Universe might be 2 billion years younger, shocking study says

The universe is assumed to be roughly 13.7 billion years old, but a stunning new study says it could be significantly younger than that — by a  couple of billion years.

According to the study, researchers used new calculations that took different approaches to figure out just how old the universe really is.

“We have large uncertainty for how the stars are moving in the galaxy,” the study’s lead author, Inh Jee, of the Max Planck Institute, told the Associated Press. The research has been published in Science.

This image made available by the European Space agency shows galaxies in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2012, an improved version of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image. A study published Sept. 12, 2019, uses a new technique to come up with a rate that the universe is expanding that is nearly 18 percent higher than the number scientists had been using since the year 2000. (Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Ellis (Caltech), HUDF 2012 Team via AP)

This image made available by the European Space agency shows galaxies in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2012, an improved version of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image. A study published Sept. 12, 2019, uses a new technique to come up with a rate that the universe is expanding that is nearly 18 percent higher than the number scientists had been using since the year 2000. (Credit: NASA, ESA, R. Ellis (Caltech), HUDF 2012 Team via AP)

The age of the universe comes from the Hubble Constant (H0), but according to the study’s abstract, different techniques “lead to inconsistent estimates” of the measurement.

“Observations of Type Ia supernovae (SNe) can be used to measure H0, but this requires an external calibrator to convert relative distances to absolute ones,” the abstract reads. “We use the angular diameter distance to strong gravitational lenses as a suitable calibrator, which is only weakly sensitive to cosmological assumptions.”

With the new calculations, the Hubble Constant, which measures the expansion rate of the universe, is now 82.4, which would indicate the universe is approximately 11.4 billion years old. At 13.7 billion years old, the Hubble Constant was 70.

Scientists estimate the age of the universe by using the movement of stars to measure how fast it is expanding. If the universe is expanding faster, that means it got to its current size more quickly and therefore must be relatively younger.

While Jee’s approach does give a starkly different figure for the age of the universe than has been commonly used, it’s not the only approach to give different figures. In the 1990s, there was a simmering astronomical debate over the age of the universe that was thought to have been settled.

In 2013, a team of European scientists looked at leftover radiation from the Big Bang and pronounced the expansion rate a slower 67, while earlier this year Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute used NASA’s super telescope and came up with a number of 74. And another team earlier this year came up with 73.3.

Jee and outside experts had big caveats for her number. She used only two gravitational lenses, which were all that were available, and so her margin of error is so large that it’s possible the universe could be older than calculated, not dramatically younger.

Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, who wasn’t part of the study, said it is an interesting and unique way to calculate the universe’s expansion rate, but the large error margin limits its effectiveness until more information can be gathered.

“It is difficult to be certain of your conclusions if you use a ruler that you don’t fully understand,” Loeb said in an email to the AP.

Loeb has gained notoriety in recent memory for suggesting that interstellar object Oumuaua is an extraterrestrial probe.

About 17,000 Big Near-Earth Asteroids Remain Undetected: How NASA Could Spot Them

Dangerous Asteroid Headed for Earth

An artist’s illustration of a dangerous asteroid headed for Earth.(Image: © European Space Agency)

Humanity needs to step up its asteroid-hunting game.

To date, astronomers have spotted more than 8,000 near-Earth asteroids that are at least 460 feet (140 meters) wide — big enough to wipe out an entire state if they were to line up our planet in their crosshairs. That sounds like good progress, until you consider that it’s only about one-third of the 25,000 such space rocks that are thought to zoom around in Earth’s neighborhood.

“There’s still two-thirds of this population out there to be found,” Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said during a presentation last week with the agency’s Future In-Space Operations working group. “So, we have a ways to go.” [In Pictures: Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]

A near-Earth object (NEO) is anything that comes within about 30 million miles (50 million kilometers) of our planet’s orbit. The overall NEO population is almost incomprehensibly large; there are likely tens of millions of such space rocks between 33 feet and 65 feet (10 to 20 meters) in diameter, Johnson said.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEHow Near-Earth Asteroids Are Spotted by NASAVolume 0%

Asteroids of this relatively small size can cause damage on a local scale. For example, the object that exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February 2013, smashing thousands of windows and wounding more than 1,200 people, measured about 62 feet (19 m) across, scientists have said.

But the really worrisome asteroids are the big ones. So, in the 1990s, Congress directed NASA to find 90 percent of the NEOs that are at least 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) in diameter — a mandate the space agency fulfilled in 2010. Currently, 887 of these mountain-size space rocks are known, and perhaps just 50 or so are left to be discovered, Johnson said. (None of the cataloged behemoths pose a threat to Earth for the foreseeable future.)

In 2005, NASA got some further instructions from lawmakers: Spot 90 percent of all NEOs 460 feet and larger by the end of 2020. It’s clear at this point that the agency will not meet that ambitious deadline. And getting such a detailed handle on the NEO population will require the launch of a dedicated asteroid-hunting space mission, according to a& NASA-commissioned study that was published in September 2017.

The space telescope for such a mission would ideally set up shop at the sun-Earth Lagrange point 1, a gravitationally stable spot about 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from our planet, and scan the heavens in infrared light using a telescope at least 1.6 feet (0.5 m) wide, the study found. Such a mission’s observations, combined with the contributions of ground-based telescopes, could probably bag the required number of 460-footers in a decade, Johnson said.

Earth Causes Asteroid-Quakes

NASA is already working on such a space project — a concept mission called the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam). NEOCam was one of five finalists for the next launch opportunity in NASA’s Discovery Program, which funds relatively low-cost and highly focused missions. NEOCam ended up missing out on that slot — NASA picked two other asteroid-studying missions, called Lucy and Psyche — but it did get another year’s worth of funding.

There’s still hope that NEOCam will fly someday, Johnson said.

“We have taken it over into the Planetary Defense Program,” he said. “All we are [lacking is] the entire budget to be able to put a mission like this — a space-based survey capability, which is highly recommended and very necessary for our future capabilities — into development.” [Photos: Asteroids in Deep Space]

A viable planetary-defense plan requires more than just asteroid detection, of course; humanity also needs to be able to deflect any dangerous space rocks that are headed our way. 

An artist's illustration of the proposed NEOCam spacecraft, which would hunt for asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.
An artist’s illustration of the proposed NEOCam spacecraft, which would hunt for asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.

NASA and its partners around the world are working on potential solutions to this problem as well. For example, NASA aims to launch a mission called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) in 2020. If all goes according to plan, in October 2022, DART will slam into the 500-foot-wide (150 m) moon of the asteroid (65803) Didymos, which itself measures about 2,600 feet (800 m) across. This impact will change the orbit of “Didymoon” in ways that Earth-based telescopes should be able to detect, NASA officials have said. 

DART will be a demonstration of the “kinetic impactor” deflection strategy. NASA had also planned to test the “gravity tractor” technique — using a fly-along probe to gradually nudge an asteroid off course via gravitational forces — in the coming years as a part of the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). But the White House zeroed out funding for ARM in last year’s federal budget request, and that mission is no more.

There’s one more possible way to knock out an incoming asteroid, and it was made famous by the 1998 movie “Armageddon.” Blasting a space rock apart with a nukewouldn’t be the first choice of most scientists or policymakers, but such an extreme measure may be the only way to deal with a big space rock detected with little lead time. (And this would be a robotic mission, by the way; you wouldn’t need a space cowboy like Bruce Willis to get the job done.)

Such preparatory work shouldn’t unduly alarm the public, Johnson stressed; the odds that a big asteroid will strike Earth are very low on a day-to-day basis.  

“These are very rare events,” he said. “But they’re also an event that, if we don’t find this population, can happen any day on us.” 

This Comet Might Be from Interstellar Space. Here’s How We Could Find Out

A depiction of the path of Comet C/2019 Q4, which may be the second interstellar object detected to date.

A depiction of the path of Comet C/2019 Q4, which may be the second interstellar object detected to date.(Image: © ESA)

At first, it was just another bright, fuzzy speck in the sky. But it may turn out to be something much more exciting: the second known object to hurtle through our solar system after leaving another system.

Astronomers will need a lot more observations before they can be confident giving the comet that title, but early data about the object seems promising. That would make the comet, currently known as Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) after the person who first spotted it, the first traveling successor to the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, which was discovered in October 2017.

“Based on the available observations, the orbit solution for this object has converged to the hyperbolic elements shown below, which would indicate an interstellar origin,” read the Minor Planet Electronic Circular about the object.

Such a statement is issued on behalf of the International Astronomical Union by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory when observers have registered enough data about an object to begin calculating its path through space.

The vast majority of asteroids and comets that astronomers have tracked to date follow an elliptical orbit: oval or egg-shaped or nearly circular. These objects spend eons looping through the solar system, perhaps kicked around a bit after straying too close to a planet and getting tugged off course. They were made in our solar system and remain trapped here, pacing around the sun’s mass.

But as the Minor Planet Electronic Circular noted, for C/2019 Q4, the data so far suggest that its path is a hyperbola, with the object arcing in from beyond our solar system and destined to leave the neighborhood again soon. That’s a trajectory scientists have so far seen only from ‘Oumuamua, although estimates suggest that these visitors should charge through our solar system fairly regularly. (A few months ago, scientists suggested a meteorite that hit Earth in 2014 may also have been interstellar.)

A Crimean skywatcher named Gennady Borisov made the first sighting of C/2019 Q4, on Aug. 30, and caught sight of it again two days later. Since then, six other astronomers have filed observations to the Minor Planet Center’s data hub, which houses the Minor Planet Electronic Circular. The data cover Aug. 30 to Sept. 8.

Corey S. Powell@coreyspowell · Sep 10, 2019

Astronomers may have spotted an interstellar comet heading into the solar system. Still uncertain, but we should know more in another week or two. https://twitter.com/Yeqzids/status/1171491124772368384 …YE Quanzhi@YeqzidsNEOCP (==near-Earth object confirmation page) object gb00234 still baffles folks. Could it be the second interstellar object and the first interstellar comet? New observations are in, but the orbit solution is still interstellar. https://twitter.com/cbellh47/status/1171449806138404865 …

Corey S. Powell@coreyspowell

Here’s an image of the possible interstellar comet, taken by G. Borisov, who discovered it. (HT @TM_Eubanks)

View image on Twitter

803:36 AM – Sep 11, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy26 people are talking about this

Astronomers hope that those sightings will soon have plenty of company. “Further observations are clearly very desirable, as all currently available observations have been obtained at small solar elongations and low elevations,” the circular continued.

And there should be plenty of opportunities for observers to gather more data about C/2019 Q4. The search may need to pause for a month or so because of the object’s proximity to the sun, but Borisov spotted the comet early enough in its journey that astronomers should be able to study it for at least a year, according to the circular. That’s in stark contrast to ‘Oumuamua, which was already waving goodbye to our solar system when scientists spotted it.

Comet C/2019 Q4, in contrast, is the kind of interstellar candidate that the European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to study via a mission called Comet Interceptor in just a few years. That mission consists of a trio of spacecraft that ESA wants to send to an Oort Cloud object or an interstellar object, depending on what observations are available as planning progresses.

According to a statement from ESA, C/2019 Q4 is a couple miles (a few kilometers) across and will pass closest to the sun, about 186 million miles (300 million km) away from the sun, in early December. That’s about twice the average distance between Earth and the sun.

1st Color Photo of Interstellar Comet Reveals Its Fuzzy Tail

The first color image of the comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), which astronomers believe to be the first known interstellar comet ever identified, was captured by the Gemini North telescope at Hawaii's Mauna Kea. Gemini North acquired four 60-second exposures in two color bands (red and green). The blue and red lines are background stars moving in the background.
The first color image of the comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), which astronomers believe to be the first known interstellar comet ever identified, was captured by the Gemini North telescope at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Gemini North acquired four 60-second exposures in two color bands (red and green). The blue and red lines are background stars moving in the background.

 
Astronomers have taken the first color photo of a potentially interstellar comet, and it looks spectacular.

The colored image allowed astronomers to spot a comet tail, which is the product of gases flowing off its surface. This tail is unique among the suspected interstellar visitors to our solar system. Of course, there have only been two such guests so far — this comet, named Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), and ‘Oumuamua, which is a long asteroid or space rock with no obvious gases flowing from its surface.

Astronomers nabbed the view the night of Sept. 9-10 using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph on the Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

“This image was possible because of Gemini’s ability to rapidly adjust observations and observe objects like this, which have very short windows of visibility,” Andrew Stephens, who coordinated the observations at the Gemini Observatory, said in a statement. “However, we really had to scramble for this one since we got the final details at 3:00 a.m. [local time] and were observing it by 4:45!”

The comet was discovered by Russian amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov on Aug. 30. Right now its path in the Earth’s sky brings it close to the sun, making it difficult to observe because it is best visible in twilight. In the next few months, the comet is expected to move further away from the sun — making it easier to see. 

For these new Gemini observations, the astronomical team obtained them thanks to a target-of-opportunity program led by Piotr Guzik and Michal Drahus at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. A research paper, led by Guzik, was uploaded to the preprint server Arxiv on Thursday (Sept. 12) and has been submitted to a journal for publication. (Papers on arXiv are not yet peer-reviewed.)

Astronomers aren’t certain if this comet originated from outside our solar system, because its path through space isn’t well defined. So far, however, the data suggests that its path is a hyperbola — meaning that it is dipping into the solar system before flying out again. Most comets and asteroids tracked in the solar system have elliptical orbits, which range from nearly circular to egg-shaped to long-looped orbits.

Einstein’s Gravitational Lenses Could Clear Up Roiling Debate on Expanding Cosmos

In this Hubble Space Telescope view of the distant quasar RXJ1131-1231, a foreground galaxy smears the image of the background quasar into a bright arc (left) and creates a total of four images — a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.

In this Hubble Space Telescope view of the distant quasar RXJ1131-1231, a foreground galaxy smears the image of the background quasar into a bright arc (left) and creates a total of four images — a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. 

Warps in the fabric of space-time can act like magnifying glasses, and that may help solve a cosmic mystery about the rate of the universe’s expansion, a new study found.

This research may one day lead to more-accurate models of the cosmos, which could shed light on the universe’s ultimate fate, the researchers said.

The universe has continued expanding since its birth, about 13.8 billion years ago. By measuring the present rate of cosmic expansion, known as the Hubble constant, scientists can try to learn the fate of the universe, such as whether it will expand forever, collapse upon itself or rip apart completely.

There are currently two primary strategies for measuring the Hubble constant. One involves monitoring nearby objects whose properties scientists understand well, such as stellar explosions known as supernovas and pulsating stars known as Cepheid variables, to estimate their distances. The other focuses on the cosmic microwave background, the leftover radiation from the Big Bang, examining how it has changed over time.

However, this pair of techniques has produced two different results for the value of the Hubble constant. Data from the cosmic microwave background suggests that the universe is expanding at a rate of about 41.9 miles (67.5 kilometers) per second per megaparsec (a distance equivalent to 3.26 million light-years). However, data from supernovas and Cepheids in the nearby universe suggests a rate of about 46 miles (74 km) per second per megaparsec.

This discrepancy suggests that the standard cosmological model — scientists’ current understanding of the universe’s structure and history — might be wrong. Resolving this debate, known as the Hubble constant conflict, could shed light on the evolution of the cosmos.Click here for more Space.com videos…Hubble’s Contentious ConstantVolume 0%

In the new study, an international team of researchers explored another way to measure the Hubble constant. This strategy depends on the definition of gravity, according to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, as the result of mass distorting space-time. The greater the mass of an object, the more that space-time curves around the object, and so the stronger the object’s gravitational pull is.

That means gravity can also bend light like a lens would, so objects seen through powerful gravitational fields, such as those produced by massive galaxies, are magnified. Gravitational lensing was discovered a century ago, and today, astronomers often use these lenses to see features otherwise too distant and faint to detect with even the largest telescopes.

The new research analyzes gravitational lenses to estimate their distances from Earth, data that could help researchers estimate the rate at which the universe has expanded over time.

Gravitational lenses occur when the light from a more distant galaxy or quasar is warped by the gravity of a nearer object in the line of sight from Earth, as shown in this diagram.
Gravitational lenses occur when the light from a more distant galaxy or quasar is warped by the gravity of a nearer object in the line of sight from Earth, as shown in this diagram.


“The new method has great potential to provide a unique perspective in measuring the Hubble constant,” study lead author Inh Jee, formerly an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, told Space.com.

One key to estimating the distance of a gravitational lens from Earth depends on an odd feature of gravitational lensing: It often produces multiple images of lensed objects surrounding the lens, resulting in a so-called “Einstein cross.” Because the light that creates these images takes routes of different lengths around the lens, any variation in the brightness of a lensed object will be visible in some of the images before the others. The greater the mass of the lens, the greater the bending of light, and thus the bigger the time difference between observations of the images. Scientists can use these details to estimate the strength of the gravitational field of the lens and thus its mass. 

That mass can then feed into calculations used to estimate distance. But scientists first need an additional key measurement.

This Hubble Space Telescope image, known as the “Einstein Cross,” shows four images of a distant quasar which has been multiplied by a nearby galaxy acting as a gravitational lens.
This Hubble Space Telescope image, known as the “Einstein Cross,” shows four images of a distant quasar which has been multiplied by a nearby galaxy acting as a gravitational lens. 

 
The other key to estimating the distance of a gravitational lensing galaxy from Earth involves analyzing the positions and velocities of stars within the lens. When these details are combined with estimates of the mass and strength of the gravitational field of the lensing galaxy, scientists can estimate the actual diameter of the lensing galaxy.

They can then compare the actual diameter of a lensing galaxy with its apparent diameter as seen from Earth. The difference between these values can help researchers estimate how far a galaxy of a given size must be in order to appear the size that it does from Earth.

The researchers applied this technique to two gravitational lensing systems. In their results, the scientists reached a Hubble constant with a value of about 51.2 miles (82.4 km) per second per megaparsec. Although this value is higher than both of the more-established values for the Hubble constant, Jee noted that there are still high levels of uncertainty with this method. With more data leading to greater certainty, this technique might end up favoring one or the other established value, or it might indeed lead to a different third value, she said.

“Since this is a new method with large uncertainties, we have a lot of room to improve the measurement,” Jee said. “For the method to provide a competitive level of precision to other methods, we need better measurements of the motions of stars in lens galaxies.”

This new technique offers a potential advantage compared to strategies that seek to measure the Hubble constant based on the cosmic microwave background: The latter rely heavily on one of several competing cosmological models used to predict the evolution of the universe over time, while this new method does not, Jee said. Compared to strategies that seek to measure the Hubble constant based on nearby supernovas and Cepheid variables, this method offers another advantage: In those strategies, measurements of distances to nearby objects may be off if the nearby environment differs significantly from the more-distant universe, she added.

“We will have dozens of new lens systems in the near future that will allow us to reduce substantially our measurement uncertainty,” study co-author Sherry Suyu at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, told Space.com.

Jee, Suyu and their colleagues detailed their findings in the Sept. 13 issue of the journal Science.

Remembering 9/11: NASA Astronauts Pay Tribute from Space

A New York City Fire Department patch floats in the Cupola window of the International Space Station on the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

A New York City Fire Department patch floats in the Cupola window of the International Space Station on the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. (Image: © NASA)

On the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, NASA astronauts paid tribute to the heroes who risked their lives to save others on that day by tweeting a special message from space.

“Honoring the brave public servants of @FDNY. Thank you for your service, we remember your fallen comrades,” NASA’s Expedition 60 astronaut Drew Morgan tweeted from the International Space Station. “Your flag and patch are proudly orbiting the Earth on board the @Space_Station! #NeverForget.”

Morgan shared photos of a New York City Fire Department (FDNY) patch floating in the Cupola window with a view of Earth in the background, as well as a photo of himself with an FDNY flag mounted inside the orbiting laboratory. 

Video: Astronaut Shares What 9/11 Looked Like from Space
Related: 9/11 Remembered in Space Photos

Honoring the brave public servants of @FDNY. Thank you for your service, we remember your fallen comrades. Your flag and patch are proudly orbiting the Earth on board the @Space_Station! #NeverForget

View image on Twitter
View image on Twitter

NASA also commemorated the somber anniversary from down on Earth by sharing a recent photo of Manhattan captured from space. NASA astronaut Christina Koch captured the photo below from the International Space Station as it passed over the area on Aug. 19, 2019.


“Each year, we pause and never forget,” NASA officials said in a statement. “Beyond remembering and honoring the Americans who died that day, NASA also assisted FEMA in New York in the days afterward, and remembered the victims by providing flags flown aboard the Space Shuttle to their families.”

Asteroid fears: NASA warning over ‘most dangerous space rock’ heading to Earth revealed

AN ASTEROID twice the size of the infamous Apophis is set to strike Earth in the future – and researchers have warned NASA that the consequences of inaction could be disastrous.

Asteroid 101955 Bennu, formally known as 1999 RQ36, is a carbonaceous space rock in the Apollo group, first discovered by NASA’s LINEAR project on September 11, 1999. It is a potentially hazardous object listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale. The space rock is currently the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission which is intended to return samples to Earth in 2023, which will help researchers determine its possible outcome.However, investigators have already warned the space agency that it could be devastating if they do not act.

The video explained: “Asteroid 1999 RQ36, [set to strike in] the year 2182, is considered the most dangerous asteroid in the universe.

“This rocky body measures approximately 560 metres in diameter and was discovered in 1999.

The asteroid could be heading to Earth 

Bennu has been snapped up by NASA (Image: WIKI)

It is considered the most dangerous asteroid in the universe

Researcher

“According to scientific studies it is estimated that it will impact the Earth in the year 2182.

“According to a study by scientist Maria Eugenia Sansaturio the 1999 asteroid may or may not impact the Earth.”

Dr Sansaturio warned in a report for the Solar System journal Icarus that there is a good chance of the asteroid striking.

She told Universe Today in 2010: “The total impact probability of asteroid 1999 RQ36 can be estimated as 0.00092, approximately one-in-a-thousand chance, but what is most surprising is that over half of this chance (0.00054) corresponds to 2182.”

There is a fair amount of orbital uncertainty, due to the gravitational influences on the asteroid when it passes by the Earth and other objects.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will return in 2023 (Image: WIKI)

Asteroid fears: ESA warns of ‘mountain in sky’ heading to Earth

It could also gain a minimal amount of influence from the Yarkovsky effect, which is an unbalanced thermal radiation from sunlight hitting one side of the asteroid and not the other that produces a tiny acceleration.

This effect had not previously been taken into account by NASA.

Dr Sansaturio added: “The consequence of this complex dynamic is not just the likelihood of a comparatively large impact, but also that a realistic deflection procedure, or path deviation could only be made before the impact in 2080, and more easily, before 2060.

“If this object had been discovered after 2080, the deflection would require a technology that is not currently available.

“Therefore, this example suggests that impact monitoring, which up to date does not cover more than 80 or 100 years, may need to encompass more than one century. 

Asteroids have the potential to cause devastation (Image: GETTY)

An impact crater thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs (Image: GETTY)

“Thus, the efforts to deviate this type of objects could be conducted with moderate resources, from a technological and financial point of view.”

NASA’s new mission will touch back down in four years, then scientists will have all the details they need to make a firm decision on the true threat of Bennu.

OSIRIS-REx will help refine their understanding of Bennu’s orbit, principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona revealed more recently.

He told Space.com in 2016: “Our uncertainties will shrink, so that will allow us to recalculate the impact probability.

“We don’t know which direction it’ll go, it could go down, because we just eliminated a bunch of possible keyholes that Bennu may hit. 

Untapped value of asteroids (Image: DX) “Or it may go up, because in the area that’s left we have a higher concentration of keyholes compared to the overall area of the uncertainty plane.”

OSIRIS-REx’s work will also help researchers better understand the Yarkovsky effect.

Either way, scientists have assured Bennu is not big enough to end life on Earth.

Such an impact would likely devastate the local area but fall short of wiping out civilisation or causing a mass extinction.

Astronomers estimate that a space rock must be at least 0.6 mile wide to cause a global catastrophe.

The asteroid thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs — or at least to have finished them off — was probably about 6 miles across.

Radio signals from space: Astronomers locate radio waves with ‘accuracy of atomic clock’

RADIO signals racing through space with the precision of an atomic clock have been traced back to their source and confirmed Albert Einstein’s famous general theory of relativity.

Radio signals from space have long fascinated astronomers scouting the cosmos for signs of alien life. In 2007, scientists were excited by the discovery of so-called Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) reaching Earth from an unknown source in the universe. Forty years before that, astronomers encountered radio emissions reaching Earth from distant pulsars – fast-spinning neutron stars smaller than the Sun. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, have now mapped out one of these radio signals and confirmed in the process Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The discovery was made after 14 years of observations of the dead star PSR J1906+0746.

The pulsar sits around 25,000 light-years or 146,965,630,000,000,000 miles from Earth.

As the pulsar spins around, jets of bright radio waves shoot out from the star’s magnetic poles and fly out into space.

If the pulsar’s poles face the Earth’s general direction, the radio waves can wash over our planet like the light of a lighthouse.

Radio signals from space: Neutron star pulsars

Radio signals from space: Astronomers have charted radio beams from a distant pulsar star (Image: GETTY)

Radio signals from space: Radio beams from pulsar

Radio signals from space: One of the pulsar’s radio beams disappeared from sight in 2016 (Image: Gregory Desvignes & Michael Kramer, MPIfR)

But unlike the guiding beam from a lighthouse, pulsar jets are incredibly fast and incredibly accurate.

Pulsed signals that arrive on Earth with the accuracy of an atomic clock

Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy

In this case, the pulsar PSR J1906+0746 has a spin of just 144 milliseconds.

The Max Planck Institute said in a statement: “Due to their stable rotation, a lighthouse effect produces pulsed signals that arrive on Earth with the accuracy of an atomic clock.

“The large mass, the compactness of the source, and the clock-like properties allow astronomers to use them as laboratories to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”

Pulsars can contain up to 40 percent more mass than our Sun but the material is densely packed into a sphere just 12 miles (20km) across.

The spinning stars also boast the most powerful magnetic fields in the universe.

These magnetic fields emit the jets of radio waves from the north and south poles in opposing directions.

Gregory Desvignes of the Max Planck Institute said: “PSR J1906+0746 is a unique laboratory in which we can simultaneously constrain the radio pulsar emission physics and test Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”

Dr Desvignes, who led the study, observed the pulsar between 2005 and 2018 to chart its radio emissions.

Radio signals from space: Neutron star pulsar beam

Radio signals from space: Pulsars are fast spinning neutron stars that emit periodic radio signals (Image: GETTY)

Radio signals from space: Spacetime and gravity

Radio signals from space: Einstein’s theories predicted gravity warps spacetime (Image: GETTY)

During this time, the astronomers found the radio beams from the pulsar’s north pole disappeared from sight in 2016.

The disappearance was caused by the presence of a second neutron star nearby, which is distorting the spacetime surrounding the binary stars.

The distortion of spacetime through gravity is a key principle proposed by Einstein more than 100 years ago.

Professor Andrew Lyne of The University of Manchester, who observed the pulsar, said: “The extreme gravitational environment of the two neutron stars causes spacetime to be distorted.

“This in turn causes the pulsar to precess, changing the angle we view the radio emission and thus allowing us to map out the emission.”

The researchers estimate the precession will also take a toll on the remaining southern radio beam.

By the year 2028, the radio signals will no longer be visible from Earth.

The pulsar study was published this month on September 6 in the journal Science.

Astronomers Decode Weird X-Ray Pattern Coming from Neutron Star

Those X-ray blasts are coming in a strange pattern, and that pattern has lasted for months.

A NASA illustration shows a neutron star surrounded by a disk of matter.

A NASA illustration shows a neutron star surrounded by a disk of matter.(Image: © NASA)

Astronomers have detected a rare pattern in the X-ray bursts coming from a neutron-star system no more than 16,300 light-years away.

That star system, MAXI J1621−501, first turned up on Oct. 9, 2017, in data from the Swift/XRT Deep Galactic Plane Survey as an odd point in space flashing unpredictably with X-rays. That was a sign, researchers wrote in a new paper, of a binary system containing both a normal star and either a neutron star or black hole. Both neutron stars and black holes can create unpredictable X-ray patterns as they absorb matter from their companion stars, but in very different ways.

In black holes, as Live Science has previously reported, the X-rays come from matter accelerating to extreme speeds and generating enormous friction as it falls toward the gravity well. In neutron stars — superdense corpses of giant stars that exploded but haven’t collapsed into singularities — the X-rays come from thermonuclear explosions on their outer crusts. Something is causing atoms to fuse on the outermost parts of these strange stars, releasing enormous energies usually found only deep inside stars (as well as in the cores of powerful hydrogen bombs). Some of that energy escapes as X-ray light.

As matter from a normal star smashes into a supertiny, superheavy neutron star, these thermonuclear explosions create mushroom clouds bright enough to see with X-ray telescopes. The authors of this new paper, released online Aug. 13 in the preprint journal arXiv, show that the X-ray outbursts from MAXI J1621−501 are coming from thermonuclear explosions on the surface of the duo’s neutron star — and that the light from those thermonuclear explosions is following a pattern that repeats roughly every 78 days.

The source of that pattern isn’t entirely clear. Scientists have only found about 30 other lights in space that flicker this way, the researchers wrote. They refer to patterns like this one as “superorbital periods.” That’s because the pattern follows a cycle that lasts much longer than the binary stars’ orbit around one another, which in the case of MAXI J1621−501 takes just 3 to 20 hours.

The best explanation for this 78-day period, the authors wrote, comes from a paper published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1999. Neutron stars in binary systems like this one, the authors wrote, are surrounded by whirling clouds of material that gets sucked off the regular star and toward the neutron star, creating a spinning, gassy skirt called an accretion disk. 

A simple model of those cloud disks suggests they are always aligned in one direction — they would look just like the rings circling Saturn if you were to follow the planet around in space, staring edge-on at the rings. In that model, you’d never see any change in the X-ray light, because you’d always be staring at the same spot on the accretion disk between you and the neutron star. The only change to the light would come from changes in the thermonuclear explosions themselves.

But reality is more complicated. What’s likely happening, the authors wrote, is that the whirling disk around the neutron star in this binary system is wobbling from the perspective of Earth, like a top about to tip over. Sometimes the wobble puts more disk between the neutron star and Earth, sometimes less. We can’t see the disk itself. But if that wobble is happening and it causes the disk to cross between us and the star every 78 days, it would create the pattern astronomers have observed.

Astronomers watched MAXI J1621−501 for 15 months after the 2017 discovery, the researchers wrote, and saw the pattern repeat six times. It didn’t repeat perfectly, and there were other, smaller dips in the X-ray light. But the wobbling disk remains far and away the best possible explanation for this weird X-ray pattern in space.

India Just Found Its Lost Vikram Lander on the Moon, Still No Signal

Communications attempts are underway.

The Indian Space Research Organisation's Chandrayaan-2 moon orbiter is shown studying the lunar surface from above in this still image from a video animation.

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan-2 moon orbiter is shown studying the lunar surface from above in this still image from a video animation.(Image: © India Space Research Organisation)

India’s Chandrayaan-2 orbiter circling the moon has spotted the country’s lost Vikram lander on the lunar surface, but there is still no signal from the lander, according to Indian media reports. 

K Sivan, chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation, said today (Sept. 8) that the Vikram lander was located by Chandrayaan-2 and efforts to restore contact the probe will continue for at least 14 days, according to a Times of Indiareport

“We have found the location of Lander Vikram on [the] lunar surface and Orbiter has clicked a thermal image of Lander,” Sivan told the ANI news service in an interview, adding that attempts to communicate with the lander are ongoing.

The Vikram lander went silent Friday (Sept. 6) while attempting a first-ever landing near the moon’s south pole. ISRO lost contact with Vikram when the lander was just 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) above the lunar surface, raising fears that it may have crashed on the moon. The Vikram lander is India’s first moon lander, and is carrying the country’s first lunar rover, called Pragyan

ISRO officials have not yet released the Chandrayaan-2 image of Vikram on the lunar surface or described the potential condition of the lander. But they have said that despite the lander’s presumed failed moon landing, the craft has already demonstrated key technologies for future missions. 

The Vikram Lander followed the planned descent trajectory from its orbit of 35 km (22 miles) to just below 2 km above the surface,” ISRO officials wrote in an update Saturday (Sept. 7). “All the systems and sensors of the Lander functioned excellently until this point and proved many new technologies such as variable thrust propulsion technology used in the Lander.”

As ISRO tries to regain contact with the Vikram moon lander, the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft is doing well in lunar orbit, the space agency said. In fact, the orbiter could last well beyond its planned one-year mission. 

“The Orbiter camera is the highest resolution camera (0.3m) in any lunar mission so far and shall provide high resolution images which will be immensely useful to the global scientific community,” ISRO officials said in the Sept. 7 statement. “The precise launch and mission management has ensured a long life of almost 7 years instead of the planned one year.”

The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan-2 moon orbiter is shown studying the lunar surface from above in this still image from a video animation.(Image credit: India Space Research Organisation)

The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is equipped with eight different science instruments to study the moon from above. Those instruments include: a high resolution camera, a lunar terrain mapping camera; a solar X-ray monitor; an imaging infrared spectrometer; a dual frequency synthetic aperture radar for studying moon water ice and lunar mapping; a sensor to study the moon’s thin exosphere; and a dual frequency radio science experiment to study the moon’s ionosphere.

Chandrayaan-2 is India’s second mission to the moon after the Chandrayaan-1 mission of 2008 and 2009. An instrument on that first mission discovered the spectral signature for water across wide swaths of the moon, with big concentrations at the lunar poles, where permanently shadowed craters allow water ice to stay frozen.Click here for more Space.com videos…Watch India’s Chandrayaan-2 Launch and Land on Moon in New AnimationVolume 0% 

The Chandrayaan-2 Orbiter aims to pick up where its predecessor left off.

“This was a unique mission which aimed at studying not just one area of the Moon but all the areas combining the exosphere, the surface as well as the sub-surface of the moon in a single mission,” ISRO officials said in the update. “The Orbiter has already been placed in its intended orbit around the Moon and shall enrich our understanding of the moon’s evolution and mapping of the minerals and water molecules in the Polar Regions, using its eight state-of-the-art scientific instruments.”

NASA discovers mysterious green light that quickly disappeared

NASA has spotted something mysterious in deep space that it can’t quite explain — bright flashes of green and blue spots that appeared and disappeared in a cosmic second.

The NuSTAR X-ray observatory was looking at the Fireworks galaxy (NGC 6946) and saw multiple blobs of blue and green light that appeared and disappeared within weeks, according to a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory also witnessed the appearance and disappearance of the green blob, known as an ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX), confirming the sighting.

“Ten days is a really short amount of time for such a bright object to appear,” said Hannah Earnshaw, a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech, in a statement. “Usually with NuSTAR, we observe more gradual changes over time, and we don’t often observe a source multiple times in quick succession. In this instance, we were fortunate to catch a source changing extremely quickly, which is very exciting.”

This visible-light image of the Fireworks galaxy (NGC 6946) comes from the Digital Sky Survey, and is overlaid with data from NASA's NuSTAR observatory (in blue and green). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This visible-light image of the Fireworks galaxy (NGC 6946) comes from the Digital Sky Survey, and is overlaid with data from NASA’s NuSTAR observatory (in blue and green). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While researchers are quick to point out that ULXs are a common occurrence in space (this was the fourth one spotted in this galaxy), they also note that ULXs are “typically long-lived.” With this ULX, there was “visible light … detected with the X-ray source,” which likely rules out that it was a supernova.

So what is it? The researchers offered several theories for the appearance of the green blob, including the fact it could be a black hole consuming another object.

“If an object gets too close to a black hole, gravity can pull that object apart, bringing the debris into a close orbit around the black hole,” NASA wrote in the post. “Material at the inner edge of this newly formed disk starts moving so fast that it heats up to millions of degrees and radiates X-rays.”

But given the fact that ULX-4 could be a recurring event, another possible explanation is that it is a neutron star. Neutron stars, which are about the same mass as the Sun, are able to draw in material, creating disks of debris that can generate ULX sources.

However, if the neutron star spins too fast, the magnetic fields it creates can actually cause a barrier, which would prevent the material from reaching the star’s surface.

“It would kind of be like trying to jump onto a carousel that’s spinning at thousands of miles per hour,” Earnshaw added.

The barrier effect would prevent the star from being a source of X-rays. However, the barrier might “waver briefly,” which would allow material to fall through and land onto the neutron star’s surface, which could explain the sudden appearance and disappearance of the ULX, researchers suggested.

“This result is a step towards understanding some of the rarer and more extreme cases in which matter accretes onto black holes or neutron stars,” Earnshaw said.

Here’s Where India’s Chandrayaan-2 Will Land Near the Moon’s South Pole (and Why)

An artist's depiction of India's Chandrayaan-2 lander and rover on the surface of the moon, near its south pole.

An artist’s depiction of India’s Chandrayaan-2 lander and rover on the surface of the moon, near its south pole.(Image: © ISRO)

It doesn’t have a name, at least not yet. But in just a few days, if all goes well, it could become one of the most important places on the moon’s surface.

That spot is a highland that rises between two craters dubbed Manzinus C and Simpelius N. On a grid of the moon’s surface, it would fall at 70.9 degrees south latitude and 22.7 degrees east longitude. It’s about 375 miles (600 kilometers) from the south pole.

And it’s the preferred landing site for India’s moon mission, Chandrayaan-2, which is scheduled to touch down on Friday, Sept. 6, between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. EDT (Sept. 7, between 1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. local time at mission control in India). The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which oversees the mission, also has a backup site selected, at 67.7 degrees south latitude and 18.4 degrees west longitude.

Either way, if the landing goes smoothly, the site will become the southernmost spot on the moon to be visited by a spacecraft.

All of NASA’s Apollo landing sites, where astronauts explored the surface, are clustered near the equator on the near side, where it’s easiest and safest to land. That has skewed scientists’ understanding of the samples those astronauts brought back — it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether a characteristic appears in all the samples because it is universal in the moon’s surface or simply because it happens to prevail in this region.

Even China’s Chang’e-4 mission, which became the first spacecraft to touch down on the farside of the moon, did so at a latitude of about 45 degrees south.Click here for more Space.com videos…US, Russian and Potential Indian Moon Landing Sites Pinpointed in New AnimationVolume 0%

Choosing different lunar landing sites is important for science not solely in order to build a more complete picture of the moon’s geology: The south pole is particularly intriguing. That’s where instruments on board this mission’s predecessor, the Chandrayaan-1 orbiter, detected slabs of water ice buried in the always-shadowed craters near the moon’s south pole.

Chandrayaan-2 is designed to build on that detection, with a mission that cost $150 million, according to Science, the new outlet affiliated with the research journal of the same name. The current project added lander and rover vehicles to the second-generation orbiter.

These two vehicles will touch down just after dawn at the landing site, allowing them to work for about 14 days before the harsh lunar night freezes them. ISRO will attempt to revive the duo when the sun rises again, but the robots weren’t designed to survive the night.

The orbiter component of the mission will continue working for about a year, orbiting from pole to pole in order to augment the hoped-for discoveries of the lander and rover.

2 Giant Blobs at the Core of Our Galaxy Are Spewing Radiation. Scientists Don’t Know How They Got There.

The two giant blobs remain mysterious, nearly a decade after their discovery.

The Fermi Bubbles are two enormous orbs of gas and cosmic rays that tower over the Milky Way, covering a region roughly as large as the galaxy itself. These giant space bubbles may be fueled by a strong outflow of matter from the center of the Milky Way.

In 2010, astronomers working with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope announced the discovery of two giant blobs. These blobs were centered on the core of the Milky Way galaxy, but they extended above and below the plane of our galactic home for over 25,000 light-years. Their origins are still a mystery, but however they got there, they are emitting copious amounts of high-energy radiation. 

More recently, the IceCube array in Antarctica has reported 10 super-duper-high-energy neutrinos sourced from the bubbles, leading some astrophysicists to speculate that some crazy subatomic interactions are afoot. The end result: The Fermi Bubbles are even more mysterious than we thought. 

Two giant blobs of hot gas

It’s not easy to make big balls of hot gas. For starters, you need energy, and a lot of it. The kind of energy that can spread hot gas to a distance of over 25,000 light-years doesn’t come easily to a typical galaxy. However, the peculiar orientation of the Fermi Bubbles — extending evenly above and below our galactic center — is a strong clue that they might be tied our central supermassive black hole, known as Sagittarius A*.

Perhaps millions of years ago, Sag A* (the more common name for our giant black hole, because who wants to keep typing or saying “Sagittarius” all the time?) ate a giant meal and got a bad case of indigestion, with the infalling material heating up, twisting around in a complicated dance of electric and magnetic forces, and managing to escape the clutches of the event horizon before falling in. That material, energized beyond belief, raced away from the center of the galaxy, riding on jets of particles accelerated to nearly the speed of light. As they fled to safety, these particles spread and thinned out, but maintained their energetic state to the present day.

Or perhaps a star wandered too close to Sag A* and was ripped to shreds, releasing all that potent gravitational energy in a single violent episode, leading to the formation of the bubbles. Or maybe it had nothing to do with Sag A* itself, but the multitude of stars in the core — perhaps dozens or hundreds of those densely packed stars went supernova at around the same time, ejecting these plumes of gas beyond the confines of the galactic more.

Or maybe none of the above.

No matter what, the bubbles are here, they’re big, and we don’t understand them.

Gamma and the neutrino

You can’t see the Fermi Bubbles with your naked eye. Despite their high temperatures, the gas inside them is incredibly thin, rendering them all but invisible. But something within them is capable of making the highest-energy kind of light there is: gamma rays, which is how the Fermi team spotted them.

We think that the gamma rays are produced within the bubbles by cosmic rays, which themselves are high-energy particles (do you get the overall “high energy” theme here?). Those particles, mostly electrons but probably some heavier fellas too, knock about, emitting the distinctive gamma rays.

But gamma rays aren’t the only things that high-energy particles can produce. Sometimes the cosmic rays interact with each other, perform some complicated subatomic dance of matter and energy, and release a neutrino, an almost-massless particle that only interacts with other particles via the weak nuclear force (which means it hardly ever interacts with normal matter at all).

The IceCube Observatory, situated at the geographic south pole, uses a cubic kilometer of pure Antarctic water ice as a neutrino detector: every once in a rare while, a high-energy neutrino passing through the ice interacts with a water molecule, setting up a domino-like chain reaction that leads to a shower of more familiar particles and a telltale flash of light.

Due to the nature of its detectors, IceCube isn’t the greatest when it comes to pinpointing the exact origin location for a neutrino. But to date, it has found 10 of these little ghosts coming from roughly the direction of the two Fermi Bubbles.

A subatomic puzzle

So something could be producing these extremely exotic neutrinos inside the Fermi Bubbles. Or not — it could just be a coincidence, and the neutrinos are really coming from some distant part of the universe behind the Bubbles.

What’s more, somehow the cosmic rays are producing all the gamma rays, though we’re not exactly sure how. Perhaps we might get lucky: maybe there’s a single set of interactions inside the Bubbles that produces both gamma rays and the right kind of neutrinos that can be detected by IceCube. That would be a big step up in explaining the physics of the Bubbles themselves, and give us a huge clue as to their origins.

Recently, a team of researchers pored through the available data, even adding results from the newly operational High Altitude Water Cherenkov detector (a super-awesome ground-based gamma ray telescope), and combined that information with various theoretical models for the Bubbles, searching for just the right combo. 

In one possible scenario, protons inside the Bubbles occasionally slam into each other and produce pions, which are exotic particles that quickly decay into gamma rays. In another one, the flood of high-energy electrons in the Bubbles interacts with the ever-present radiation of the cosmic microwave background, boosting some lucky photons into the gamma regime. In a third, shock waves at the outer edges of the Bubbles use magnetic fields to drive local but lethargic particles to high velocities, which then begin emitting cosmic rays.

But try as they might, the authors of this study couldn’t find any of the scenarios (or any combination of these scenarios) to fit all the data. In short, we still don’t know what drives the gamma ray emission from the Bubbles, whether the Bubbles also produce neutrinos, or what made the Bubbles in the first place. But this is exactly how science is done: collecting data, ruling out hypotheses, and forging onward. 

Monstrous space explosions may be showering nearby galaxy in gold

When neutron stars collide, they may result in gargantuan kilonova explosions like the one illustrated here. These blasts send ripples through space-time, and shower their galactic neighborhood in gold and platinum. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

When neutron stars collide, they may result in gargantuan kilonova explosions like the one illustrated here. These blasts send ripples through space-time, and shower their galactic neighborhood in gold and platinum. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Mergers of this magnitude are so violent they rattle the fabric of space-time, releasing gravitational waves that spread through the cosmos like ripples on a pond. These mergers also fuel cataclysmic explosions that create heavy metals in an instant, showering their galactic neighborhood in hundreds of planets’ worth of gold and platinum, the authors of the new study said in a statement. (Some scientists suspect that all the gold and platinum on Earth formed in explosions like these, thanks to ancient neutron-star mergers close to our galaxy.)

Astronomers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) got concrete proof that such mergers occur when they detected gravitational waves pulsing out of a stellar crash site for the first time in 2017. Unfortunately, those observations began only about 12 hours after the initial collision, leaving an incomplete picture of what kilonovas look like.

For their new study, an international team of scientists compared the partial dataset from the 2017 merger with more complete observations of a suspected kilonova that occurred in 2016 and was observed by multiple space telescopes. By looking at the 2016 explosion in every available wavelength of light (including X-ray, radio and optical), the team found that this mysterious explosion was nearly identical to the well-known 2017 merger.

“It was a nearly perfect match,” lead study author Eleonora Troja, an associate research scientist at the University of Maryland (UMD), said in the statement. “The infrared data for both events have similar luminosities and exactly the same time scale.”

So, confirmed: The 2016 explosion was indeed a massive galactic merger, likely between two neutron stars, just like the 2017 LIGO discovery. What’s more, because astronomers began observing the 2016 explosion moments after it began, the authors of the new study were able to catch a glimpse of the stellar debris left behind the blast, which was not visible in the 2017 LIGO data.

“The remnant could be a highly magnetized, hypermassive neutron star known as a magnetar, which survived the collision and then collapsed into a black hole,” study co-author Geoffrey Ryan, a postdoctoral fellow at UMD, said in the statement. “This is interesting, because theory suggests that a magnetar should slow or even stop the production of heavy metals,” however, large amounts of heavy metals were clearly visible in the 2016 observations.

This is all to say, when it comes to understanding collisions between the most massive objects in the universe — and the mysterious rains of bling that result — scientists still have more questions than answers.

One Number Shows Something Is Fundamentally Wrong with Our Conception of the Universe

This fight has universal implications.

An image of the Large Magellanic Cloud taken with a ground-based telescope. The inset image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and shows a galaxy cluster teeming with variable Cepheids, a class of stars that flicker regularly. Using this pulsation rate, scientists have calculated the universe's expansion rate, but that number doesn't match with values derived from other cosmic phenomena, such as the echo of the Big Bang known as the cosmic microwave background radiation.

An image of the Large Magellanic Cloud taken with a ground-based telescope. The inset image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and shows a galaxy cluster teeming with variable Cepheids, a class of stars that flicker regularly. Using this pulsation rate, scientists have calculated the universe’s expansion rate, but that number doesn’t match with values derived from other cosmic phenomena, such as the echo of the Big Bang known as the cosmic microwave background radiation.

There’s a puzzling mystery going on in the universe. Measurements of the rate of cosmic expansion using different methods keep turning up disagreeing results. The situation has been called a “crisis.”

The problem centers on what’s known as the Hubble constant. Named for American astronomer Edwin Hubble, this unit describes how fast the universe is expanding at different distances from Earth. Using data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck satellite, scientists estimate the rate to be 46,200 mph per million light-years (or, using cosmologists’ units, 67.4 kilometers/second per megaparsec). But calculations using pulsating stars called Cepheids suggest it is 50,400 mph per million light-years (73.4 km/s/Mpc). 

If the first number is right, it means scientists have been measuring distances to faraway objects in the universe wrong for many decades. But if the second is correct, then researchers might have to accept the existence of exotic, new physics. Astronomers, understandably, are pretty worked up about this discrepancy.

What is a layperson supposed to make of this situation? And just how important is this difference, which to outsiders looks minor? In order to get to the bottom of the clash, Live Science called in Barry Madore, an astronomer at the University of Chicago and a member of one of the teams undertaking measurements of the Hubble constant.

The trouble starts with Edwin Hubble himself. Back in 1929, he noticed that more-distant galaxies were moving away from Earth faster than their closer-in counterparts. He found a linear relationship between the distance an object was from our planet and the speed at which it was receding. 

“That means something spooky is going on,” Madore told Live Science. “Why would we be the center of the universe? The answer, which is not intuitive, is that [distant objects are] not moving. There’s more and more space being created between everything.” 

Hubble realized that the universe was expanding, and it seemed to be doing so at a constant rate — hence, the Hubble constant. He measured the value to be about 342,000 miles per hour per million light years (501 km/s/Mpc) — almost 10 times larger than what is currently measured. Over the years, researchers have refined that rate.

Things got weirder in the late 1990s, when two teams of astronomers noticed that distant supernovas were dimmer, and therefore farther away, than expected, said Madore. This indicated that not only was the universe expanding, but it was also accelerating in its expansion. Astronomers named the cause of this mysterious phenomenon dark energy

Having accepted that the universe was doing something strange, cosmologists turned to the next obvious task: measuring the acceleration as accurately as possible. By doing this, they hoped to retrace the history and evolution of the cosmos from start to finish.

Madore likened this task to walking into a racetrack and getting a single glimpse of the horses running around the field. From just that bit of information, could somebody deduce where all the horses started and which one of them would win?

That kind of question may sound impossible to answer, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying. For the last 10 years, the Planck satellite has been measuring the cosmic microwave background, a distant echo of the Big Bang, which provides a snapshot of the infant universe 13 billion years ago. Using the observatory’s data, cosmologists could ascertain a number for the Hubble constant with an extraordinarily small degree of uncertainty. 

“It’s beautiful,” Madore said. But, “it contradicts what people have been doing for the last 30 years,” said Madore. 

Over those three decades, astronomers have also been using telescopes to look at distant Cepheids and calculate the Hubble constant. These stars flicker at a constant rate depending on their brightness, so researchers can tell exactly how bright a Cepheid should be based on its pulsations. By looking at how dim the stars actually are, astronomers can calculate a distance to them. But estimates of the Hubble constant using Cepheids don’t match the one from Planck.

The discrepancy might look fairly small, but each data point is quite precise and there is no overlap between their uncertainties. The differing sides have pointed fingers at one another, saying that their opponents have included errors throwing off their results, said Madore. 

But, he added, each result also depends on large numbers of assumptions. Going back to the horse-race analogy, Madore likened it to trying to figure out the winner while having to infer which horse will get tired first, which will gain a sudden burst of energy at the end, which will slip a bit on the wet patch of grass from yesterday’s rain and many other difficult-to-determine variables. 

If the Cepheids teams are wrong, that means astronomers have been measuring distances in the universe incorrectly this whole time, Madore said. But if Planck is wrong, then it’s possible that new and exotic physics would have to be introduced into cosmologists’ models of the universe, he added. These models include different dials, such as the number of types of subatomic particles known as neutrinos in existence, and they are used to interpret the satellite’s data of the cosmic microwave background. To reconcile the Planck value for the Hubble constant with existing models, some of the dials would have to be tweaked, Madore said, but most physicists aren’t quite willing to do so yet. 

Hoping to provide another data point that could mediate between the two sides, Madore and his colleagues recently looked at the light of red giant stars. These objects reach the same peak brightness at the end of their lives, meaning that, like with the Cepheids, astronomers can look at how dim they appear from Earth to get a good estimate of their distance and, therefore, calculate the Hubble constant.

The results, released in July, provided a number squarely between the two prior measurements: 47,300 mph per million light-years (69.8 km/s/Mpc). And the uncertainty contained enough overlap to potentially agree with Planck’s results. 

But researchers aren’t popping their champagne corks yet, said Madore. “We wanted to make a tie breaker,” he said. “But it didn’t say this side or that side is right. It said there was a lot more slop than everybody thought before.”

Other teams have weighed in. A group called H0 Lenses in COSMOGRAIL’s Wellspring (H0LICOW) is looking at distant bright objects in the early universe called quasars whose light has been gravitationally lensed by massive objects in between us and them. By studying these quasars, the group recently came upwith an estimate closer to the astronomers’ side. Information from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which looks at gravitational waves from crashing neutron stars, could provide another independent data point. But such calculations are still in their early stages, said Madore, and have yet to reach full maturity. 

For his part, Madore said he thinks the middle number between Planck and the astronomers’ value will eventually prevail, though he wouldn’t wager too much on that possibility at the moment. But until some conclusion is found, he would like to see researchers’ attitudes toned down a bit. 

“A lot of froth has been put on top of this by people who insist they’re right,” he said. “It’s sufficiently important that it needs to be resolved, but it’s going to take time.” 

Here’s are 4 Stunning Close-Up Image of an Asteroid 300 Million Kilometers Away

An unprecedented view of the surface of an asteroid located around 300 million kilometers away.

Jaumann et al (Science (2019)
 Jaumann et al (Science (2019)

The Japanese Hayabusa2 mission continues to surprise us. This time with an unprecedented view of the surface features that are located on asteroid Ryugu and they happen to closely resemble meteorites that occasionally impact the Earth.

On October 3, 2018, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft launched a landing module to the surface of the Ryugu asteroid from an altitude of around 41 meters. The MASCOT module struck a rock and bounced 17 meters along the surface of the asteroid before staying face down inside a depression on the asteroid.

But that was not the end for MASCOT.

The landing module was able to spin around and take some incredible images of Ryugu’s geological features, both in the 6-minute descent and during the 17 hours, it was on the surface before its batteries ran out, leaving the modules stranded on the asteroid as the massive rock makes its way around the sun.

Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).
Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).

Scientists have published these images today, and say that the photographs could have very interesting implications in our understanding of asteroids, comets and the cosmic bodies of our solar system.

Analysis of the images taken by MASCOT has revealed that the surface of Asteroid Ryugu closely resembles meteorites found on Earth known as carbonaceous chondrites.

“What we have from these images is really knowing how the rocks and material are distributed on the surface of this asteroid, what the weathering history of this stuff is, and the geologic context,” explained Ralf Jaumann, lead author of the study in an interview with Gizmodo.

“It’s the first information on this kind of material in its original environment.”Advertisement

Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).
Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).

R. Jaumann published a study titled, “Images from the surface of asteroid Ryugu show rocks similar to carbonaceous chondrite meteorites,” in the journal Science, detailing the surface features and the implications of the findings.

The images taken by MASCOT revealed different types of rocks on Ryugu’s surface, including dark rocks, crumbled as cauliflowers, and brighter and smoother rocks, all between a few centimeters to tens of meters wide.

But there seemed to be no visible dust; This suggests that there must be some process that removes dust that causes it to be lost in space or absorbed more deeply into the asteroid. Seen up close, these rocks seem to contain bright parts, inlays of some different material, according to the article published in Science.

Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).
Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).

Those inlays are exciting: they look bluish and reddish, Jaumann said, and they seem to be similar in size to the inlays found in the carbonaceous chondrites found on Earth. That is important.

“Carbonaceous material is the primordial material of the solar system, from which all planets and moons originate,” Jaumann said to Space.com.

“Thus, if we want to understand the planetary formation, including the formation of Earth, we need to understand its building parts.”

NASA’s Daring Solar Probe Is Skimming Past the Sun Today!

An artist's depiction of the Parker Solar Probe at work around the sun.

An artist’s depiction of the Parker Solar Probe at work around the sun.(Image: © NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

It’s an extra-sunny Sunday for NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is making its third close pass around the sun today (Sept. 1).

The spacecraft is designed to help scientists better understand the sun and, in particular, its outer atmosphere, called the corona. That atmosphere is millions of degrees, whether Fahrenheit or Celsius — much hotter than the visible surface of the star — and scientists can’t quite figure out where all that heat comes from.

So NASA built the Parker Solar Probe, which will make 24 daring dives into the corona by the end of its mission, in 2025. The spacecraft launched last August and has already completed two solar flybys. The third close encounter will come today around 1:50 p.m. EDT (1750 GMT).

For this third flyby, scientists were able to turn the probe’s instruments on earlier in the course of the maneuver. That’s thanks to unexpectedly high levels of data return from the spacecraft. Operators on the ground received data from the probe’s first two passes more quickly than expected and were able to gather additional observations during the second pass.

This time around, the instruments will be working for 35 days straight — three times as long as they did on the first two orbits. The longer observing window means that the probe will be taking measurements from about twice as far away from the visible surface of the sun. Scientists hope that extra data will help them crack enduring mysteries about the sun and how it affects the solar system.Click here for more Space.com videos…‘Touching’ the Sun with NASA’s Parker Solar ProbeVolume 0%

Each loop around the sun brings the spacecraft a bit deeper into the star’s atmosphere, giving the probe a more daring chance at science on every orbit. After today’s perihelion, as these close encounters are called, things will get even sunnier for the spacecraft.

The Parker Solar Probe’s next loop will include a maneuver around Venus that uses the hellish planet’s gravity to nudge the spacecraft closer into the sun, setting up the next perihelion for Jan. 29, 2020.

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Such a scenario may be inevitable in any theory of quantum gravity, a still-murky area of physics that seeks to combine Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity with the workings of quantum mechanics. In a new paper, scientists create a mashup of the two by imagining starships near an enormous planet whose mass slows time. They conclude that the starships could find themselves in a state where causation is reversed: One event could end up causing another event that happened before it.

“One can devise this kind of scenario where temporal order or cause and effect are in superposition of being reversed or not reversed,” said study co-author Igor Pikovski, a physicist at the Center for Quantum Science and Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. “This is something we expect should take place once we have a full theory of quantum gravity.”

Quantum time

The famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment asks a viewer to imagine a box holding a cat and a radioactive particle, which, once decayed, will kill the unfortunate feline. By the principle of quantum superposition, the cat’s survival or death is equally likely until measured — so until the box is opened, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. In quantum mechanics, superposition means that a particle can exist in multiple states at the same time, just like Schrödinger’s cat.

The new thought experiment, published Aug. 21 in the journal Nature Communications, combines the principle of quantum superposition with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. General relativity says that the mass of a giant object can slow down time. This is well established as true and measurable, Pikovski said; an astronaut orbiting Earth will experience time just a smidge faster than his or her twin back on the planet. (This is also why falling into a black hole would be a very gradual experience.)

Thus, if a futuristic spacecraft were near a massive planet, its crew would experience time as a little bit slower than would people in a fellow spacecraft stationed farther away. Now, throw in a little quantum mechanics, and you can imagine a situation in which that planet is superpositioned simultaneously near to and far away from the two spacecraft.

Time gets weird

In this superpositioned scenario of two ships experiencing time on different timelines, cause and effect could get wonky. For example, say the ships are asked to conduct a training mission in which they fire at each other and dodge each other’s fire, knowing full well the time the missiles will launch and intercept their positions. If there’s no massive planet nearby messing with time’s flow, this is a simple exercise. On the other hand, if that massive planet were present and the ship’s captain didn’t take the slowing of time into account, the crew might dodge too late and be destroyed.

With the planet in superposition, simultaneously near and far, it would be impossible to know whether the ships would dodge too late and destroy each other or whether they would move aside and survive. What’s more, cause and effect could be reversed, Pikovski said. Imagine two events, A and B, that are causally related.

“A and B can influence each other, but in one case A is before B, while in the other case B is before A” in a superposition state, Pikovski said. That means that both A and B are simultaneously the cause and effect of each other. Fortunately for the likely-confused crews of these imaginary spacecraft, Pikovski said, they would have a mathematical way to analyze each other’s transmissions to confirm that they were in a superpositioned state.

Obviously, in real life, planets don’t move around the galaxy willy-nilly. But the thought experiment could have practical implications for quantum computing, even without working out an entire theory of quantum gravity, Pikovski said. By using superpositions in computations, a quantum-computing system could simultaneously evaluate a process as a cause and as an effect.

“Quantum computers may be able to use this for more efficient computation,” he said.

Quantum gravity could reverse cause and effect

China’s Lunar Rover Has Found Something Weird on the Far Side of the Moon

Tracks made by Yutu-2 while navigating hazards during lunar day 8, which occurred during late July and early August 2019.

Tracks made by Yutu-2 while navigating hazards during lunar day 8, which occurred during late July and early August 2019.

China’s Chang’e-4 lunar rover has discovered an unusually colored, ‘gel-like’ substance during its exploration activities on the far side of the moon.

The mission’s rover, Yutu-2, stumbled on that surprise during lunar day 8. The discovery prompted scientists on the mission to postpone other driving plans for the rover, and instead focus its instruments on trying to figure out what the strange material is.

Day 8 started on July 25; Yutu-2 began navigating a path through an area littered with various small impact craters, with the help and planning of drivers at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, according to a Yutu-2 ‘drive diary’ published on Aug. 17 by the government-sanctioned Chinese-language publication Our Space, which focuses on space and science communication.

Related: Chang’e 4 in Pictures: China’s Mission to the Moon’s Far SideClick here for more Space.com videos…China’s Historic Moon Landing Captured by Probe’s CameraVolume 0%

On July 28, the Chang’e-4 team was preparing to power Yutu-2 down for its usual midday ‘nap’ to protect the rover from high temperatures and radiation from the sun high in the sky. A team member checking images from the rover’s main camera spotted a small crater that seemed to contain material with a color and luster unlike that of the surrounding lunar surface. 

The drive team, excited by the discovery, called in their lunar scientists. Together, the teams decided to postpone Yutu-2’s plans to continue west and instead ordered the rover to check out the strange material.

Yutu-2 found a strangely-colored substance in a crater on the far side of the moon.
Yutu-2 found a strangely-colored substance in a crater on the far side of the moon.

With the help of obstacle-avoidance cameras, Yutu-2 carefully approached the crater and then targeted the unusually colored material and its surroundings. The rover examined both areas with its Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS), which detects light that is scattered or reflected off materials to reveal their makeup.

VNIS is the same instrument that detected tantalizing evidence of material originating from the lunar mantle in the regolith of Von Kármán crater, a discovery Chinese scientists announced in May.

Tracks showing Yutu-2's approach to the crater for analysis of the gel-like substance.
Tracks showing Yutu-2’s approach to the crater for analysis of the gel-like substance.

So far, mission scientists haven’t offered any indication as to the nature of the colored substance and have said only that it is “gel-like” and has an “unusual color.” One possible explanation, outside researchers suggested, is that the substance is melt glass created from meteorites striking the surface of the moon.

Yutu-2’s discovery isn’t scientists’ first lunar surprise, however. Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt discovered orange-colored soil near the mission’s Taurus-Littrow landing site in 1972, prompting excitement from both Schmitt and his moonwalk colleague, Gene Cernan. Lunar geologists eventually concluded that the orange soil was created during an explosive volcanic eruption 3.64 billion years ago. 

Strange orange soil was discovered on the moon by the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
Strange orange soil was discovered on the moon by the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Chang’e-4 launched in early December 2018, and made the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3. The Yutu-2 rover had covered a total of 890 feet (271 meters) by the end of lunar day 8.

Watch: China’s Historic Moon Landing Captured by Probe’s Camera

A stitched image from Yutu-2 looking back toward the Chang'e-4 lander during lunar day 7, in late June and early July 2019.
A stitched image from Yutu-2 looking back toward the Chang’e-4 lander during lunar day 7, in late June and early July 2019.

The Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover powered down for the end of lunar day 8 on Aug. 7, and began their ninth lunar day over the weekend. The Yutu-2 rover woke up at 8:42 p.m. EDT on Aug. 23 (00:42 GMT Aug. 24), and the lander followed the next day, at 8:10 p.m. (00:10 GMT). 

During lunar day 9, Yutu-2 will continue its journey west, take a precautionary six-day nap around local noontime, and power down for a ninth lunar night around Sept. 5, about 24 hours hours ahead of local sunset.

US Military Eyes Strategic Value of Earth-Moon Space

A potential framework for the use of lunar water ice and asteroid resources.

A potential framework for the use of lunar water ice and asteroid resources.(Image: © Aiden O’Leary/Jason Aspiotis/Booz Allen Hamilton)

This week, the new United States Space Command officially makes its debut, emphasizing that space is a vital military domain — one that’s critical to America’s security and economic well-being.

Standing up the command coincides with ongoing White House support to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch.

To this end, there is increasing military interest in cislunar space. That’s the region extending beyond Earth to the moon. Indeed, the protection of trade routes and lines of communication are traditional military responsibilities, and this will continue to be true as cislunar space becomes “high ground” — a position of advantage or superiority.

Phased approaches

At last June’s Space Resources Roundtable, held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, the military utility of phased approaches to tap lunar water iceand asteroid resources for propulsion and other applications was detailed.

Jason Aspiotis and Aiden O’Leary of Booz Allen Hamilton in Charlotte, North Carolina, presented a stimulating paper: “In-space Water Supply Chain Servicing the U.S. Military: A Preliminary Estimate of Future Potential U.S. Military Supply and Demand for In-space Water-Based Fuel.”

“It’s a preliminary first-look study to gauge the potential utility of in-space resources, specifically water in the context of U.S. military and intelligence assets,” Aspiotis told Space.com. 

“It adds a lot of capability in terms of more maneuverable assets. I think the high brass is definitely paying attention and starting to consider what it really means for their own strategic plans for the future,” he said.

It’s very important for the military to have diverse supply chains, added O’Leary, so that backups can carry the load in the event that any supply chain is cut off. “I believe it has tremendous value for them,” he said.

Earth's moon and cislunar space loom large in our future. What military and intelligence-gathering purposes will they serve?
Earth’s moon and cislunar space loom large in our future. What military and intelligence-gathering purposes will they serve? 

New focus

The U.S. military’s cislunar interest is interesting, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. 

It is the opinion of Johnson-Freese that cislunar seems to be a “new focus” for the Department of Defense. 

“It appears partly driven by the new, open U.S. push toward the weaponization of space … required because virtually everything China does in space is considered a threat — and bureaucratic politics,” she told Space.com. 

All bureaucracies need a purpose, Johnson-Freese said. “Apparently part of the ‘need’ is protecting U.S. economic/commercial space interests. It would be interesting to know if this protection was requested by commercial countries or merely anticipated,” she said.

China's Chang'e-4 farside mission uses its Magpie Bridge relay satellite at the Earth-Moon L2 halo orbit.
China’s Chang’e-4 farside mission uses its Magpie Bridge relay satellite at the Earth-Moon L2 halo orbit.

Strategically vital

Cislunar space is strategically vital because the exploitation of space resources can — and will — alter the balance of power on Earth.

That’s the view of Peter Garretson, an independent strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense. A retired Air Force officer, he was previously the director of Air University’s Space Horizons Research Task Force, America’s think tank for space.

“What is driving the U.S. military to look at cislunar is not some present tactical advantage,” Garretson said. “It is fear that China’s moves to cislunar space will provide it with a positional and logistic advantage from which it could occupy, constrict, threaten or coerce U.S. interests.”

Domain awareness

The military will need to articulate requirements, Garretson said, that include cislunar “domain awareness,” in-space refueling and the ability to make use of moon-derived propellant.

“Cislunar space offers a vast maneuver space that is difficult to surveil and from which surprises can then emerge, analogous to deep-sea submarine warfare. The People’s Republic of China’s military-run space program is positioning itself in cislunar space. We are behind, and we must catch up,” Garretson said. “Cislunar space is already the high ground, and the U.S. is already far behind China in its position and its planning.”

Is competition for key locations at the moon's poles and potential water ice inevitable? This image shows a two-person crew exploring a permanently shadowed crater at the lunar south pole. As an extractable resource, water ice can be processed into oxygen, water and rocket fuel.
Is competition for key locations at the moon’s poles and potential water ice inevitable? This image shows a two-person crew exploring a permanently shadowed crater at the lunar south pole. As an extractable resource, water ice can be processed into oxygen, water and rocket fuel.

Lunar industrialization 

Garretson said that China’s Chang’e-4 farside moon mission and the nation’s Magpie Bridge relay satellite at the Earth-moon L2 halo orbit are part of a well-conceived and cumulative plan.

“They have already put in place the first node in a broader communications architecture, and perhaps a cislunar space domain awareness system as well,” Garretson said. “Next comes sample return, polar landings and 3D printing of a ‘Lunar Palace’ with an industrial mission to make economic use of lunar resources.”

China is absolutely clear on its strategic intent in cislunar space, Garretson said.

“They intend to build an infrastructure to industrialize the moon, and use its resources and ideal location to build large numbers of solar-power satellites for their own energy supply and to service a $21 trillion energy market,” Garretson said. 

An industrial-logistical system of that magnitude, Garretson said, would obviously establish China as the dominant power. 

“Without an equivalent plan to industrialize the moon, the game is lost for the United States of America. We will find ourselves having lost without fighting … confronting a juggernaut with an industrial, logistical and maneuver advantage we cannot possibly match,” Garretson concluded.

What Is Quantum Gravity?

Reference Article: An overview of quantum gravity.

Abstract illustration of particles interacting at the quantum level.

Quantum gravity attempts to explain how gravity works on the universe’s smallest particles.(Image: © Shutterstock)

Gravity was the first fundamental force that humanity recognized, yet it remains the least understood. Physicists can predict the influence of gravity on bowling balls, stars and planets with exquisite accuracy, but no one knows how the force interacts with minute particles, or quanta. The nearly century-long search for a theory of quantum gravity — a description of how the force works for the universe’s smallest pieces — is driven by the simple expectation that one gravitational rulebook should govern all galaxies, quarks and everything in between. [Strange Quarks and Muons, Oh My! Nature’s Tiniest Particles Dissected (Infographic)]

“If there is no theory [of quantum gravity], then the universe is just chaos. It’s just random,” said Netta Engelhardt, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I can’t even say that it would be chaotic or random because those are actually legitimate physical processes.”

The edge of general relativity

At the heart of the thorniest problem in theoretical physics lies a clash between the field’s two greatest triumphs. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity replaced Isaac Newton’s notion of simple attraction between objects with a description of matter or energy bending space and time around it, and nearby objects following those curved paths, acting as if they were attracted to one another. In Einstein’s equations, gravity is the shape of space itself. His theory kept the traditional description of a smooth, classical universe — one where you can always zoom in further to a smaller patch of space. Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEAll Quantum Gravity Theories Suck – Here’s WhyVolume 0%

General relativity continues to ace every test astrophysicists throw at it, including situations Einstein never could have imagined. But most experts expect Einstein’s theory to fall short someday, because the universe ultimately appears bumpy, not smooth. Planets and stars are really collections of atoms, which, in turn, are made up of electrons and bundles of quarks. Those particles hang together or break apart by swapping other types of particles, giving rise to forces of attraction and repulsion. 

Electric and magnetic forces, for example, come from objects exchanging particles known as virtual photons. For example, the force sticking a magnet to the fridge can be described as a smooth, classical magnetic field, but the field’s fine details depend on the quantum particles that create it. Of the universe’s four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), only gravity lacks the “quantum” description. As a result, no one knows for sure (although there are plenty of ideas) where gravitational fieldscome from or how individual particles act inside them. 

The odd force out

The problem is that even though gravity keeps us stuck to the ground and generally acts as a force, general relativity suggests it’s something more — the shape of space itself. Other quantum theories treat space as a flat backdrop for measuring how far and fast particles fly. Ignoring the curvature of space for particles works because gravity is so much weaker than the other forces that space looks flat when zoomed in on something as small as an electron. The effects of gravity and the curvature of space are relatively obvious at more zoomed-out levels, like planets and stars. But when physicists try to calculate the curvature of space around an electron, slight as it may be, the math becomes impossible. 

In the late 1940s physicists developed a technique, called renormalization, for dealing with the vagaries of quantum mechanics, which allow an electron to spice up a boring trip in an infinite variety of ways. It may, for instance, shoot off a photon. That photon can split into an electron and its antimatter twin, the positron. Those pairs can then shoot off more photons, which can split into more twins, and so on. While a perfect calculation would require counting up the infinite variety of electron road trips, renormalization let physicists gather the unruly possibilities into a few measurable numbers, like the electron charge and mass. They couldn’t predict these values, but they could plug in results from experiments and use them to make other predictions, like where the electron is going.

Renormalization stops working when theoretical gravity particles, called gravitons, enter the scene. Gravitons also have their own energy, which creates more warping of space and more gravitons, which create more warping, and more gravitons, and so on, generally resulting in a giant mathematical mess. Even when physicists try to pile some of the infinities together to measure experimentally, they end up drowning in an infinite number of piles. 

“It effectively means that you need an infinite number of experiments to determine anything,” Engelhardt said, “and that’s not a realistic theory.”

The theory of general relativity says the universe is a smooth fabric, and quantum mechanics says it's a bumpy mess of particles. Physicists say it can't be both.
The theory of general relativity says the universe is a smooth fabric, and quantum mechanics says it’s a bumpy mess of particles. Physicists say it can’t be both.

In practice, this failure to deal with curvature around particles grows fatal in situations where lots of mass and energy twist space so tightly that even electrons and their ilk can’t help but take notice — such as the case with black holes. But any particles very near — or worse, inside — the pits of space-time certainly know the rules of engagement, even if physicists don’t. 

“Nature has found a way to make black holes exist,” Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, wrote in a publication for the institute. “Now it is up to us to find out what nature knows and we do not yet.” 

Bringing gravity into the fold

Using an approximation of general relativity (Engelhardt called it a “Band-Aid”), physicists have developed a notion of what gravitons might look like, but no one expects to see one anytime soon. One thought experiment suggests it would take 100 years of experimentation by a particle collider as heavy as Jupiter to detect one. So, in the meantime, theorists are rethinking the nature of the universe’s most fundamental elements. 

One theory, known as loop quantum gravity, aims to resolve the conflict between particles and space-time by breaking up space and time into little bits — an ultimate resolution beyond which no zooming can take place. 

String theory, another popular framework, takes a different approach and swaps out particles for fiber-like strings, which behave better mathematically than their point-like counterparts. This simple change has complex consequences, but one nice feature is that gravity just falls out of the math. Even if Einstein and his contemporaries had never developed general relativity, Engelhardt said, physicists would have stumbled upon it later through string theory. “I find that pretty miraculous,” she said.

And string theorists have uncovered further hints that they’re on a productive track in recent decades, according to Engelhardt. Simply put, the idea of space itself may be distracting physicists from a more fundamental structure of the universe. 

Theorists discovered in the late 1990s that descriptions of a simple, box-like universe including gravity were mathematically equivalent to a picture of a flat universe with only quantum physics (and no gravity). The ability to jump back and forth between the descriptions suggests that space may not be a fundamental ingredient of the cosmos but rather a side effect that emerges from particle interactions.

As hard as it might be for us mortals embedded in the fabric of space to imagine, the relationship between space and particles might be something like the one between room temperature and air molecules. Physicists once thought of heat as a fluid that flowed from a warm room to a cool room, but the discovery of molecules revealed that what we sense as temperature “emerges” from the average speed of air molecules. Space (and equivalently, gravity) may similarly represent our large-scale experience of some small-scale phenomenon. “Within string theory, there are pretty good indications at this point that space is actually emergent,” Engelhardt said.

But string theory’s universe in a box has a different shape from the one we see (although Engelhardt said this difference may not be a deal breaker, since quantum gravity could act the same way for all possible universe shapes). Even if lessons from the box universe do apply in reality, the mathematical framework remains rough. Physicists are a long way from cutting their theoretical ties to space and achieving an accurate description of quantum gravity in all its bumpy glory. 

While they continue to work out the substantial mathematical kinks in their respective theories, some physicists harbor hope that their astrophysical observations may someday nudge them in the right direction. No experiment to date has diverged from general relativity’s predictions, but in the future, a diverse array of gravitational-wave detectors sensitive to many wave sizes could catch the subtle whispers of gravitons. However, Engelhardt said, “my instinct would be to look at the cosmos rather than to look at particle colliders.”

Strange giant planet ‘unlike any other’ discovered

Astronomers have spotted a giant exoplanet that they say is unlike any other.

Planet HR 5183 b has three times the mass of Jupiter and travels on an incredibly long, egg-shaped path around its star, according to Caltech, which led the research. The planet takes 45 to 100 years to complete its orbit, Caltech noted in a statement.

“If this planet were somehow placed into our own solar system, it would swing from within our asteroid belt to out beyond Neptune,” it added.

Scientists’ study of the newly discovered planet will be published in The Astronomical Journal.

“This planet is unlike the planets in our solar system, but more than that, it is unlike any other exoplanets we have discovered so far,” said Sarah Blunt, a Caltech graduate student and first author on the study, in the statement. “Other planets detected far away from their stars tend to have very low eccentricities, meaning that their orbits are more circular. The fact that this planet has such a high eccentricity speaks to some difference in the way that it either formed or evolved relative to the other planets.”

An illustration comparing the "eccentric" orbit of HR 5183 b to the more circular orbits of the planets in our own solar system.

An illustration comparing the “eccentric” orbit of HR 5183 b to the more circular orbits of the planets in our own solar system.(Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko)

The Lick Observatory in Northern California, the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the McDonald Observatory in Texas all provided data for the study.

While the planet’s star, HR 5183, had been studied since the ’90s, HR 5183 b’s epic journey meant that experts lacked full orbit information.

“This planet spends most of its time loitering in the outer part of its star’s planetary system in this highly eccentric orbit, then it starts to accelerate in and does a slingshot around its star,”  said Caltech Professor of Astronomy Andrew Howard, who leads the California Planet Search, in the statement. “We detected this slingshot motion. We saw the planet come in and now it’s on its way out. That creates such a distinctive signature that we can be sure that this is a real planet, even though we haven’t seen a complete orbit.”

Experts believe that the planet’s strange orbit is likely because it nudged another similar-size planet out of the solar system.

“This newfound planet basically would have come in like a wrecking ball,” said Howard, in the statement. “Knocking anything in its way out of the system.”
In a separate project, astronomers recently spotted a rocky “Star Wars” exoplanet with three suns.

Experts from the Harvard Center for Astrophysics used NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Survey (TESS) telescope to spot planet LTT 1445 A b and its three stars.

India’s Chandrayaan-2 Spacecraft Scouts the Moon in New Lunar Photos

A view of the north polar region of the moon as seen by Chandrayaan-2 on Aug. 23, 2019.
A view of the north polar region of the moon as seen by Chandrayaan-2 on Aug. 23, 2019.

India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft is settling into orbit around the moon and has an incredible view as it waits to try to make history.

The spacecraft arrived in lunar orbit on Aug. 19 (Aug. 20 local time at the Indian Space Research Organisation‘s mission control) and is currently conducting a series of maneuvers to tweak that orbit in preparation for a landing attempt in less than two weeks.

As it does so, the spacecraft is capturing stunning images of the moon’s pitted surface, including a set taken on Aug. 23 by the vehicle’s Terrain Mapping Camera 2. Those images include one showing the lunar north pole, including Plaskett, Rozhdestvenskiy, Hermite, Sommerfeld and Kirkwood craters.

A second image shows a region of the far side’s northern hemisphere, including the Jackson, Mach, Mitra and Korolev craters.

Chandrayaan-2 is settling into an orbit sweeping between the poles of the moon. In about a week, the orbiter will separate from the rest of the mission and continue on this path for the next year or so. The probe is modeled on India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which carried the instrument that confirmed the presence of water ice in craters near the moon’s poles. 

A view of the far side of the moon captured by the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft on Aug. 23, 2019.
A view of the far side of the moon captured by the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft on Aug. 23, 2019. 

The lander portion of the spacecraft, with a rover tucked on board, will head toward the surface near the moon’s south pole, attempting India’s first soft lunar landing. If the maneuver is successful, the country will become just the fourth to have accomplished such a feat, after the Soviet Union, the U.S. and China.

Landing is scheduled for Sept. 6 (Sept. 7 at mission control).

Asteroid That’s Nearly the Height of the World’s Tallest Building Is Flying by Earth Soon

An artistic depiction shows a huge asteroid about to slam into Earth.

An artistic depiction shows a huge asteroid about to slam into Earth.(Image: © Shutterstock)

A monster of an asteroid that nearly rivals the height of the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building, located in Abu Dhabi — is cruising by Earth in less than a month, according to NASA. 

The asteroid 2000 QW7 is incredibly bulky, measuring anywhere between 951 and 2,132 feet (290 and 650 meters) in diameter, and just a tad shorter than the 2,716-foot-tall (828 m) Burj Khalifa.

This asteroid is so immense, it’s nearly twice the height of the 1,250-foot-tall (381 m) Empire State building. It’s expected to whiz by our blue planet on Sept. 14, according to the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), a part of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 4 seconds 

However, asteroid 2000 QW7 isn’t exactly in a position to drop in for tea. First off, it will be going incredibly fast — 14,361 mph (23,100 km/h) — as it zooms by Earth, CNEOS reported. Second, even though it’s considered a near-Earth object, it will still be quite far away. Asteroids and other space materials are considered near-Earth objects if they pass within 1.3 astronomical units of our planet (an astronomical unit is the distance from Earth to the sun, or 92.9 million miles (149.6 million kilometers)).

As CNEOS notes, 2000 QW7 will pass within 0.03564 astronomical units of Earth, which is equivalent to about 3.3 million miles (5.3 million km). Put another way, that’s 13.87 times the distance between Earth and the moon.

Just like Earth, asteroid 2000 QW7 orbits the sun. However, it only sporadically crosses paths with Earth. The last time it approached our planet was Sept. 1, 2000. After Sept. 14, the next time it’s expected to pass by is Oct. 19, 2038, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Physicists Finally Narrowed Down the Mass of the Tiniest ‘Ghost Particle’ in the Universe

This photo shows the inside of a cylindrical antineutrino detector designed to detect the rare fundamental particles.

(Image: © Roy Kaltschmidt photo, LBNL)

We’re full of neutrinos all the time. They’re everywhere, nearly undetectable, flitting through normal matter. We barely know anything about them — not even how heavy they are. But we do know that neutrinos have the potential to alter the shape of the entire universe. And because they have that power, we can use the shape of the universe to weigh them — as a team of physicists has now done.

Because of physics, the behaviors of the smallest particles alter the behaviors of whole galaxies and other giant celestial structures. And if you want to describe the behavior of the universe, your have to take into account properties of its tiniest components. In a new paper, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Physical Review Letters, researchers used that fact to back-calculate the mass of the lightest neutrino (there are three neutrino masses) from precise measurements of the large-scale structure of the universe.

They took data about the movements of roughly 1.1 million galaxies from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey , stirred it up with other cosmological information and results from much smaller-scale neutrino experiments on Earth, and fed all that information into a supercomputer.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 5 seconds 

“We used more than half a million computing hours to process the data,” study co-author Andrei Cuceu, a doctoral student in astrophysics at University College London, said in a statement. “This is equivalent to almost 60 years on a single processor. This project pushed the limits for big data analysis in cosmology.”

The result didn’t offer a fixed number for the mass of the lightest type of neutrino, but it did narrow it down: That species of neutrino has a mass no greater than 0.086 electron volts (eV), or about six million times less than the mass of a single electron.

That number sets an upper bound, but not a lower bound, for the mass of the lightest species of neutrino. It’s possible that it doesn’t have any mass at all, the authors wrote in the paper.

What physicists do know is that at least two of the three species of neutrinohave to have some mass, and that there’s a relationship between their masses. (This paper also sets an upper boundary for the combined mass of all three flavors: 0.26 eV.)

Confusingly, the three mass species of neutrino don’t line up with the three flavors of neutrino: electron, muon and tau. According to Fermilab, each flavor of neutrino is made up of a quantum mixture of the three mass species. So a certain tau neutrino has a bit of mass species 1 in it, a bit of species 2 and a bit of species 3. Those different mass species allow the neutrinos to jump back and forth between flavors, as a 1998 discovery (which won the Nobel Prize in physics) showed.

Physicists may never perfectly pinpoint the masses of the three neutrino species, but they can keep getting closer. The mass will keep getting narrowed down as experiments on Earth and measurements in space improve, the authors wrote. And the better physicists can measure these tiny, omnipresent components of our universe the better physics will be able to explain how the whole thing fits together.

We’re full of neutrinos all the time. They’re everywhere, nearly undetectable, flitting through normal matter. We barely know anything about them — not even how heavy they are. But we do know that neutrinos have the potential to alter the shape of the entire universe. And because they have that power, we can use the shape of the universe to weigh them — as a team of physicists has now done.

Because of physics, the behaviors of the smallest particles alter the behaviors of whole galaxies and other giant celestial structures. And if you want to describe the behavior of the universe, your have to take into account properties of its tiniest components. In a new paper, which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Physical Review Letters, researchers used that fact to back-calculate the mass of the lightest neutrino (there are three neutrino masses) from precise measurements of the large-scale structure of the universe.

They took data about the movements of roughly 1.1 million galaxies from the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey , stirred it up with other cosmological information and results from much smaller-scale neutrino experiments on Earth, and fed all that information into a supercomputer.

“We used more than half a million computing hours to process the data,” study co-author Andrei Cuceu, a doctoral student in astrophysics at University College London, said in a statement. “This is equivalent to almost 60 years on a single processor. This project pushed the limits for big data analysis in cosmology.”

The result didn’t offer a fixed number for the mass of the lightest type of neutrino, but it did narrow it down: That species of neutrino has a mass no greater than 0.086 electron volts (eV), or about six million times less than the mass of a single electron.

That number sets an upper bound, but not a lower bound, for the mass of the lightest species of neutrino. It’s possible that it doesn’t have any mass at all, the authors wrote in the paper.

What physicists do know is that at least two of the three species of neutrinohave to have some mass, and that there’s a relationship between their masses. (This paper also sets an upper boundary for the combined mass of all three flavors: 0.26 eV.)

Confusingly, the three mass species of neutrino don’t line up with the three flavors of neutrino: electron, muon and tau. According to Fermilab, each flavor of neutrino is made up of a quantum mixture of the three mass species. So a certain tau neutrino has a bit of mass species 1 in it, a bit of species 2 and a bit of species 3. Those different mass species allow the neutrinos to jump back and forth between flavors, as a 1998 discovery (which won the Nobel Prize in physics) showed.

Physicists may never perfectly pinpoint the masses of the three neutrino species, but they can keep getting closer. The mass will keep getting narrowed down as experiments on Earth and measurements in space improve, the authors wrote. And the better physicists can measure these tiny, omnipresent components of our universe the better physics will be able to explain how the whole thing fits together.

Scientists are building a real-life version of the Starship Enterprise’s life scanner

The Starship Enterprise in the original 'Star Trek' series.

The Starship Enterprise in the original ‘Star Trek’ series. (AP)

When the crewmembers of the Starship Enterprise pull into orbit around a new planet, one of the first things they do is scan for life-forms. Here in the real world, researchers have long been trying to figure out how to unambiguously detect signs of life on distant exoplanets.

They are now one step closer to this goal, thanks to a new remote-sensing technique that relies on a quirk of biochemistry causing light to spiral in a particular direction and produce a fairly unmistakable signal. The method, described in a recent paper published in the journal Astrobiology, could be used aboard space-based observatories and help scientists learn if the universe contains living beings like ourselves.

In recent years, remote-life detection has become a topic of immense interest as astronomers have begun to capture light from planets orbiting other stars, which can be analyzed to determine what kind of chemicals those worlds contain. Researchers would like to figure out some indicator that could definitively tell them whether or not they are looking at a living biosphere.

For instance, the presence of excessive oxygen in an exoplanet’s atmosphere might be a good hint that something is breathing on its surface. But there are plenty of ways that nonliving processes can generate oxygen molecules and trick remote observers into believing a world is teeming with life.

Therefore, some researchers have suggested looking for chains of organic molecules. These living chemicals come in two arrangements — a right-handed and a left-handed version that are like mirror-flipped images of each other. In the wild, nature produces equal amounts of these right- and left-handed molecules.

“Biology breaks this symmetry,” Frans Snik, an astronomer at Leiden University in the Netherlands and co-author of the new paper, told Live Science. “This is the difference between chemistry and biology.”

On Earth, living creatures select one molecular “hand” and stick with it. The amino acids that make up the proteins in your body are all left-handed versions of their respective molecules.

When light interacts with long chains of these different-handed arrangements, it becomes circularly polarized, meaning that its electromagnetic waves will travel in either clockwise or counterclockwise spirals. Inorganic molecules won’t generally impart this property to rays of light.

In previous work published online in the preprint journal arXiv, Snik and his colleagues looked at freshly picked English ivy leaves in their lab and watched as the chlorophyll (a green pigment) created circularly polarized light. As the leaves decayed, the circular polarization signal grew weaker and weaker, until it entirely disappeared.

The next step was to test the technique in the field, and so the researchers took an instrument that detects such polarity to the roof of their building at Leiden University and aimed it at a nearby sports field. They were perplexed to see no circularly polarized light, Snik said, until they realized that this was one of the few sports fields in the Netherlands using artificial grass. When the researchers aimed their detector at a forest a few miles away, the circularly polarized signal came through loud and clear.

The million-dollar question is whether or not organisms on another world would exhibit a similar favoritism for single-handed molecules, Snik said. He believes it is a fairly good bet, since carbon-based chemicals best fit together when they all share the same handedness.

His team is now designing an instrument that could be flown to the International Space Station and map the circular polarization signal of Earth to better understand how an analogous signature might look in the light of a distant planet.

That will be an extreme but worthwhile challenge, Edward Schwieterman, an astronomer and astrobiologist at the University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the work, told Live Science. Capturing an exoplanet’s light means blocking out the light from its parent star, which is usually around 10 billion times brighter, he added. If the world is alive, only a tiny fraction of its light will contain the circular polarization signal.

“The signal is small, but the level of ambiguity is also small,” Schwieterman said, making the method useful despite its difficulty.

Future enormous space-based telescopes, such as the Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor(LUVOIR) observatory, might be able to tease out this faint signature. LUVOIR is still just a concept, but would have a mirror diameter six times wider than the one in the Hubble Space Telescope and could probably fly in the mid-2030s, officials estimate.

Snik thinks the circular polarization technique could also be brought to bear closer to home, on an instrument flown to potentially habitable moons in the outer solar system such as Europa or Enceladus. By aiming such a detector at these frozen worlds, scientists might see the signal of living creatures.

“Maybe our first detection of extraterrestrial life will be in our backyard,” said Snik.

Scientists Discover 2nd Alien Planet Around Star Beta Pictoris — and It’s Huge

An artist's depiction of the newly discovered planet Beta Pictoris c, top left, as seen with its solar system neighbor Beta Pictoris b and backlit by the star itself.

An artist’s depiction of the newly discovered planet Beta Pictoris c, top left, as seen with its solar system neighbor Beta Pictoris b and backlit by the star itself.(Image: © P Rubini/AM Lagrange)

The solar system around a star called Beta Pictoris was already a pretty interesting place, with a large planet scientists have actually seen and a huge amount of rubble flying around. But it just got even more intriguing.

That’s because astronomers now think they’ve picked up on a second planet orbiting the nearby star. The discovery is based on more than 10 years of data about miniscule changes in the star’s orbit caused by the gravitational tug between the star and what scientists now believe to be a planet.

The Beta Pictoris solar system is a special one for scientists because it is fairly close to Earth, at just 63.4 light-years away, and relatively young, at about 23 million years old. That means scientists can study it to better understand the tumultuous adolescence of developing solar systems.

From what scientists knew before the new research, Beta Pictoris’ adolescence already looked awfully messy. 

A disk of planetary rubble clutters the outer reaches of this solar system; astronomers think hunks of rock called planetesimals ricocheting into each other continues to create that debris. Those planetesimals fill the solar system from 50 astronomical units (or AU, the average distance from Earth to our sun) away from Beta Pictoris out to 100 AU. One AU is about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers.Click here for more Space.com videos…Giant Exoplanet Rotates 36X Faster Than EarthVolume 0%

About a decade ago, astronomers identified a large planet, nine to 13 times more massive than Jupiter and dubbed Beta Pictoris b, orbiting about 9 AU from the star. Unusual for exoplanets, this one has been imaged; typically, worlds are identified as shadows passing over a star’s disk or as tiny wobbles in the star’s location. And scientists have even spotted exocomets darting across the Beta Pictoris system, slowly losing steam as they go.

But astronomers combing through 10 years of data gathered by the European Southern Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) program realized that what they knew about the Beta Pictoris solar system still didn’t quite add up.Click here for more Space.com videos…Colliding Comets May Be Hiding Alien PlanetVolume 0%

HARPS measures tiny changes in a star’s light caused by slight movements of the star as its gravity interacts with that of a planet. For a star like Beta Pictoris, which regularly grows and shrinks, those tiny changes are very difficult to parse out from these pulses, but that is precisely what the team behind the new research did.

The astronomers were left with signals that they believe can be explained only by a second planet, one that is about nine times the mass of Jupiter and orbits its star once every 1,200 or so days. The planet is about 2.7 AU away from its star, equivalent to the distance from our sun to the asteroid belt.

The researchers said they hope that other techniques will be able to spot the planet, dubbed Beta Pictoris c, as well. This planet may pass directly between its star and Earth, which means scientists could study the world’s atmosphere and any rings or moons that orbit it. If astronomers can directly image Beta Pictoris c, as they have its neighbor, they may also be able to answer questions about how these planets formed.

The research is described in a paper published Monday (Aug. 19) in the journal Nature. 

NASA to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa, which may hold life

NASA has officially confirmed a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a trek that could answer whether the icy celestial body could be habitable for humans and support life.

Known as the Europa Clipper mission, which was originally explored in 2017, the government space agency is now in the phase of completing the final design of the spacecraft that will visit the moon. From there, it will move on to construction and, ultimately, test the spacecraft and science payload.

“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “We are building upon the scientific insights received from the flagship Galileo and Cassini spacecraft and working to advance our understanding of our cosmic origin, and even life elsewhere.”

2018 study expressed concerns that Europa’s surface may be extremely porous, which could harm any probe that touches down on its surface.

The space agency said the purpose of the mission will be to investigate whether Europa, the sixth-largest of Jupiter’s 79 known moons, “could harbor conditions suitable for life, honing our insights into astrobiology.”

The conditions on Europa have been previously likened to exoplanet Barnard B, a “super-Earth” 30 trillion miles from Earth. It likely has a surface temperature of roughly 238 degrees below zero and may have oceans underneath its icy surface, according to a July 2018 statement from NASA.

It’s unclear what the oceans on Europa are made up of, but the Hubble Space Telescope detected the presence of sodium chloride (NaCl) on its surface, according to a study published in June.

“If this sodium chloride is really reflective of the internal composition, then [Europa’s ocean] might be more Earth-like than we used to think,” the study’s lead author, Samantha Trumbo, told Space.com.

NASA said its goal for the Europa Clipper mission is to launch as soon as 2023, but it added that its baseline commitment “supports a launch readiness date by 2025.”

‘UFOs’ are coming out of black holes and altering galaxies forever: ‘It’s all very new science’

‘UFOs’ are coming out of black holes and altering galaxies forever

New discoveries lead scientists to believe ‘UFOs’ are coming out of black holes and altering galaxies.

Black holes are still a mysterious force of spacetime, with the first image of one having been released just a few short months ago. Now, a new study suggests that “UFOs” are coming out of them, helping to reshape galaxies along the way.

According to research published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, hot ionized gas — known as an ultra-fast outflow (UFO) — is flying out of supermassive black holes and could help explain why there is nearly empty darkness encompassing the center of several galaxies.

“These winds might explain some surprising correlations that scientists have known about for years but couldn’t explain,” said the study’s lead author, Roberto Serafinelli, in a statement.

Artist's impression showing how ultrafast winds blowing from a supermassive black hole interact with interstellar matter in the host galaxy, clearing its central regions from gas. (Credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

Artist’s impression showing how ultrafast winds blowing from a supermassive black hole interact with interstellar matter in the host galaxy, clearing its central regions from gas. (Credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

“For example, we see a correlation between the masses of supermassive black holes and the velocity dispersion of stars in the inner parts of their host galaxies,” Serafinelli added. “But there is no way this could be due to the gravitational effect of the black hole. Our study, for the first time, shows how these black hole winds impact the galaxy on a larger scale, possibly providing the missing link.”

The scientists were studying galaxy PG 1114+445, which is described as “active,” where they were able to see the UFOs escaping, using the European Space Agency’s X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) telescope.

According to the researchers’ data, the energy from the UFO is being transferred to other winds (such as “warm absorbers”) near the black hole, causing these winds to move at incredible speeds.

“We believe that this is the point when the UFO touches the interstellar matter and sweeps it away like a snowplough,” Serafinelli added. “We call this an ‘entrained ultra-fast outflow’ because the UFO at this stage is penetrating the interstellar matter. It’s similar to wind pushing boats in the sea.”

A “warm absorber” is a slower moving outflow from the black hole, which often travels “at much lower speeds of hundreds of km/s and have similar physical characteristics – such as particle density and ionization – to the surrounding interstellar matter.”

This type of UFO, known as entrained UFO, is rare, Serafinelli noted, adding it’s only the sixth time it has ever been seen and the first time it was seen interacting with the other types of outflows.

“This is the sixth time these outflows have been detected. It’s all very new science,” Serafinelli continued. “These phases of the outflow have previously been observed separately but the connection between them wasn’t clear up until now.”

The discovery of UFOs and the three outflows together is exciting to researchers, but Norbert Schartel, XMM-Newton project scientist at ESA, wants to know whether this is a common occurrence in space or if it was a one-off event.

“Finding one source is great, but knowing that this phenomenon is common in the Universe would be a real breakthrough,” said Schartel. “Even with XMM-Newton, we might be able to find more such sources in the next decade.”

NASA glimpses surface of distant rocky exoplanet

Data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has given scientists a first glimpse into conditions on the surface of a rocky exoplanet beyond the solar system.

Planet LHS 3844b is located 48.6 light-years from Earth and has a radius 1.3 times that of Earth, according to NASA. The exoplanet, which is orbiting a small star called an M dwarf, was first spotted by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Survey (TESS) in 2018.

A light-year measures distance in space and equals 6 trillion miles.

New research indicates that the mysterious planet’s surface may resemble Earth’s Moon or Mercury, NASA said in a statement released Monday. “The planet likely has little to no atmosphere and could be covered in the same cooled volcanic material found in the dark areas of the Moon’s surface, called mare,” it explained.

Artist's illustration depicts the exoplanet LHS 3844b.

Artist’s illustration depicts the exoplanet LHS 3844b. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt [IPAC])

The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope was able to detect light from the surface of LHS 3844b. “The planet makes one full revolution around its parent star in just 11 hours,” NASA said in the statement. “With such a tight orbit, LHS 3844b is most likely ‘tidally locked,’ which is when one side of a planet permanently faces the star. The star-facing side, or dayside, is about 1,410 degrees Fahrenheit (770 degrees Celsius).”

The research study was published in the journal Nature.

“We’ve got lots of theories about how planetary atmospheres fare around M dwarfs, but we haven’t been able to study them empirically,” said Laura Kreidberg, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., in the statement. “Now, with LHS 3844b, we have a terrestrial planet outside our solar system where for the first time we can determine observationally that an atmosphere is not present.”

TESS discovered the planet via what is known as the “transit method,” which uses the dimming of a parent star to identify the transit of the objects orbiting it.

The Spitzer Space Telescope studied the planet’s surface reflectiveness. “LHS 3844b appears to be the smallest planet for which scientists have used the light coming from its surface to learn about its atmosphere (or lack thereof),” said NASA, in its statement.

The planet is believed to be covered in basalt, or volcanic rock.

In 2017, NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1, nearly 40 light-years away from Earth.

In a separate project, a black hole swallowing a neutron star has likely been detected for the first time, according to scientists.

Tesla Roadster with ‘Starman’ completes first orbit around the sun

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster that SpaceX launched into space on their Falcon Heavy rocket last year has completed its first orbit around the sun, according to a tracking report.

If you have somehow forgotten about what is one of the coolest things to happen ever, here’s a quick reminder.

In February 2018, SpaceX launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket and it needed a ‘dummy load’ to send into space in order to demonstrate the capability.

Musk, who is the CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla, decided to launch his own Tesla Roadster.

Due to the higher risk of failure with a brand new rocket, SpaceX didn’t want to put something too valuable, like a satellite, but at the same time, Musk didn’t want to just launch a weight into space.

He figured that launching a Tesla Roadster would be more interesting and inspiring.

They installed the electric car inside the fairings on top of the second stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket:

They also strapped a dummy equipped with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat. They named it ‘Starman’.

On February 6, 2018, Falcon Heavy was successfully launched and it released the Tesla Roadster into space:

It resulted in some stunning images of Starman in the Roadster moving, away from Earth, at a higher speed than any other Tesla before it:

The Tesla Roadster is still moving through space at an extremely high speed and according to the ‘whereisroadster‘ website, which has been tracking the veichle’s trajectory, it has now completed a full orbit around the sun:According to the site, the Roadster is making its way closer to Mars:

“The car is 70,093,131 miles (112,803,994 km, 0.754 AU, 6.27 light minutes) from Mars, moving towardthe planet at a speed of 26,628 mi/h (42,854 km/h, 11.90 km/s).”

It has exceeded warranty’s mileage limit by now/ 

Electrek’s Take

While some saw it as a waste of a good Tesla Roadster or creating space debris, I am a big fan of the project.

I liked it so much that I had Canvaspop make print outs of the Roadster in space from high-res images that SpaceX released on Flickr and display it in my house:

The video of the launch was viewed by millions of people and it inspired many to be interested in space again.

At the same time, it also created some great publicity for Tesla with the Roadster being the first car launched into space.

Now it keeps breaking the record of being the car the furthest away from Earth.

NASA Sun Probe Spies the Solar Wind in 1st Birthday Photo

Now all we need is a candle.

NASA's Parker Solar Probe observed the solar wind streaming past during the spacecraft's first solar encounter in November 2018.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe observed the solar wind streaming past during the spacecraft’s first solar encounter in November 2018.(Image: © NASA/Naval Research Laboratory/Parker Solar Probe)

This past Monday (Aug. 12), NASA’s newest solar probe celebrated its first year in space and began preparing for another close swoop by the sun.

The Parker Solar Probe will make a close approach on Sept. 1 as it tries to collect information that will help scientists to better understand the forces behind the solar wind, solar flares and other kinds of “space weather” emanating from the sun. The probe has so far completed two close approaches and NASA expects to release data from these flybys later this year.

One of Parker’s main objectives is to investigate what mechanism might be driving extreme heating in the sun’s outermost layer, known as the corona. Scientists are mystified as to why the corona is over a million degrees Fahrenheit (over 555,000 degrees Celsius), while the solar layers below are only a few thousand degrees Fahrenheit each. 

Parker aims to travel multiple times within Mercury’s orbit to find out more. It’s a difficult mission because, since the spacecraft is so close to the sun, the extreme heating requires special shielding so that Parker’s instruments don’t get fried by radiation. Parker’s heat shield is so dense that even a blowtorch doesn’t disturb it. This allows the spacecraft to nestle close to the sun and make valuable observations.

“The data we’re seeing from Parker Solar Probe’s instruments is showing us details about solar structures and processes that we have never seen before,” Nour Raouafi, the project scientist of the Parker Solar Probe mission, said in a statement. “Flying close to the sun — a very dangerous environment — is the only way to obtain this data, and the spacecraft is performing with flying colors.”CLOSEVolume 90%This video will resume in 12 seconds 

NASA also released a new video from Parker that shows the structures of the solar wind — the constant stream of particles emanating from our sun. The 6-second clip shows a bright “streamer,” or a dense flow of solar wind, flowing off the sun, which sits just off-screen. Particles of dust streak across the field of view, backdropped by the planet Mercury (the bright dot in the background) and the Milky Way’s star-filled galactic center. The video is based on data obtained Nov. 6 to 10, 2018.

There Are Thousands of Tardigrades on the Moon. Now What?

Did they survive their crash landing? If so, what happens to them now?

Dehydrated tardigrades that crash-landed on the moon in April won't come back to life anytime soon

Dehydrated tardigrades that crash-landed on the moon in April won’t come back to life anytime soon.

Tardigrades, which live on every continent on Earth, are also (maybe) living on the moon, following the crash of a lunar lander carrying thousands of the microscopic water bears.

Did any of them survive the impact? If they did, what happens to them now?

When the tardigrades were placed on the Israeli moon mission Beresheet, they were in a tun state — dehydrated, with their chubby limbs and heads retracted and all metabolic activity temporarily suspended. Their arrival on the moon was unexpectedly explosive; Beresheet’s crash landing on April 11 may have scattered the microorganisms onto the lunar surface. 

Tubby tardigrades are notoriously tough, but were the Beresheet tardigrades hardy enough to survive that impact? It’s certainly possible that some of them made it to the moon intact. But what would that mean for the moon to have what might be thousands of Earth microbes as new inhabitants? And what might it mean for the tardigrades?

First of all, is anyone in trouble for accidentally spilling tardigrades on the moon? That’s a complicated question, but the short answer is no. Space agencies from around the world follow a decades-old treaty about what is permissible to leave on the moon, and the only explicit prohibitions are against weapons and experiments or tools that could interfere with missions from other agencies, according to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

In the decades that followed the treaty, other guidelines were created that acknowledged the risks of seeding other worlds with Earth microbes, and these stipulations outlined practices for sterilizing mission equipment to avoid contamination. But even though large space agencies typically follow these rules, there is no single entity enforcing them globally, Live Science previously reported.

Scientists have yet to find any evidence that the moon ever hosted living organisms (other than visiting astronauts and microbial hitchhikers from Earth) that could be threatened by microscopic invaders. However, contamination could carry serious consequences for missions to planets where life might yet be found, such as Mars; experts suggest that one potential consequence of colonizing Mars could be the extermination of native microbial life through exposure to Earth bacteria.Beresheet Spacecraft’s Moon Crash Site Seen by OrbiterVolume 0% 

It’s possible that even before the Beresheet tardigrades crashed on the moon, other forms of terrestrial microbes were already there: gut bacteria in abandoned bags of astronaut poo, said Mark Martin, an associate professor of biology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

“I’d be very surprised if you couldn’t culture a few things out of the center of that freeze-dried material,” Martin told Live Science. “Especially spore-formers. They make a very thick outer layer of their spore proteins that’s known to protect them against dehydration, radiation — a variety of things.”

Sole survivor

Tardigrades survive conditions that would destroy most other organisms; they do so by expelling the water from their bodies and generating compounds that seal and protect the structure of their cells. The creatures can remain in this so-called tun state for months and still revive in the presence of water; scientists even resuscitated two tardigrades from a 30-year deep freeze in 2016.

As a tun, a tardigrade can weather boiling, freezing, high pressure and even the vacuum of space, the European Space Agency (ESA) reported in 2008, after sending water bears into orbit. Ultraviolet radiation turned out to be the tardigrades’ kryptonite, as few of the creatures survived full exposure to UV light during the ESA experiments.

This could be good news for the desiccated Beresheet tardigrades. If they landed in a spot on the moon shielded from UV radiation, the microscopic creatures might stand a chance of survival, Martin said.It’s Alive! ‘Water Bears’ Revived After 30+ Frozen Years | VideoVolume 0% 

“My guess is that if we went up in the next year or so, recovered the wreckage, and found these tiny, little tuns and put them in water, a few of them would come back to life,” he explained. 

But as long as the tardigrades remain on the moon, their chances of spontaneously awakening are low. Without liquid water, the tiny creatures will remain in a tun state, and while there’s evidence of ice on the moon, liquid water is nowhere to be found. 

Even if the lunar tardigrades did somehow encounter liquid water while still on the moon, without food, air and a moderate ambient temperature, they wouldn’t last very long once they revived, Kazuharu Arakawa, a tardigrade researcher with the Institute for Advanced Biosciences at Keio University in Tokyo, told Live Science in an email.

“Much as I would love to see the establishment of the Lunar Tardigrade Republic, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Martin said.

Something Weird Is Happening to the Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way

An artist's depiction of a black hole at the center of a galaxy.

An artist’s depiction of a black hole at the center of a galaxy.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Astronomers have been watching the black hole at the center of our galaxy for 20 years, and in May, they saw something they’d never seen before.

Well, technically, they aren’t watching the black hole itself, which scientists call Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A*. Instead, they’re looking at the matter around that black hole. When the Milky Way’s black hole is more active than usual, that event horizon becomes brighter as it heats up due to friction. Usually, Sgr A* is pretty calm for a black hole, but in May, that changed, according to new research.

“The black hole is always variable, but this was the brightest we’ve seen in the infrared so far,” Tuan Do, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles, and lead author of the new study, said on Twitter. “It was probably even brighter before we started observing that night!”

That hypothesis is based on the fact that, when the astronomers focused on the area on May 13, they only saw relatively high brightness decreasing, suggesting that the black hole had passed an unknown peak that was even brighter. According to the new paper, the recent flare brought Sgr A* to twice the brightness of the highest previous measurement to date.

Do and his colleagues made the observations using the Keck telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. That instrument can see the world in near infrared light, which encompasses wavelengths a bit longer than those our eyes can see.

Here’s a timelapse of images over 2.5 hr from May from @keckobservatory of the supermassive black hole Sgr A*. The black hole is always variable, but this was the brightest we’ve seen in the infrared so far. It was probably even brighter before we started observing that night!4,5848:53 PM – Aug 10, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy2,368 people are talking about this

They think the black-hole flare may have been caused by the close passage of either a star called S0-2 last year or a dusty object called G2 in 2014.

The scientists hope more observations of Sgr A* will help them sort out what the massive black hole is doing. Those observations include measurements made overnight on Aug. 13 and 14 after a hiatus due to protests at Mauna Kea.

Other instruments, including the Spitzer and Chandra space telescopes and ground-based instruments, have pointed to Sgr A* on and off throughout the past few months, although those data have yet to be analyzed. ART-XC, a new Russian space telescope that launched about a month ago, also has turned its eye on the black hole despite still being in its calibration period.

The black hole is also the target of the globe-spanning Event Horizon Telescope, a collaboration that published the first image of a black hole in April. The historic image was of the black hole at the heart of a galaxy called M87, but the scientists are also working on processing data about Sgr A*.

The original observations are described in a paper posted to the preprint server arXiv.org on Aug. 5 that was recently accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Cause of mysterious methane spikes on Mars still unknown.

A few months after detecting an “unusually high” level of methane on Mars, researchers have yet to figure out what’s causing the spike. They have, however, ruled out one possibility and appear to be getting closer to answering whether life exists on other planets.

According to a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers from Newcastle University in the U.K. have ruled out that the spike could have been caused by wind erosion of rocks that had trapped the methane from fluid inclusions and fractures on the Red Planet’s surface.

“The questions are — where is this methane coming from, and is the source biological? That’s a massive question and to get to the answer we need to rule out lots of other factors first,” principal investigator Dr. Jon Telling said in a statement.

This self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle on Vera Rubin Ridge in Gale crater on Mars. North is on the left and west is on the right, with Gale crater’s rim on the horizon of both edges. This mosaic was assembled from dozens of images taken by Curiosity’s Mars Hands Lens Imager (MAHLI). They were all taken on Jan. 23, 2018, during Sol 1943. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

On Earth, methane is produced both from biological and geological sources.

Telling added that over the last decade, winds on Mars have driven more sand movement than previously thought and that the erosions could be similar to those of sand dunes seen on Earth. Using the data they had, they found that wind erosion was not the source of the methane spikes and is coming from another source.

“What’s important about this is that it strengthens the argument that the methane must be coming from a different source,” Telling said. “Whether or not that’s biological, we still don’t know.”

Methane was first detected in the Martian atmosphere in 2003, but the recent spike in levels discovered by NASA’s Curiosity rover has perplexed researchers. In June, the space agency confirmed the rover measured the largest level of methane, 21 parts per billion units by volume, since landing on the Red Planet on Aug. 6, 2012.

The New York Times reported in June that sunlight and chemical reactions would break up any methane in Mars’ thin air “within a few centuries,” adding that the newly-detected spike was likely released recently.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Emmal Safi, noted that although the new research is “just a little part of a much bigger story,” he hopes it leads scientists to the answer of whether life exists on other planets.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to discover is if there’s the possibility of life existing on planets other than our own, either living now or maybe life in the past that is now preserved as fossils or chemical signatures,” Safi said.

The Mars methane spike has surprised experts. Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard laboratory to “sniff” methane in the Martian atmosphere 12 times over a 20-month period that ended in 2014.

“During two of those months, in late 2013 and early 2014, four measurements averaged seven parts per billion,” said NASA in a 2014 statement. “Before and after that, readings averaged only one-tenth that level.”

Sudden spikes of methane also have been recorded, but scientists don’t know how long these “transient plumes” last or why they differ from seasonal patterns.

NASA finds evidence of ‘interplanetary shock’ for first time

NASA has captured a phenomenon in space that has eluded humanity for centuries — an “interplanetary shock.”

Four spacecraft from the space agency, which are part of the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS) that launched in 2015, managed to get a view of the event in January 2018. The craft were just 12 miles away from one another, which made seeing the spectacle possible.

“MMS was able to measure the shock thanks to its unprecedentedly fast and high-resolution instruments. One of the instruments aboard MMS is the Fast Plasma Investigation,” the space agency said in a statement on its website. “This suite of instruments can measure ions and electrons around the spacecraft at up to 6 times per second. Since the speeding shock waves can pass the spacecraft in just half a second, this high-speed sampling is essential to catching the shock.”

Data from the Fast Plasma Investigation aboard MMS shows the shock and reflected ions as they washed over MMS. The colors represent the amount of ions seen with warmer colors indicating higher numbers of ions. The reflected ions (yellow band that appears just above the middle of the figure) show up midway through the animation, and can be seen increasing in intensity (warmer colors) as they pass MMS, shown as a white dot. (Credit: Ian Cohen)

Data from the Fast Plasma Investigation aboard MMS shows the shock and reflected ions as they washed over MMS. The colors represent the amount of ions seen with warmer colors indicating higher numbers of ions. The reflected ions (yellow band that appears just above the middle of the figure) show up midway through the animation, and can be seen increasing in intensity (warmer colors) as they pass MMS, shown as a white dot. (Credit: Ian Cohen)

NASA continued: “Looking at the data from Jan. 8, the scientists noticed a clump of ions from the solar wind. Shortly after, they saw a second clump of ions, created by ions already in the area that had bounced off the shock as it passed by. Analyzing this second population, the scientists found evidence to support a theory of energy transfer first posed in the 1980s.”

An interplanetary shock, which emanates from the Sun, is a type of “collisionless shock,” where particles transfer energy through electromagnetic fields as opposed to bouncing into one another, NASA added.

“These collisionless shocks are a phenomenon found throughout the universe, including in supernovae, black holes and distant stars. MMS studies collisionless shocks around Earth to gain a greater understanding of shocks across the universe,” the space agency continued.

The researchers behind the observation hope that additional instances are spotted by the MMS that will give them more detailed looks at these interplanetary shocks.

NASA has released a video describing the charged particles, also known as the solar wind, in greater detail.

The research describing the find was published in the journal JGR Space Physics.

Asteroid the size of the Washington Monument will fly past Earth this month

Asteroid the size of the Washington Monument will fly past Earth this month

Washington Monument-sized asteroid to fly past Earth at 42,650 feet per second later this month

Just days after an asteroid the size of the Empire State Building flew past Earth, another “potentially hazardous” space rock will do the same.

Asteroid 2019 OU1 will safely pass by Earth on Aug. 28, coming within 639,000 miles or 0.00687 astronomical units of the planet. At an estimated diameter of 71 to 160 meters (233 to 524 feet), 2019 OU1 has sparked comparisons to the 555-foot tall Washington Monument.

2019 OU1 is also hurtling through space at roughly 42,650 feet per second, according to data compiled by NASA.

The space rock is known as a near-Earth object (NEO) and “potentially hazardous” NEOs are defined as space objects that come within 0.05 astronomical units and measure more than 460 feet in diameter, according to NASA.

According to a 2018 report put together by Planetary.org, there are more than 18,000 NEOs.

NASA has been preparing for planetary defense from asteroid strikes for years. A recent survey showed that Americans prefer a space program that focuses on potential asteroid impacts over sending humans back to the moon or to Mars,

In 2016, NASA formalized the agency’s prior program for detecting and tracking NEOs and put it inside its Science Mission Directorate.

Last June, NASA unveiled a 20-page plan that detailed the steps the U.S. should take to be better prepared for NEOs — such as asteroids and comets — that come within 30 million miles of the planet.

Lindley Johnson, the space agency’s planetary defense officer, said at the time that the country “already has significant scientific, technical and operational capabilities” to help with NEOs, but implementing the new plan would “greatly increase our nation’s readiness and work with international partners to effectively respond should a new potential asteroid impact be detected.”

In addition to enhancing NEO detection, tracking and characterizing capabilities and improving modeling prediction, the plan also aims to develop technologies for deflecting NEOs, increasing international cooperation and establishing new NEO impact emergency procedures and action protocols.

NASA awarded a $69 million contract to SpaceX, the space exploration company led by Elon Musk, in April to help it with asteroid deflection via its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.

Separately in April, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that an asteroid strike is not something to be taken lightly and is perhaps Earth’s biggest threat.

“We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies,” Bridenstine said at the International Academy of Astronautics’ 2019 Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Md., according to Space.com. “This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth.”

Dark matter may be older than the Big Bang

Dark matter, which researchers believe make up about 80% of the universe’s mass, is one of the most elusive mysteries in modern physics. What exactly it is and how it came to be is a mystery, but a new study now suggests that dark matter may have existed before the Big Bang.


Big Bang illustration (stock image).Credit: © Andrea Danti / Adobe Stock

Dark matter, which researchers believe make up about 80% of the universe’s mass, is one of the most elusive mysteries in modern physics. What exactly it is and how it came to be is a mystery, but a new Johns Hopkins University study now suggests that dark matter may have existed before the Big Bang.

The study, published August 7 in Physical Review Letters, presents a new idea of how dark matter was born and how to identify it with astronomical observations.

“The study revealed a new connection between particle physics and astronomy. If dark matter consists of new particles that were born before the Big Bang, they affect the way galaxies are distributed in the sky in a unique way. This connection may be used to reveal their identity and make conclusions about the times before the Big Bang too,” says Tommi Tenkanen, a postdoctoral fellow in Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University and the study’s author.

While not much is known about its origins, astronomers have shown that dark matter plays a crucial role in the formation of galaxies and galaxy clusters. Though not directly observable, scientists know dark matter exists by its gravitation effects on how visible matter moves and is distributed in space.

For a long time, researchers believed that dark matter must be a leftover substance from the Big Bang. Researchers have long sought this kind of dark matter, but so far all experimental searches have been unsuccessful.

“If dark matter were truly a remnant of the Big Bang, then in many cases researchers should have seen a direct signal of dark matter in different particle physics experiments already,” says Tenkanen.

Using a new, simple mathematical framework, the study shows that dark matter may have been produced before the Big Bang during an era known as the cosmic inflation when space was expanding very rapidly. The rapid expansion is believed to lead to copious production of certain types of particles called scalars. So far, only one scalar particle has been discovered, the famous Higgs boson.

“We do not know what dark matter is, but if it has anything to do with any scalar particles, it may be older than the Big Bang. With the proposed mathematical scenario, we don’t have to assume new types of interactions between visible and dark matter beyond gravity, which we already know is there,” explains Tenkanen.

While the idea that dark matter existed before the Big Bang is not new, other theorists have not been able to come up with calculations that support the idea. The new study shows that researchers have always overlooked the simplest possible mathematical scenario for dark matter’s origins, he says.

The new study also suggests a way to test the origin of dark matter by observing the signatures dark matter leaves on the distribution of matter in the universe.

“While this type of dark matter is too elusive to be found in particle experiments, it can reveal its presence in astronomical observations. We will soon learn more about the origin of dark matter when the Euclid satellite is launched in 2022. It’s going to be very exciting to see what it will reveal about dark matter and if its findings can be used to peek into the times before the Big Bang.”


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Materials provided by Johns Hopkins UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Something Just Smacked Jupiter and Here’s the Photo to Prove It

Ouch, that looks painful!

A photograph captured by amateur astronomer Ethan Chappel appears to show an asteroid slamming into the gas giant Jupiter on Wednesday (Aug. 7). So far, astronomers are still waiting to see whether anyone else spotted the sudden flash, which was located over the planet’s South Equatorial Belt.

“Today has felt completely unreal to me,” Chappel wrote on Twitter. “Hoping someone else also recorded the impact to seal the deal.” Chappel and fellow astrophotographer George Chappel post amazing views of the night sky at their website Chappel Astro.

There’s plenty of precedent for such impacts at Jupiter: The planet’s massive gravity tugs asteroids and other space debris toward itself. One group of astronomers has estimated an object 16.5 feet to 65 feet (5 to 20 meters) across slams into the planet between one and five times a month.

Those impacts are inevitable given the huge amount of rubble floating through the vastness of space. Astronomers have already identified more than 20,000 objects hanging around in Earth’s neighborhood alone, and they know that tally is just a fraction of the total. Such space rocks hit Earth as well, and protecting Earth from them is the purview of a field known as planetary defense, but Jupiter takes more blows because of its mass.

Here’s an animation that’s more representative of how fast the flash on #Jupiter occurred. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make this work without cutting out 6 frames for every 7.4,0679:28 PM – Aug 7, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy1,469 people are talking about this

Jupiter’s most famous bruise came from the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994. The comet fragmented and then, over the course of two years, about 20 different chunks fell into the gas giant’s banded clouds, leaving dark scars in the clouds.

This impact is unlikely to leave such scars, according to astronomer Heidi Hammel of the Space Science Institute on Twitter, who spearheaded Hubble Space Telescope observations of Shoemaker-Levy 9’s impact.

(That’s the same telescope that recently unveiled a stunning new image of Jupiter and its slowly shrinking Great Red Spot. That image was captured June 27, long before Chappel’s photograph.) 

We’ve reached out to Ethan and George Chappel to find out more about their amazing Jupiter flash photo. This story will be updated as more details are available. 

Dead planets can ‘broadcast’ their ‘zombie signals’ for almost a billion years, study says

Dead planets can ‘broadcast’ their ‘zombie signals’ for almost a billion years, study says

Planets that have been dead for almost a billion years may still be able to “broadcast” their signals in space, according to a new study.

According to research published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, planets that have been stripped down to their cores by their stars interact with that star (likely at the end of its lifespan and thus, a white dwarf) and send out radio waves, thanks to the magnetic field between the two celestial bodies. The radio waves are often picked up by radio telescopes on Earth.

“There is a sweet spot for detecting these planetary cores: a core too close to the white dwarf would be destroyed by tidal forces, and a core too far away would not be detectable,” the study’s lead author, Dimitri Veras, said in a statement.

This artist's rendering provided by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows an asteroid slowly disintegrating as it orbits a white dwarf star.

This artist’s rendering provided by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows an asteroid slowly disintegrating as it orbits a white dwarf star. (AP)

“Also, if the magnetic field is too strong, it would push the core into the white dwarf, destroying it,” Veras continued. “Hence, we should only look for planets around those white dwarfs with weaker magnetic fields at a separation between about 3 solar radii and the Mercury-Sun distance.”

It’s still unclear how long the planetary cores can survive after the planet is stripped by the star. The researchers’ model dictates that in certain cases, the core can last for over 100 million years and perhaps as long as 1 billion years.

Veras added that no one has yet found the “bare core” of a major planet before, a major planet via magnetic signatures or a major planet around a white dwarf. “Therefore, a discovery here would represent ‘firsts’ in three different senses for planetary systems,” Veras said.

Still, the researcher, along with his co-author, Pennsylvania State University professor Alexander Wolszczan, believe that the research they are doing now will eventually lead them to this discovery.

“We will use the results of this work as guidelines for designs of radio searches for planetary cores around white dwarfs,”  Wolszczan commented. “Given the existing evidence for a presence of planetary debris around many of them, we think that our chances for exciting discoveries are quite good.”

Mysterious, Ancient Radio Signals Keep Pelting Earth. Astronomers Designed an AI to Hunt Them Down.

Sudden shrieks of radio waves from deep space keep slamming into radio telescopes on Earth, spattering those instruments’ detectors with confusing data. And now, astronomers are using artificial intelligence to pinpoint the source of the shrieks, in the hope of explaining what’s sending them to Earth from — researchers suspect — billions of light-years across space.

Usually, these weird, unexplained signals are detected only after the fact, when astronomers notice out-of-place spikes in their data — sometimes years after the incident. The signals have complex, mysterious structures, patterns of peaks and valleys in radio waves that play out in just milliseconds. That’s not the sort of signal astronomers expect to come from a simple explosion, or any other one of the standard events known to scatter spikes of electromagnetic energy across space. Astronomers call these strange signals fast radio bursts (FRBs). Ever since the first one was uncovered in 2007, using data recorded in 2001, there’s been an ongoing effort to pin down their source. But FRBs arrive at random times and places, and existing human technology and observation methods aren’t well-primed to spot these signals.

Now, in a paper published July 4 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of astronomers wrote that they managed to detect five FRBs in real time using a single radio telescope. [The 12 Strangest Objects in the Universe]

An animation shows the random appearance of fast radio bursts (FRBs) across the sky. Astronomers have discovered about 85 since 2007.

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

Wael Farah, a doctoral student at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, developed a machine-learning system that recognized the signatures of FRBs as they arrived at the University of Sydney’s Molonglo Radio Observatory, near Canberra. As Live Science has previously reported, many scientific instruments, including radio telescopes, produce more data per second than they can reasonably store. So they don’t record anything in the finest detail except their most interesting observations.

Farah’s system trained the Molonglo telescope to spot FRBs and switch over to its most detailed recording mode, producing the finest records of FRBs yet.

Based on their data, the researchers predicted that between 59 and 157 theoretically detectable FRBs splash across our skies every day. The scientists also used the immediate detections to hunt for related flares in data from X-ray, optical and other radio telescopes — in hopes of finding some visible event linked to the FRBs — but had no luck.

Their research showed, however, that one of the most peculiar (and frustrating, for research purposes) traits of FRBs appears to be real: The signals, once arriving, never repeat themselves. Each one appears to be a singular event in space that will never happen again.

‘Earth-like exoplanets’ 12.5 light-years away could have liquid water and be home to life, study suggests

Two recently discovered “Earth-like” exoplanets could have liquid water on their surfaces and potentially support life, according to a new study.

Known as Teegarden b and Teegarden c, the exoplanets are likely within the star’s “habitable zone,” according to the abstract of the study, which was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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“They are among the most Earth-like exoplanets yet discovered,” the study’s abstract reads. “Applying an analytic habitability model we find that surface liquid water could be present on both planets for a wide range of atmospheric properties, which makes them attractive targets for biosignature searches.”

(Credit: PHL, UPR Arebio)

The planets orbit the star known as Teegarden’s star, a red dwarf in the Aries constellation that is 12 light-years from Earth. They were first discovered in June as part of the CARMENES search for exoplanets, according to a press release.

Teegarden b and c have extraordinarily short orbits, at just 4.9 and 11.4 days, respectively. They also always face Teegarden’s star with the same side, a condition known as “tidal locking,” which could help support life, the researchers noted.

In an interview with New Scientist, Amri Wandel, the study’s lead author, said tidally locked planets may be more likely to have liquid water and have more extreme temperatures on different parts of the planet.

“This gives a wider range of possible atmospheres that allow for life,” Wandel said.

According to the June press release, there is a 60 percent chance that Teegarden b has a temperature between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius. Teegarden c only has a 3 percent chance of having a temperate surface environment and is believed to have a temperature akin to Mars, approximately -47 degrees Celsius.

Astronomers are convinced they’ve found two new Earth-like planets in our galaxy, and both appear so similar to our own, they’re now among the top 19 known exoplanets with potentially habitable environments.

Orbiting a neighbouring star in the constellation of Aries just 12.5 light years away, one of these two planets might in fact hold the greatest similarity to Earth we’ve discovered so far.

“The two planets resemble the inner planets of our Solar System,” explainslead author Mathias Zechmeister, an astrophysicist at the University of Göttingen.

“They are only slightly heavier than Earth and are located in the so-called habitable zone, where water can be present in liquid form.”

Despite its proximity, this nearby Teegarden’s star was only discovered back in 2003. About ten times lighter than our own Sun and one of the smallest stars we know of, the old red dwarf, which is roughly 8 billion years old, has proved a challenge to research.

According to the team, other planetary systems around similar stars have always been detected using the transit method, when an orbiting planet passes in front of a star, blocking Earth’s view and causing the bright celestial object to darken for a brief moment.

The alignment and dimness of Teegarden wouldn’t lend itself to this method however, so astronomers instead used the CARMENES next-generation telescope designed specifically for such situations. Located at Spain’s Calar Alto Observatory, the instrument allowed the researchers to look for any changes in the mini-star’s radial velocity.

After three years of close observation, watching for any ‘wobbles’ produced by orbiting objects, more than 200 measurements indicate the existence of two new planets, now denominated as Teegarden b and Teegarden c.

To make sure the radial velocity data indicating these planets wasn’t spoofed by variations in the star’s brightness, the researchers complemented their observations with photometric (light measurement) data gathered about Teegarden’s Star.

“These studies demonstrate that the signals of the two planets cannot be due to the activity of the star, even though we could not detect the transits of the two new planets,” says astronomer Victor Sánchez Béjar from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (AIS).

Teegarden b is the innermost planet; according to the international team, it has a 60 percent chance of having a temperate surface environment, somewhere between 0° to 50°C and probably closer to 28°C. Teegarden c, on the other hand, sits farther out, and has a surface temperature more like Mars, sitting at roughly -47°C.

01 teegardensstar image.adapt.1190.1

(A Mendez/PHL)

Given their minimum mass and their exposure to solar radiation, both planets have made the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog. In fact, Teegarden b has actually scored the highest Earth Similarity Index (ESI) ever.

While this doesn’t necessarily mean that either planet is indeed habitable, it’s certainly a promising sign. Zechmeister told The Guardian that if these planets are equipped with atmospheres, they could very well be hospitable to life.

“The planets Teegarden’s Star b and c are the first planets detected with the radial velocity method around such an ultra-cool dwarf,” the team writes in a paper describing the discovery.

“Both planets have a minimum mass close to one Earth mass, and given a rocky, partially iron, or water composition, they are expected to have Earth-like radii.”

Lauren Weiss, an astrophysicist at the University of Hawaii who was not involved in this research, told National Geographic there were still some technical details that need to be teased out, but she was impressed by the overall quality of data.

While the team predicts that Teegarden b completes its orbit in 4.9 Earth days, and c does so in 11.4 days, Weiss argues that their journey might go even faster than that, which would inevitably reduce their habitability.

What’s more, she adds, we don’t yet know precisely how long it takes Teegarden to rotate on its axis; given that astronomers used radial velocity measurements to obtain their discovery, one of these planet detections might still be an artefact of the star’s rotation – but probably not both.

As the 24th nearest star system to our own and the nearest fourth with potentially habitable planets, Teegardeen is an excellent candidate for future research, and its potential to harbour life has left us quite excited.

The research has been published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Gigantic black hole with mass 40 billion times the Sun discovered by astronomers

Astronomers believe they have discovered a supermassive black hole located 700 million light-years from Earth — it has a mass 40 billion times that of the Sun.

The black hole resides in Holmberg 15A, a so-called supergiant elliptical galaxy located within a group of over 500 galaxies called Abell 85, according to SciNews.

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“This is the most massive black hole with a direct dynamical detection in the local Universe,” the researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and University Observatory Munich told the publication.

“This makes it the most massive in our region of the universe, and one of the most massive ever found.”— Andrew Coates, astronomer

“This black hole is not only one of the most massive known, it is also 4 to 9 times larger than expected given the galaxy’s bulge stellar mass,” they said.

An artist's impression of a black hole accretion disk.

An artist’s impression of a black hole accretion disk. 

This supermassive black hole is twice as large as two other huge black holes, scientists noted.

“This is a remarkable observation of an extremely massive black hole at 40 billion solar masses. This makes it the most massive in our region of the universe, and one of the most massive ever found,” Andrew Coates, from University College London’s Department of Space and Climate Physics, told Newsweek.

The work was completed by astronomer Kianusch Mehrgan and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and University Observatory Munich.

The findings will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Millions of Black Holes Are Hiding in Our Galaxy. Here’s How Astronomers Plan to Find Them.

It’s time to find all the missing black holes.

That’s the argument advanced by a pair of Japanese astrophysicists, who wrote a paper proposing a new search for millions of “isolated black holes” (IBHs) that likely populate our galaxy. These black holes, lost in the darkness, sip matter from the interstellar medium — the dust and other stuff floating between stars. But that process is inefficient, and a great deal of the matter gets expelled into space at high speeds. As that outflow interacts with the surrounding environment, the researchers wrote, it should produce radio waves that human radio telescopes can detect. And if astronomers can sift out those waves from all the noise that’s in the rest of the galaxy, they might be able to spot these unseen black holes.

“A naive way to observe IBHs is through their X-ray emission,” the researchers wrote in their paper, which has not yet been formally peer reviewed and which they made available July 1 as a preprint on arXiv. 

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Why is that? As black holes suck the matter from space, that matter at its fringes accelerates and forms what’s known as an accretion disk. The matter in that disk rubs against itself as it spins toward the event horizon— a black hole’s point of no return — spitting out X-rays in the process. But isolated black holes, which are small compared to supermassive black holes, don’t emit a great deal of X-rays this way. There simply isn’t enough matter or energy in their accretion disks to create large X-ray signatures. And past searches for IBHs using X-rays have failed to produce conclusive results.

“These outflows can possibly make the IBHs detectable in other wavelengths,” the researchers, Daichi Tsuna of the University of Tokyo and Norita Kawanaka of Kyoto University, wrote in their paper. “The outflows can interact with the surrounding matter and create strong collisionless shocks at the interface. These shocks can amplify magnetic fields and accelerate electrons, and these electrons emit synchrotron radiation in the radio wavelength.” 

 In other words, the outflow sliding through the interstellar medium should get electrons moving at speeds that produce radio waves.

“Interesting paper,” said Simon Portegies Zwart, an astrophysicist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in Tsuna and Kawanaka’s research. Portegies Zwart has also studied the question of IBHs, also known as intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs).

“It would be a great way to find IMBHs,” Portegies Zwart told Live Science. “I think that with LOFAR [the Low-Frequency Array in the Netherlands], such research should already be possible, but the sensitivity may pose a problem.”

IBHs, Portegies Zwart explained, are thought of as a “missing link” between the two types of black holes astronomers can detect: stellar-mass black holes that can be two to possibly 100 times the size of our sun, and supermassive black holes, the gargantuan beasts that live at the cores of galaxies and are hundreds of thousands of times the size of our sun.

Stellar-mass black holes are occasionally detectable in binary systems with regular stars, because the binary systems can produce gravitational waves and companion stars can provide fuel for large X-ray bursts. And supermassive black holes have accretion disks that emit so much energy that astronomers can detect and even photograph them.

But IBHs, in the midrange between those two other types, are far more difficult to detect. There are a handful of objects in space that astronomers suspect might be IBHs, but those results are uncertain. But past research, including a 2017 paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, which Portegies Zwart co-authored, suggests millions of them could be hiding out there.

Tsuna and Kawanaka wrote that the best prospect for a radio survey of IBHs probably involves using the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a multi-part radio telescope due to be built with sections in South Africa and Australia. It’s slated to have a total radio-wave collecting area of 1 square kilometer (0.39 square miles). The researchers estimate that at least 30 IBHs emit radio waves that the SKA will be able to detect during its first, proof-of-concept phase, which is scheduled for 2020. Down the road, they wrote, the complete SKA (scheduled for the mid-2020s) should be able to detect up to 700.

Not only should SKA be able to spot radio waves from these IBHs, they wrote, it should also be able to precisely estimate the distance to many of them. When that time comes, finally, all these missing black holes should start to come out of hiding.

If Aliens Are Flashing Laser Beams at Us, We Now Have a Way to Detect Them

Welcome to Project Veritas.

Scientists are on the hunt for signals from intelligent aliens. 

Are aliens using super powerful flashlights to get our attention? Astronomers think there’s a chance they are.

Since the invention of the radio, humans have been silently listening to the stars, wondering if we are alone in the universe. But if intelligent alien life does exist, the extraterrestrials could be using other forms of technology to communicate. Astronomers are beginning to not only listen to the cosmos but also gaze toward it for other signs of alien tech: laser beams.

Breakthrough Listen, the most extensive Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program in history, announced that its team will begin looking for new signs of alien technology using the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona. 

“When it comes to intelligent life beyond Earth, we don’t know where it exists or how it communicates,” Yuri Milner, billionaire particle physicist and founder of Breakthrough Listen, said in a statement. “So our philosophy is to look in as many places, and in as many ways, as we can. VERITAS expands our range of observation even further.”

Using VERITAS, astronomers will begin scanning the night sky for nanosecond flashes of light from nearby stars. Like a lighthouse beacon for the cosmos, these brief pulses of optical light would outshine any nearby stars and could indicate a method of alien communication.

“With the addition of VERITAS, we’re sensitive to an important new class of signals: fast optical pulses,” Andrew Siemion, the director of Berkeley’s SETI Research Center, said in the statement. “Optical communication has already been used by NASA to transmit high-definition images to Earth from the moon, so there’s a reason to believe that an advanced civilization might use a scaled-up version of this technology for interstellar communication.”

VERITAS has looked for such laser pulses from the mysteriously dimming Tabby’s Star after some had speculated there could be an alien megastructure surrounding it that caused the odd dimming. If the most powerful lasers on Earth were used at Tabby’s Star and pointed in our direction, VERITAS could detect them. Of the 1 million stars on the Breakthrough Listen target list, most of them are 10 to 100 times closer to Earth than Tabby’s Star, meaning even weaker laser flashes from intelligent aliens could be detected.

The array of four 12-meter optical telescopes is traditionally used to detect gamma rays — high-energy radiation emitted by extreme cosmic objects like exploding stars and even black holes — in the night sky. When gamma rays hit Earth’s atmosphere, they produce very faint blue flashes of light called Cherenkov radiation, because the particles travel faster than the speed of light through air. So the blue flashes are the light equivalent of a sonic boom. The telescope array’s ability to detect and pinpoint the source of these short-lived blue flashes made it the perfect candidate to search for laser beams from distant stars and galaxies.

“It is impressive how well-suited the VERITAS telescopes are for this project, since they were built only with the purpose of studying very-high-energy gamma rays in mind,” David Williams, a member of the VERITAS collaboration and professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in the statement.

The Breakthrough Listen initiative is a $100 million, 10-year project funded by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire and science philanthropist. The project, which began in 2015, has already surveyed more than 1,000 stars within 160 light-years away from Earth for signs of alien radio signals, with no positive results.

“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life,” famed physicist Stephen Hawking said during the initiative’s launch. “Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps intelligent life might be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos, unseen beacons announcing that, here on one rock, the universe discovered its existence? Either way, there is no better question.”

Asteroid size of Empire State Building set to fly by Earth next week

Empire State Building-sized asteroid headed for Earth

NASA has learned a near-Earth object (NEO), asteroid 2006 QQ23, will zoom past the planet. Scientists have been tracking the rock and believe there is no cause for alarm.

A “potentially hazardous” asteroid that is as large as the Empire State Building will zoom past Earth next week on Aug. 10. But it’s not anything to worry about, according to experts.

Known as a near-Earth object (NEO), asteroid 2006 QQ23 will come within approximately 4.65 million miles, according to data compiled by NASA. However, the space rock has been orbiting Earth since at least 1901 (when records date back to) and NASA has mapped out its orbit all the way to February 2200, so it’s not a cause for alarm.

In November 2017, its orbit took it flying past Venus. The last time it zoomed past Earth was Jan. 17, 2017, the space agency noted.

According to a 2018 report put together by Planetary.org, there are more than 18,000 NEOs.

One-thousand eight-hundred seventy feet in diameter, 2006 QQ23 will blow past Earth at 10,400 mph, but if it hit the planet, it could cause some serious damage.

Asteroid 2019 OK zipped past Earth late last month, coming within 43,500 miles as it traveled at a robust speed of 15 miles a second. Only spotted a few days prior to its passing, the asteroid was labeled a “city-killer” if it had struck the planet in a densely populated area.

“This is one of the closest approaches to Earth by an asteroid that we know of. And it’s a pretty large one,” Michael Brown, an associate professor at Monash University’s school of physics and astronomy told the New York Post of Asteroid 2019 OK.

Although a recent survey showed that Americans prefer a space program that focuses on potential asteroid impacts over sending humans back to the Moon or to Mars, NASA has been preparing for planetary defense from asteroid strikes for years.

In 2016, NASA formalized the agency’s prior program for detecting and tracking NEOs and put it inside its Science Mission Directorate.

Last June, NASA unveiled a 20-page plan that detailed the steps the U.S. should take to be better prepared for NEOs such as asteroids and comets that come within 30 million miles of the planet.

Lindley Johnson, the space agency’s planetary defense officer, said at the time that the country “already has significant scientific, technical and operational capabilities” to help with NEOs, but implementing the new plan would “greatly increase our nation’s readiness and work with international partners to effectively respond should a new potential asteroid impact be detected.”

In addition to enhancing NEO detection, tracking and characterizing capabilities and improving modeling prediction, the plan also aims to develop technologies for deflecting NEOs, increasing international cooperation and establishing new NEO impact emergency procedures and action protocols.

NASA awarded a $69 million contract to SpaceX, the space exploration company led by Elon Musk, in April to help it with asteroid deflection via its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.

Separately in April, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that an asteroid strike is not something to be taken lightly and is perhaps Earth’s biggest threat.

“We have to make sure that people understand that this is not about Hollywood, it’s not about movies,” Bridenstine said at the International Academy of Astronautics’ 2019 Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Md, according to Space.com. “This is about ultimately protecting the only planet we know right now to host life, and that is the planet Earth.”

France Is Launching a ‘Space Force’ with Weaponized Satellites

New French satellites will be equipped with machine guns and laser weapons.

French Minister of Defense Florence Parly (left) discusses the new French space force in a speech at Airbase 942 in Lyon-Mont Verdun, on July 25, 2019. Next to her on stage, French Air Force general Philippe Lavigne stands beside a model of a satellite.

French Minister of Defense Florence Parly (left) discusses the new French space force in a speech at Airbase 942 in Lyon-Mont Verdun, on July 25, 2019. Next to her on stage, French Air Force general Philippe Lavigne stands beside a model of a satellite.(Image: © Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty)

Months after President Donald Trump announced the creation of the U.S. Space Force, France is beginning to lay the groundwork for its own version. 

French President Emmanuel Macron announced last month that the nation’s air force will establish a space command for the purpose of national defense, particularly to protect of French satellites. 

Last week, French Minister of Defense Florence Parly detailed the nation’s plan for its new space force, which involves equipping satellites with machine guns and lasers, according to the French news weekly Le Point

First, the country will launch next-generation Syracuse satellites equipped with cameras that will be able to identify threats in space, such as anti-satellite weapons

The French military currently operates a constellation of three Syracuse satellites that are primarily used for communication between the mainland and French troops deployed abroad. But after the new cameras are tried and tested, France will launch another generation of Syracuse satellites that will also be able to destroy enemy satellites. 

The upgraded Syracuse satellites will be armed with either submachine guns or lasers that could disable or even destroy another satellite, according to Le Point; France aims to have those space weapons fully operational in orbit by 2030.French Spy Satellite Launched by Arianespace Soyuz RocketVolume 0% 

While the international Outer Space Treaty prohibits the testing of weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons in orbit, and another United Nations treaty prohibits the weaponization of outer space, France has no intention of violating those treaties or initiating any space battles with its satellites, Parly said during a speech at Air Base 942 Lyon Mont-Verdun on July 26.

“We do not want to embark on a space arms race,” Parly said. “We will conduct a reasoned arsenalization.”

Parly announced that the French air force would receive an additional 700 million euros (around $780 million) in addition to its existing €3.6 billion (about $40 billion) budget for space activities between 2019 and 2025. The new space command will consist of 220 personnel from the French Air Forces’ Joint Space Command, the Operational Center for Military Surveillance of Space Objects (COSMOS) and the Satellite Observation Military Center (CMOS). The space force will operate from the new Air Force Space Operations Center in Toulouse. 

It’s Good! Hubble Telescope Scores Big with Football-Shaped Alien Planet

WASP-121b is burning up at 4,600 degrees.

An illustration of Planet WASP-121b orbiting its host star, which is even hotter than our sun.

An illustration of Planet WASP-121b orbiting its host star, which is even hotter than our sun. 

(Image: © NASA, ESA and J. Olmsted)

Scientists scored a touchdown when they observed heavy metals escaping from the surface of a football-shaped exoplanet that’s way too hot to handle.

The large and gassy “hot Jupiter,” called WASP-121b, orbits so close to its sun that its temperature is 10 times greater than that of any other known planet. Its odd, football-like shape is also due to the planet’s close proximity to the host star as it is on the verge of being ripped apart by the star’s gravity.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the group of scientists observed heavy metals, such as iron and magnesium, escaping through the surface of the exoplanet — marking the first time heavy metals were observed floating away from an exoplanet’s upper atmosphere. 

“Heavy metals have been seen in other hot Jupiters before, but only in the lower atmosphere so you don’t know if they are escaping or not,” David Sing a professor at the Earth and Planetary Science department at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and lead author of the study, said in a statement by NASA. “With WASP-121b, we see magnesium and iron gas so far away from the planet that they’re not gravitationally bound.”

The temperature of the exoplanet’s upper atmosphere reaches 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit (2,538 Celsius), according to the statement. Therefore, unlike other hot Jupiters that are still cool enough to condense iron and magnesium into clouds, this sizzling hot world emits the gases from its surface. Additionally, the exoplanet is also described as “so big and puffy” that its gravity is relatively weak compared to other planets, making it easier for the gases to escape.

“This is a planet being actively stripped of its atmosphere,” Sing added. “In the case of WASP-121b, the hydrogen and helium gas is outflowing, almost like a river, and is dragging these metals with them. It’s a very efficient mechanism for mass loss.”

The escaping heavy metals could also contribute to the exoplanet’s rising temperatures. “These metals will make the atmosphere more opaque in the ultraviolet, which could be contributing to the heating of the upper atmosphere,” Sing said. 

Scientists are hoping to further study the exoplanet using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in March 2021, in order to search for water and carbon dioxide under ultraviolet light. 

A star turned into a black hole before Hubble’s very eyes

Bye bye supernove

When a massive star expends its fuel, its core collapses into a dense object and sends the rest of its gas outward in an event called a supernova. What’s left is mostly neutron stars or black holes. And now, Hubble seems to have seen a supernova blink out — suggesting it captured the moment when a black hole took over.

While some supernova events are explosive and leave clouds of debris for thousands of years (aka nebula) like SN 1054, the star in question seems to have begun to explode and then had all its gas sucked right back into the black hole at the center. This can happen when the core collapse of the star is especially massive. Rather than exploding, the gas collapses directly into the core of the star.

Only a few of these so called “massive fails” (yes, that’s what they’re calling them) have been spotted, so astronomers are cautious about the results. But this particular star, located in the galaxy NGC 6946, was bright enough to see from 22 million light years away and faded in an instant, suggesting a massive stellar-mass black hole was the driving culprit.

Want to learn more about the most exotic objects in the universe? Download our FREE eBook, Exotic Objects: Black holes, Pulsars, and more

This artist’s impression of a massive star that implodes instead of exploding as a supernova.

Astronomers may have finally seen a star become a black hole

“This is the target we’ve been waiting for for years,” says one astrophysicist.

AS DINOSAURS STOMPED across ancient Earth more than 200 million years ago, a massive star was entering its death throes. The resulting cosmic explosion was so unusual, it left astronomers scratching their heads when its glow at last reached our planet last June.

Now, the mysterious flash may have an origin story. Based on the latest observations of the strange supernova, nicknamed the Cow, a team of 45 astronomers argues that it may represent the first time humans have captured the exact moment a dying star gave birth to a black hole.

“This is the target we’ve been waiting for for years,” says team leader Raffaella Margutti, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University. Margutti and her colleagues presented their work this week at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting in Seattle, Washington, and will soon be publishing their findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

The team’s data, captured in multiple wavelengths of light, could also mean that a massive star collapsed into a neutron star, a kind of dense stellar corpse. And other teams studying the Cow have proposed alternative explanations for its unusual behavior. So what do we know about the Cow, and why has it been so hard for astronomers to describe? We’ve got you covered.

Where is the Cow, and why is it called that?

The Cow exploded in the outskirts of CGCG 137-068, a dwarf spiral galaxy about 200 million light-years from Earth. It’s called “the Cow” because of its formal, auto-generated name AT2018cow. A team of astronomers using Hawaii’s ATLAS telescopes saw it on June 16, 2018, and flagged the object to other astronomers on June 17—triggering a rush of telescopes turning to point at the explosion.

What makes the Cow so unusual?

The Cow isn’t the first flash of its kind spotted in the night sky, but it is the closest one ever detected, giving researchers an unprecedented chance to see one in detail. It also got really bright, really fast. At the Cow’s peak, it was tens of times more luminous in x-rays than normal stellar explosions, which are called supernovae. The Cow hit its peak brightness in just a few days, while it takes regular supernovae weeks to fully ramp up.

What’s more, the Cow’s power source wasn’t immediately obvious. Normally, supernovae get their explosive oomph from nickel-56, a radioactive isotope stuffed in their innards. But when astronomers calculated how much debris the Cow had thrown off, they came up with a surprisingly low amount of total ejected debris—maybe a tenth of our sun’s mass, if that. That’s weird, because supernovae normally eject tens of suns’ worth of debris.

Even if the Cow’s debris were entirely nickel-56, that wouldn’t be enough fuel to power the observed explosion. What’s more, the debris contained hydrogen and helium, which astronomers weren’t expecting to find: The stars that explode into supernovae should have long since burned through those elements as nuclear fuel.

The Cow also gave off radiation in unusual ways. For instance, Margutti’s team asked to point NASA’s NuSTAR x-ray telescope at the object. The data showed that a little over a week after it first appeared, the Cow unexpectedly grew a lot brighter in high-energy x-rays. “The first reaction when we got the data was, perhaps we did something wrong,” Margutti says.

Do we know what caused the Cow?

The current consensus is that a compact “central engine” sits at the Cow’s center and spews those high-energy x-rays. This object, whatever it is, is shrouded in a distinctly asymmetrical blob of material thrown off in some kind of explosion.

“One of the jokes is that we [physicists] always model things as spherical cows, and it was clear that this was an aspherical cow,” says study coauthor Brian Metzger, a physicist at Columbia University. “It’s really hard to explain this as a spherical event, because if the x-ray source is powering the optical radiation, then how are the x-rays getting out to us?”

One of the jokes is that we [physicists] always model things as spherical cows, and it was clear that this was an aspherical cow.

BRIAN METZGER, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

In the model made by Margutti’s team, the debris flying from the object’s poles moves faster—and gets transparent sooner—than the clouds around the object’s equator. These equatorial clouds absorbed the engine’s high-energy x-rays, which made the clouds heat up and generate the Cow’s visible light. But some of the high-energy x-rays could still leak out from the Cow’s clearer poles.

Meanwhile, the Cow’s radio signals show that it behaved like a bull in a foggy china shop. When the Cow exploded, some of the debris from the object zoomed outward at more than 18,000 miles a second, or up to a tenth of the speed of light. The fastest of this material seems to have slammed into a dense haze of particles surrounding the Cow, heating up the haze and creating the object’s radio emissions.

So what is the Cow’s “central engine”?

Margutti’s team thinks there are two leading options. The Cow could be a highly magnetized neutron star rotating about a thousand times a second. The other possibility is that the object appeared when a huge and very hot type of star called a blue supergiant had a misfired explosion and became a black hole.

In this scenario, most of the star’s interior collapsed to form the black hole, but the star’s outermost layers didn’t feel it at first. As the inner black hole revved up, it lost some mass in the form of a swarm of ghostly particles called neutrinos. The neutrinos’ flight out of the star’s center ejected some of the outer material before the black hole could gobble it up, and the leftovers soon accreted into a disk around the newborn black hole.

Are there other ideas for what the Cow might be?

Margutti and her colleagues aren’t the only ones proposing that the Cow has a central engine. In another study accepted to the Astrophysical Journal, a separate team led by Caltech astronomer Anna Y. Q. Ho reaches similar conclusions.

But Daniel Perley, an astrophysicist at Liverpool John Moores University, suggests in his own study that the Cow may have appeared when an already existing and relatively massive black hole ate a star similar to our sun, in an event known as a tidal disruption. As the black hole’s immense gravity ripped the star apart, its gases could have accreted around the black hole in a disk, creating the Cow’s unusual glow in the process.

The question is whether it makes sense for a black hole of that size to be hanging out in the outskirts of a galaxy, in an area that should be dense with gas according to the Cow’s radio signals. Current theory holds that black holes of that caliber should form in star clusters, where there’s not a lot of extra gas.

Margutti argues that the Cow’s environment makes a lot more sense if the fog surrounding it was material thrown off by a huge star, one that could later collapse into a neutron star or black hole. But Perley points out that we haven’t yet found and studied any black holes in the mass range his team invokes, so we can’t be sure that theory matches reality.

“[Margutti’s] team is composed of some really top-tier supernova experts, but I’d like to see the tidal-disruption experts weigh in, to see if they can find a way to make it work,” Perley says.

What’s next?

Longer-term observations of the Cow could help tease out the identity of its central engine. If a magnetized neutron star lies at the Cow’s heart, Metzger says, it could send out x-ray flares years from now. A black hole, however, wouldn’t flicker in this way.

But the most fruitful way to learn more about the Cow is to find more objects like it. Astronomers only recently gained the ability to spot such flashes of light and follow up on them in real time, as more robotic telescopes and large-scale surveys have come online.

“These surveys of the night sky are almost taking movies … It’s an exciting time,” Metzger says. “We’re not just seeing the universe as a static thing, but something that can be every active, even on timescales of a few days.”

Living Underground on the Moon: How Lava Tubes Could Aid Lunar Colonization

But there’s a lot we still don’t know.

What lurks within the moon's underground lava tubes? Entrances or "skylights" to lava tubes might allow future explorers access to subsurface ice.

What lurks within the moon’s underground lava tubes? Entrances or “skylights” to lava tubes might allow future explorers access to subsurface ice.(Image: © Pascal Lee/Mars Institute/SETI Institute)

Getting humans back to the moon — “this time to stay” —  will require the exploitation of lunar resources, NASA officials and exploration advocates say. 

The most important resource, at least in the short term, is water ice, which is abundant on the floors of permanently shadowed polar craters. The ice found in these “cold traps” is thought to be stable and accessible. 

But there may be other spots on the moon that could yield a mother lode of scientific data — as well as the resources needed to sustain human occupation of Earth’s celestial next door neighbor. 

Related: Home on the Moon: How to Build a Lunar Colony (Infographic)

That’s the pits

Researchers have identified “pits” on the moon, which are likely lava-tube “skylights” — geological doorways to underground tunnels that were once filled with lava.

If they do indeed provide access to lava tubes, skylights could be a game-changer for human lunar exploration, said NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green. Lava tubes are protected from the harsh environment of the lunar surface, which is bombarded by radiation and experiences temperature extremes. One lunar day lasts about 29 Earth days, meaning surface locations endure about two straight weeks of daylight followed by two weeks of darkness. 

Connective roads?

“There are a number of things on the moon that are going to be surprises,” Green said. 

“We need to get in there,” he added, referring to lunar skylights. “We need to verify. Maybe there’s a lot of water in these skylights? We don’t know. We’re finding them all over the moon.” Moon Base Concept Has Buried Multi-Level Inflatable ModulesVolume 0% 

A lava-tube network would suggest protected corridors, free of temperature swings, bombarding radiation and menacing meteoroids. They also might offer a much larger habitat capability for future moon explorers. 

“We could actually build connective roads in them,” Green told Space.com. “It could be a whole new world for us. That’s another absolute game-changer.” 

More data needed

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images spot the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater near the moon's north pole.
NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images spot the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater near the moon’s north pole.

We don’t have enough information yet to ascertain if skylights on the moon represent an interconnected underground roadway, said Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. He is also chairman of the Mars Institute and director of the NASA Haughton Mars Project at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. 

“For starters, not all pits on the moon are necessarily lava tube skylights,” Lee told Space.com. He said that some might be associated with isolated underground cavities.

“Secondly, not all lava tubes in a given region should be expected to be interconnected,” he added. “Indeed, some might have formed at different times, and might run at different levels or depths underground.”

Maze of corridors?

Lee also said that while some lava tubes on Earth have smooth walls and floors, most have very rough surfaces and debris piles on their floors. 

“We don’t know how rough lava tubes on the moon might be, but the term underground roadway seems optimistic,” Lee said. “In any case, in my view, it’s not that pits on the moon would lead to a maze of underground corridors that makes them most interesting — although that is fascinating — but the fact that they give access to an environment that’s radically different from the surface, whatever shape that underground environment might have.”

Any underground cavity on the moon, after all, would provide shielding — from temperature swings, space radiation, micrometeoritic bombardment and sandblasting from the rocket engines of landing or departing spacecraft.

Water harvesting

Moon’s Water Distribution Has To Do With Time of Day, Other FactorsVolume 0% 

Most intriguing to Lee are candidate pits recently identified inside Philolaus Crater near the north pole of the moon. Advertisement

“They might be skylights associated with a network of lava tubes formed not in volcanic lava flows, but in an impact melt sheet, the temporary pool of molten rock that ponded inside Philolaus Crater following the large impact that created the crater,” he said.

Interestingly enough, Lee said, the candidate pits inside Philolaus are located at such a high latitude that sunlight would never enter the underlying caves. 

“These would be in perpetual darkness and so cold that ice could be cold-trapped in them, much like it is in the permanently shadowed regions at the actual poles of the moon,” Lee said.

Exploring high-latitude pits on the moon might therefore offer an additional opportunity to harvest water on our lunar neighbor, Lee said.

Meanwhile, researchers have begun assessing the viability of underground lunar habitats.

Anahita Modiriasari, a postdoctoral researcher in Purdue University’s Lyles School of Civil Engineering, and her colleagues have been appraising lunar imagery, reconstructed into a 3D model to evaluate lava tubes as a potential habitat for humans on the moon. This is a task that a rover or drone could potentially accomplish on the lunar surface. 

The work is part of Purdue’s Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats (RETH), a project that investigates the value of future human habitats on the moon or Mars.

“All of this collected data is vital,” Modiriasari said. “We are using it to build an advanced model of the size, strength and structural stability of the lava tube,” she said. For example, what happens during seismic activity? What would happen if a meteorite strikes? 

Micro-roving

In another development, the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program recently awarded a Phase 3 contract to researchers developing robotic technologies to enable the exploration of lunar pits. 

The “Skylight” concept mission is led by William Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University. The NIAC award will help Whittaker and his team flesh out ways to explore and model a lunar pit. Doing so will require fast, autonomous micro-roving, which achieves significant exploration in a single lunar daylight period.

According to Whittaker, descent into and exploration of the lunar subsurface will come, but “pit-specific” questions must first be answered from the surface: How navigable are the rims? Are there caves? Are there rappel routes? What is the morphology? 

Specifically, a mission of this type would create and downlink the first high-resolution, science-quality, 3D model of a vast planetary pit, Whittaker said.

“This [Skylight] initiative matures and transitions that technology. The technology innovations are exploration autonomy, in-situ 3D modeling, fast, far micro-roving and the aggregate means to achieve mission-in-a-week,” Whittaker said.Advertisement

The unanswered questions of lava-tube exploration aren’t just technological. Also looming large, as with all aspects of lunar resource use and settlement, are space-law issues.

“Potentially exciting research areas cannot be claimed by sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita of space law at the University of Mississippi and editor-in-chief emerita at the Journal of Space Law.

“Doing things like digging corridors and building roads could easily be interpreted as making a claim by use or other means. This is prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty,” Gabrynowicz said. “The U.S. and all spacefaring nations are party to it. A location with high scientific value will require an international agreement regarding its use and who can access it.”

Newfound alien planet with three red suns discovered

Imagine living in a world of triple sunsets.

Scientists have used NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite to find an exoplanet with three red suns.

The exoplanet LTT 1445Ab orbits one of the three suns, all of which are described as mid-to-late-life red dwarfs. “The planet transits the primary star in the system,” researchers explain, in a paper which is available on the scientific repository arXiv.

The planet is described as having a radius that is 1.38 R_Earth, which means that it is a little over a third larger than our planet.

File image - artist's animation shows the view from a hypothetical moon in orbit around HD 188753 Ab, the first known planet to reside in a tight-knit triple-star system.

File image – artist’s animation shows the view from a hypothetical moon in orbit around HD 188753 Ab, the first known planet to reside in a tight-knit triple-star system. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Space.com reports that the LTT 1445 Ab system is 22.5 light-years away. A light-year, which measures distance in space, equals 6 trillion miles.

A red dwarf, or “M dwarf” in astronomical terms, is “the smallest, most abundant and longest-lived type of star in our galaxy,” according to NASA.

Scientists are intrigued by the discovery of the LTT 1445 Ab system. “It is the second nearest transiting exoplanet system found to date, and the closest one known for which the primary is an M dwarf,” they explain, in their study.

The paper has been submitted to the Astronomical Journal.

An artist's depiction of the view from a moon's surface of a gas giant and three suns.

An artist’s depiction of the view from a moon’s surface of a gas giant and three suns.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Astronomers think they’ve spotted an alien planet with three suns on its horizon — but that still isn’t the most interesting thing about the strange new world’s sky.

Scientists found the world, which they’ve dubbed LTT 1445Ab, in data gathered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). LTT 1445Ab orbits just one of the three stars, all of which are red dwarfs in the latter half of their lives, and the system is about 22.5 light-years away from Earth.

“If you’re standing on the surface of that planet, there are three suns in the sky, but two of them are pretty far away and small-looking,” co-author Jennifer Winters, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told New Scientist. “They’re like two red, ominous eyes in the sky.”

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From the TESS data, the scientists believe the planet is rocky, about a third larger than Earth and is at most about 8 times as massive as our home. It’s awfully toasty on the surface — 320 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees Celsius) — and the planet circles one star of the triplet every 5 days.

But what’s particularly special about it is something that scientists can’t yet, but may soon be able to, characterize: its atmosphere. Because the stars in question are red dwarfs that are located reasonably close to Earth, and because the system is arranged so that the planet passes between stars and Earth, scientists may actually be able to get a glimpse of any gases surrounding the planet using telescopes based on Earth.

Astronomers can’t quite take advantage of the opportunity yet, but it’s exactly the sort of tantalizing prospect that TESS was designed to find. The instrument, which is halfway through its initial two-year survey of most of the sky, looks for planets with short years located around nearby, bright stars — the perfect targets for later instruments to peer at atmospheres.