

Ben Rozitis, a postdoctoral researcher; Eric MacLennan, a doctoral candidate; and Joshua Emery, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, wanted to know what keeps the body from breaking apart.

By calculating 1950 DA’s temperature and  density, the team detected the cohesive forces that stop it breaking up.

‘We found that 1950 DA is rotating faster than the breakup limit for its density,’ said Rozitis.

‘So if just gravity were holding this rubble pile together, as is generally assumed, it would fly apart. Therefore, interparticle cohesive forces must be holding it together.’

In fact, the rotation is so fast that at its equator, 1950 DA effectively experiences negative gravity.

If an astronaut were to attempt to stand on this surface, they would would be flung off into space.

The presence of cohesive forces has been predicted in small asteroids, but definitive evidence has never been seen before.

The findings, published in this week’s edition of the science journal Nature, have potential implications for defending our planet from a massive asteroid impact.

‘Following the February 2013 asteroid impact in Chelyabinsk, Russia, there is renewed interest in figuring out how to deal with the potential hazard of an asteroid impact,’ said Professor Rozitis.

ANIMATION: Asteroid 1950 DA’s potential trajectory

Tsunami impact

A simulation of an asteroid impact tsunami developed by scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows waves as high as 400 feet sweeping onto the Atlantic Coast

‘Understanding what holds these asteroids together can inform strategies to guard against future impacts.’

This research reveals some techniques, such sending a massive object on a collision course with the asteroid, could worsen the effects.
The asteroid (pictured), is due to swing so close to Earth it could slam into the Atlantic Ocean at 38,000 miles per hour+2

The asteroid (pictured), is due to swing so close to Earth it could slam into the Atlantic Ocean at 38,000 miles per hour

For example, this technique could get in the way of forces keeping the asteroid together, causing it to break apart into lots of smaller, threatening asteroids that could be on a collision course for Earth.

This may be what occurred with the asteroid P/2013 R3, which was caught by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2013 and 2014 coming undone, possibly due to a collision with a meteor.

‘With such tenuous cohesive forces holding one of these asteroids together, a very small impulse may result in a complete disruption,’ said Professor Rozitis.

The asteroid is travelling at about 9 miles (15km) a second relative to the Earth.

It is due to swing so close to Earth it could slam into the Atlantic Ocean at 38,000 miles per hour. 

It is estimated that if 1950 DA were to collide with the planet, it would do so with a force of around 44,800 megatonnes of TNT.

Although the probability of an impact is only 0.3 per cent, this represents a risk 50 per cent greater than an impact from all other asteroids.

Over the long timescales of Earth’s history, asteroids this size and larger have periodically hammered the planet.

The so-called K/T impact, for instance, ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Asteroid 1950 DA was discovered on 23 February 1950. It was observed for 17 days and then faded from view for half a century.

Then, an object discovered on 31 December 2000 was recognised as being the long-lost 1950 DA.

The New Year’s Eve sighting was exactly 200 years to the night after the discovery of the first asteroid, Ceres.

It was found that the asteroid 1950 DA has a trajectory that for a 20-minute window on March 16, 2880, a collision cannot be entirely ruled out.Enlarge   

This graphic shows the orbits of all the known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), numbering over 1,400 as of early 2013. These are the asteroids considered hazardous because they are fairly large (at least 460 feet or 140 meters in size), and because they follow orbits that pass close to the Earth’s orbit

VAN DER WAALS FORCES

Van der Waals forces are the attractive forces that hold molecules close together and are fundamental for chemistry, biology and physics.

They arise due to attraction between oppositely charged areas of substances.

The strength of Van der Waals’ forces is related to the size of atoms and molecules.So the bigger the atom or molecule the bigger the Van der Waals’ force.

However, they are among the weakest known chemical interactions, so they are notoriously hard to study.

But scientists claim there is no cause for concern.

If it is eventually decided 1950 DA needs to be diverted, the hundreds of years of warning could allow a method as simple as dusting the surface of the asteroid with chalk or charcoal, or perhaps white glass beads.

This would change the asteroid’s reflectivity and allow sunlight to do the work of pushing the asteroid out of the way.

Nasa is currently tracking all 1,400 potentially hazardous asteroids so far identified and predicting their future close approaches and impact probabilities.

As part of this effort it is working on the development of an infrared sensor that could improve its asteroid tracking capabilities, dubbed the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) sensor.

Once launched, the space-based telescope would be positioned at a location about four times the distance between Earth and the moon.

From this lofty perch, NEOCam could observe the comings and goings of near Earth objects, including PHAs, without the impediments such as cloud cover and daylight. 

It’s a cosmic miracle that life on Earth’s lasted this long

Exactly how lucky did we get?

A shooting star in a night scene over the Arabian Desert
Earth’s deserts are more inhabitable than entire planets and exoplanets.Cerqueira/Unsplash

Toby Tyrrell is a professor of Earth System Science at the University of Southampton. This story originally featured on The Conversation.

It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that time then evolution would have come to a crashing halt and we would not be here now. So to understand how we came to exist on planet Earth, we’ll need to know how Earth managed to stay fit for life for billions of years.

This is not a trivial problem. Current global warming shows us that the climate can change considerably over the course of even a few centuries. Over geological timescales, it is even easier to change climate. Calculations show that there is the potential for Earth’s climate to deteriorate to temperatures below freezing or above boiling in just a few million years.

We also know that the Sun has become 30 percent more luminous since life first evolved. In theory, this should have caused the oceans to boil away by now, given that they were not generally frozen on the early Earth—this is known as the “faint young Sun paradox”. Yet, somehow, this habitability puzzle was solved.ADVERTISEMENT

1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines blasted so much ash into the atmosphere that global temperatures temporarily dropped by 0.6˚C.SRA Blaze Lipowski / picryl

Scientists have come up with two main theories. The first is that the Earth could possess something like a thermostat – a feedback mechanism (or mechanisms) that prevents the climate ever wandering to fatal temperatures.

The second is that, out of a large number of planets, perhaps some just make it through by luck, and Earth is one of those. This second scenario is made more plausible by the discoveries in recent decades of many planets outside our solar system—so-called exoplanets. Astronomical observations of distant stars tell us that many have planets orbiting them, and that some are of a size and density and orbital distance such that temperatures suitable for life are theoretically possible. It has been estimated that there are at least 2 billion such candidate planets in our galaxy alone.Read More

Scientists would love to travel to these exoplanets to investigate whether any of them have matched Earth’s billion years of climate stability. But even the nearest exoplanets, those orbiting the star Proxima Centauri, are more than four light-years away. Observational or experimental evidence is hard to come by.ADVERTISEMENT

Instead, I explored the same question through modelling. Using a computer program designed to simulate climate evolution on planets in general (not just Earth), I first generated 100,000 planets, each with a randomly different set of climate feedbacks. Climate feedbacks are processes that can amplify or diminish climate change—think for instance of sea-ice melting in the Arctic, which replaces sunlight-reflecting ice with sunlight-absorbing open sea, which in turn causes more warming and more melting.

earth habitability simulations
Repeat runs in the simulation were not identical: 1,000 different planets were generated randomly and each run twice. A shows the results on first run; B shows the results on second run. Green circles show success (stayed habitable for 3 billion years) and black failure.Toby Tyrrell

To investigate how likely each of these diverse planets was to stay habitable over enormous (geological) timescales, I simulated each 100 times. Each time the planet started from a different initial temperature and was exposed to a randomly different set of climate events. These events represent climate-altering factors such as supervolcano eruptions (like Mount Pinatubo but much much larger) and asteroid impacts (like the one that killed the dinosaurs). On each of the 100 runs, the planet’s temperature was tracked until it became too hot or too cold or else had survived for 3 billion years, at which point it was deemed to have been a possible crucible for intelligent life.

The simulation results give a definite answer to this habitability problem, at least in terms of the importance of feedbacks and luck. It was very rare (in fact, just one time out of 100,000) for a planet to have such strong stabilising feedbacks that it stayed habitable all 100 times, irrespective of the random climate events. In fact, most planets that stayed habitable at least once, did so fewer than ten times out of 100. On nearly every occasion in the simulation when a planet remained habitable for 3 billion years, it was partly down to luck. At the same time, luck by itself was shown to be insufficient. Planets that were specially designed to have no feedbacks at all, never stayed habitable; random walks, buffeted around by climate events, never lasted the course.ADVERTISEMENT

This overall result, that outcomes depend partly on feedbacks and partly on luck, is robust. All sorts of changes to the modelling did not affect it. By implication, Earth must therefore possess some climate-stabilising feedbacks but at the same time good fortune must also have been involved in it staying habitable. If, for instance, an asteroid or solar flare had been slightly larger than it was, or had occurred at a slightly different (more critical) time, we would probably not be here on Earth today. It gives a different perspective on why we are able to look back on Earth’s remarkable, enormously extended, history of life evolving and diversifying and becoming ever more complex to the point that it gave rise to us.

This Apollo-Era Rocket Stage, Lost For Half a Century, Turned Up in a Telescope Search

Found in a hunt for asteroids, an old pal checks in on its way around the sun.

Centaur upper stage
A Centaur upper stage like this one, photographed in 1964, was recently identified by a telescope that normally looks for asteroids. (NASA)

Astronomers have confirmed that a small object temporarily captured by Earth’s orbit is the Centaur upper-stage rocket booster that helped lift NASA’s ill-fated Surveyor 2 spacecraft toward the moon in 1966.

The object, designated 2020 SO, was initially detected by the Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System, which monitors near-Earth objects such as asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth. Upon closer examination, scientists at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) realized that this was no ordinary asteroid. Typically, the orbit of an asteroid is more elongated and tilted relative to Earth’s orbit. However, before 2020 SO was captured by this planet’s gravity, it was orbiting around the sun in a near circle and in an orbital plane that almost matched Earth’s. Adding to the mystery, the trajectory of 2020 SO was changing slightly in response to getting pushed by the solar wind, suggesting it was likely hollow.

Suspecting that they had discovered an old rocket booster, CNEOS director Paul Chodas calculated the object’s orbit backward in time and found that 2020 SO’s approach in late 1966 would have been close enough that it might have originated from Earth—coinciding with the launch of the Surveyor 2 spacecraft aboard an Atlas-Centaur rocket. A thruster malfunction had caused the spacecraft to crash into the moon on September 23, while the spent Centaur upper-stage rocket sailed into space.

Final confirmation of the identity of 2020 SO came from a team led by Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor and planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. “My job description is pretty simple—if something is going to hit the Earth, I tell what it is made of…before it hits us of course!”says Reddy, who performed follow-up observations using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility. He and his team compared the spectrum data from 2020 SO with that of 301 stainless steel, the material used to construct Centaur rocket boosters in the 1960s.

While the match was good, it wasn’t perfect, so they investigated further. “A colleague in the Air Force alerted us to look at other similar rocket bodies in Earth orbit,” says Reddy. “My grad student was able to initially get visible wavelength spectra of two of the Centaur rocket bodies from the 1970s using our small 24-inch telescope at the university.” The spectra matched with 2020 SO, confirming its identity as a fellow Centaur booster.

2020 SO made its closest approach to Earth on December 1, 2020, and will remain within Earth’s sphere of gravitational dominance until it escapes back into a new orbit around the sun in March 2021.

But even after we say farewell to the Centaur rocket booster, this might only be the beginning of encounters with historic space artifacts. Says Reddy: “The number of objects we put in space each year is only going up, so we are bound to run into objects like 2020 SO in the future as humanity spreads its wings across the inner solar system.” Who says you can’t go home again?

Perseverance rover: The search for life on Mars begins in February

PerseveranceroveronMars_thumb

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which will soon begin roaming Mars in search of signs of ancient life. NASA/JPL-Caltech

On 18 February, the Mars2020 mission will touch down in a small crater called Jezero near the Martian equator. The mission includes a rover called Perseverance that will explore the area, analyze rocks and gather samples to be returned to Earth by a later mission due to fly in 2026. The mission also includes a helicopter drone called Ingenuity that will scout ahead, looking for intriguing targets to study.

Jezero is interesting because it was once filled with liquid water and so should contain significant evidence of its effects. Even more tantalizing is the possibility that the crater once hosted life. Indeed, part of the Mars2020 mission is to search for signs of life and any biosignatures preserved in the rock.

Planetary geologists have long studied Jezero, marking it as a potential landing site for Mars missions. But the decision to send a rover there has made it the target of much more study.about:blankabout:blank

In particular, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, currently orbiting the Red Planet, has sent back numerous visible and infrared images of the region that have allowed geologists to study remotely the types of rock Perseverance is likely to encounter.

Now Adrian Brown from NASA headquarters in Washington DC says this work has helped to create a remarkably detailed picture of the rocks that Perseverance will find and how they might have been altered by the action of water. Brown also discusses the idea that the rocks in Jezero crater are similar to Earth-bound outcrops in Warrawoona, Australia, which contain the oldest fossilized evidence of life on Earth.

PerseverancelandingsiteJezerocrater

Jezero Crater is seen in this natural-color mosaic made by combining shots from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express. The Perseverance rover’s landing site (circled) is near the ancient river delta that winds from the crater’s rim on the leftNASA/JPL/MSSS/ESA/DLR/FU-Berlin/J. Cowart

First some background. Mars was once very different from the dry arid planet we see today. Some 4 billion years ago, Mars’s many volcanoes, some of the biggest in the Solar System, began pumping huge volumes of gas and dust into the atmosphere.

This trapped energy from the Sun causing temperatures to rise and allowing liquid water to pool on the surface. The atmosphere might even have supported clouds and rainfall, creating conditions that were ripe for the emergence of life.

But about 3.7 billion years ago, the planet began to cool, along with its interior, shutting down the planet’s internal magnetic dynamo and destroying its magnetic field.about:blankabout:blank

As the surface cooled, the liquid water froze at the poles or became permafrost. This created the conditions for massive flooding. Whenever an asteroid impact heated an area, the permafrost melted, sending torrents across the surface. Today, the planet is scarred by the huge channels carved by these floods.

Planetary geologists think Jezero crater filled with water at least twice but that the resulting lakes were long lived, lasting perhaps 10 million years and finally disappearing about 3.7 billion years ago. “This may be the final time water flowed on Mars,” says Brown, who presented this paper at the 23rd International Mars Society Convention in October.

The crater is about 50 kilometers in diameter and well-studied using the cameras aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The images at various frequencies of visible and infrared light reveal the composition of the rock and also its grain size, which reveals how it has weathered over time.

Brown says this shows the crater was originally formed in rock consisting of olivine, a mineral containing iron, magnesium and silicates, as well as well carbonates. Brown says an important discovery is a rocky outcrop beyond the waterline that reveals the unaltered rock as it originally formed. This will become an essential reference for the mission, against which altered rocks can be compared.

Water works

Within the crater, clay has formed in various areas, which geologists believe can only happen in the presence of water, which will have carried the necessary minerals from surrounding areas. This is likely to have formed in layers, which may be visible near the shoreline.about:blankabout:blank

The most intriguing line of investigation is Brown’s comparison between the rocks in Jezero crater and those at Warrawoona in Australia. Back in 1983, paleobiologists discovered evidence of fossilized cells in these rocks, which formed some 3.5 billion years ago. They represent the oldest geological evidence of life on Earth.

That immediately raises the tantalizing possibility that similar evidence might be present in Jezero crater. If so, an important question is whether Perseverance will be able to gather this evidence and analyze it in the necessary detail.

That’s a big ask, even for a mission designed to look for signs of life. “The limitations in spaceflight-ready instrumentation and the remote location of the scientific team limit the extent of scientific analyses that can be done by rover missions to Mars,” Brown points out.

But even if not, Perseverance will gather samples that will later be returned to Earth by a sample return mission. The advantage of such an approach is that the rocks can be studied in more detail by a wider variety of instruments. “Inspired by the Apollo samples, which still continue propel new lunar science discoveries, we anticipate that the analyses of the samples returned by MSR will rely on future instrumentation that may not even exist today,” says Brown.

Brown says NASA and the European Space Agency have agreed to work on the sample return mission together. “The nominal launch date is planned for 2026, with a nominal return of samples by 2031,” he says. So for a definitive answer to any questions about signs of life on Mars, we will probably have to wait until then.

Stupendously Large Black Holes Could Be Hiding in Universe

If ‘stupendously large’ black holes, those with masses more than 100 billion times that of the Sun, exist in the Universe, they would provide a powerful tool for cosmological tests due to their unique imprints, according to a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Carr et al. investigated how stupendously large black holes could form and potential limits to their size. Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Black holes are a key prediction of general relativity,” said Queen Mary Emeritus Professor Bernard Carr and colleagues.

“There are a plethora of observations indicating their existence in the solar or intermediate-mass range. In particular, the existence of binary black holes in the mass range between 10 and 50 solar masses has been demonstrated by the detection of gravitational waves from inspiralling binaries.”

“There is also evidence for supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, including Sagittarius A* at the center of our own Milky Way Galaxy, with a mass of 4 million solar masses.”

“Recently, the imaging of the shadow created by M87*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the giant elliptical galaxy M87 with a mass of 6.5 billion solar masses, has been reported by the Event Horizon Telescope.”

“The supermassive black holes in galactic nuclei span a huge mass range, extending up to nearly 100 billion solar masses,” they said.

“The current heaviest black hole is associated with the quasar TON 618 and has a mass of 70 billion solar masses, while the second heaviest, at the center of the galaxy IC 1101, has a mass inferred from its radio emission of 40 billion solar masses.”

“This raises the issue of whether there could be even larger black holes in galactic nuclei and whether indeed there is any natural upper limit to the mass of a supermassive black hole.”

In their new paper, Professor Carr, Dr. Florian Kühnel from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat and Dr. Luca Visinelli from the University of Amsterdam suggest that stupendously large black holes (SLABs) could be primordial, forming in the early Universe, and well before galaxies.

As primordial black holes don’t form from a collapsing star, they could have a wide range of masses, including very small and stupendously large ones.

“Whilst there isn’t currently evidence for the existence of SLABs, it’s conceivable that they could exist and they might also reside outside galaxies in intergalactic space, with interesting observational consequences,” Professor Carr said.

“However, surprisingly, the idea of SLABs has largely been neglected until now.”

“We’ve proposed options for how these black holes might form, and hope that our work will begin to motivate discussions amongst the community.”

If SLABs are of primordial origin, this raises an interesting link with the suggestion that primordial black holes could provide the dark matter.

Although SLABs themselves clearly cannot do this, since they are too large to reside in galactic halos, it is possible that primordial black holes provide the dark matter in a much lower mass range.

“SLABs themselves could not provide the dark matter,” Professor Carr said.

“But if they exist at all, it would have important implications for the early Universe and would make it plausible that lighter primordial black holes might do so.”

NASA takes a Image of Mysterious Object that arrived from another Solar System!

When we think of the sheer infinite vastness of the universe, we often ask ourselves what mysterious objects may be found in other solar systems. Indeed, space exploration is still in its infancy. While international scientists are currently working feverishly to study in detail the celestial bodies in our own planetary system, we can only speculate about those planets and galactic entities that lie outside the visible universe.

Finally, should the rare case occur that an object from a distant galaxy roams through our solar system, this circumstance is tantamount to a galactic sensation. In the course of our following video, we would like to take a closer look at one of these mysterious objects together with you. Not long ago, NASA succeeded in discovering a fascinating object whose origin lies in an unknown distance. We wish you much pleasure with this exciting topic!

Some Black Holes May Actually Be Secret Wormholes

This is deep.

  • Some black holes could be wormholes, and the difference is in the gamma radiation.
  • Luminous, supermassive black holes called active galactic nuclei (AGN) could really be wormholes.
  • The two cosmic objects emit totally different radiation signatures.

Some scientists believe black holes aren’t all the same—and that some are really wormholes. To find out, we’ll need a way to tell the difference with certainty.

In a new paper, Russian scientists posit that the right blast of gamma radiation could reveal wormholes in black hole disguise.

How would a black hole wormhole work? The answer is actually relatively simple, and it also reveals why such a wormhole would have a detectable physical “tell.” Space’s Charles Q. Choi explains:

“Any matter falling into a mouth of a supermassive wormhole would likely travel at extraordinarily high speeds due to its powerful gravitational fields. The scientists modeled the consequences of matter flowing through both mouths of a wormhole to where these mouths meet, the wormhole’s “throat.” The result of such collisions are spheres of plasma expanding out both mouths of the wormhole at nearly the speed of light, the researchers said.”

This “outburst,” in the literal sense, is what scientists can look for. “The spheres of plasma from wormholes can reach temperatures of about 18 trillion degrees Fahrenheit (10 trillion degrees Celsius),” Choi writes. “At such heat, the plasma would produce gamma rays with energies of 68 million electronvolts.”

This radiation signature is distinct from even the most powerful and radiative known kinds of black holes. Because of that, the “fingerprint” could immediately tell scientists they were looking into a wormhole.

This part is important, because the theory of black holes as wormholes overlaps with one specific kind of black hole: the active galactic nucleus (AGN), which is gigantic and extraordinarily powerful.

AGNs give centers of galaxies their trademark brightness, hence the name, and scientists have argued about their true nature for a long time. “The underlying hypothesis of this work is that the active galactic nuclei are wormhole mouths rather than supermassive black holes,” the researchers explain.


AGNs aren’t well understood, with qualities of supermassive black holes mixed with extreme brightness. They’re broken into categories based on different factors, but the idea that they blast out a huge amount of radiation is what plays into this research. Their radiation signature is different enough from what would emerge from a true wormhole that scientists won’t mistake one for the other.READ THISThe Black Hole Picture Changed Science

So how would such a test work? Think about looking at two lamps, where one has a “warm” compact fluorescent bulb and the other has a “natural” tone. You can immediately tell not just that they’re different, but likely what the difference indicates about what they both are. For cosmologists, the difference between wormholes and AGNs will be just as immediately clear. One of the authors of the paper told Space that he’s surprised this hasn’t been thought of before because of how simple it is.

In future research, if scientists can identify gamma radiation coming from a suspected galactic nucleus, these study findings mean they can hazard a guess that the object isn’t galactic nucleus at all. It could, in fact, be a wormhole. At the very least, it’s something new.

UFO documents released by CIA are ‘real-life X-Files,’ expert says

British investigator said there are some ‘fascinating’ documents in the files

The CIA’s decision to declassify more than three decades worth of UFO documents is a “real-life X-Files,” according to one expert.

Nick Pope, a former employee and UFO investigator for Britain’s Ministry of Defense, said there are some “fascinating” documents in the files, which are more than 2,700 pages. However, the odd manner in which they were released and difficulties searching them will “fuel conspiracy theories.”

“There’s an irony in the UFO community expecting to find a smoking gun in material released by an organization they believe is part of a cover-up, and recent revelations about the Pentagon’s AATIP program and the [Unidentified Aerial Phenomena] Task Force suggest anyone looking in CIA files for the answer to the UFO mystery is looking at the wrong agency,” Pope said in an email to Fox News. “Perhaps these are the documents the government wants people to see, a bit like a magician who does something flamboyant with one hand, to draw people’s attention, while the important thing is going on in his other hand, behind his back.”

Photo by MBARDO on Pexels.com

The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) was formed in 2007 at the behest of former Sen. Harry Reid, Fox News previously reported. It reportedly ceased operations in 2012, but in 2017 The New York Times reported the Department of Defense was still investigating potential episodes of unidentified flying objects.

The recently released documents were uploaded to The Black Vault, a government-centric website run by John Greenewald Jr., who obtained them via a number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests over the past few decades.

Last year, Greenwald purchased the CD-ROM that was created by the CIA. In a statement on his website, Greenwald said the CIA “claims this is their ‘entire’ declassified collection,” but added there is no way to verify that. “Research by The Black Vault will continue to see if there are additional documents still uncovered within the CIA’s holdings.”

There are a number of individual documents in the release, including the 1976 story of a government official being handed intelligence on  countless UFO sightings.

Perhaps coincidentally, the U.K. also released its so-called “X-files,” a document trove of reported UFO-related sightings early last year. The Royal Air Force ran a UFO unit for 50 years but shut it down in 2009 after coming to the conclusion that none of the reports offered evidence of a real threat.

After the U.K.’s decision to publish reported UFO sightings online, 61% of Americans surveyed said they wanted the U.S. government to do the same. 

The release of the nearly 2,700 pages of declassified documents comes just a couple of weeks after the New York Post reported that the latest COVID-19 relief and government funding bill gave the Pentagon six months to reveal what they know about UFOs. 

In August, the Pentagon announced it was establishing a task force to “detect, analyze and catalog” unidentified aerial phenomena.

FAA Approves First Fully Automated Commercial Drone Flights

American Robotics granted permission to operate drones without hands-on piloting

American Robotics Scout drones use acoustic technology to detect and avoid drones, birds and other obstacles. PHOTO: AMERICAN ROBOTICS

U.S. aviation regulators have approved the first fully automated commercial drone flights, granting a small Massachusetts-based company permission to operate drones without hands-on piloting or direct observation by human controllers or observers.

The decision by the Federal Aviation Administration limits operation of automated drones to rural areas and altitudes below 400 feet, but is a potentially significant step in expanding commercial applications of drones for farmers, utilities, mining companies and other customers.

It also represents another step in the FAA’s broader effort to authorize widespread flights by shifting away from case-by-case exemptions for specific vehicles performing specific tasks.

In approval documents posted on a government website Thursday, the FAA said that once such automated drone operations are conducted on a wider scale, they could mean “efficiencies to many of the industries that fuel our economy such as agriculture, mining, transportation” and certain manufacturing segments.

The FAA previously allowed drones to inspect railroad tracks, pipelines and some industrial sites beyond the sight of pilots or spotters on the ground as long as such individuals were located relatively close by.

The Federal Aviation Administration has approved the nation’s first-ever fully automated commercial drone flights.

In documents posted to the FAA website, Massachusetts-based American Robotics Inc. got a partial grant of exemption on Jan. 14 that allows unmanned aircraft to fly beyond the line of sight of a remote pilot.

Signed by Flight Standards Service Deputy Executive Director Robert C. Carty, the grant allows American Robotics to operate its Scout quadcopter unmanned aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of 20 pounds, in rural settings for research, development and training.

According to the grant, American Robotics’ operation would occur only during daylight in unregulated low-altitude areas with light air traffic and would be limited to 400 feet above ground.

In addition, any individual flights would occur within the boundaries of American Robotics’ customers’ “controlled access farmland” or similar rural environments meeting the same criteria.

“We conduct thorough safety assessments before issuing any unmanned aircraft operation approvals,” the FAA wrote to Fox Business on Saturday.

The agency also highlighted public interest in the case, writing that regulators would learn more about automated operations by allowing American Robotics to proceed with its endeavors.

“Once adopted on a wider scale, such a scheme could lend efficiencies to many of the industries that fuel our economy such as agriculture, transportation, mining, technology, and non-durable manufacturing,” the agency added. “Moreover, the operations will achieve a reduction in environmental impact, as they will involve a small aircraft carrying no passengers or crew, rather than a manned aircraft of significantly greater size.”Video

In order to meet standards, American Robotics tested fully automated drones for four years in eight states, according to initial reporting from The Wall Street Journal.

The Marlborough company’s Scout drones run on predetermined programs and weigh less than 20 pounds. They also have built-in acoustic technology to avoid birds and other aircraft, and safeguards to prevent malfunctions.

“With these approvals, American Robotics is ushering in a new era of widespread automated drone operations,” American Robotics co-founder and CEO Reese Mozer in a press release.

“Decades worth of promise and projection are finally coming to fruition” and will help to unlock the $100 billion commercial drone market.

Previously, the FAA allowed drones to inspect railroad tracks, industrial sites and pipelines, as long as pilots or spotters were in sight.

In December, the FAA said it would issue a long-awaited rule to allow for small drones to fly over people and at night, as well as require remote identification for most drones.

“The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

Mars missions, a super-powered telescope, and more exciting 2021 space events

Many exciting 2021 space events in store!

An artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope, finally set to launch this year.
An artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope, finally set to launch this year.Northrop Grumman

Like nearly everything else in the world, space exploration hit a coronavirus-sized pause button early last year. But we were still able to thrust our way into the cosmos in an otherwise difficult, stressful 2020. And 2021 looks to be a pretty busy time for space both on the ground and out in the void. Here’s a list of missions we’re excited about so you can look forward to what cosmic insights this next orbit around the sun could bring.

A trio of Mars missions

For Mars fans, February will be an exciting month. The Red Planet will welcome the arrival of not one, not two, but three missions.

The first to arrive will be the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft, or Al Amal. The mission, which is due to arrive on February 9, will send valuable data back to Earth about Mars’ climate and weather. Assuming all goes well, this will mark the first Arab mission to Mars—or any other planet for that matter.

NASA’s Perseverance will touch down on Mars’ Jezero Crater, the site of a former lake, on February 18, where it will perform the most extensive search for past life on Mars to date. Built on the same basic bones as the Curiosity rover which has been trucking away on Mars since 2011, the car-sized Perseverance rover carries different instruments designed to search for signs of past microbial life. It will also deploy Ingenuity, a small helicopter that will demonstrate the first powered flight launched from the surface of another planet. Even more significant, Perseverance will cache the most intriguing Mars samples so that they can eventually be collected and brought back to Earth as early as 2031.

China, ever secretive about its space program, has not said when exactly its ambitious Tianwen-1 mission will arrive at Mars. It’s expected in mid-February where it’ll remain in orbit before sending a lander containing a rover to the surface in May. If it succeeds, China will become the third country to land something on Mars.

A next-generation space observatory

The much-delayed and highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, plagued by technical problems and mounting costs, will also launch this year (fingers crossed). On October 31st, the Hubble Space Telescope’s successor will be positioned over 932,000 miles from Earth, where it will afford us unprecedented views of the universe in infrared; it’ll be the largest telescope ever placed in space, with 100 times Hubble’s light-gathering power.

“Webb is designed to build upon the incredible legacies of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, by observing the infrared universe and exploring every phase of cosmic history,” said Eric Smith, NASA Webb’s program scientist, in a statement. “The observatory will detect light from the first generation of galaxies that formed in the early universe after the big bang and study the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets for possible signs of habitability.”

‘Lucy’ in the sky with carbon-rich asteroids

In October, NASA is set to launch the Lucy spacecraft. Over its 12-year mission, Lucy will visit the so-called Jovian Trojans—asteroids that share the same orbit as Jupiter but float hundreds of millions of miles ahead or behind the planet, trapped there by the giant planet’s gravity. It’s thought that the Trojan asteroids could hold clues to understanding the early Solar System—and perhaps even clues to the origins of Earth’s organic material.

Back to the Moon

Several missions are shooting for the Moon this year.

The first of NASA’s Artemis missions—an uncrewed test mission known as Artemis 1—is expected to launch in November 2021. The mission will provide engineers back on Earth with a chance to evaluate how the spacecraft performs in deep space and serve as a prelude to returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024.ADVERTISEMENT

In March, India is planning to launch its third lunar mission: Chandrayaan-3. This would be a second attempt at landing on the Moon after the crash of the Vikram lander on the Chandrayaan-2 mission in 2019. If all goes well, the Chandrayaan-3 rover will touch down on the lunar south pole’s Aitken basin—a 1,500-mile-wide scar created when an asteroid slammed into the Moon around 3.9 billion years ago.

And after a decades-long hiatus, Russia’s opening moonshot to reactivate the Russian lunar program plans is known as Luna 25. The much-delayed mission, which has been in development since the late 1990s, is tentatively set for launch in October 2021.

The poster child of commercial space

Last year, SpaceX made history when its Crew Dragon spacecraft proved it can ferry NASA astronauts to humanity’s home away from home—the International Space Station. SpaceX is expected to make those sort of trips routine, with two likely happening later this year. And 2021 might also be the year that we see SpaceX’s 165-foot-tall Starship vehicle, designed to one day take humans to the Red Planet, make it into orbit. Despite a beautiful belly-flopping opera with an explosive finale, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said last year he was “80 to 90 percent” confident that Starship would be ready by the end of 2021.ADVERTISEMENThttps://e893246bedbf0789049fc8236493320d.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Notable things to look for in the sky

You can also feast your eyes upon cosmic spectacles from your own abode. On June 10, there will be an annular solar eclipse. That phenomenon occurs when the Moon is farthest away from the Earth to completely cover the Sun, resulting in a ring of light around the darkened moon. Much of Europe and the northeastern United States will see a partial solar eclipse. The best meteor shower of the year may be the Perseids, named that way since they appear to originate from the constellation Perseus in the sky. The stellar light show will peak right in the height of summer in mid-August. So, here’s a simple yet wondrous resolution for the new year: Look up!

NASA finds an alien planet with 3 suns

KOI-5Ab is approximately 1,800 light-years from Earth

NASA has discovered an exoplanet with three stars, one with a bizarre orbit that has left astronomers baffled.

The planet, known as KOI-5Ab was discovered in 2009 by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, but it was “abandoned” by scientists because the space telescope had easier candidates to identify.

“KOI-5Ab got abandoned because it was complicated, and we had thousands of candidates,” said David Ciardi, chief scientist of NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute, in a statement. “There were easier pickings than KOI-5Ab, and we were learning something new from Kepler every day, so that KOI-5 was mostly forgotten.”

This illustration shows the planet KOI-5Ab transiting across the face of a Sun-like star, which is part of a triple-star system located 1,800 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation. (Credits: Caltech/R. Hurt Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, or IPAC.)

This illustration shows the planet KOI-5Ab transiting across the face of a Sun-like star, which is part of a triple-star system located 1,800 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation. (Credits: Caltech/R. Hurt Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, or IPAC.)

KOI-5Ab is approximately 1,800 light-years from Earth. A light-year, which measures distance in space, is approximately 6 trillion miles.

However, thanks to NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and other Earth-based telescopes, KOA-5Ab has been given new life, with researchers discovering its perplexing orbit.

Due to its size, KOA-5Ab is likely a gas giant, similar to Jupiter or Saturn, but it circles a star in its star system, KOA-5A, once every five days. It’s also out of alignment from at least one of the other two stars and possibly both. 

“We don’t know of many planets that exist in triple-star systems, and this one is extra special because its orbit is skewed,” Ciardi added. “We still have a lot of questions about how and when planets can form in multiple-star systems and how their properties compare to planets in single-star systems. By studying this system in greater detail, perhaps we can gain insight into how the universe makes planets.”

In contrast, KOI-5A orbit KOI-5B each other, once every 30 years. KOI-5C orbits the two once every 400 years, leaving the four celestial objects in a skewed orbit as a result of different planes.https://8ad8b944968071790736e215a8f8d54d.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

It’s unclear what caused the skewed orbit, though they “believe that the second star gravitationally kicked the planet during its development, skewing its orbit and causing it to migrate inward,” the NASA statement added. It’s believed that triple-star systems are roughly 10% of all star systems.

The findings were recently presented at a virtual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Researchers have discovered other planets with three stars in recent memory. In July 2019, exoplanet LTT 1445Ab was found to orbit one of the three suns, all of which are described as mid-to-late-life red dwarfs.

In September 2020, researchers discovered that the GW Orionis star system, which is located at the edge of the Orion constellation, has two stars that orbit one another with the third orbiting the two siblings at a distance of approximately 740 million miles. Inside the rings could be dust, or the beginnings of a young exoplanet, which could explain the misalignment of the system’s gravitational pull.

More than 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered by NASA in total, approximately 50 of which were believed to potentially be habitable as of September 2018. They have the right size and the right orbit of their star to support surface water and, at least theoretically, to support life.

Astronomers Discover New ‘Celestial Autobahn’ in Solar System

An international team of astronomers from Serbia and the United States has discovered a new superhighway network to travel through our Solar System much faster than was previously possible.

A whimsical view of the planets of our Solar System and the missions sent from Earth to explore them. Image credit: Jenny Mottar / NASA.

The newly-discovered routes can drive comets and asteroids near Jupiter to Neptune’s distance in under a decade and to 100 AU (astronomical units) in less than a century.

They could be used to send spacecraft to the far reaches of our planetary system relatively fast, and to monitor and understand near-Earth objects that might collide with our planet.

Dr. Nataša Todorović of Belgrade Astronomical Observatory and colleagues observed the dynamical structure of these routes, forming a connected series of arches inside what’s known as space manifolds that extend from the asteroid belt to Uranus and beyond.

This ‘celestial autobahn’ acts over several decades, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands or millions of years that usually characterize Solar System dynamics.

The most conspicuous arch structures are linked to Jupiter and the strong gravitational forces it exerts.

The population of Jupiter-family comets as well as small-size bodies known as Centaurs is controlled by such manifolds on unprecedented time scales.

Some of these bodies will end up colliding with Jupiter or being ejected from the Solar System.

The structures were resolved by gathering numerical data about millions of orbits in our Solar System and computing how these orbits fit within already-known space manifolds.

Global arch-like structure of space manifolds in the Solar System. Image credit: Todorović et al., doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abd1313.

The results need to be studied further, both to determine how they could be used by spacecraft, or how such manifolds behave in the vicinity of the Earth, controlling the asteroid and meteorite encounters, as well as the growing population of artificial man-made objects in the Earth-Moon system.

“It should come at no surprise that Jupiter can induce large-scale transport on decadal time scales, as space missions have been specifically designed for Jupiter-assisted transport, with the flybys of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 being cardinal examples,” the astronomers said.

“That gravity assists can be enabled by manifolds is also well known to astrodynamicists.”

“Yet, their widespread influence on natural celestial bodies has been largely undervalued and unexplored.”

The team’s paper was published in the journal Science Advances.

NASA helps cement plan to return to the moon

JAXA will provide technical expertise, devices for a life support and environmental control system, batteries, thermal control and imagery components

Though NASA may have trouble returning to the moon by 2024, the U.S. space agency is doing what it can to eventually explore the lunar surface, announcing a formal partnership with Japan for the lunar Gateway. 

NASA and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) formally announced the agreement that will see JAXA contribute to the Gateway, providing technical expertise, devices for life support and environmental control system, batteries, thermal control and imagery components. 

“We’re honored to announce this latest agreement with Japan to support long-term human exploration on and around the Moon as part of the Artemis program,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “Strengthening our international partnerships and commitments to Artemis puts humanity on a solid path to achieve our common goals of sustainable lunar exploration by the end of this decade.”

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Illustration of Gateway in lunar orbit with contributions from international partners. (NASA)

Illustration of Gateway in lunar orbit with contributions from international partners. (NASA)

A memorandum of understanding was signed between NASA and Japan at the end of 2020, the Japanese Foreign Ministry has said previously.

In addition, the new agreement will allow opportunities for Japanese astronauts to access the Gateway, which NASA said “will be determined following additional discussions, and documented in a future arrangement.”

“Leveraging the capabilities that international partners contribute to Gateway will be key to enabling access to the lunar surface,” added Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “We are pleased to move forward in these groundbreaking efforts with Japan and our other partners.”

The Gateway, which is approximately one-sixth the size of the International Space Station, will act as a “rendezvous point” for astronauts traveling to the lunar orbit aboard the Orion spacecraft before they make their way to low-lunar orbit and ultimately, the surface. It will be used for both robotic and human expeditions to both the moon and Mars.

“The capabilities provided by Japan are critical to enabling the interior environment of the Gateway allowing our crews to live and work for longer durations,” explained Dan Hartman, Gateway program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “With the life support systems from Japan, longer duration missions for the Artemis crews can be accomplished with reduced demands on logistics resupply.”

Japan becomes the third international partner to commit to the Gateway. In October 2020, NASA and the European Space Agency signed a deal to cooperate on the Gateway. One month later, the U.S. and Canada signed a deal to collaborate on the lunar outpost as well.

The Gateway will be used as a base for NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program. In 2019, NASA unveiled its vision for the Artemis moon lander that will return U.S. astronauts to the lunar surface.

The Artemis program, the successor to the Apollo program, is notable for a number of reasons, including its goals of sending the first woman to land on the lunar surface and establishing a sustainable human presence on Earth’s natural satellite.

To date, only 12 people, all Americans, have landed on the moon. The last NASA astronaut to set foot on the moon was Apollo 17 Mission Commander Gene Cernan on Dec. 14, 1972.

Rolls-Royce and UK Space Agency launch study into nuclear-powered space exploration

The UK Space Agency and Rolls-Royce are joining forces for a unique study into how nuclear power and technologies could be used as part of space exploration.

Credit: Rolls-Royce

This new research contract will see planetary scientists work together to explore the game-changing potential of nuclear power as a more plentiful source of energy, capable of making possible deeper space exploration in the decades to come.

Nuclear propulsion, which would involve channelling the immense energy released in splitting the atom to accelerate propellants, like hydrogen, at huge speeds, has the potential to revolutionise space travel.

By some estimates, this kind of engine could be twice as efficient as the chemical engines that power our rockets today. Spacecraft powered by this kind of engine could, conceivably, make it to Mars in just 3 to 4 months – roughly half the time of the fastest possible trip in a spacecraft using the current chemical propulsion.

Nuclear space power is anticipated to create new skilled jobs across the UK to support the burgeoning UK space economy.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

As we build back better from the pandemic, it is partnerships like this between business, industry and government that will help to create jobs and bring forward pioneering innovations that will advance UK spaceflight.

Nuclear power presents transformative possibilities for space exploration and this innovative study with Rolls-Royce could help to propel our next generation of astronauts into space faster and for longer, significantly increasing our knowledge of the Universe.

Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said:

Space nuclear power and propulsion is a game-changing concept that could unlock future deep-space missions that take us to Mars and beyond.

This study will help us understand the exciting potential of atomic-powered spacecraft, and whether this nascent technology could help us travel further and faster through space than ever before.

Dave Gordon, UK Senior Vice President, Rolls-Royce Defence said:

We are excited to be working with the UK Space Agency on this pioneering project to define future nuclear power technologies for space. We believe there is a real niche UK capability in this area and this initiative can build on the strong UK nuclear network and supply chain.

We look forward to developing this and other exciting space projects in the future as we continue to develop the power to protect our planet, secure our world and explore our Universe.

It would not just mean a time saving – it would also radically reduce the dose of radiation taken on by astronauts that would be making future trips to Mars or other planets. The size of the dose increases the longer you spend in deep space, away from the bubble of protection given by the Earth’s magnetosphere.

The appeal of a small nuclear power generator for propulsion also comes from the fact that power in space becomes increasingly precious with distance from the Sun. In the outer Solar System, sunlight gets too dim for solar panels, and other technologies like fuel cells are often too patchy as a source of energy.

Nuclear propulsion is an idea that has existed since the 1950s, when the United States attempted to develop a rocket propelled by small atomic bombs tossed out the back.

CIA releases UFO ‘Black Vault’ documents early: How to see them online

Pentagon is slated to brief Congress on UFOs soon

Federal intelligence on extraterrestrial technology — at your fingertips.

By way of the Freedom of Information Act, thousands of the CIA documents on unidentified flying objects — or unidentified aerial phenomena, as the government calls them — are now accessible via download at the Black Vault, a website operated by author and podcaster John Greenwald Jr.

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

The CIA claims they have now provided all the information on UAP they have, though there is no way to know that’s true.

“Research by The Black Vault will continue to see if there are additional documents still uncovered within the CIA’s holdings,” Greenwald promised in a statement on his website.

The release comes months before the Pentagon was due to brief Congress on what the military knows about UAP — a date dictated in the most recent COVID-19 relief bill which passed in late December.

The demands for alien intel became so many that the CIA eventually compiled it onto a CD-ROM, obtained by Greenwald and uploaded to the Black Vault, divvied into dozens of downloadable PDFs.

Greenwald told Vice’s Motherboard that he believes the documents are made difficult to parse for calculated reasons.

“The CIA has made it INCREDIBLY difficult to use their records in a reasonable manner,” he said of the “outdated” file format. “In my opinion, this outdated format makes it very difficult for people to see the documents, and use them, for any research purpose.”

Greenwald had filed multiple FOIA requests during the past two decades in pursuit of non-confidential findings on UAP collected by the US government since 1996, he said in a Jan. 7 blog post. In a 2020 interview, he told the Columbia Journalism Review that he began to inquire with the CIA as a teenager.

“You can take something that took more than a decade to come to my mailbox and give it to the public for free in an instant — that’s why I do it,” he said at the time. “I’m fairly hooked on the whole FOIA thing.”

Among the cache’s most intriguing clues is a heavily redacted document that shows that a former CIA assistant deputy director for science and technology “exhibited interest” in one particular unnamed object.

“He decided he would personally look into it, and after, he gave advice on moving forward. That advice is classified,” Greenwald tweeted from the Black Vault Twitter account.

The dump comes at a moment in history when Americans are particularly interested in alien intelligence, indicated by a recent uptick in UFO sightings, and viral popularity of media relating to extraterrestrial life.

Last year, the Defense Department officially declassified shocking video taken by Navy pilots in 2004 and 2015, which made international headlines when it was first leaked by To The Stars Academy, a UFO research group founded by former Blink-182 rocker Tom DeLonge in 2017 and 2018.

At the time, the department asserted that the footage “does not reveal any sensitive capabilities or systems” and “does not impinge on any subsequent investigations.”

The Nuclear Salt Water Rocket – Possibly the Craziest Rocket Engine Ever Imagined.

The Nuclear Salt Water Rocket is a rocket engine concept that uses a rapid nuclear reaction in a Uranium salt dissolved in water to create a high thrust, high efficiency engine which eclipses the performance of any rocket engine ever designed. It’s a concept originally presented by Robert Zubrin, which is appealing because it looks more scientifically plausable than many other futuristic propulsion concepts.

It’s also scary on so many levels, using a propellent that has to be stabilized by specially designed tanks, and relies on managing a small nuclear explosion with power outputs of hundreds of gigawatts.

Proposed design
Orthodox chemical rockets use heat energy produced by chemical reactions in a reaction chamber to heat the gas products. The products are then expelled through a propulsion nozzle at a very high speed, creating thrust. In a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR), thrust is created by heating a fluid by using a nuclear fission reactor. The lower the molecular weight of the exhaust, hydrogen having the lowest possible, the more efficient the motor can be. However, in this engine the propellant can be anything with suitable properties as there will be no reaction on the part of the propellant. In a NSWR the nuclear salt-water would be made to flow through a reaction chamber and out of an exhaust nozzle in such a way and at such speeds that critical mass will begin once the chamber is filled to a certain point; however, the peak neutron flux of the fission reaction would occur outside the vehicle.

Advantages of the design
There are several advantages relative to conventional NTR designs. As the peak neutron flux and fission reaction rates would occur outside the vehicle, these activities could be much more vigorous than they could be if it was necessary to house them in a vessel (which would have temperature limits due to materials constraints). Additionally, a contained reactor can only allow a small percentage of its fuel to undergo fission at any given time, otherwise it would overheat and melt down (or explode in a runaway fission chain reaction).[4] The fission reaction in an NSWR is dynamic and because the reaction products are exhausted into space it doesn’t have a limit on the proportion of fission fuel that reacts. In many ways NSWRs combine the advantages of fission reactors and fission bombs.

Because they can harness the power of what is essentially a continuous nuclear fission explosion, NSWRs would have both very high thrust and very high exhaust velocity, meaning that the rocket would be able to accelerate quickly as well as be extremely efficient in terms of propellant usage. The combination of high thrust and high specific impulse is a very rare trait in the rocket world. One design would generate 13 meganewtons of thrust at 66 km/s exhaust velocity (or exceeding 10,000 seconds ISP compared to ~4.5 km/s (450 s ISP) exhaust velocity for the best chemical rockets of today).

The design and calculations discussed above are using 20 percent enriched uranium salts, however, it would be plausible to use another design which would be capable of achieving much higher exhaust velocities (4,700 km/s) and use 2,700 tonnes of highly enriched uranium salts in water to propel a 300 tonne spacecraft up to 3.6% of the speed of light.

“NSWRs share many of the features of Orion propulsion systems, except that NSWRs would generate continuous rather than pulsed thrust and may be workable on much smaller scales than the smallest feasible Orion designs (which are generally large, due to the requirements of the shock-absorber system and the minimum size of efficient nuclear explosives).”

Forget the Christmas Star: Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn will form rare ‘triple conjunction’

It will occur this weekend and again in mid-February

Jupiter’s moon lo was once again partially illuminated with a fiery red glow in late December as a volcano erupted, spewing plumes of gases and lava. NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured images of the volcanic plume during its 17th flyby of the planet. The gas giant’s moon is considered the most active volcanic body in existence.

The “Christmas star,” a rare celestial event that occurs when Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in the Solar System, form what looks like a double planet, was one of the highlights of 2020.

True to form, 2021 promises to top that.

This weekend, Mercury will join the two gas giants in what is being dubbed a “triple conjunction,” as the three planets will be within a couple of degrees from one another in the night sky.

Photo credit: NASA

Photo credit: NASA

“From Friday evening to Monday evening, the planet Mercury will appear to pass first by Saturn and then by Jupiter as it shifts away from the horizon, visible each evening low in the west-southwest and setting before evening twilight ends,” NASA wrote on its website.

According to Forbes, the three planets will be in the same two degrees of the sky in the Capricorn constellation.

EarthSky.org notes skywatchers may need binoculars to catch some of the planets, but the event can be seen by looking for Jupiter first, then spotting Saturn and Mercury. Jupiter will be the brightest of the trio.

The science website adds that it is best to “find an unobstructed horizon in the direction of sunset” to see these planets, starting stargazing no less than 45 minutes after sundown.

Unlike the “Christmas star,” this triple conjunction of planets has happened recently, last occurring in October 2015. By comparison, Jupiter and Saturn form a double conjunction once every roughly 20 years, though the most recent event was the closest the two had been to each other since 1226 A.D.

After this weekend, the next time the trio will form a triple conjunction is Feb. 13, 2021, just before Valentine’s Day.

The next two triple conjunctions are set for April 20, 2026 (Mercury, Mars, Saturn) and June 16, 2028, when Mercury, Venus and Mars make up the event.

What It’ll Take To Upload Our Brains To A Computer

As long as people have been alive, they’ve wanted to stay alive. But unlike finding the fountain of youth or becoming a vampire, uploading your brain to a computer or the cloud might actually be possible. Theoretically, we already know how to do it, and Elon Musk is even trying a brain implant with Neuralink. But technically, we have a long way to go. We explain the main technological advancements that we’ll need to make whole brain emulation a reality.

Mind uploading, also known as whole brain emulation (WBE), is the hypothetical futuristic process of scanning a physical structure of the brain accurately enough to create an emulation of the mental state (including long-term memory and “self”) and copying it to a computer in a digital form. The computer would then run a simulation of the brain’s information processing, such that it would respond in essentially the same way as the original brain and experience having a sentient conscious mind.

Substantial mainstream research in related areas is being conducted in animal brain mapping and simulation, development of faster supercomputers, virtual realitybrain–computer interfacesconnectomics, and information extraction from dynamically functioning brains. According to supporters, many of the tools and ideas needed to achieve mind uploading already exist or are currently under active development; however, they will admit that others are, as yet, very speculative, but say they are still in the realm of engineering possibility.

Mind uploading may potentially be accomplished by either of two methods: Copy-and-upload or copy-and-delete by gradual replacement of neurons (which can be considered as a gradual destructive uploading), until the original organic brain no longer exists and a computer program emulating the brain takes control over the body. In the case of the former method, mind uploading would be achieved by scanning and mapping the salient features of a biological brain, and then by storing and copying, that information state into a computer system or another computational device. The biological brain may not survive the copying process or may be deliberately destroyed during it in some variants of uploading. The simulated mind could be within a virtual reality or simulated world, supported by an anatomic 3D body simulation model. Alternatively the simulated mind could reside in a computer inside (or either connected to or remotely controlled) a (not necessarily humanoidrobot or a biological or cybernetic body.

Among some futurists and within the part of transhumanist movement, mind uploading is treated as an important proposed life extension technology. Some believe mind uploading is humanity’s current best option for preserving the identity of the species, as opposed to cryonics. Another aim of mind uploading is to provide a permanent backup to our “mind-file”, to enable interstellar space travels, and a means for human culture to survive a global disaster by making a functional copy of a human society in a computing device. Whole brain emulation is discussed by some futurists as a “logical endpoint” of the topical computational neuroscience and neuroinformatics fields, both about brain simulation for medical research purposes. It is discussed in artificial intelligence research publications as an approach to strong AI (Artificial general intelligence) and to at least weak superintelligence. Another approach is seed AI, which wouldn’t be based on existing brains. Computer-based intelligence such as an upload could think much faster than a biological human even if it were no more intelligent. A large-scale society of uploads might, according to futurists, give rise to a technological singularity, meaning a sudden time constant decrease in the exponential development of technology. Mind uploading is a central conceptual feature of numerous science fiction novels, films, and games.

Scientists Propose Permanent Human Habitat Built Orbiting Ceres

CERES STATION

It’s like something straight out of “The Expanse.”

A group of Finnish researchers are proposing a permanent human habitat in the orbit of Ceres, a massive asteroid and dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter.

According to the team, this “megasatellite settlement” could be built by collecting materials from Ceres itself.

If that sounds familiar to fans of the popular sci-fi book and TV series “The Expanse,” that’s because in that fictional universe, Ceres Station plays a pivotal role as one of humanity’s first human off-world colonies. In the series, however, the space rock itself was spun up to create a crewed habitat on its surface with artificial gravity.

In a paper uploaded to the prewrite repository arXiv this week, the team argues that Ceres would be prime real estate because it has nitrogen, which could enable the creation of an Earth-like atmosphere.

In fact, they argue that the environment could even be “better than Earth,” since there’s no adverse weather or natural disasters, and plenty of living space to grow into.

They propose a number of smaller spinning satellites, attached to each other via magnetic tethers to create a massive disk-shaped megasatellite. Artificial gravity approximately equal to that of Earth could be achieved by spinning the massive structure around Ceres.

Such a habitat would have to make a full rotation around the dwarf planet in just 66 seconds to maintain the artificial gravity.

Connecting each habitat would be maglev train-like vehicles, a weightless experience to passengers.

“When first encountered, weightlessness causes nausea and vomiting for some people,” the paper reads. “However, in a settlement where people experience occasional weightlessness from childhood, it is plausible to think that they can tolerate it well during short trips.”

The settlement could also act as a stepping stone to other reaches of the solar system.

“The motivation is to have a settlement with artificial gravity that allows growth beyond Earth’s living area, while also providing easy intra-settlement travel for the inhabitants and reasonably low population density of 500/km2,” the abstract reads. That’s about the population density of New Jersey.

Thanks to its low gravity and fast rotation, the researchers argue that a “space elevator is feasible,” allowing easy transportation of materials from Ceres to other settlements without the need for much fuel.

So what about space radiation and the threat of meteorite impacts? The team has considered those threats as well. They propose a set of massive cylindrical mirrors that could do double duty by collecting sunlight and passing it onto the habitat, while also blocking submeter scale meteoroids.