There's Something Weird About the Craters of Asteroid Ryugu

A map showing 77 craters identified across Ryugu's surface. The western side, where craters are less common, is in the middle of the image.

A map showing 77 craters identified across Ryugu’s surface. The western side, where craters are less common, is in the middle of the image.(Image: © Icarus/Naoyuki Hirata et al.)

The Japanese mission Hayabusa2 just bid farewell to the asteroid the probe spent a year and a half studying, and scientists have now announced some intriguing trends they noticed in the spacecraft’s photos.

Those trends had to do with the craters dotting the surface of the asteroid, dubbed Ryugu. The team used 340 different images of the space rock’s surface and identified a total of 77 craters scattered over Ryugu, each measuring at least 66 feet (20 meters) across. But those pockmarks aren’t distributed as evenly across the surface as the scientists might have expected, the researchers explained in a new paper.

Instead, the craters are clustered in a couple of different ways. There are more craters near the equator than the poles, the scientists found, and there are more on the eastern side of Ryugu than on the western. Additionally, the scientists didn’t find as many relatively smaller craters within this size range as they might have expected given the number of very large craters the space rock sports.

Those patterns became particularly clear when the team looked at particularly large craters, the 11 that measure at least 328 feet (100 m) across. (That collection includes Ryugu’s largest crater, Urashima, which is about one-third of the asteroid’s diameter.)

Of those 11 monster craters, five line up along the ridge ringing the asteroid’s equator. That’s more than twice as many as the team would have expected if Ryugu’s craters were distributed randomly, the researchers said.

The discrepancies don’t mean that the solar system has been targeting this one unremarkable space rock, of course. Instead, the team said that the clustering of craters is a result of the asteroid’s geological history. 

Images of each crater on Ryugu, arranged from largest to smallest. The final nine images show structures that the scientists considered in their analysis but determined are likely not impact craters.
Images of each crater on Ryugu, arranged from largest to smallest. The final nine images show structures that the scientists considered in their analysis but determined are likely not impact craters.  (Image credit: Icarus/Naoyuki Hirata et al.)

The researchers said that most of the equatorial ridge is relatively old but the westernmost part is younger. That would explain why the craters are unevenly distributed: The rest of the ridge has had much more time to pick up these impact scars.

The scientists hope that when they analyze the samples from Ryugu now on their way back to Earth, it could better inform these theories about how the asteroid came to be the way it is now, a university statement about the project said. Those samples are due to land near the end of next year.

The research is described in a paper being published next spring in the journal Icarus. 

First giant planet around white dwarf discovered by scientists

For the very first time, scientists have found evidence of a giant planet associated with a white dwarf star.

Researchers used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to gain a stronger understanding of the properties of the star named WDJ0914+1914.

“It was one of those chance discoveries,” researcher and study lead Boris Gänsicke, from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

The team’s follow-up observations, published in a new study in Nature, showed the presence of hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur associated with the white dwarf.

By analyzing the spectra taken by ESO’s X-shooter instrument, the team discovered that these elements were in a disc of gas swirling into the white dwarf, and not coming from the star itself.

This illustration shows the white dwarf WDJ0914+1914 and its Neptune-like exoplanet.

This illustration shows the white dwarf WDJ0914+1914 and its Neptune-like exoplanet. (ESO/M. Kornmesser)

According to a press release detailing the study’s findings, the detected amounts of hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur are similar to those found in the deep atmospheric layers of cold, giant planets like Neptune and Uranus.

Scientists believe that if this type of planet was orbiting near a hot white dwarf, the extreme ultraviolet radiation from the star would strip away its outer layers, and some of this stripped gas would swirl into a disc, itself coming together onto the white dwarf.

And that is what researchers think they are observing around WDJ0914+1914: the first evaporating planet orbiting a white dwarf.

“It took a few weeks of very hard thinking to figure out that the only way to make such a disc is the evaporation of a giant planet,” Matthias Schreiber from the University of Valparaiso in Chile, who computed the past and future evolution of this system, said in a statement.

Asteroid 'attack': Scientists eye space rock collision

The European Space Agency has received approval to aid NASA in its asteroid deflection plan, the upcoming Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.

According to the ESA’s website, the European space ministers have approved the agency’s plan to build and launch the Hera spacecraft, which will visit the Didymos asteroid system. NASA’s DART spacecraft is slated to collide with the smaller Didymoon asteroid, which orbits Didymos, sometime near the end of 2022.

Didymoon’s diameter is roughly 525 feet (160 meters), according to NASA, whereas the larger Didymos is approximately 2,560 feet wide. Both are considered “potentially hazardous” near-Earth objects.

An artist's illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system.

An artist’s illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system. (ESA – P.Carril)

“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 the U.S. space agency.

“Hera will be humanity’s first-ever spacecraft to visit a double asteroid, the Didymos binary system,” the ESA wrote on its website.

The ESA added: “Hera’s up-close observations will turn asteroid deflection into a well-understood planetary defense technique.” A video was also posted to the agency’s YouTube page providing more detail.

The current plan is for DART to launch aboard a SpaceX rocket in the middle of 2021, ultimately crashing into Didymoon toward the end of 2022. If successful, Hera would launch in 2024 and arrive by 2026 to inspect the findings. The ESA added Hera would “map the resulting impact crater and measure the asteroid’s mass.”

It will also have CubeSats on board that will be able to get closer to the asteroid’s surface, carry out studies and ultimately, touch down on its surface.

In April, NASA awarded a $69 million contract to SpaceX, the space exploration company led by Elon Musk, to help it with asteroid deflection via its DART mission. Separately that month, the ESA announced that it was developing a self-driving craft for Hera.

NASA has recently expanded its planetary defense protocols, including last year’s unveiling of a bold new plan to protect Earth.

Last June, NASA unveiled a 20-page plan that details 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, NASA’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.

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.”

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

NASA Finally Discovers The Shattered Remnants of India's Lost Moon Lander

NASA announced Monday that it had finally found the crash site of India’s lost lunar lander, Vikram. Images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera show the lander’s crash site about 600 km (372 miles) from the Moon’s south pole, shown below, including an impact point and field of debris surrounding it.

The impact point. (NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University)

The impact point. (NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University)

Vikram was part of India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to send an orbiter, lander, and rover to the Moon’s surface. Those ambitions were cut short when the Indian Space Research Organization lost touch with the lander as it was approaching the lunar surface on September 7 after being released by the orbiter.

Two and a half months after the agency lost contact, the ISRO finally admitted the lander crashed – a week before NASA discovered the lander’s crash site.

The lander, with an orbiter and a rover called Pragyaan in tow, launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh on July 15. The orbiter is currently in full operation.

The lander was set to make India only the fourth country after the US, the USSR, and China to softly land a manmade object on the Moon.

“Despite the loss, getting that close to the surface was an amazing achievement,” reads NASA’s statement.

Asteroid warning: NASA reveals 10 dates 'God of chaos' asteroid Apophis could hit Earth

99942 Apophis, previously known by its provisional designation 2004 MN4, is a 370-meter diameter near-Earth asteroid that caused a brief period of concern in December 2004 because initial observations indicated a probability of up to 2.7% that it would hit Earth on April 13, 2029. • Additional observations provided improved predictions that eliminated the possibility of an impact on Earth or the Moon in 2029. However, until 2006, a possibility remained that during the 2029 close encounter with Earth, Apophis would pass through a gravitational keyhole, a small region no more than about 0.5 mile wide, or 0.8 km that would set up a future impact exactly seven years later on April 13, 2036.

ASTEROID APOPHIS, the “God of Chaos” space rock capable of wiping out millions of people, has a slim chance of striking Earth on 10 different dates, space agency NASA has discovered.

The imposing Asteroid Apophis is the third biggest space rock currently tracked by NASA’s automated warning systems. NASA estimates Apophis measures around 1,214ft (370m) across, making it a potentially cataclysmic threat to Earth. A 2018 White House report on the dangers posed by asteroids found objects on this scale threaten “regional” to “continental” damage upon impact.

If Asteroid Apophis arrived in the skies over Earth today, the brute force of impact would likely kill untold millions of people.

In a bid to safeguard our planet from the doomsday scenario, NASA keeps a watchful eye on the asteroid’s trajectory.

As a result, the US space agency has determined 10 dates on which there is a calculable risk of deadly impact.

If Apophis ends up hitting the planet on any of these dates, NASA said the force of impact would be equivalent to 1,200 megatons or 1,200,000 kilotons of kinetic energy.

For comparison, the US atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 detonated with the force of around 15 kilotons of TNT.

When could Asteroid Apophis strike the Earth?

NASA predicts 10 dates between 2060 and 2103 on which there is a small chance Apophis will veer off its path and into Earth.

The dates are:

  • April 12, 2060
  • April 11, 2065
  • April 12, 2068
  • October 10, 2068
  • April 13, 2076
  • April 13, 2077
  • April 13, 2078
  • October 10, 2089
  • April 13, 2091
  • April 14, 2103

On any of these dates, NASA estimates the space rock would fly into our planet at speeds of about 5.85km per second or 13,086mph (21,060km/h).

At the point of atmospheric entry, the asteroid would then speed up to about 12.62km per second or 28,230mph (45,532km/h).

By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we will gain important scientific knowledge

Paul Chodas, NASA Center for Near Earth Studies

According to NASA’s Sentry monitoring systems, Asteroid Apophis weighs an incredible 67,240,989 tons (6,100,0000,000kg).

Because of its colossal size, speed and closeness to Earth, Apophis has been officially dubbed by astronomers a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid or PHA.

The space rock was first discovered on June 19, 2004, and astronomers initially feared Apophis could hit Earth during a close flyby in 2029.

The possibility of impact was ruled out for that year but 10 more possible impact dates remain.

Will the Asteroid Apophis hit Earth on any of these dates?

Officially dubbed by astronomers 99942 Apophis or 2004 MN4, the giant space rock has been a keen object of study since its discovery 15 years ago.

Thankfully, NASA is yet to sound the alarm bells as there appears to be no significant risk of impact just yet.

In April 2060, there is a very small chance the space rock will divert its orbit straight into our home planet.

But the risk of impact is too small to lose any sleep over.

According to NASA, there are one-in-10 million odds of impact for that date.

In other words, there is a 0.000010 percent chance of impact or a 99.99999 chance the asteroid will miss.

There is a slightly higher chance of impact in 2065 with NASA giving the asteroid odds of about one-in-3.8 million.

The odds translate to a 0.000026 percent chance of impact or a 99.999974 chance the space rock will miss.

However, NASA’s overall odds off impact for the next 100 years are a much more terrifying one-in-110,000.

Asteroid Apophis: Four asteroids threatening Earth

Asteroid Apophis: Four space rocks with a slim chance of hitting Earth in the foreseeable future (Image: GETTY/EXPRESS)

This means Apophis has a 0.00089 percent chance of striking the planet by the year 2103.

On April 13, 2029, the asteroid will make a close approach of our planet.

NASA’s asteroid expert Paul Chodas said: “Apophis is a representative of about 2,000 currently known Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.

“By observing Apophis during its 2029 flyby, we will gain important scientific knowledge that could one day be used for planetary defence.”

Asteroid could send world back to ‘dinosaur times’ says expert

According to the Planetary Society, you should not lose any sleep over the threat of asteroid impacts.

Although there is no object currently flying towards our planet, astronomers have devised potential timescales for future impacts based on past events.

On average, 100 tons of space debris and dust hits the planet’s atmosphere every single day.

About 30 “small asteroids a few meters in size” hit the planet once a year.

Larger space rocks hit even less frequently, from once every few hundreds of years to once every few thousand years.

The Planetary Society said: “Skipping to much, much larger sizes, an asteroid the size of the dinosaur – and 70 percent of the species on Earth – killer at 10km in size hits on time scales more like 100 million years.”

UFO photos made famous by 'The X-Files' surface, up for auction

A series of iconic purported UFO images, including some that were featured in the “The X-Files” TV show, are up for auction.

The images are part of a Sotheby’s online auction devoted to space photography. They include a lot of six prints by “Billy” Eduard Albert Meier that are from Switzerland in 1975. “These images purport to depict an interstellar visit by spacecraft from the planet Erra, two with a single UFO moving slowly over the town of Berg Rumlikon, and four images depicting a single UFO in a forested hilly area of Schmidrüti,” said Sotheby’s in a statement.

“One of the images in this lot was used to create the famous ‘I Want to Believe’ poster featured in the first three seasons of The X-Files,” the auction house explained.

The poster was often seen in the office of FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny. The lot with the image used to create the ‘I Want to Believe’ poster has a pre-sale estimate of $6,000 to $9,000.

The sale also includes two Meier photos used in the series trailer for the 2016 reboot of the show. One image is part of a set of seven vintage chromogenic prints by Meier in Bachtelhörnli, Switzerland, on March 28, 1976. This lot also has a pre-sale estimate of $6,000 to $9,000.

The image used to create the famous “I Want to Believe” poster featured in the first three seasons of "The X-Files."

The image used to create the famous “I Want to Believe” poster featured in the first three seasons of “The X-Files.” (Courtesy Sotheby’s)

Another image used in the trailer reboot is part of four vintage chromogenic prints by Meier in Schmidrüti, Berg Rumlikon, and Winkelreit-Wetzikon Switzerland in 1975. The lot has a pre-sale estimate of $4,000 to $6,000.

Other photos in the auction include images from the estate of Bill Taub, NASA’s first senior photographer, who documented every major space event from Project Mercury to the end of the Apollo missions.

One of the images, part of a group of six vintage chromogenic prints, that was featured in the trailer for the 2016 reboot of "The X-Files." (Courtesy Sotheby’s)

One of the images, part of a group of six vintage chromogenic prints, that was featured in the trailer for the 2016 reboot of “The X-Files.” (Courtesy Sotheby’s)

Photos captured by NASA’s Lunar Orbiters area also up from auction, as well as images from the vintage NASA photo collection of dealer Philip Kulpa.

Another image, part of a group of four vintage chromogenic prints, that was used in the trailer for for the 2016 reboot of "The X-Files." (Courtesy Sotheby’s)

Another image, part of a group of four vintage chromogenic prints, that was used in the trailer for for the 2016 reboot of “The X-Files.” (Courtesy Sotheby’s)

The auction, which opened Tuesday, runs until Dec. 3.

Interstellar comet Borisov spotted in new image, has 'ghostly' appearance

A new photo of the second interstellar object ever discovered, Comet 2I/Borisov, shows off the mysterious comet and its impressive tail.

The image, taken by astronomers at Yale University, details the scope of the comet’s tail, which is nearly 100,000 miles long — roughly 14 times the size of Earth.

“It’s humbling to realize how small Earth is next to this visitor from another solar system,” Yale astronomer Pieter van Dokkum said in the statement.

Left: A new image of the interstellar comet 2l/Borisov. Right: A composite image of the comet with a photo of the Earth to show scale. (Pieter van Dokkum, Cheng-Han Hsieh, Shany Danieli, Gregory Laughlin)

Left: A new image of the interstellar comet 2l/Borisov. Right: A composite image of the comet with a photo of the Earth to show scale. (Pieter van Dokkum, Cheng-Han Hsieh, Shany Danieli, Gregory Laughlin)

The new image was taken on Nov. 24 from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

The interstellar comet was discovered on Aug. 30 by astronomer Gennady Borisov. Unlike its predecessor, Ouamuamua, it will be observable for an extended period of time.

In September, NASA JPL said 2I/Borisov is approximately 260 million miles from the sun and will reach its closest point, known as perihelion, on Dec. 8, 2019, when it gets within 190 million miles of the sun.

“Astronomers are taking advantage of Borisov’s visit, using telescopes such as Keck to obtain information about the building blocks of planets in systems other than our own,” Yale astronomer Gregory Laughlin added in the statement.

Researchers believe the comet’s nucleus is 1 mile wide and as it started to react to the Sun’s warming effect, it has started to take on a “ghostly” appearance, the researchers added.

Previous images, including one from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, have shown off 2I/Borisov’s comet-like appearance.

study published in October suggested that Comet 2I/Borisov could be carrying water on it from beyond the Solar System. If the findings are accurate, it would be the first time water from outside the Solar System has been detected.

2I/Borisov is the second interstellar object discovered, following the mysterious cigar-shaped Oumuamua, which was discovered in October 2017. No longer observable by telescopes as of January 2018, many have speculated what the object is. Some have theorized it may have been a light sail sent from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization, a comet or an asteroid.

Artist's illustration of 'Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object spotted in our solar system.

Artist’s illustration of ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object spotted in our solar system. (M. Kornmesser/ESO)

The mystery about its exact nature deepened late last year when NASA said it was looking at the object for two months and did not originally see it.

Will 2020 Be the Year We Find Intelligent Alien Life?

Probably not, but there are reasons to be optimistic about our near-future prospects.

The Allen Telescope Array in northern California is dedicated to astronomical observations and a simultaneous search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

The Allen Telescope Array in northern California is dedicated to astronomical observations and a simultaneous search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).(Image: © Seth Shostak/SETI Institute)

In the past three decades, scientists have found more than 4,000 exoplanets. And the discoveries will keep rolling in; observations suggest that every star in the Milky Way galaxy hosts more than one planet on average.

Given a convergence of ground- and space-based capability, artificial intelligence/machine learning research and other tools, are we on the verge of identifying what is universally possible for life — or perhaps even confirming the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence?ADVERTISING

Is 2020 the celestial payoff year, in which objects of interest are found to offer “technosignatures,” indicators of technology developed by advanced civilizations? 

Space.com asked top SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) experts about what next year may signal regarding detecting other starfolk.

Gaining speed

“Well, despite being the widely celebrated 100-year anniversary of the election of Warren G. Harding, 2020 will not likely gain fame as the year we first discover extraterrestrial life,” said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

The search for intelligent beings elsewhere, Shostak said, is largely conducted by checking out nearby star systems for either narrow-band radio signals or brief flashes of laser light. And those might succeed at any time, he told Space.com.

“But one should remember that this type of search is gaining speed in an exponential fashion, and that particular technical fact allows a crude estimate of when SETI might pay off. If we take — for lack of a better estimate — Frank Drake’s opinion that there might be 10,000 broadcasting societies in the Milky Way, then we clearly have to examine at least one [million] – 10 million stellar systems to have a reasonable chance of tripping across one. That goal will be reached in the next two decades, but certainly not in 2020,” Shostak said.  

Improved searches

But there are still reasons for intelligent-alien hunters to be excited and optimistic about the coming year. Multiple existing projects will either be expanded or improved in 2020, Shostak said. For example, the SETI Institute will get new receivers for the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, and both the SETI Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, will conduct new searches for possible laser technosignatures.   

“And, of course, there’s always the unexpected,” Shostak said. “In 1996, the biggest science story of the year was the claim that fossilized Martian microbes had been found in a meteorite. No one really saw that coming. So one can always hope to be taken by surprise.” 

The powerful 330-foot (100 meters) radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, is being used by Breakthrough Initiatives in its SETI efforts.
The powerful 330-foot (100 meters) radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, is being used by Breakthrough Initiatives in its SETI efforts. (Image credit: Seth Shostak/SETI Institute)

Previous predictions

“I am skeptical about picking a specific year for the first discovery. Previous predictions of success have been wrong,” said Michael Michaud, author of the thought-provoking book “Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials” (Copernicus, 2007). 

“I and others have observed that the continued improvement of our search technologies and strategies could boost the odds for success,” Michaud said, noting that the primary focus of SETI remains on radio signals. “However, we still don’t cover all frequencies, all skies, all of the time. Other types of searches have failed, too, such as looking for laser signals or Dyson spheres [ET mega-engineering projects]. Those campaigns usually have limited funding and often don’t last long.” 

A new possibility has arisen because of exoplanet discoveries, Michaud said: “In some cases, astronomers now can look for chemical evidence of life in planetary atmospheres. It is conceivable that we will find simple forms of life before we find signals from a technological civilization.” 

Prevailing opinion

If astronomers do someday confirm a SETI detection, how should they announce the discovery? It is an old question that has been answered in several ways.  

“The prevailing opinion among radio astronomers has been that the news will leak quickly. If that is correct, scientific and governmental authorities won’t have much time for developing a public-affairs strategy,” Michaud said.

“It remains possible that the sophisticated monitoring capabilities of intelligence agencies might be the first to detect hard evidence,” Michaud said. “One might think that the government would have a plan to deal with such an event.”

But, Michaud said that his own experience suggests that such plans are unlikely to be drawn up due to a “giggle factor” and would be forgotten as officials rotated out of their positions. He previously represented the U.S. Department of State in interagency discussions of national space policy.Advertisement

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is on the search for planets outside our solar system, including those that could support life. The mission finds exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars — events called transits.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is on the search for planets outside our solar system, including those that could support life. The mission finds exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars — events called transits. (Image credit: NASA/GSFC)

Long-term project

“While I’m enthusiastic at the reinvigoration of technological-signatures work, and in particular the growth in looking across much of the electromagnetic spectrum, I think this is going to be a long-term project. I estimate a very small probability of success in any given year,” said Pete Worden, executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “But those chances are now orders of magnitude better than they were even a decade ago.”

Breakthrough Initiatives is tackling the big question of life in the universe, the notable query about whether or not Earthkind is alone. Breakthrough Initiatives is a multifaceted group that’s reinvigorating the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“The Breakthrough Initiatives is committed to full and immediate disclosure of any and all results,” Worden said. “We would rely on the principal investigators of our projects, along with their home institutions, to prepare and release both scientific reports and public announcements.”

Preparing for discovery

Despite the ongoing work by Breakthrough Listen, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and research into the detection of promising biosignatures and technosignatures, there’s no reason to think 2020 would be the year for discovery, said Steven Dick, a recognized astrobiology scholar and writer of the award-winning book “Astrobiology, Discovery, and Societal Impact” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

“In my view, all these things combine to increase the chances over the next decade of finding extraterrestrial intelligence. I would caution, though, that any discovery will be an extended process, consisting of detection and interpretation before any understanding is achieved,” Dick said. “This is clear from the history of discovery, even when we thought we had evidence in hand.” 

Like Shostak, he cited the Mars meteorite ALH 84001, which in 1996 generated excitement and debate that ancient, microscopic life existed on the Red Planet.

“One thing that is certain is that we are getting a better handle on the issues of societal impact, should such a discovery be made. Many more social sciences and humanities people are getting involved in astrobiology, which is all to the good. In other words, we are preparing for discovery,” Dick said. “So, I see the search advancing incrementally next year, but with an accelerating possibility that life will be discovered in the near future.”

NASA's long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope will be able to glimpse the atmospheres of exoplanets at infrared wavelengths.
NASA’s long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope will be able to glimpse the atmospheres of exoplanets at infrared wavelengths. (Image credit: C. Carreau/ESA)

Three-way horse race

“There’s plenty of real estate where life could exist,” said Douglas Vakoch, president of the nonprofit Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) in San Francisco.

“We are right now on the verge of finding out whether there is life elsewhere in the universe, and there are three ways we could find it. Think of it as a three-way horse race to find ET,” Vakoch said.

But will any of the horses cross the finish line in 2020?

It all depends on the prevalence of life beyond Earth, Vakoch said, and the number of targets we can scan with available technologies — whether these instruments are located in Earth-based observatories, in space-based telescopes or in craft that travel to other planets and moons in our solar system, Vakoch told Space.com.

New technologies

Click here for more Space.com videos…Figure the Odds of ET: How Many Aliens Are Out There?Volume 0% PLAY SOUND

So, will scientists find intelligent alien life next year?Advertisement

“It all depends on how plentiful intelligent extraterrestrials are. If one in 10,00 star systems is home to an advanced civilization trying to make contact, then we’re behind schedule in making first contact, and the news we’re not alone in the universe could well come in 2020,” Vakoch said.

And there are expectations for microbial life, similar to Earth’s bacteria, to be even more widely spread throughout space than intelligent life.

But bacteria can’t send us radio signals. “We need to develop new technologies to discover them at a distance,” Vakoch said. “As the next generation of space telescopes is launched, we will increase our chances of detecting signs of life through changes to the atmospheres of planets that orbit other stars, giving us millions of targets in our search for even simple life in the cosmos.”

By the end of 2020, we’ll be within a few months of the much-awaited launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, Vakoch said, which will be able to study the atmospheres of exoplanets for potential signs of life. But it could take much longer, until after the launch of the European Space Agency’s Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey, or ARIEL, in 2028, before we have “definitive proof” of extraterrestrial microbes through telltale alterations in the atmospheres of exoplanets, Vakoch said.

The Gemini Observatory is operated by a partnership of six countries: the United States, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and South Korea.
The Gemini Observatory is operated by a partnership of six countries: the United States, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and South Korea. (Image credit: Joy Pollard)

Living with uncertainty

There are a number of spacecraft in the proposal stage that could conceivably detect extraterrestrial life within our solar system, “but don’t hold your breath for discovery by 2020,” Vakoch said. “But if we do someday find even microbial life elsewhere in our solar system that has an independent origin from terrestrial life, then we would know that the entire universe is chock-full of life.”

Humans cannot control whether or not there is life elsewhere in the universe, of course. 

“Either it’s there or it’s not,” Vakoch said. “We may not be able to decide whether we’ll find it in 2020, but we have a tremendous capacity to decide whether we will find it eventually, if it’s out there to be discovered.”

“To be human is to live with uncertainty,” Vakoch concluded. “If we demand guarantees before we begin searching, then we are guaranteed to find nothing. But if we are willing to commit to the search in the coming year and long afterwards, even without knowing we will succeed, then we are sure to discover that there is at least one civilization in the universe that has the passion and the determination to understand its place in the cosmos — and that civilization is us.”

Did The US Accidentally Blast A Manhole Cover Into Space in 1957?

The fastest manmade object isn’t a hypersonic jet or spacecraft, but a large manhole cover…. When the US started doing underground nuclear testing, nobody really knew what would happen. One test bomb was placed at the bottom of a 485-foot deep shaft on July 26, 1957, and someone thought it was a good idea to put a half-ton iron manhole cover on top to contain the explosion. The bomb turned the shaft into the world’s largest Roman candle, and the manhole cover was nowhere to be found. Robert Brownlee, an astrophysicist who designed the test, wanted to repeat the experiment with high-speed cameras so he could figure out what happened to the cover. So another experiment was created, this time 500-feet deep, and a similar half-ton manhole cover was placed on top. On August 27, 1957, they detonated the bomb. The high-speed cameras barely caught a view of the cover as it left the top of the shaft and headed into oblivion. Brownlee used the frames to calculate the speed to be more than 125,000 miles per hour…. more than five times the escape velocity of the Earth, and the fastest man-made object in history.

In 1957, the United States began testing nuclear weapons underground in the desert outside of Las Vegas, Nevada as part of Operation Plumbbob. One underground test, Pascal B, may have put the first manmade object into space.

Physicists have debated the whereabouts of the two manhole covers ever since. Recently, with the help of supercomputers and a lot more scientific knowledge, physicists are certain that they wouldn’t have had time to burn up completely before exiting the atmosphere. This means both of the remaining pieces would have passed Pluto’s orbit sometime around 1961 and are way beyond the edge of the solar system by now. 🙂

Bizarre worlds orbiting a black hole?

Theoreticians in two different fields defied the common knowledge that planets orbit stars like the Sun. They proposed the possibility of thousands of planets around a supermassive black hole.

“With the right conditions, planets could be formed even in harsh environments, such as around a black hole,” says Keiichi Wada, a professor at Kagoshima University researching active galactic nuclei which are luminous objects energized by black holes.

According to the latest theories, planets are formed from fluffy dust aggregates in a protoplanetary disk around a young star. But young stars are not the only objects that possess dust disks. In a novel approach, the researchers focused on heavy disks around supermassive black holes in the nuclei of galaxies.

“Our calculations show that tens of thousands of planets with 10 times the mass of the Earth could be formed around 10 light-years from a black hole,” says Eiichiro Kokubo, a professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan who studies planet formation. “Around black holes there might exist planetary systems of astonishing scale.”

Some supermassive black holes have large amounts of matter around them in the form of a heavy, dense disk. A disk can contain as much as a hundred thousand times the mass of the Sun worth of dust. This is a billion times the dust mass of a protoplanetary disk.

In a low temperature region of a protoplanetary disk, dust grains with ice mantles stick together and evolve into fluffy aggregates. A dust disk around a black hole is so dense that the intense radiation from the central region is blocked and low temperature regions are formed. The researchers applied the planet formation theory to circumnuclear disks and found that planets could be formed in several hundred million years.

Currently there are no techniques to detect these planets around black holes. However, the researchers expect this study to open a new field of astronomy.

India Admits Its Moon Lander Crashed, Cites Problem with Braking Thrusters

The Indian government has formally acknowledged a crash.

This visualization shows how Chandrayaan-2's Vikram lander planned to land on the moon.

This visualization shows how Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram lander planned to land on the moon.(Image: © ISRO)

India has finally made it official: the country’s long-silent Chandrayaan-2 moon lander Vikram did, in fact, crash into the lunar surface in September, apparently because of an issue with its braking rockets. 

In newly released details about India’s attempted lunar landing on Sept. 6, the Indian government has revealed that the Vikram craft “hard landed” on the moon because of a problem with its braking thrusters. Until now, the India Space Research Organisation had disclosed only that it had lost contact with the probe. 

The update was announced by Jitendra Singh, the minister of state for the Department of Space, in a written response to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament. The news was first reported by SpaceNews.

“The first phase of descent was performed nominally from an altitude of 30 km to 7.4 km (18 miles to 4.5 miles) above the moon surface,” Singh wrote, describing the lander’s descent, in which the craft slowed from 5,521 feet per second (1,683 meters per second) to 479 feet per second (146 m per second).

“During the second phase of descent, the reduction in velocity was more than the designed value,” he continued. “Due to this deviation, the initial conditions at the start of the fine braking phase were beyond the designed parameters. As a result, Vikram hard landed within 500 m of the designated landing site,” Singh said. 

This is the first time that the Indian government has formally acknowledged the crash landing.

On Sept. 10, following the loss of communication from what we now know was a crash on the moon, the ISRO announced that the “Vikram lander has been located by the orbiter of Chandrayaan2, but no communication with it yet. All possible efforts are being made to establish communication with lander.” 

One explanation for why it has taken so long for the Indian government to formally recognize the crash is that, according to the ISRO, they were still trying to figure out exactly what happened. Engineers were working to reconstruct the events that led to the loss of communication with the lander and the ISRO was waiting until that work was done to make a formal announcement, S. Somanath, who directs the ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, said at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) on Oct. 21, according to a statement.

However, while Somanath held off on making any formal declarations about Vikram, he did recognize that the craft most likely hit the moon so fast that it was “beyond its survivability,” he said in the statement. 

Something Strange Punched a Hole in the Milky Way. But What Exactly Is It?

There’s a “dark impactor” blasting holes in our galaxy. We can’t see it. It might not be made of normal matter. Our telescopes haven’t directly detected it. But it sure seems like it’s out there.

“It’s a dense bullet of something,” said Ana Bonaca, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who discovered evidence for the impactor.

Bonaca’s evidence for the dark impactor, which she presented April 15 at the conference of the American Physical Society in Denver, is a series of holes in our galaxy’s longest stellar stream, GD-1. Stellar streams are lines of stars moving together across galaxies, often originating in smaller blobs of stars that collided with the galaxy in question. The stars in GD-1, remnants of a “globular cluster” that plunged into the Milky Way a long time ago, are stretched out in a long line across our sky.

Under normal conditions, the stream should be more or less a single line, stretched out by our galaxy’s gravity, she said in her presentation. Astronomers would expect a single gap in the stream, at the point where the original globular cluster was before its stars drifted away in two directions. But Bonaca showed that GD-1 has a second gap. And that gap has a ragged edge — a region Bonaca called GD-1’s “spur” — as if something huge plunged through the stream not long ago, dragging stars in its wake with its enormous gravity. GD-1, it seems, was hit with that unseen bullet. [Gallery: Dark Matter Throughout the Universe]RECOMMENDED VIDEOS FOR YOU…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

This image from Bonaca's presentation shows the most detailed map yet of GD-1, revealing the apparent second gap and spur.
This image from Bonaca’s presentation shows the most detailed map yet of GD-1, revealing the apparent second gap and spur. (Image credit: New Astrophysical Probes of Dark Matter, Ana Bonaca/GAIA)

“We can’t map [the impactor] to any luminous object that we have observed,” Bonaca told Live Science. “It’s much more massive than a star… Something like a million times the mass of the sun. So there are just no stars of that mass. We can rule that out. And if it were a black hole, it would be a supermassive black hole of the kind we find at the center of our own galaxy.”

It’s not impossible that there’s a second supermassive black hole in our galaxy, Bonaca said. But we’d expect to see some sign of it, like flares or radiation from its accretion disk. And most large galaxies seem to have just a single supermassive black hole at their center.

Top: This image shows what GD-1 appears to actually look like. Bottom: This image shows what computer models predict GD-1 should look like.
Top: This image shows what GD-1 appears to actually look like. Bottom: This image shows what computer models predict GD-1 should look like. (Image credit: New Astrophysical Probes of Dark Matter, Ana Bonaca/GAIA)

With no giant, bright objects visible zipping away from GD-1, and no evidence for a hidden, second supermassive black hole in our galaxy, the only obvious option left is a big clump of dark matter. That doesn’t mean the object is definitely, 100%, absolutely made of dark matter, Bonaca said.

“It could be that it’s a luminous object that went away somewhere, and it’s hiding somewhere in the galaxy,” she added.

But that seems unlikely, in part due to the sheer scale of the object.

“We know that it’s 10 to 20 parsecs [30 to 65 light-years] across,” she said. “About the size of a globular cluster.”

Top: This image again shows what GD-1 appears to actually look like. Bottom: This image shows what computer models predict GD-1 would look like after an interaction with a large, heavy object.
Top: This image again shows what GD-1 appears to actually look like. Bottom: This image shows what computer models predict GD-1 would look like after an interaction with a large, heavy object. (Image credit: New Astrophysical Probes of Dark Matter, Ana Bonaca/GAIA)

But it’s hard to entirely rule out a luminous object, in part because the researchers don’t know how fast it was moving during the impact. (It may have been moving very fast, but not quite as heavy as expected — a true dark bullet — Bonaca said. Or it could have been moving more slowly but been very massive — a sort of dark hammer.) Without an answer to that question, it’s impossible to be certain where the thing would have ended up.

Still, the possibility of having found a real dark matter object is tantalizing.

Right now, researchers don’t know what dark matter is. Our universe seems to act like the luminous matter, the stuff we can see is just a small fraction of what’s out there. Galaxies bind together as if there’s something heavy inside them, clustered in their centers and creating enormous gravity. So most physicists reason that there’s something else out there, something invisible. There are lots of different opinions as to what it’s made of, but none of the efforts to directly detect dark matter on Earth have yet worked.

This dense ball of unseen something plunging through our Milky Way offers physicists a new scrap of evidence that dark matter might be real. And it would suggest that dark matter is really “clumpy,” as most theories about its behavior predict. [Beyond Higgs: 5 Elusive Particles That May Lurk in the Universe]

If dark matter is “clumpy,” then it’s concentrated in irregular chunks distributed roughly across galaxies — much like the luminous matter we see concentrated in stars and nebulae. Some alternative theories, including theories that suggest dark matter doesn’t exist at all, wouldn’t include any clumps — and would have the effects of dark matter distributed smoothly across galaxies.Advertisement

So far, Bonaca’s discovery is one of a kind, so new that it hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal (though it was met appreciatively by the crowd of physicists at the prestigious conference).

To pull it off, she relied on data from the Gaia mission, an European Space Agency program to map billions of stars in our galaxy and their movements across the sky. It formed the best existing catalog of the stars that seem to be part of GD-1.

Bonaca buttressed that data with observations from the Multi Mirror Telescope in Arizona, which showed which stars were moving toward Earth, and which were moving away. That helped distinguish between stars that were really moving with GD-1, and those that just sat next to it in Earth’s sky. That effort produced the most precise image ever of GD-1, which revealed the second gap, the spur, and a previously unseen region of the stellar stream.

Down the road, Bonaca said, she wants to do more mapping projects to reveal other regions of the sky where something unseen seems to be knocking stars around. The goal, she said, is to eventually map clumps of dark matter all across the Milky Way.

With Mars methane mystery unsolved, Curiosity serves scientists a new one: Oxygen

For the first time in the history of space exploration, scientists have measured the seasonal changes in the gases that fill the air directly above the surface of Gale Crater on Mars.Share:    FULL STORY


For the first time in the history of space exploration, scientists have measured the seasonal changes in the gases that fill the air directly above the surface of Gale Crater on Mars. As a result, they noticed something baffling: oxygen, the gas many Earth creatures use to breathe, behaves in a way that so far scientists cannot explain through any known chemical processes.

Over the course of three Mars years (or nearly six Earth years) an instrument in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) portable chemistry lab inside the belly of NASA’s Curiosity rover inhaled the air of Gale Crater and analyzed its composition. The results SAM spit out confirmed the makeup of the Martian atmosphere at the surface: 95% by volume of carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2), and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). They also revealed how the molecules in the Martian air mix and circulate with the changes in air pressure throughout the year. These changes are caused when CO2 gas freezes over the poles in the winter, thereby lowering the air pressure across the planet following redistribution of air to maintain pressure equilibrium. When CO2 evaporates in the spring and summer and mixes across Mars, it raises the air pressure.

Within this environment, scientists found that nitrogen and argon follow a predictable seasonal pattern, waxing and waning in concentration in Gale Crater throughout the year relative to how much CO2 is in the air. They expected oxygen to do the same. But it didn’t. Instead, the amount of the gas in the air rose throughout spring and summer by as much as 30%, and then dropped back to levels predicted by known chemistry in fall. This pattern repeated each spring, though the amount of oxygen added to the atmosphere varied, implying that something was producing it and then taking it away.

“The first time we saw that, it was just mind boggling,” said Sushil Atreya, professor of climate and space sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Atreya is a co-author of a paper on this topic published on November 12 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

As soon as scientists discovered the oxygen enigma, Mars experts set to work trying to explain it. They first double- and triple-checked the accuracy of the SAM instrument they used to measure the gases: the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer. The instrument was fine. They considered the possibility that CO2 or water (H2O) molecules could have released oxygen when they broke apart in the atmosphere, leading to the short-lived rise. But it would take five times more water above Mars to produce the extra oxygen, and CO2 breaks up too slowly to generate it over such a short time. What about the oxygen decrease? Could solar radiation have broken up oxygen molecules into two atoms that blew away into space? No, scientists concluded, since it would take at least 10 years for the oxygen to disappear through this process.

“We’re struggling to explain this,” said Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who led this research. “The fact that the oxygen behavior isn’t perfectly repeatable every season makes us think that it’s not an issue that has to do with atmospheric dynamics. It has to be some chemical source and sink that we can’t yet account for.”

To scientists who study Mars, the oxygen story is curiously similar to that of methane. Methane is constantly in the air inside Gale Crater in such small quantities (0.00000004% on average) that it’s barely discernable even by the most sensitive instruments on Mars. Still, it’s been measured by SAM’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer. The instrument revealed that while methane rises and falls seasonally, it increases in abundance by about 60% in summer months for inexplicable reasons. (In fact, methane also spikes randomly and dramatically. Scientists are trying to figure out why.)

With the new oxygen findings in hand, Trainer’s team is wondering if chemistry similar to what’s driving methane’s natural seasonal variations may also drive oxygen’s. At least occasionally, the two gases appear to fluctuate in tandem.

“We’re beginning to see this tantalizing correlation between methane and oxygen for a good part of the Mars year,” Atreya said. “I think there’s something to it. I just don’t have the answers yet. Nobody does.”

Oxygen and methane can be produced both biologically (from microbes, for instance) and abiotically (from chemistry related to water and rocks). Scientists are considering all options, although they don’t have any convincing evidence of biological activity on Mars. Curiosity doesn’t have instruments that can definitively say whether the source of the methane or oxygen on Mars is biological or geological. Scientists expect that non-biological explanations are more likely and are working diligently to fully understand them.

Trainer’s team considered Martian soil as a source of the extra springtime oxygen. After all, it’s known to be rich in the element, in the form of compounds such as hydrogen peroxide and perchlorates. One experiment on the Viking landers showed decades ago that heat and humidity could release oxygen from Martian soil. But that experiment took place in conditions quite different from the Martian spring environment, and it doesn’t explain the oxygen drop, among other problems. Other possible explanations also don’t quite add up for now. For example, high-energy radiation of the soil could produce extra O2 in the air, but it would take a million years to accumulate enough oxygen in the soil to account for the boost measured in only one spring, the researchers report in their paper.

“We have not been able to come up with one process yet that produces the amount of oxygen we need, but we think it has to be something in the surface soil that changes seasonally because there aren’t enough available oxygen atoms in the atmosphere to create the behavior we see,” said Timothy McConnochie, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and another co-author of the paper.

The only previous spacecraft with instruments capable of measuring the composition of the Martian air near the ground were NASA’s twin Viking landers, which arrived on the planet in 1976. The Viking experiments covered only a few Martian days, though, so they couldn’t reveal seasonal patterns of the different gases. The new SAM measurements are the first to do so. The SAM team will continue to measure atmospheric gases so scientists can gather more detailed data throughout each season. In the meantime, Trainer and her team hope that other Mars experts will work to solve the oxygen mystery.

“This is the first time where we’re seeing this interesting behavior over multiple years. We don’t totally understand it,” Trainer said. “For me, this is an open call to all the smart people out there who are interested in this: See what you can come up with.”

Ice Fossils in an Ancient Space Rock Reveal Clues About the Early Solar System

An artist's illustration shows the water snow line spotted around the young star V883 Orionis. In a new study, researchers have discovered ice fossils in an ancient meteorite which shows how objects that formed with ice beyond the snow line in the early solar system moved towards the sun (leaving behind these porous "fossils").

An artist’s illustration shows the water snow line spotted around the young star V883 Orionis. In a new study, researchers have discovered ice fossils in an ancient meteorite which shows how objects that formed with ice beyond the snow line in the early solar system moved towards the sun (leaving behind these porous “fossils”).(Image: © A. Angelich (NRAO/AUI/NSF)/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO))

Scientists have discovered ancient asteroid ice fossils that could reveal what our solar system was like billions of years ago. 

In a new study, the scientists analyzed a 4.6-billion-year-old primitive meteorite, called Acfer 094, that crash-landed in the Sahara desert in Algeria in 1990. (A primitive meteorite is a rocky remnant of the solar nebula, or the gaseous cloud that some say condensed into the objects in the solar system, that has fallen to Earth). 

In the meteorite, the scientists found what seem to be ice fossils, and the discovery is helping to illuminate how asteroids formed in the early solar system and what the materials that eventually formed our neighboring planets may have looked like billions of years ago.

The researchers discovered what they think are the remnants of fluffy ice dust, or porous silicate, sulfide and organic material that make up “one of the building blocks of planets in the solar system formation model,” Meguma Matsumoto, lead author of the study, told Space.com in an email. These fluffy ice-dust remnants, also known as ultra-porous lithology, look like tiny “fluffy aggregates of silicate grains covered with an H2O icy mantle,” Matsumoto said.

An artistic visualization of fluffy aggregated material in a disk around a star. This material condense with pressure and surrounding gases to form small rocky space objects and eventually protoplanets in an early solar system.
An artistic visualization of fluffy aggregated material in a disk around a star. This material condense with pressure and surrounding gases to form small rocky space objects and eventually protoplanets in an early solar system.  (Image credit: SOKENDAI/NAOJ)

The pores in this material were likely created when ice that previously filled the space disappeared, the team found. So, by finding the pores, they discovered evidence of this ancient ice. 

In the early solar system, swirling dust, gas and sometimes ice compacted and formed objects like rocky asteroids or even larger protoplanets (astronomical objects about the same size of the moon that are formed when planetesimals, or small solid astronomical objects, combine). And some of these small, newly formed protoplanets contained ice. As they grew, they heated up, and that early-solar-system material they started with started to melt and recrystallize, the study authors explained. 

These findings allow researchers to look back in time at the material that eventually formed objects like asteroids and the planets in our solar system, and the study vastly improves scientists’ understanding of how those materials came to form those objects. 

Researchers have previously identified interactions between water and rocks that happened when ice melted in the larger objects that broke off into objects like Acfer 094. However, until now, it has remained a mystery how this ice got there, Matsumoto said.

The discovery of the asteroid ice fossils reveals  how primordial ice was “brought into and distributed to the meteorite parent body,” Matsumoto said.

Using a model that simulated how Acfer 094 grew and how the planets in the solar system formed, the researchers determined that fluffy ice and dust particles came together in bigger bodies beyond the snow line — the distance from the sun where it’s cold enough for solid ice grains to form — and then migrated toward the sun, Epifanio Vaccaro, curator of petrology at the Natural History Museum in London and co-author of the study, said in a statement. As these bodies moved inward, toward the sun, this ice started to melt, leaving the ice fossils in its place, he said.

The study was published yesterday (Nov. 20) in the journal Science Advances.  

Sierra Nevada Unveils ‘Shooting Star’ Cargo Module for Dream Chaser Space Plane

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A shooting star has landed here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). 

Ahead of the first planned launch of its Dream Chaser spacecraft (scheduled for sometime in fall 2021) Sierra Nevada Corp. — the company behind the small, space shuttle-like vessel — recently delivered a test article of its cargo module, dubbed Shooting Star, to KSC.

The Shooting Star is a 15-foot (4.6 meters) module that will attach to the aft (or back) portion of the Dream Chaser and provide room for an additional 10,000 lbs. (4,500 kilograms) of cargo — both pressurized and unpressurized. 

On Tuesday (Nov. 19) Steven Lindsey, a former astronaut and vice president of space exploration systems for Sierra Nevada, was here at Kennedy Space Center to unveil the new cargo module. 

“The cargo module is really interesting because it’s sort of the unsung hero of the whole Dream Chaser cargo system design,” Lindsey said. 

He noted that the module has a unique shape. “It angles in as it goes up,” he said. 

This is because the vehicle has to fit inside the launch vehicle’s payload fairing and carry unpressurized cargo, Lindsey said. He pointed to a series of gray boxes that were attached to the test article’s exterior. According to Lindsey, the boxes represented external payloads, or payloads that can travel to the International Space Station (ISS) while attached to the module’s exterior. 

Steve Lindsey, a former astronaut and vice president of space exploration systems for Sierra Nevada, speaks at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 19, 2019, at the unveiling of the Dream Chaser space plane's new cargo module.
Steve Lindsey speaks in front of the Shooting Star module. (Image credit: Amy Thompson/Space.com)

Each Shooting Star cargo module can support three payloads weighing up to 1,100 lbs. (500 kg) each or one payload weighing as much as 3,300 lbs. (1,500 kg). Once the module is at the station, the Canadarm2 robotic arm would unload the payload and install it on the station’s exterior. 

Each of those ports has power and data connections to support a variety of payloads, including small satellites that deploy in orbit. “You name it, we can carry it,” Lindsey said.

During the event, Lindsey also announced that NASA has officially approved the first cargo mission to the ISS, which is scheduled for 2021. Lindsey said ground operations crews will use the Shooting Star test article to test loading and unloading procedures, ensuring that the design meets NASA requirements. 

A peek inside the top of the Shooting Star cargo module at KSC.
A peek inside the top of the Shooting Star cargo module at KSC. (Image credit: Amy Thompson/Space.com)

He reiterated what NASA recently announced: that the spacecraft will also be used to reach and resupply the Lunar Gateway, a moon-orbiting space station that NASA plans to use as a staging point for its lunar surface missions. 

Sierra Nevada was named as one of the newly approved vendors that can bid on NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contracts. For that to happen, the Dream Chaser will have to have its satellite bus attached, which means Dream Chaser will be able to participate in NASA’s Artemis program.

The versatile vehicle can also serve as both a free-flying space station (with an inflatable module attached) and a means of servicing satellites in orbit. During the event, Lindsey revealed that Dream Chaser has the potential to boost satellites to a higher orbit, pull them out of orbit and potentially make repairs (with the addition of robotic arms). 

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“This vehicle is perfectly suited for a variety of missions,” Lindsey told Space.com. “Dream Chaser can dock, or it can berth; it’s NASA’s choice. So that means it has applications in both cislunar space as well as low Earth orbit, and even higher orbits.” 

Dream Chaser is set to become the next addition to NASA’s fleet of cargo vehicles that launch supplies to the ISS. (The agency currently ships cargo to space using a combination of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft and SpaceX’s Dragon, along with Russia’s Progress spacecraft and Japan’s HTV cargo ships.)

Although the spacecraft was originally designed to carry humans, its first delivery will be a cargo resupply mission to the space station. Sierra Nevada lost out to SpaceX and Boeing when the company tried to bid on a contract from NASA to launch astronauts in 2014. However, in 2016, NASA selected Dream Chaser for its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, awarding Sierra Nevada a launch contract for six cargo missions to the space station by 2024. 

The vehicle will launch and land from KSC, taking off on a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket. Company representatives said that if the still-in-development Vulcan wasn’t quite ready to fly when Dream Chaser is, Sierra Nevada can send its space plane to the ISS atop an Atlas V rocket. 

Dream Chaser will land at the shuttle landing facility here at KSC — the same runway where its predecessor, the space shuttle, touched down. However, the plane can land on any runway in the world that can support a Boeing 737 airplane. 

Because of its unique capabilities, the space plane will be a huge boost to scientific research, as experiments conducted on the orbiting outpost will return to the hands of ground-based researchers much sooner than is currently possible. 

When experiments are carried to the ISS — which operates in low Earth orbit, a region from 99 to 1,200 miles (160 to 2,000 kilometers) above the planet’s surface — they must remain there until the next cargo ship arrives, which could be several months later. According to Lindsey, Dream Chaser can shorten that time frame significantly.Advertisement

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An artist's rendering of Dream Chaser in orbit.
An artist’s rendering of Dream Chaser in orbit. (Image credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.)

Sierra Nevada spokesperson Kimberly Schwandt said that once Dream Chaser has left the space station, any delicate experiments on board could be back on Earth in under 2 hours. 

“As we like to say, wings are back,” Schwandt said during Tuesday’s event. 

The Dream Chaser spacecraft is currently under construction and is scheduled to launch its first mission on behalf of NASA.

The Most Powerful Explosions in the Universe Emit Way More Energy Than Anyone Thought

An image of the gamma-ray burst GRB 190114C based on data gathered by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on Feb. 11 and March 12, 2019.

An image of the gamma-ray burst GRB 190114C based on data gathered by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope on Feb. 11 and March 12, 2019.(Image: © NASA, ESA, and V. Acciari et al. 2019)

Gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful kinds of explosions known in the universe, can generate even more energetic light beams than astronomers previously realized, according to a set of new studies.

The new research suggests that scientists may have been missing about half of the energy that gamma-ray bursts produce, and offers one possible explanation for how that light reaches such high energy levels. These findings shed light on how these extraordinary explosions happen, and how they can reshape the universe, researchers said.

A gamma-ray burst gives off as much energy in milliseconds to minutes as the sun is expected to emit during its entire 10-billion-year lifetime. Previous research suggested that the deaths of giant stars or the merging of neutron stars or black holes trigger these explosions.

Such a spectacle starts with a bright flash of gamma-rays, the highest-energy form of light. Next comes an afterglow of all different types of light that can last for months or even years.

Previous research suggested that gamma-ray bursts might generate extraordinarily strong gamma-rays. But scientists have not been able to spot such energetic light — photons with energies higher than 100 billion electron volts.

For comparison, that is about “100 billion times more energetic than the optical light our eyes are sensitive to, or around 100 million times more energetic than X-ray photons, those used when we get an X-ray of our bones,” Edna Ruiz Velasco, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, told Space.com. She is a co-author of one of three studies on gamma-ray bursts in the Nov. 21 issue of the journal Nature.

Now, for the first time, researchers have detected such ultra-high-energy light from gamma-ray bursts. The scientists analyzed two gamma-ray bursts detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and NASA’s Swift Observatory. One burst, known as GRB 180720B, was seen in July 2018 about 7 billion light-years from Earth; the other, GRB 190114C, was spotted in January 2019 about 4.5 billion light-years away.

In the aftermath of each detection, other instruments turned to observe the bursts, and in both cases, they saw incredibly energetic gamma-rays. After GRB 180720B, the High Energy Stereoscopic System array of telescopes in Namibia detected gamma-rays with energies between 100 billion and 440 billion electron volts. After GRB 190114C, two telescopes in La Palma, Spain, run by the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) collaboration, detected gamma-rays with energies ranging from 200 billion to 1 trillion electron volts. 

An artist’s interpretation of the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) observatory measuring the energy of light emitted by a gamma-ray burst on Jan. 14, 2019.
 An artist’s interpretation of the Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) observatory measuring the energy of light emitted by a gamma-ray burst on Jan. 14, 2019.  (Image credit: NASA/Fermi and Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University)

After realizing how energetic that 2019 burst was, the researchers recruited more than two dozen observatories on the ground and in space to join MAGIC is observing the event. The scientists used that data to analyze the energies and wavelengths of the radiation in detail to learn more about its origins.

The researchers who made these detections believe that the observations suggest that until now, scientists may have failed to see a whopping half of the energy that gamma-ray bursts can emit. “Our measurements show that the energy released in very-high-energy gamma-rays is comparable to the amount radiated at all lower energies taken together,” study co-author Konstancja Satalecka, an astrophysicist at the German Electron Synchrotron in Hamburg, said in a statement from that facility. “That is remarkable!”

Prior work has suggested that most gamma-rays in these bursts are emitted by electrons spiraling through powerful magnetic fields at nearly the speed of light. But the authors of the new research believe a different mechanism is powering the ultra-high-energy gamma-rays produced in the two recent events. 

Based on their analysis of this light, the scientists suggested that the most energetic light from gamma-ray bursts likely results from photons crashing into the highest-energy electrons from the outbursts. In essence, the photons and electrons “shake hands and exchange their energies — the photons get the very high energy, and the electrons lose the energy,” Razmik Mirzoyan, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, co-author of two of the new papers and a spokesperson for MAGIC, told Space.com.

The scientists expect that future research will continue to detect ultra-high-energy gamma-rays from gamma-ray bursts, now that astronomers know what to look for. Such data will help the scientists better understand the “physics of gamma-ray bursts and their interactions with their surroundings,” Mirzoyan said.

We May Finally Understand the Moments Before the Big Bang

an artist's illustration of the big bang

An artist’s interpretation of the Big Bang.(Image: © NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

There’s a hole in the story of how our universe came to be. First, the universe inflated rapidly, like a balloon. Then, everything went boom.

But how those two periods are connected has eluded physicists. Now, a new study suggests a way to link the two epochs.

In the first period,  the universe grew from an almost infinitely small point to nearly an octillion (that’s a 1 followed by 27 zeros) times that in size in less than a trillionth of a second. This inflation period was followed by a more gradual, but violent, period of expansion we know as the Big Bang. During the Big Bang, an incredibly hot fireball of fundamental particles — such as protons, neutrons and electrons — expanded and cooled to form the atoms, stars and galaxies we see today.

The Big Bang theory, which describes cosmic inflation, remains the most widely supported explanation of how our universe began, yet scientists are still perplexed by how these wholly different periods of expansion are connected. To solve this cosmic conundrum, a team of researchers at Kenyon College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Netherlands’ Leiden University simulated the critical transition between cosmic inflation and the Big Bang — a period they call “reheating.”

“The post-inflation reheating period sets up the conditions for the Big Bang and, in some sense, puts the ‘bang’ in the Big Bang,” David Kaiser, a professor of physics at MIT, said in a statement. “It’s this bridge period where all hell breaks loose and matter behaves in anything but a simple way.”

When the universe expanded in a flash of a second during cosmic inflation, all the existing matter was spread out, leaving the universe a cold and empty place, devoid of the hot soup of particles needed to ignite the Big Bang. During the reheating period, the energy propelling inflation is believed to decay into particles, said Rachel Nguyen, a doctoral student in physics at the University of Illinois and lead author of the study.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

“Once those particles are produced, they bounce around and knock into each other, transferring momentum and energy,” Nguyen told Live Science. “And that’s what thermalizes and reheats the universe to set the initial conditions for the Big Bang.”

In their model, Nguyen and her colleagues simulated the behavior of exotic forms of matter called inflatons. Scientists think these hypothetical particles, similar in nature to the Higgs boson, created the energy field that drove cosmic inflation. Their model showed that, under the right conditions, the energy of the inflatons could be redistributed efficiently to create the diversity of particles needed to reheat the universe. They published their results Oct. 24 in the journal Physical Review Letters.

A crucible for high-energy physics

“When we’re studying the early universe, what we’re really doing is a particle experiment at very, very high temperatures,” said Tom Giblin, an associate professor of physics at Kenyon College in Ohio and co-author of the study. “The transition from the cold inflationary period to the hot period is one that should hold some key evidence as to what particles really exist at these extremely high energies.”

One fundamental question that plagues physicists is how gravity behaves at the extreme energies present during inflation. In Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, all matter is believed to be affected by gravity in the same way, where the strength of gravity is constant regardless of a particle’s energy. However, because of the strange world of quantum mechanics, scientists think that, at very high energies, matter responds to gravity differently.

The team incorporated this assumption in their model by tweaking how strongly the particles interacted with gravity. They discovered that the more they increased the strength of gravity, the more efficiently the inflatons transferred energy to produce  the zoo of hot matter particles found during the Big Bang.

Now, they need to find evidence to buttress their model somewhere in the universe.

“The universe holds so many secrets encoded in very complicated ways,” Giblin told Live Science. “It’s our job to learn about the nature of reality by coming up with a decoding device — a way to extract information from the universe. We use simulations to make predictions about what the universe should look like so that we can actually start decoding it. This reheating period should leave an imprint somewhere in the universe. We just need to find it.”

But finding that imprint could be tricky. Our earliest glimpse of the universe is a bubble of radiation left over from a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Yet the CMB only hints at the state of the universe during those first critical seconds of birth. Physicists like Giblin hope future observations of gravitational waves will provide the final clues. 

The Weird Plumes of Jupiter’s Moon Europa Are Spewing Water Vapor

An artist's illustration of a plume of water vapor emanating from Jupiter's moon Europa.

An artist’s illustration of a plume of water vapor emanating from Jupiter’s moon Europa.(Image: © NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI)

The Jupiter moon Europa’s elusive and enigmatic water-vapor plumes do indeed seem to be real.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has spotted indirect evidence of such plumes emanating from Europa, which is thought to harbor a huge, salty ocean beneath its ice shell. And researchers have now detected one such plume’s water vapor directly for the first time, a new study reports.

“Essential chemical elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur) and sources of energy, two of three requirements for life, are found all over the solar system. But the third — liquid water — is somewhat hard to find beyond Earth,” study lead author Lucas Paganini, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and American University in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

“While scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapor form,” Paganini added.

Paganini and his colleagues used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to study the 1,900-mile-wide (3,100 kilometers) Europa, which astrobiologists regard as one of the solar system’s best bets to host alien life

The researchers observed Europa for 17 nights, from February 2016 through May 2017. On one of those nights — April 26, 2016 — they got a strong signal of water vapor, in the form of a characteristic wavelength of emitted infrared light. 

And there was quite a bit of the stuff — about 2,300 tons (2,095 metric tons), according to the researchers’ calculations. That’s almost enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool (which contains about 2,750 tons, or 2,500 metric tons, of water).

The researchers think the source of this water is a plume, which could be coming from the buried ocean or from a reservoir of melted ice within Europa’s shell. For starters, the observed volume is much higher than what is predicted to result from “exogenic” processes, such as the stripping of water molecules from Europa’s surface by Jupiter’s powerful radiation belts. And such stripping would likely occur fairly regularly, or at least often enough to be noted more than one night out of 17, Paganini and his team wrote in the new paper, which was published online today (Nov. 18) in the journal Nature Astronomy.Click here for more Space.com videos…Jupiter’s Moon Europa Has Table Salt on SurfaceVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

Multiple lines of evidence now point to the existence of plumes on Europa. For example, in addition to the new results and Hubble’s detection of atomic hydrogen and oxygen (which presumably came from water molecules split apart by radiation), NASA’s Galileo Jupiter probe measured a big increase in the density of plasma, or ionized gas, during a Europa flyby in 1997.

And it’s becoming increasingly clear that Europa’s plumes are sporadic. In that regard, they’re very different from the constant plume wafting from the south pole of Saturn’s icy, ocean-harboring moon Enceladus, which is generated by more than 100 powerful geysers that are always on.

“For me, the interesting thing about this work is not only the first direct detection of water above Europa, but also the lack thereof within the limits of our detection method,” Paganini said.

Plumes like those emanating from Enceladus and Europa are very exciting to astrobiologists, because they’re sending “free samples” from potentially habitable environments out into space for potential snagging by robotic probes. And there’s a possibility that a NASA spacecraft could soon do just that, if everything works out just right.

NASA is developing a mission called Europa Clipper, which is scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s. Clipper will orbit Jupiter but study Europa up close on dozens of flybys, characterizing the moon and its ocean and hunting for spots where a potential life-hunting lander could touch down in the future. Clipper could end up zooming through the plume on one or more of those flybys, if mission team members learn enough about the feature in the coming years —  or if they just get really lucky. 

Meteor that lit up St. Louis sky was 220-pound fireball that broke off asteroid belt: NASA

Meteor flashes across the sky over St. Louis

Raw video: EarthCam.com live stream captures a bright meteor streak across the St. Louis skyline.

A bright blue flash that streaked through the sky over St. Louis Monday evening was an approximately 220-pound chunk of rock that broke off an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter before it entered Earth’s atmosphere, Bill Cooke, of the NASA Meteoroid Environments Office in Alabama, said Tuesday, according to a report.

The fireball was traveling at about 33,500 mph and caused a sonic boom, NASA scientists said, according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

METEOR LIGHTS UP THE SKY OVER THE GATEWAY ARCH IN ST. LOUIS

Some of the videos we received about the #fireball spotted over #Missouri last night – more info here: https://www.amsmeteors.org/2019/11/fireball-spotted-over-missouri-on-nov-11th-2019/ …703:40 AM – Nov 12, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy49 people are talking about this

The meteor appeared at about 59 miles over Cedar Hill, Mo., and traveled for 70 miles until it broke up into 12 pieces.

The American Meteor Society said that it received 175 reports of a fireball across a number of Midwestern states on Monday, including Missouri and Illinois.

A runaway star ejected from the galactic heart of darkness

Astronomers have spotted an ultrafast star, traveling at a blistering 6 million km/h, that was ejected by the supermassive black hole at the heart at the Milky Way five million years ago. The discovery of the star, known as S5-HVS1, was made as part of the Southern Stellar Stream Spectroscopic Survey (S5). Located in the constellation of Grus – the Crane – S5-HVS1 was found to be moving ten times faster than most stars in the Milky Way.


Astronomers have spotted an ultrafast star, traveling at a blistering 6 million km/h, that was ejected by the supermassive black hole at the heart at the Milky Way five million years ago.

The discovery of the star, known as S5-HVS1, was made by Carnegie Mellon University Assistant Professor of Physics Sergey Koposov as part of the Southern Stellar Stream Spectroscopic Survey (S5). Located in the constellation of Grus — the Crane — S5-HVS1 was found to be moving ten times faster than most stars in the Milky Way.

“The velocity of the discovered star is so high that it will inevitably leave the galaxy and never return,” said Douglas Boubert from the University of Oxford, a co-author on the study.

Astronomers have wondered about high velocity stars since their discovery only two decades ago. S5-HVS1 is unprecedented due to its high speed and close passage to the Earth, “only” 29 thousand light years away. With this information, astronomers could track its journey back into the center of the Milky Way, where a four million solar mass black hole, known as Sagittarius A*, lurks.

“This is super exciting, as we have long suspected that black holes can eject stars with very high velocities. However, we never had an unambiguous association of such a fast star with the galactic center,” said Koposov, the lead author of this work and member of Carnegie Mellon’s McWilliams Center for Cosmology. “We think the black hole ejected the star with a speed of thousands of kilometers per second about five million years ago. This ejection happened at the time when humanity’s ancestors were just learning to walk on two feet.”

Superfast stars can be ejected by black holes via the Hills Mechanism, proposed by astronomer Jack Hills thirty years ago. Originally, S5-HSV1 lived with a companion in a binary system, but they strayed too close to Sagittarius A*. In the gravitational tussle, the companion star was captured by the black hole, while S5-HVS1 was thrown out at extremely high speed.

“This is the first clear demonstration of the Hills Mechanism in action,” said Ting Li from Carnegie Observatories and Princeton University, and leader of the S5 Collaboration. “Seeing this star is really amazing as we know it must have formed in the galactic center, a place very different to our local environment. It is a visitor from a strange land.”

The discovery of S5-HVS1 was made with the 3.9-meter Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia, coupled with superb observations from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite, that allowed the astronomers to reveal the full speed of the star and its journey from the center of the Milky Way.

“The observations would not be possible without the unique capabilities of the 2dF instrument on the AAT,” said Daniel Zucker, an astronomer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and a member of the S5 executive committee. “It’s been conducting cutting-edge research for over two decades and still is the best facility in the world for our project.”

These results were published on November 4 online in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the S5 collaboration unites astronomers from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Chile.

“I am so excited this fast-moving star was discovered by S5,” says Kyler Kuehn, at Lowell Observatory and a member of the S5 executive committee. “While the main science goal of S5 is to probe the stellar streams — disrupting dwarf galaxies and globular clusters — we dedicated spare resources of the instrument to searching for interesting targets in the Milky Way, and voila, we found something amazing for ‘free.’ With our future observations, hopefully we will find even more!”

Navy UFO mystery deepens amid disclosure that ‘unknown individuals’ told officers to erase evidence

Three videos, originally released by former Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge and published by the New York Times, depict pilot encounters with UFOs on Nov. 14, 2004, and Jan. 21, 2015.

The U.S. Navy’s acknowledgment that the 2004 videos of an encounter with a UFO were real has caused much consternation. Now, a new report says two “unknown individuals” told several Naval officers who witnessed the event, known as the USS Nimitz UFO incident, to delete evidence.

The report, published in Popular Mechanics, cites interviews with five Navy veterans who discussed what they experienced at the time while they were sailing on the USS Princeton on Nov. 14, 2004, off the coast of southern California.

One of the men, Gary Voorhis, said he was chatting with some of the radar techs on the USS Princeton when he heard them talking about “ghost tracks” and “clutter” on the radar system, a state-of-the-art Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) and AEGIS Combat System.

The air control systems were taken down, recalibrated to clear out the supposed false alarms when the tracks got clearer, he said.Video

“Once we finished all the recalibration and brought it back up, the tracks were actually sharper and clearer,” Voorhis told the news outlet. “Sometimes they’d be at an altitude of 80,000 or 60,000 feet. Other times they’d be around 30,000 feet, going like 100 knots. Their radar cross sections didn’t match any known aircraft; they were 100 percent red. No squawk, no IFF (Identification Friend or Foe).”

Operations Specialist Senior Chief Kevin Day said in the documentary film, The Nimitz Encounters, that his job was to “man the radars and ID everything that flew in the skies.”

On or around Nov. 10, approximately 100 miles off the San Diego coast, Day noticed the stranger tracks on the radar.

“The reason why I say they’re weird [is] because they were appearing in groups of five to 10 at a time and they were pretty closely spaced to each other. And there were 28,000 feet going a hundred knots tracking south,” Day said in the documentary.

The Navy eventually sent out fighter jets to get a look at the object, with one succeeding in getting it on video–the now-famous black-and-white tape that was released publicly in 2017. Along with that tape, there were two other video recordings from years later that were released publicly by the New York Times, Fox News has previously reported.

The videos in question, known as “FLIR1,” “Gimbal” and “GoFast,” were originally released to the New York Times and to The Stars Academy of Arts & Science, co-founded by former Blink 182 rocker Tom DeLonge.

The first video of the unidentified object was taken on Nov. 14, 2004, and shot by the F-18’s gun camera. The second video was taken on Jan. 21, 2015, and shows another aerial vehicle with pilots commenting on how strange it is. The third video was also taken on Jan. 21, 2015, but it is unclear whether the third video was of the same object or a different one.

After the incident with the “Tic Tac”-shaped object that Voorhis said gave off  “a kind of a phosphorus glow” at night while darting around, two “unknown individuals” took all of the data recordings.

“They were not on the ship earlier, and I didn’t see them come on. I’m not sure how they got there,” said P.J. Hughes, who was miles away from the Princeton, and was unaware of the unidentified objects, in the interview.

Hughes added that he was told by his commanding officer to turn over the recently secured hard drives of the airborne early-warning aircraft, the E-2 Hawkeye.

“We put them in the bags, he took them, then he and the two anonymous officers left,” Hughes said.

On the Princeton, Voorhis described a similar situation.

“These two guys show up on a helicopter, which wasn’t uncommon, but shortly after they arrived, maybe 20 minutes, I was told by my chain of command to turn over all the data recordings for the AEGIS system,” Voorhis added in the interview with Popular Mechanics.

It may be convenient to blame “unknown individuals” for the disappearance of the tapes, but Cmdr. David Fravor, one of the pilots who was able to get a close view of the object, said people accidentally erased and recorded over them.

“You know how it is when you go to and from cruise,” Fravor said in a January interview on The Fighter Pilot Podcast. “Someone goes, ‘What are these? Hey, they look like blank 8mm tapes. We’ll just use them.”

Earlier this year, the Navy issued new classified guidelines on how to report such instances “in response to unknown, advanced aircraft flying into or near Navy strike groups or other sensitive military facilities and formations.”

The Defense Department also briefed Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., in June, along with two other senators, as part of what appeared to be heightened efforts to inform politicians about naval encounters with unidentified aircraft.

Warner’s spokesperson indicated that the senator sought to probe safety concerns surrounding “unexplained interference” naval pilots faced, according to Politico. The outlet reported more briefings were being requested as news surfaced that the Navy revised its procedures for personnel reporting on unusual aircraft sightings.

President Trump said he has been briefed on Navy pilots’ reported sightings of unidentified flying objects, but remained skeptical of the existence of UFOs.

“I want them to think whatever they think,” Trump told ABC News’ George Stephanopolous earlier this year, referring to the Navy pilots. “I did have one very brief meeting on it. But people are saying they’re seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particularly.”

In December 2017, Fox News reported that the Pentagon had secretly set up a program to investigate UFOs at the request of former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who expressed his desire earlier this year for lawmakers to hold public hearings into what the military knows.

NASA’s Life-Hunting Mars 2020 Rover Will Search for Alien Microfossils

If life once existed in Jezero Crater, signs of it may well persist there to this day.

Lighter colors represent higher elevation in this image of Jezero Crater on Mars, the landing site for NASA's Mars 2020 mission. The oval indicates the landing ellipse, where the rover will be touching down on Mars.

Lighter colors represent higher elevation in this image of Jezero Crater on Mars, the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. The oval indicates the landing ellipse, where the rover will be touching down on Mars.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APL/ESA)

The life-hunting grounds could be pretty rich for NASA’s next Mars rover.

Jezero Crater, the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) hole in the ground that the Mars 2020 rover will begin exploring in February 2021, has ample deposits of minerals that are good at preserving microfossils here on Earth, two new studies have found.

One of those minerals is hydrated silica. After poring over data gathered by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a team of researchers identified two Jezero outcrops that are rich in the stuff, Jesse Tarnas and colleagues reported this month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“We know from Earth that this mineral phase is exceptional at preserving microfossils and other biosignatures, so that makes these outcrops exciting targets for the rover to explore,” Tarnas, a Ph.D. student in planetary science at Brown University, said in a statement.

Just like the 96-mile-wide (154 km) Gale Crater, which NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has been exploring since August 2012, Jezero apparently hosted a lake in the ancient past. Orbital imagery has also revealed the remnants of a large delta in Jezero, which marks where a river drained into the lake. 

Deltas are good areas to search for signs of life, because these regions concentrate deposits from all over a river system. Indeed, the presence of a delta is one of the reasons NASA chose Jezero as the Mars 2020 landing site.

One of the newfound hydrated silica outcrops lies at the edge of the Jezero delta at low elevation, Tarnas and his team found. If the minerals formed where they now lie — which is no guarantee, since the material could have been washed in from afar — they may represent the delta’s lowest layer.

“The material that forms the bottom layer of a delta is sometimes the most productive in terms of preserving biosignatures,” co-author Jack Mustard, a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown (and a professor of environmental studies there as well), said in the same statement. “So, if you can find that bottomset layer, and that layer has a lot of silica in it, that’s a double bonus.”

In the other new study, which was published online Monday (Nov. 11) in the journal Icarus, a different team of researchers used CRISM data to identify a “bathtub ring” of carbonate minerals in Jezero. Here on Earth, organisms use carbonates — minerals that contain the carbonate ion, CO3 — to build sturdy structures that can survive for billions of years in fossil form. Seashells, for example, are made of calcium carbonate. 

“CRISM spotted carbonates here years ago, but we only recently noticed how concentrated they are right where a lakeshore would be,” study lead author Briony Horgan, an assistant professor of planetary science at Purdue University in Indiana, said in a different statement

“We’re going to encounter carbonate deposits in many locations throughout the mission, but the bathtub ring will be one of the most exciting places to visit,” Horgan added.

Again, the carbonates’ history is unclear; it’s unknown when they formed. But the Mars 2020 team is excited by the prospect that the carbonates were deposited when water sloshed in Jezero Crater.

“Carbonate chemistry on an ancient lakeshore is a fantastic recipe for preserving records of ancient life and climate,” Mars 2020 deputy project scientist Ken Williford, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in the statement. (JPL leads the Mars 2020 mission.) “We’re eager to get to the surface and discover how these carbonates formed.”

Carbonates themselves aren’t biosignatures; there are many different types, and most of them have nothing to do with life. But carbonate minerals form via the interaction of carbon dioxide and liquid water, so studying their presence and abundance could help reveal insights about Mars’ long-ago transition from a relatively warm and wet world to the cold desert planet that it is today, researchers said.

Mars 2020, which will soon get a new moniker via a student naming competition, is scheduled to launch in July 2020 and arrive on Jezero’s floor on Feb. 18, 2021. Another life-hunting Mars rover, the European-Russian robot Rosalind Franklin, will hit the red dirt in another, yet-to-be-announced location at around the same time.

With Mars methane mystery unsolved, Curiosity serves scientists a new one: Oxygen

For the first time in the history of space exploration, scientists have measured the seasonal changes in the gases that fill the air directly above the surface of Gale Crater on Mars. As a result, they noticed something baffling: oxygen, the gas many Earth creatures use to breathe, behaves in a way that so far scientists cannot explain through any known chemical processes.

Over the course of three Mars years (or nearly six Earth years) an instrument in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) portable chemistry lab inside the belly of NASA’s Curiosity rover inhaled the air of Gale Crater and analyzed its composition. The results SAM spit out confirmed the makeup of the Martian atmosphere at the surface: 95% by volume of carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2), and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). They also revealed how the molecules in the Martian air mix and circulate with the changes in air pressure throughout the year. These changes are caused when CO2 gas freezes over the poles in the winter, thereby lowering the air pressure across the planet following redistribution of air to maintain pressure equilibrium. When CO2 evaporates in the spring and summer and mixes across Mars, it raises the air pressure.

Within this environment, scientists found that nitrogen and argon follow a predictable seasonal pattern, waxing and waning in concentration in Gale Crater throughout the year relative to how much CO2 is in the air. They expected oxygen to do the same. But it didn’t. Instead, the amount of the gas in the air rose throughout spring and summer by as much as 30%, and then dropped back to levels predicted by known chemistry in fall. This pattern repeated each spring, though the amount of oxygen added to the atmosphere varied, implying that something was producing it and then taking it away.

“The first time we saw that, it was just mind boggling,” said Sushil Atreya, professor of climate and space sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Atreya is a co-author of a paper on this topic published on November 12 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

As soon as scientists discovered the oxygen enigma, Mars experts set to work trying to explain it. They first double- and triple-checked the accuracy of the SAM instrument they used to measure the gases: the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer. The instrument was fine. They considered the possibility that CO2 or water (H2O) molecules could have released oxygen when they broke apart in the atmosphere, leading to the short-lived rise. But it would take five times more water above Mars to produce the extra oxygen, and CO2 breaks up too slowly to generate it over such a short time. What about the oxygen decrease? Could solar radiation have broken up oxygen molecules into two atoms that blew away into space? No, scientists concluded, since it would take at least 10 years for the oxygen to disappear through this process.

“We’re struggling to explain this,” said Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who led this research. “The fact that the oxygen behavior isn’t perfectly repeatable every season makes us think that it’s not an issue that has to do with atmospheric dynamics. It has to be some chemical source and sink that we can’t yet account for.”

To scientists who study Mars, the oxygen story is curiously similar to that of methane. Methane is constantly in the air inside Gale Crater in such small quantities (0.00000004% on average) that it’s barely discernable even by the most sensitive instruments on Mars. Still, it’s been measured by SAM’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer. The instrument revealed that while methane rises and falls seasonally, it increases in abundance by about 60% in summer months for inexplicable reasons. (In fact, methane also spikes randomly and dramatically. Scientists are trying to figure out why.)

With the new oxygen findings in hand, Trainer’s team is wondering if chemistry similar to what’s driving methane’s natural seasonal variations may also drive oxygen’s. At least occasionally, the two gases appear to fluctuate in tandem.

“We’re beginning to see this tantalizing correlation between methane and oxygen for a good part of the Mars year,” Atreya said. “I think there’s something to it. I just don’t have the answers yet. Nobody does.”

Oxygen and methane can be produced both biologically (from microbes, for instance) and abiotically (from chemistry related to water and rocks). Scientists are considering all options, although they don’t have any convincing evidence of biological activity on Mars. Curiosity doesn’t have instruments that can definitively say whether the source of the methane or oxygen on Mars is biological or geological. Scientists expect that non-biological explanations are more likely and are working diligently to fully understand them.

Trainer’s team considered Martian soil as a source of the extra springtime oxygen. After all, it’s known to be rich in the element, in the form of compounds such as hydrogen peroxide and perchlorates. One experiment on the Viking landers showed decades ago that heat and humidity could release oxygen from Martian soil. But that experiment took place in conditions quite different from the Martian spring environment, and it doesn’t explain the oxygen drop, among other problems. Other possible explanations also don’t quite add up for now. For example, high-energy radiation of the soil could produce extra O2 in the air, but it would take a million years to accumulate enough oxygen in the soil to account for the boost measured in only one spring, the researchers report in their paper.

“We have not been able to come up with one process yet that produces the amount of oxygen we need, but we think it has to be something in the surface soil that changes seasonally because there aren’t enough available oxygen atoms in the atmosphere to create the behavior we see,” said Timothy McConnochie, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and another co-author of the paper.

The only previous spacecraft with instruments capable of measuring the composition of the Martian air near the ground were NASA’s twin Viking landers, which arrived on the planet in 1976. The Viking experiments covered only a few Martian days, though, so they couldn’t reveal seasonal patterns of the different gases. The new SAM measurements are the first to do so. The SAM team will continue to measure atmospheric gases so scientists can gather more detailed data throughout each season. In the meantime, Trainer and her team hope that other Mars experts will work to solve the oxygen mystery.

“This is the first time where we’re seeing this interesting behavior over multiple years. We don’t totally understand it,” Trainer said. “For me, this is an open call to all the smart people out there who are interested in this: See what you can come up with.”

We may finally understand the moments before the Big Bang

An artist's interpretation of the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

An artist’s interpretation of the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

There’s a hole in the story of how our universe came to be. First, the universe inflated rapidly, like a balloon. Then, everything went boom.

But how those two periods are connected has eluded physicists. Now, a new study suggests a way to link the two epochs.

In the first period,  the universe grew from an almost infinitely small point to nearly an octillion (that’s a 1 followed by 27 zeros) times that in size in less than a trillionth of a second. This inflation period was followed by a more gradual, but violent, period of expansion we know as the Big Bang. During the Big Bang, an incredibly hot fireball of fundamental particles — such as protons, neutrons and electrons — expanded and cooled to form the atoms, stars and galaxies we see today.

The Big Bang theory, which describes cosmic inflation, remains the most widely supported explanation of how our universe began, yet scientists are still perplexed by how these wholly different periods of expansion are connected. To solve this cosmic conundrum, a team of researchers at Kenyon College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Netherlands’ Leiden University simulated the critical transition between cosmic inflation and the Big Bang — a period they call “reheating.”

“The post-inflation reheating period sets up the conditions for the Big Bang and, in some sense, puts the ‘bang’ in the Big Bang,” David Kaiser, a professor of physics at MIT, said in a statement. “It’s this bridge period where all hell breaks loose and matter behaves in anything but a simple way.”

When the universe expanded in a flash of a second during cosmic inflation, all the existing matter was spread out, leaving the universe a cold and empty place, devoid of the hot soup of particles needed to ignite the Big Bang. During the reheating period, the energy propelling inflation is believed to decay into particles, said Rachel Nguyen, a doctoral student in physics at the University of Illinois and lead author of the study.

“Once those particles are produced, they bounce around and knock into each other, transferring momentum and energy,” Nguyen told Live Science. “And that’s what thermalizes and reheats the universe to set the initial conditions for the Big Bang.”

In their model, Nguyen and her colleagues simulated the behavior of exotic forms of matter called inflatons. Scientists think these hypothetical particles, similar in nature to the Higgs boson, created the energy field that drove cosmic inflation. Their model showed that, under the right conditions, the energy of the inflatons could be redistributed efficiently to create the diversity of particles needed to reheat the universe. They published their results Oct. 24 in the journal Physical Review Letters.

A crucible for high-energy physics

“When we’re studying the early universe, what we’re really doing is a particle experiment at very, very high temperatures,” said Tom Giblin, an associate professor of physics at Kenyon College in Ohio and co-author of the study. “The transition from the cold inflationary period to the hot period is one that should hold some key evidence as to what particles really exist at these extremely high energies.”

One fundamental question that plagues physicists is how gravity behaves at the extreme energies present during inflation. In Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, all matter is believed to be affected by gravity in the same way, where the strength of gravity is constant regardless of a particle’s energy. However, because of the strange world of quantum mechanics, scientists think that, at very high energies, matter responds to gravity differently.

The team incorporated this assumption in their model by tweaking how strongly the particles interacted with gravity. They discovered that the more they increased the strength of gravity, the more efficiently the inflatons transferred energy to produce the zoo of hot matter particles found during the Big Bang.

Now, they need to find evidence to buttress their model somewhere in the universe.

“The universe holds so many secrets encoded in very complicated ways,” Giblin told Live Science. “It’s our job to learn about the nature of reality by coming up with a decoding device — a way to extract information from the universe. We use simulations to make predictions about what the universe should look like so that we can actually start decoding it. This reheating period should leave an imprint somewhere in the universe. We just need to find it.”

But finding that imprint could be tricky. Our earliest glimpse of the universe is a bubble of radiation left over from a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Yet the CMB only hints at the state of the universe during those first critical seconds of birth. Physicists like Giblin hope future observations of gravitational waves will provide the final clues.

Planet 9 may have already been found, study suggests

Since its launch in April 2018, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found a number of exoplanets, including a so-called “missing link” and an exoplanet with three suns. But a new study suggests the $200 million satellite may have also discovered the mysterious Planet 9.

The research, published in Research Notes of the AAS, notes that TESS is able to take multiple images of the same spot in space, potentially locating trans-Neptunian objects, also known as TNOs.

Since TESS is able to detect objects at approximately 5 pixel displacement and Planet Nine “has an expected magnitude of 19 < V < 24,” the possibility is raised “that TESS could discover it!” the authors wrote in the study.

Artist's illustration of Planet Nine, a hypothetical world that some scientists think lurks undiscovered in the far outer solar system.

Artist’s illustration of Planet Nine, a hypothetical world that some scientists think lurks undiscovered in the far outer solar system. (R. Hurt (IPAC)/Caltech)

“What TESS is doing is staring at regions in the sky for months for at a time,” the study’s lead author, Harvard University astrophysicist Matt Holman, said in an interview with Fox News. “It’s looking for exoplanets and you can find those by looking at the paths of the host stars.”

“While it’s doing that, it’s collecting images one at a time and it can look for objects in our solar system,” Holman added. “The main thing I don’t think people realized before is if you have a small telescope like TESS, you can combine images and find faint objects.”

TESS is in space so it does not have to deal with the Earth’s atmosphere getting in the way of its four cameras, Holman pointed out. “It’s a stable platform.”

The researchers tested the idea that TNOs can be found using predicted motion, adding in expected values of distance and orbit motion. They used software with three known TNOs, Sedna, 2015 BP519 and 2015 BM518, and found that it should work on any object with a near-infrared magnitude of approximately 21.

According to SyFy Wire, Planet 9 could have a near-infrared magnitude between 19 and 24, making it possible that TESS may have already observed it.

Holman noted that TESS has already looked at the entire southern hemisphere, making the chances “nearly 100 percent” that Planet 9 has already been observed if it’s in that part of the sky. “If it’s in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re not there just yet,” he added.

TESS, which launched in April 2018, replaced the Kepler telescope, which started to malfunction toward the latter part of last year and was eventually retired in October 2018 after discovering more than 2,600 exoplanets, including 18 Earth-sized exoplanets.

In September 2018, TESS found its first exoplanet. Seven months later, in April 2019, it found its first Earth-sized planet.

Evidence of Planet Nine?

A hypothetical planet that has been described as “the solar system’s missing link,” Planet 9 (also known as Planet X) has been part of the lexicon for several years, first mentioned in 2014. It was brought up again in 2016, when Caltech astrophysicists Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin first wrote about it.

In October 2017, Batygin said that there are “five different lines of observational evidence” that point to the existence of Planet Nine.

The five lines of evidence are:

– Six known objects in the Kuiper Belt, all of which have elliptical orbits that point in the same direction.

– The orbits of the objects are all tilted the same way; 30 degrees “downward.”

– Computer simulations that show there are more objects “tilted with respect to the solar plane.”

– Planet Nine could be responsible for the tilt of the planets in our solar system; the plane of the planet’s orbit is tilted about 6 degrees compared to the Sun’s equator.

– Some objects from the Kuiper Belt orbit in the opposite direction from everything else in the solar system.

“No other model can explain the weirdness of these high-inclination orbits,” Batygin said at the time. “It turns out that Planet Nine provides a natural avenue for their generation. These things have been twisted out of the solar system plane with help from Planet 9 and then scattered inward by Neptune.”

In October 2017, NASA released a statement saying that Planet 9 might be 20 times further from the Sun than Neptune is, going so far as to say “it is now harder to imagine our solar system without a Planet 9 than with one.”

Some researchers have suggested the mysterious planet may be hiding behind Neptune and it may take up to 1,000 years before it’s actually found.

Two studies published in March 2019 offered support of its existence, however, a separate study published in September 2019 suggested the theoretical object may not be a giant planet hiding behind Neptune — but rather a primordial black hole.

A study published in January 2019 suggested that some of the farthest celestial bodies in our planetary system aren’t being impacted by this yet-to-be-discovered planet, but rather another mysterious object deep in the echoes of space.

Wild Idea: Let’s Use the Sun as a Lens to Check for Life on Alien Planets

An artist's depiction of a rocky, Earth-size exoplanet.

An artist’s depiction of a rocky, Earth-size exoplanet.(Image: © NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech)

WASHINGTON — Our sun may someday be able to shed light on whether life is hiding on a distant planet, assuming humans can execute a delicate maneuver in space.

The motivation for such a stellar feat would be exceptionally compelling: potentially confirming clues of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiologists searching for whiffs of life beyond Earth target biosignatures, characteristics that are at least most likely caused by life. But scientists are excellent at hypothesizing alternative, nonlife processes for creating biosignatures, which means that identifying these characteristics on distant worlds isn’t a guarantee that you’ve found life.

So scientists may want to target biosignature-laden planets with other techniques in order to be sure. “We want to find a way to get closer [to the planet in question],” Sara Seager, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said here last week at the International Astronautical Congress during a panel called Life’s Journey Through the Universe. “We want to get another look. We don’t really have any ways to do that now.”

Seager referenced one possible solution to that quandary: designing tiny satellites that can be pushed on laser beams to make interstellar journeys. “Another kind-of-out-there, but realistic idea is to use the sun as a gravitational lens,” Seager said.

Astronomers have plenty of experience using galaxies as gravitational lenses. The technique relies on three celestial objects lining up precisely. First, there’s the instrument itself on or around Earth. The second ingredient is a massive galaxy or galaxy cluster, containing so much mass that its gravity warps the path of light. The third point in the line is a distant object that astronomers want to see in more detail. When these players snap into alignment, scientists can capture much sharper images of the target.

The same basic principle may work using our own star as the magnifier, although this would be an entirely different type of feat, one that would need to start with an incredible journey. “We don’t know if we can do this for sure,” Seager said. “We’d have to slingshot around the sun, pick up speed and go to 500 astronomical units,” or 500 times the distance from Earth to the sun. For comparison, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which launched in 1977 and is humanity’s most-distant working probe right now, is just shy of 150 astronomical units from the sun.

Distance isn’t the only challenge, either; the alignment necessary for a gravitational lens is unforgiving. “We’re not sure if we can do that yet, because you have to line up really precisely,” Seager said.

But in a quest as open-ended as the search for alien life, every potential technique represents slightly better odds of answering an enduring question about the universe.

Record-Holding Moon Mission Marks a Decade in Orbit

A Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image of the surface of the moon.

A Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image of the surface of the moon.(Image: © NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

Among the dozens of spacecraft that have visited the moon, none can come close to the tenure of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which recently marked a decade studying our sibling world.

The spacecraft, nicknamed LRO, began its work in lunar orbit in September 2009. Since then, the spacecraft has circled the moon again and again. Its work is repetitive but far from dull. On each circuit, the scientists watching its data from home can identify differences on the lunar surface as meteorites, and occasionally spacecraft, slam into the moon. The ability to see changes over time is what makes LRO’s longevity so valuable to scientists.

“No one has had a mission orbiting the moon for 10 years,” Noah Petro, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project scientist, told Space.com. “We’re literally forging new ground.”

Related: Amazing Moon Photos from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance OrbiterClick here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

LRO has outpaced every other lunar mission by far. Its nearest competition comes from the twin ARTEMIS probes, which NASA built to study Earth’s magnetosphere then redirected midmission to lunar orbit. The two spacecraft have been at the moon since 2011 and are still operating.

The only other competition comes from NASA’s Explorer 35 mission, which spent six years at the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s and concluded that the moon does not have its own magnetosphere. Otherwise, lunar missions have tended to last about a year at most.

Despite its long stay, so far, LRO is holding up well. “We built the spacecraft to last one to two years. Here we are, 10 years later,” Petro said. “Oh my goodness, the warranty is over! But it’s like people who have really high-end cars — we take extremely good care. We are very cautious with the spacecraft, do nothing to it that would risk the life of the spacecraft.”

One of the riskiest times in the mission is during a lunar eclipse, when the spacecraft gets temporarily stuck in darkness, with Earth blocking the sun. Fortunately, LRO won’t experience that situation again until May 2021, Petro said, which will be a relatively short eclipse, and then again in May 2022.

Slipping occasionally into darkness is still easier for a spacecraft than what machines face on the lunar surface. On the moon, day and night each last the equivalent of two weeks on Earth, and during that long darkness, temperatures plummet. The bitter cold freezes whatever hardware does make it to the surface safely, shortening the life span of that equipment.Click here for more Space.com videos…See Lunar Orbiter Maps Mashed Together To Make 3D Moon VisualizationsVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

But from orbit, LRO has been able to remain at work for a decade, gathering huge amounts of photographs and measurements of the lunar surface. To date, the mission has produced a stunning 1.1 petabytes of data, according to Jay Jenkins, program executive for exploration at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, who spoke during a public presentation in September.

In the context of NASA, that’s “twice as much data as all other missions combined,” he said. “We know the surface of the moon better than any other body in the solar system, including Earth, because the Earth has so many oceans.”

Ironically, the massive lunar database that LRO is still building can help scientists better understand Earth’s surface, despite those pesky oceans. That’s because Earth and the moon are close enough that they should have experienced essentially the same frequency of impacts over the course of geologic history. Most of Earth’s craters have disappeared, melted by plate tectonics, eroded by the wind or covered in water. The moon’s are still right there, though, in stunning view of LRO.

“Basically, we are understanding this object that happens to be our neighbor in space in a way that allows us to really disentangle its history,” Petro said. “When we do that, we apply that knowledge everywhere across the solar system.”

Is a New Particle Changing the Fate of the Universe?

A dark nebula is a type of interstellar cloud that is so dense that it obscures the light from background stars.

A dark nebula is a type of interstellar cloud that is so dense that it obscures the light from background stars.(Image: © Shutterstock)

Astronomers around the world are in a bit of a tizzy because they can’t seem to agree about how fast the universe is expanding

Ever since our universe emerged from an explosion of a tiny speck of infinite density and gravity, it has been ballooning, and not at a steady rate, either — the expansion of the universe keeps getting faster. 

But how quickly it’s expanding has been up for a dizzying debate. Measurements of this expansion rate from nearby sources seem to be in conflict with the same measurement taken from distant sources. One possible explanation is that, basically, something funky is going on in the universe, changing the expansion rate. 

And one theorist has proposed that a brand-new particle has emerged and is altering the future destiny of our entire cosmos.

Related: How the Universe Stopped Making Sense

Hubble, Hubble, toil and trouble

Astronomers have devised multiple clever ways of measuring what they call the Hubble parameter, or Hubble constant (denoted for the folks with busy lives as H0). This number represents the expansion rate of the universe today.

One way to measure the expansion rate today is to look at nearby supernovas, the explosion of gas and dust launched from the universe’s largest stars upon their death. There’s a particular kind of supernova that has a very specific brightness, so we can compare how bright they look to how bright we know they’re supposed to be and calculate the distance. Then, by looking at the light from the supernova’s host galaxy, astrophysicists can also calculate how fast they are moving away from us. By putting all the pieces together, we then can calculate the universe’s expansion rate.

But there’s more to the universe than exploding stars. There’s also something called the cosmic microwave background, which is the leftover light from just after the Big Bang, when our universe was a mere baby, only 380,000 years old. With missions like the Planck satellite tasked with mapping this remnant radiation, scientists have incredibly precise maps of this background, which can be used to get a very accurate picture of the contents of the universe. And from there, we can take those ingredients and run the clock forward with computer models and be able to say what the expansion rate should be today — assuming that the fundamental ingredients of the universe haven’t changed since then.

Related: From Big Bang to Present: Snapshots of Our Universe Through Time

These two estimates disagree by enough to make people a little bit worried that we’re missing something.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

Look to the dark side

Perhaps, one or both measurements are incorrect or incomplete; plenty of scientists on either side of the debate are slinging the appropriate amount of mud at their opponents. But if we assume that both measurements are accurate, then we need something else to explain the different measurements. Since one measurement comes from the very early universe, and another comes from more relatively recent time, the thinking is that maybe some new ingredient in the cosmos is altering the expansion rate of the universe in a way that we didn’t already capture in our models.

And what’s dominating the expansion of the universe today is a mysterious phenomenon that we call dark energy. It’s an awesome name for something we basically don’t understand. All we know is that the expansion rate of the universe today is accelerating, and we call the force driving this acceleration “dark energy.”

In our comparisons from the young universe to the present-day universe, physicists assume that dark energy (whatever it is) is constant. But with this assumption, we have the present disagreement, so maybe dark energy is changing.

I guess it’s worth a shot. Let’s assume that dark energy is changing.

Scientists have a sneaking suspicion that dark energy has something to do with the energy that’s locked into the vacuum of space-time itself. This energy comes from all of the “quantum fields” that permeate the universe. 

In modern quantum physics, every single kind of particle is tied to its own particular field. These fields wash through all of space-time, and sometimes bits of the fields get really excited in places, becoming the particles that we know and love — like electrons and quarks and neutrinos. So all the electrons belong to the electron field, all the neutrinos belong to the neutrino field, and so on. The interaction of these fields form the fundamental basis for our understanding of the quantum world.

And no matter where you go in the universe, you can’t escape the quantum fields. Even when they’re not vibrating enough in a particular location to make a particle, they’re still there, wiggling and vibrating and doing their normal quantum thing. So these quantum fields have a fundamental amount of energy associated with them, even in the bare empty vacuum itself.

Related: The 11 Biggest Unanswered Questions About Dark Matter

If we want to use the exotic quantum energy of the vacuum of space-time to explain dark energy, we immediately run into problems. When we perform some very simple, very naive calculations of how much energy there is in the vacuum due to all the quantum fields, we end up with a number that is about 120 orders of magnitude stronger than what we observe dark energy to be. Whoops.

On the other hand, when we try some more sophisticated calculations, we end up with a number that is zero. Which also disagrees with the measured amount of dark energy. Whoops again.

So no matter what, we have a really hard time trying to understand dark energy through the language of the vacuum energy of space-time (the energy created by those quantum fields). But if these measurements of the expansion rate are accurate and dark energy really is changing, then this might give us a clue into the nature of those quantum fields. Specifically, if dark energy is changing, that means that the quantum fields themselves have changed. 

A new enemy appears

In a recent paper published online in the preprint journal arXiv, theoretical physicist Massimo Cerdonio at the University of Padova has calculated the amount of change in the quantum fields needed to account for the change in dark energy.

If there is a new quantum field that’s responsible for the change in dark energy, that means there is a new particle out there in the universe.

And the amount of change in dark energy that Cerdonio calculated requires a certain kind of particle mass, which turns out to be roughly the same mass of a new kind of particle that’s already been predicted: the so-called axion. Physicists invented this theoretical particle to solve some problems with our quantum understanding of the strong nuclear force.

This particle presumably appeared in the very early universe, but has been “lurking” in the background while other forces and particles controlled the direction of the universe. And now it’s the axion’s turn …

Even so, we’ve never detected an axion, but if these calculations are correct, then that means that the axion is out there, filling up the universe and its quantum field. Also, this hypothetical axion is already making itself noticeable by changing the amount of dark energy in the cosmos. So it could be that even though we’ve never seen this particle in the laboratory, it’s already altering our universe at the very largest of scales.

Yes, the ‘Von Braun’ Space Hotel Idea Is Wild. But Could We Build It by 2025?

How possible is the Von Braun Rotating Space Station?

A visualization of the orbiting Von Braun Rotating Space Station which will support scientific experiments but also function as a "space hotel" for tourists.

A visualization of the orbiting Von Braun Rotating Space Station which will support scientific experiments but also function as a “space hotel” for tourists.(Image: © The Gateway Foundation)

Will you be planning a trip to an orbiting “space hotel” as early as 2025? 

The Gateway Foundation, a private company developing this “space hotel,” thinks so. The organization plans to build what it describes on its website as “the first spaceport.” This spaceport, the Von Braun Rotating Space Station, will orbit Earth and will accommodate not only scientific research but also visiting tourists looking to experience life away from our home planet

But, while any timeline for the creation of such a structure would be daunting, the Gateway Foundation plans to build the spaceport as early as 2025 (with the support of the space construction company Orbital Assembly).

According to Timothy Alatorre, the lead architect of this space station, who also works as the treasurer and an executive team member at the Gateway Foundation, the Von Braun station is designed to be the largest human-made structure in space and will house up to 450 people. Alatorre is also designing the interiors of the station, including the habitable spaces and gymnasium.

As its name implies, the concept for the station is inspired in part by the ideas of Wernher von Braun, who pioneered in the field of human spaceflight first for Nazi Germany and then for the U.S. This design is inspired by his ideas for a rotating space station, which were derived from other, older ideas. “He had inherited a lot of ideas from previous scientists and authors and theorists, so it wasn’t entirely his idea for the torus-shaped, doughnut-shaped space station, but he kind of adopted it. He expanded upon it and eventually, he popularized it,” Gary Kitmacher, who works for NASA in the International Space Station program, told Space.com. Kitmacher also has worked on the design of the space station, NASA’s shuttle program, Spacehab and Mir, and has contributed as an author in textbooks and to the book “Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space (Smithsonian Books, 2018).”

Additionally, “the inspiration behind it [this space station] really comes from watching science fiction over the last 50 years and seeing how mankind has had this dream of starship culture,” Alatorre told Space.com.

“I think it started really with ‘Star Trek’ and then ‘Star Wars,’ and [with] this concept of large groups of people living in space and having their own commerce, their own industry and their own culture, as it were,” he added. 

The team drew inspiration partially from Von Braun’s concept of a rotating space station that utilizes artificial gravity for the comfort of its passengers. But, while this new design will use artificial gravity in areas of the station, it will also have spaces on board that will allow passengers to feel the weightlessness of space. 

The ultimate goal for this station is to have it include amenities ranging from restaurants and bars to sports that would allow passengers to take full advantage of weightlessness on board the station. The station will also have programs that include the arts, with concerts on board. “We do hope, though, that people take the time to be inspired, to write music, to paint, to take part in the arts,” Alatorre said.

Gateway Foundation officials acknowledge that the station might not be entirely finished by 2025, but the group aims to develop the station’s main structure and basic functions by then. “We expect the operation to begin in 2025, the full station will be built out and completed by 2027. … Once the station’s fully operational, our hope, our goal and our objective is to have the station available for the average person,” Alatorre said. “So, a family or an individual could save up reasonably … and be able to have enough money to visit space and have that experience. … It would be something that would be within reach.”

He added that “once or twice a week, we would have new people coming up, and they would be able to spend a couple days or a couple weeks.”

So … how would this all work? Is it at all possible? 

Related: Space Hotel? Orion Span’s Luxury Aurora Station Concept in ImagesClick here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 11 seconds PLAY SOUND

Building a space station?

Alatorre said that the Gateway Foundation feels that such a project is now possible because the growing success of commercial aerospace companies like SpaceX has made launch options more affordable. 

He added that the company admits that it’s possible its timeline is pushing it somewhat. “We completely understand that delays are almost inevitable with aerospace, but based on our internal projections and the fact that we’re already dealing with existing technology, we’re not inventing anything new. … We really feel that the time frame is possible,” he said. 

The company also concedes that its plans are ambitious. 

“I think you could do it,” Kitmacher said. “You’d have to have the way to transport it into orbit.” 

“It might not be done the way in which we would go about doing it at NASA, but I think you can design and build hardware on a fairly rapid schedule,” Kitmacher added.Advertisement

Related: Space History Photo: Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun

But while it may be possible, there are a number of variables specific to space that the team will need to consider. For instance, the temperatures in space for those orbiting our planet range from extreme heat to extreme cold, depending on whether the astronauts are in direct sunlight or in the dark. “The real concern is to design the habitat — the pressurized module that you’re going to be living in — [in] such a way that it can handle those kinds of temperature changes,” Kitmacher said. 

Kitmacher added that the company’s current timeline might not be the most realistic. “If you look at something like a commercial airplane, typically a large, commercial airplane is in development for something like a 10-year period, so that’s probably a more reasonable schedule,” he said. 

With a tight timeline and a number of difficult variables, Kitmacher said that the main obstacle the Gateway Foundation will have to overcome is actually cost. The “cost not only of designing and certifying and getting the whole thing into orbit but also the cost associated with taking the paying passengers, the tourists, up and back,” he said. 

In addition to the technical challenges involved in building this space station, there are a heap of social concerns that could make its success more difficult. 

For starters, if there is a “space hotel,” that means the facility would have to have employees. That would mean extended periods of time in space, and research has shown that spaceflight and being in microgravity can have a number of effects on human health

This would also mean that, if the space station actually becomes an accessible spaceport in orbit around Earth, more people (and not all of them highly trained astronauts) would be flying to space much more regularly than humans do today. There would likely be physical risks involved with such an increased amount of space travel for a wider variety of people, as well as significant legal red tape that the company would have to deal with to get this space station not only off the ground but also to allow for travel to this “space hotel.”

Photos: Wernher von Braun, Space Pioneer Rememembered

Another issue that could affect the public’s perception of this developing concept is its association with Wernher von Braun, who was a member of the Nazi party and an SS officer during World War II. 

“We were drawing off of his [von Braun’s] inspiration, which is why we started describing it as the von Braun station,” Alatorre said. But, “there have been people who’ve questioned the name, definitely.”

While many might disagree, Alatorre added, “our opinion on it is Wernher von Braun was a reluctant Nazi.”

Massive 2,000-foot asteroid to whiz past Earth later this month

An asteroid slightly smaller than the largest structure in the U.S. is slated to harmlessly zoom past Earth later this month.

Known as 2006 SF6, the space rock will zip past Earth on Nov. 20 at approximately 2.7 million miles (0.02886 astronomical units) at roughly 12:01 a.m. EDT, according to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies, which tracks near-Earth objects.

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

An artist's illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system.

An artist’s illustration of asteroids, or near-Earth objects, that highlight the need for a complete Space Situational Awareness system. (ESA – P.Carril)

“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.

Asteroid 2006 SF6, which was discovered on Sept. 17, 2006, is believed to be between 919 feet and 2,034 feet in diameter, slightly smaller than the KVLY-TV mast in Blanchard, S.D., the tallest structure in the U.S. and fourth tallest in the world.

The space rock will fly past Earth at approximately 17,800 miles per hour and will come within close proximity to our planet again on Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the U.S. presidential election.

In August, an asteroid slightly shorter than the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, flew past Earth.

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.

2016 saw NASA formalize its prior program for detecting and tracking NEOs and put it inside its Science Mission Directorate. Last June, the space agency 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.

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.

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.”

Monstrous galaxy from dawn of the universe accidentally discovered

Astronomers accidentally discovered the footprints of a monster galaxy in the early universe that has never been seen before. Like a cosmic Yeti, the scientific community generally regarded these galaxies as folklore, given the lack of evidence of their existence, but astronomers in the United States and Australia managed to snap a picture of the beast for the first time.

Published in the Astrophysical Journal, the discovery provides new insights into the first growing steps of some of the biggest galaxies in the universe.

University of Arizona astronomer Christina Williams, lead author of the study, noticed a faint light blob in new sensitive observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, a collection of 66 radio telescopes high in the Chilean mountains. Strangely enough, the shimmering seemed to be coming out of nowhere, like a ghostly footstep in a vast dark wilderness.

“It was very mysterious because the light seemed not to be linked to any known galaxy at all,” said Williams, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Steward Observatory. “When I saw this galaxy was invisible at any other wavelength, I got really excited because it meant that it was probably really far away and hidden by clouds of dust.”

The researchers estimate that the signal came from so far away that it took 12.5 billion years to reach Earth, therefore giving us a view of the universe in its infancy. They think the observed emission is caused by the warm glow of dust particles heated by stars forming deep inside a young galaxy. The giant clouds of dust conceal the light of the stars themselves, rendering the galaxy completely invisible.

Study co-author Ivo Labbé, of the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia, said: “We figured out that the galaxy is actually a massive monster galaxy with as many stars as our Milky Way, but brimming with activity, forming new stars at 100 times the rate of our own galaxy.”

The discovery may solve a long-standing question in astronomy, the authors said. Recent studies found that some of the biggest galaxies in the young universe grew up and came of age extremely quickly, a result that is not understood theoretically. Massive mature galaxies are seen when the universe was only a cosmic toddler at 10% of its current age. Even more puzzling is that these mature galaxies appear to come out of nowhere: astronomers never seem to catch them while they are forming.

Smaller galaxies have been seen in the early universe with the Hubble Space Telescope, but such creatures are not growing fast enough to solve the puzzle. Other monster galaxies have also been previously reported, but those sightings have been far too rare for a satisfying explanation.

“Our hidden monster galaxy has precisely the right ingredients to be that missing link,” Williams explains, “because they are probably a lot more common.”

An open question is exactly how many of them there are. The observations for the current study were made in a tiny part of the sky, less than 1/100th the disc of the full moon. Like the Yeti, finding footprints of the mythical creature in a tiny strip of wilderness would either be a sign of incredible luck or a sign that monsters are literally lurking everywhere.

Williams said researchers are eagerly awaiting the March 2021 scheduled launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to investigate these objects in more detail.

“JWST will be able to look through the dust veil so we can learn how big these galaxies really are and how fast they are growing, to better understand why models fail in explaining them.”

But for now the monsters are out there, shrouded in dust and a lot of mystery.

NASA’s Voyager Spacecraft May Have 5 Years Left to Explore Interstellar Space

An artist's visualization of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft.

An artist’s visualization of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The twin Voyager probes are the ultimate spaceflight overachievers, but everyone knows their run can’t last forever.

Right now, it’s looking like the grizzled spacefarers have about five years before they fall silent, when they’ll be no longer able to send word of their adventures back to the humans who have eagerly awaited their telegrams for 42 years and counting. The Voyagers’ journey will continue indefinitely, but we will no longer travel with them.

“It’s cooling off, the spacecraft is getting colder all the time and the power is dropping,” Ed Stone, the mission’s project scientist and a physicist at Caltech, said during a news conference held Oct. 31 in conjunction with the publication of a handful of new scientific papers. “We know that somehow, in another five years or so, we may not have enough power to have any scientific instruments on any longer.”

Their success is unprecedented, even by NASA standards; the mission has lasted for two-thirds of the agency’s existence. “We’re certainly surprised but also wonderfully excited by the fact that they do [still work],” Stone said. “When the two Voyagers were launched, the Space Age was only 20 years old, so it was hard to know at that time that anything could last over 40 years.”

Just as stunning as the spacecraft’s longevity has been the longevity of a handful of instruments on board the probes. Four instruments on Voyager 1 continue to work; their twins and a fifth instrument are still gathering data on Voyager 2.

Stamatios Krimigis, a space scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the principal investigator of the mission’s low-energy charged particles experiment, explained that the devices were designed to last just four years, during which they would need to conduct 250,000 turns of a motor (dubbed “steps”) to take measurements. Both versions of the experiment are still running.

“That device has been stepping every 192 seconds for the last 42 years,” Krimigis said during the news conference. “It’s close to 8 million steps, and we’re absolutely amazed that it’s still working.”

The Voyager spacecraft launched two weeks apart in 1977, taking slightly different trajectories past Jupiter and Saturn. Then, the probes parted ways. Voyager 1 scouted out Saturn’s moon Titan and then made a beeline out of our solar system; Voyager 2 took a more leisurely route, giving humans our only look at Uranus and Neptune.

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Their longevity has translated to speed and distance that are difficult to fathom. Both spacecraft are traveling at more than 30,000 mph (48,000 km/h). On NASA’s tracking page for the mission, each spacecraft’s odometer ticks up by 10 miles (16 kilometers) or more twice a second, a constant churn that makes the passage of time suddenly excruciating.

But the Voyagers are traveling at nowhere near the speed of light (186,000 mps, or 300 million km/s), as their messages do. And yet, it takes nearly 17 hours for messages from Voyager 2 to travel back to Earth and more than 20 hours for those sent by Voyager 1. A whole meme cycle can roil the internet here on Earth between a message’s dispatch and its arrival.

The probes’ distance only makes them more compelling emissaries. A year ago, the mission checked off yet another achievement when Voyager 2 followed its twin through the bubble that surrounds our solar system. In just a couple of hours, Voyager 2 went from being surrounded by material born in the sun to being bathed by the local neighborhood — a transition Voyager 1 had made in 2012.

Stone and Krimigis spoke to mark the publication of the first batch of scientific papers comparing the two crossings. The twin spacecraft’s transitions to interstellar space have been similar but not identical, variations on a theme that humans have no concrete plans to experience again anytime soon. Unless something very dramatic happens in the universe around us, Pluto veteran New Horizons, like the Pioneer spacecraft before it, will fall silent long before it escapes our little bubble.

What the Voyager mission has made clear, the scientists speaking at the news conference said, is that two crossings are hardly enough to begin understanding this bubble — and that, nevertheless, the spacecraft have completely changed what we know about it.

“We had no good quantitative idea of how big this bubble is that the sun creates around itself,” Stone said. “We didn’t know how large the bubble was, and we certainly didn’t know that the spacecraft could live long enough to reach the edge of the bubble and leave the bubble and enter interstellar space, at least nearby interstellar space.”

And now, of course, they do.

“This has really been a wonderful journey,” Stone said.

There’s Something Strange Going On Inside Neptune

Artist's impression of Neptune

Something mysterious is going on inside the ice giant Neptune.(Image: © All About Space/Tobias Roetsch)

When Voyager 2 reached Neptune in 1989, just 12 years after setting off on its historic journey through the solar system, it discovered six new moons, took the first images of the planet’s rings and noted a particularly violent storm.

The storm was something of a surprise. In the southern hemisphere there was a swirling, counter-clockwise wind of up to 1,500 mph (2,414 km/h) — the strongest ever recorded. Astronomers called it the Great Dark Spot, and while it had gone by the time the Hubble Space Telescope looked at the planet five years later, they were keen to learn why the winds were so extreme.

They were also perplexed by another issue: Voyager 2 revealed that Neptune is warmer than Uranus, despite being farther from the sun. As physicist Brian Cox discussed in his BBC documentary, The Planets: “The source of this extra heat remains a mystery.” But does that mean we have a double-puzzle on our hands, and can one mystery help to explain the other in some way?

Before we begin to address the two issues at hand, we must first look at what is actually meant by “warmer”. Since Neptune is a gas giant, we cannot test the globally average temperature at ground level in the way that we could on Earth’s solid surface. Instead, with Neptune’s core likely to be small, temperature measurements must be taken at an altitude. Trouble is, which one?These thermal images, taken by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, reveals a hot south pole at Neptune.(Image credit: VLT/ESO/NASA/JPL/Paris Observatory)

The trouble with temperature

“We can only measure temperatures in the outermost layers,” said Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, via email. In doing so we find that Neptune isn’t actually hotter than Uranus in real terms — they’re essentially at the same temperature. But since Neptune receives less solar illumination because it’s farther from the sun, this shouldn’t be the case.

What this similarity in temperature suggests is that Neptune is warmer in terms of how much heat it emits in comparison to the amount of heat it absorbs from the sun. “Voyager’s measurements show Neptune emits more than twice as much heat as it absorbs from the sun, while Uranus does not,” Anthony Del Genio of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) told All About Space. And this is where things become rather intriguing.

That’s because Neptune is not unusual in this case. “Jupiter and Saturn also emit almost twice as much heat as they absorb, but Uranus does not,” Del Genio said. “Uranus is the oddball.” 

“The progression of temperature as you go farther away from the sun shows Jupiter to be the warmest of the gas giants, Saturn next, then Neptune. Uranus is the one that is out of place,” Del Genio said. “Yet that unusual result is associated with the fact that Uranus does not have a significant internal heat source.” Neptune is finding a way to warm itself up to the level of Uranus, while the latter is unable to generate any extra heat other than that gleaned from the sun.

But just what is an internal heat source? In simple terms it is heat left over from the birth of the solar system when these planets were formed. The heat contracts out of the primitive solar nebula — an effect known as the Kelvin-Helmholtz contraction.

“The extra heat source on Neptune [and Jupiter and Saturn] is largely due to gravitational contraction,” said Joshua Tollefson, also of the University of California, Berkeley. “As the planet slowly gravitationally contracts, the material falling inward changes its potential energy into thermal energy, which is then released upwards out of the planet.”

Yet there is no clear reason why Uranus does not have much of an internal heat source — or any at all. “Something must have stunted this process on Uranus — perhaps due to a collision in its early history that knocked the planet on its side,” said Tollefson. “The question becomes, why does Neptune have an internal heat source but Uranus does not?”Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

Frozen planets that love to burp

There is a possibility that heat is not released from the interior at a steady rate but instead comes in “burps”. “We may just be seeing Uranus in a quiescent period, whereas Neptune has burped more recently,” said Tollefson. “The burps are convection, which may happen in discrete episodes separated by long time periods, but we may not know if it works this way for sure unless we see one of these convective episodes take place.”

It could also be an issue of Uranus being an old-timer and Neptune a younger pup. “How much heat a planet radiates depends mostly on how old it is and how quickly or slowly it releases that heat,” said Amy Simon, a NASA senior scientist for Planetary Atmosphere Research at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “An older planet would be colder. How quickly they release depends on the interior structure and composition, cloud layers, convection and so on and that can be rather complicated.”

“On the gas giants there may be significant amounts of helium rain, changing the amount of heat released. For Uranus and Neptune it is possible that they are different ages or, more likely, the event that turned Uranus onto its side may have jumbled its interior structure and/or released heat faster,” said Simon.

So what of those winds? They are undeniably fierce, and this may have something to do with temperature.

“We’ve speculated for a long time that the coldness of Neptune and Uranus might lead to near-frictionless conditions and so allow for faster winds,” said Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer who has studied both planets extensively and who was part of the team imaging Neptune from Voyager 2.

By this she means there are no mountains, hills or other shapes across the Neptunian landscape slowing the winds. But is there any relation between the storms and the internal heat source? “Probably,” said Hammel, “but there is also some delicate balance between the internal heat and the incoming sunlight.”

It is difficult to quantify these effects because of the long timescales involved. “One year on Neptune is 165 Earth years so we have not had a chance to study the planet with modern tools for very much of its seasonal cycle,” said Hammel. “You need a lot of patience — and trust in past and future generations of planetary scientists — to study the atmospheres of outer planets.”

“I guess the theory was supposed to be the greater amount of solar energy, the more wind energy, but on Earth we’ve known for a long time that the amount of energy received by the sun and converted into kinetic energy in the atmosphere — that is, wind — is a tiny fraction,” said Del Genio.

Earth is a very inefficient heat engine, and it doesn’t give you much bang for the buck. One reason is that it has a solid surface that dissipates wind energy by friction, whereas the gas giants do not, so that is one reason why all the giant planets have much stronger winds than Earth does.

Why are Neptune’s winds so strong?

“Winds are probably generated deeper than sunlight can penetrate, so a combination of internal heat and rotation likely produces them,” said Simon, raising the issue of why Uranus and Neptune’s winds don’t match, given they have similar rotation rates. “It tells us something is different between them: partially internal heat or something else,” said Simon.

Uranus’ winds can blow up to 560 mph and Neptune’s 1,500 mph. “They’re both extremely fast and peak at speeds faster than Jupiter,” said Tollefson. NASA says Jupiter’s Great Red Spot can blow at 384 mph. But he too says internal heat alone cannot explain the speeds, given Uranus does not generate extra heat.

The interior structure of the planets — their masses, core sizes and radial density profiles — is extremely important for understanding the winds as we see them. How the winds form and how deep they go are questions currently being answered for Jupiter and Saturn thanks to NASA’s Juno and Cassini spacecraft. This is due to the extremely good gravitational data they’ve obtained, which means good models for the interior structure can be made.Advertisement

Computer simulations suggest that the winds of the ice giants are confined to shallow depths in the upper layers of their atmospheres. This may suggest that the fast winds we see on Uranus and Neptune are at least partly due to the latent heat release of condensation for materials like water.

Del Genio also questions the available data. He explains that when we measure winds on Neptune, we look at one specific altitude. “The winds at other altitudes may be slower or faster,” said Del Genio. “We don’t know because we have never dropped probes into the atmospheres of most of the outer planets.”

What Neptune and Uranus show is that planets which form in similar conditions can provide two extremes. Simon says this helps us constrain models of how these planets form and give clues about the solar system‘s overall formation. “They should also help us better understand deeper circulation, given they are so far from the sun.”

“It adds to our knowledge of the physics and chemistry in planetary atmospheres and helps us understand our own Earth a little better, since the physics and chemistry operate in the same way whether here on Earth or on distant Neptune,” said Hammel.

Hilton DoubleTree Cookie Dough Launches With Zero G Oven for Space Station

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launches the NG-12 Cygnus cargo spacecraft, the S.S. Alan Bean, from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. The Cygnus' payload included DoubleTree by Hilton's cookie dough to be baked in space.

(Image: © NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The ingredients to make sweets, space and hotel history are on their way to the International Space Station with the launch of a commercial cargo spacecraft.

The first kitchen-like oven designed for use in microgravity and the dough to bake DoubleTree by Hilton’s trademark chocolate chip cookies — which are set to become the first-ever food baked in space — lifted off on Saturday (Nov. 2) aboard Northrop Grumman’s 12th Cygnus capsule to resupply the orbiting laboratory.

The Cygnus launched atop a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket at 9:59 a.m. EDT (1359 GMT) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The spacecraft, which was named the “S.S. Alan Bean” after the late Apollo 12 astronaut, is set to arrive and be attached to the space station’s Unity node on Monday (Nov. 4).

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The NG-12 launch coincided with the 19th anniversary of the start of Expedition 1 on board the space station. For almost two decades, the outpost has supported a continuous human presence in space.

Now, the Expedition 61 crew will become the first astronaut-bakers in orbit.

“Not only are our cookies the first-ever food item to be baked in space, but we are going to be the first hospitality, or hotel company to be doing anything on the International Space Station. To say that we are the first is huge for us,” said Shawn McAteer, senior vice president and global head for DoubleTree by Hilton, in an interview with collectSPACE.com.

The Zero G Oven was created by the teams at Zero G Kitchen, a startup developing culinary appliances for use in microgravity, and Nanoracks, a space services company that for the past 10 years has been deploying payloads to the space station.

Zero G Kitchen and Nanoracks' oven will allow the astronauts on the International Space Station bake cookies and more.
Zero G Kitchen and Nanoracks’ oven will allow the astronauts on the International Space Station bake cookies and more.

“When we first talked about it, we were not even sure it is possible,” said Mary Murphy, senior internal payloads manager at Nanoracks, in a pre-launch press briefing on Friday. “Everyone knows how baking on the ground works, but how do you translate that to a zero-g experience?”

Since hot air does not rise in the microgravity environment of space, Nanoracks had to find another way to transfer heat to the item being baked. The Zero G Oven works by using electric heating elements placed around a cylindrical chamber, so that a pocket of heated air surrounds the food at its center.

But if you were just to place the cookie dough into the oven, it might float out of the center or tumble such that it is not evenly baked. Instead, the cookie dough, formed into a puck shape, is held within a silicone pouch with an aluminum frame that serves as a tray and a filter to allow hot air to escape but contain any crumbs.Click here for more Space.com videos…Baking Cookies In Space – Prototype Oven Going to ISSVolume 0% PLAY SOUND

DoubleTree by Hilton, which gives out warm chocolate chip cookies to its guests at check-in, has provided dough for five cookies to be baked in space.

“They’ll have a couple up there that they can do with what they want, and then three of the cookies will come back down to Earth. Those three cookies will then be sent to NASA for further testing,” said McAteer, adding that depending on their condition post-tests, DoubleTree hopes to receive back the space-baked cookies.

Space cookies for everyone

In addition to the oven and dough, the S.S. Alan Bean is also bringing to the space station an experimental vest to protect astronauts from radiation exposure, a Lamborghini-sourced set of carbon-fiber composites to be tested in the vacuum of space and a new plastics recycler to produce filament for the station’s commercial 3D printer (both of the latter provided by Made in Space).

Also on board is a commemorative tin filled with pre-baked DoubleTree by Hilton chocolate chip cookies.

“We did not want to deprive any of the astronauts from having the opportunity to eat some freshly-baked cookies, so in addition to the dough that they’re going to bake in the oven, we are sending a tin of our cookies up as part of the launch as well,” Kristen Savoy, senior manager for global brand communications at Hilton, told collectSPACE.

DoubleTree by Hilton's "Cookes in Space" commemorative tin, "Mission: Cookie" cookbook and mission patch.
DoubleTree by Hilton’s “Cookes in Space” commemorative tin, “Mission: Cookie” cookbook and mission patch.

The hospitality company, which is celebrating its 100th year since its founding, has also made the specially-designed Cookies in Space tins available for to the public and has devoted its annual cookie cookbook to space-themed recipes.

“To be able to say we’re the first brand ever affiliated with anything hospitality-wise on the International Space Station and being the first ever food item to be baked in space speaks to what we’re about, which is being pioneering and innovative. So it’s a very big deal for us,” said McAteer.

NASA eyes Pluto mission

For a celestial object that may or may not be a planet, Pluto sure is getting a lot of attention these days.

Just days after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that Pluto should be given back its planet status, the U.S. space agency announced that it has funded a study to see if another orbiter mission to the dwarf planet is feasible.

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NASA has provided funding to the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to investigate the costs of the project, its feasibility, as well as “develop the spacecraft and payload design requirements and make preliminary cost and risk assessments for new technologies,” according to a statement.

FILE - This image made available by NASA in March 2017 shows Pluto illuminated from behind by the sun as the New Horizons spacecraft travels away from it at a distance of about 120,000 miles (200,000 kilometers). (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP)

FILE – This image made available by NASA in March 2017 shows Pluto illuminated from behind by the sun as the New Horizons spacecraft travels away from it at a distance of about 120,000 miles (200,000 kilometers). (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP)

“We’re excited to have this opportunity to inform the decadal survey deliberations with this study,” said SwRI’s Carly Howett, who is leading the project, in a statement. “Our mission concept is to send a single spacecraft to orbit Pluto for two Earth years before breaking away to visit at least one KBO [Kuiper Belt Object] and one other KBO dwarf planet.”

NASA first flew past Pluto in July 2015 with its New Horizons mission, which is managed by SwRI. Throughout that year, the space agency released a series of images of Pluto, including the first close-up image of an area near the dwarf planet’s equator, which contains a range of mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet above Pluto’s icy surface.

An image of the Tenzing Montes peaks on Pluto created with New Horizons data and released on July 10, 2018. The mountains range from about 1.8 miles to 3.7 miles (3 to 6 kilometers) above the dwarf planet's surface.

An image of the Tenzing Montes peaks on Pluto created with New Horizons data and released on July 10, 2018. The mountains range from about 1.8 miles to 3.7 miles (3 to 6 kilometers) above the dwarf planet’s surface. (Paul Schenk/Lunar and Planetary Institute)

In January 2019, New Horizons, which was launched in January 2006, flew past fellow Kuiper Belt object, Ultima Thule. In May, NASA revealed a startling discovery that there are both water and “organic molecules” on its surface.

Alan Stern, SwRI’s principal investigator, revealed the organization has been working on its concept for some time.

“In an SwRI-funded study that preceded this new NASA-funded study, we developed a Pluto system orbital tour, showing the mission was possible with planned-capability launch vehicles and existing electric propulsion systems,” Stern added in the statement.

To follow up on NASA’s New Horizons mission that revealed Pluto’s “heart,” SwRI is studying a new Pluto orbiter mission for NASA. SwRI has shown it is possible to orbit Pluto and then escape orbit to tour additional dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt Objects. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

To follow up on NASA’s New Horizons mission that revealed Pluto’s “heart,” SwRI is studying a new Pluto orbiter mission for NASA. SwRI has shown it is possible to orbit Pluto and then escape orbit to tour additional dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt Objects. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

“We also showed it is possible to use gravity assists from Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, to escape Pluto orbit and to go back into the Kuiper Belt for the exploration of more KBOs like MU69 and at least once more dwarf planet for comparison to Pluto.”

Pluto lost its planet status in 2006 when it was controversially demoted to “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union.

Last month, Bridenstine, during a wide-ranging speech at the International Astronautical Congress, said: “I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet.”

Bridenstine later responded to a question on his Pluto stance by citing its buried ocean, its five moons and its multilayered atmosphere. “I like there being nine planets, how about that?” he added.

Second interstellar visitor may be carrying water from beyond our solar system, shocking study suggests

A shocking new study suggests that the second interstellar object ever discovered, Comet 2I/Borisov, could be carrying water on it from beyond the Solar System.

The study suggests that 2I/Borisov, discovered on Aug. 30 by astronomer Gennady Borisov, is releasing water vapor on its journey.

“Using a simple sublimation model we estimate an H2O active area of 1.7 km2 [0.65 miles squared], which for current estimates for the size of Borisov suggests active fractions between 1-150 [percent], consistent with values measured in Solar System comets,” the study’s abstract states. It is common for asteroids in the Solar System to carry water.

The study was submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters and can be read on the arXiv repository,

“The discovery of interstellar comet 2I/Borisov provides an opportunity to sample the volatile composition of a comet that is unambiguously from outside our own Solar System, providing constraints on the physics and chemistry of other protostellar discs,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

Although 2I/Borisov, which has a familiar look to it, does not emit its own light, researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center used light spectrums to make their observation.

Adam McKay, the study’s lead author, said that the potential discovery of water could give insight into other systems. “Are we special as a planetary system or are a lot of planetary systems like ours?” he said in an interview with New Scientist. “That has implications for the origin of life, and how common life is throughout the universe.”

If the findings are accurate, it would be the first time water from outside the Solar System has been detected. Fox News has reached out to NASA with a request for comment on this story.

A separate study published last year suggested that comet-like objects could be “ferrying” microbial life across thousands of light-years.

Unlike the first interestelar object found, the cigar-shaped Oumuamua, 2I/Borisov has a “cometary appearance,” according to images taken on Sept. 10 and Sept. 13 by the William Herschel Telescope and Gemini North Telescope.

Two-color composite image of comet 2I/Borisov captured by the Gemini North telescope on 10 September 2019. The image was obtained with eight 60-second exposures, four in green and four in red bands. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA)

Two-color composite image of comet 2I/Borisov captured by the Gemini North telescope on 10 September 2019. The image was obtained with eight 60-second exposures, four in green and four in red bands. (Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA)

The interstellar object is comprised of dust, its morphology described as “unremarkable” and it likely has a diameter of about 2.4 miles (2 kilometers), similar to other comets in the Solar System, according to a separate study, published in Nature Astronomy

Last month, NASA JPL said 2I/Borisov was approximately 260 million miles from the Sun and will reach its closest point, known as perihelion, on Dec. 8, 2019, when it gets within 190 million miles of the Sun. Unlike Ouamuamua, it will be observable for an extended period of time, an idea that has excited astronomers.

Earlier this month, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured images of 2I/Borisov when it was about 260 million miles away.

The interstellar comet 2I/Borisov, as seen on Oct. 12 with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The interstellar comet 2I/Borisov, as seen on Oct. 12 with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA and David Jewitt/UCLA)

Oumuamua was first discovered in October 2017 but was no longer observable by telescopes as of January 2018. Many have speculated what the object is, with some theorizing it may have been a light sail sent from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization, a comet or an asteroid.

Artist's illustration of 'Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object spotted in our solar system.

Artist’s illustration of ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object spotted in our solar system. (M. Kornmesser/ESO)

The mystery about its exact nature deepened late last year when NASA said it was looking at the object for two months and did not originally see it.

How Long Will It Take to Find Proof of Alien Life?

Scientists say we may find evidence for life beyond Earth within the next decades.

Scientists say we may find evidence for life beyond Earth within the next decades.(Image: © SETI)

WASHINGTON — How long until we find evidence of life beyond Earth? If a panel of experts is on track with their estimates, it may be sooner than you think.

That’s according to presenters at the International Astronautical Congress taking place here this week. During a discussion Tuesday Oct. 22), half a dozen people who spend their time focused on questions related to the search for life beyond Earth each offered their educated guesses — and their whimsical wishes — for when humanity might first gather conclusive evidence for extraterrestrial life.

That conversation got serious fast, with panel coordinator Claire Webb, a doctoral student in the history of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She co-opted the answer of one of the most venerable figures in the search for intelligent life, Frank Drake, who conceptualized the factors at play in finding intelligent life into what is known as the Drake Equation. “He said 2024,” Webb said. “I think he’s a pretty good authority, so I’m going to go with that.”

That estimate is on the short end of the spectrum provided by the panelists. “I wish I could say tomorrow, but that’s being just overoptimistic,” Mike Garrett, the director of Jodrell Bank Observatory in the U.K., said during the panel. “But I think there’s a good chance of discovering life on Mars within the next 5 to 10 to 15 years. I think that really has to be a goal, that would set us on a course to do more interesting things in the area.”

Some responses were presented without comment. Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, suggested Oct. 22, 2036 — 17 years to the day after the panel in question. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, said she would ballpark it within the next 15 years.

Others offered a more detailed explanation. Sara Seager, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on finding exoplanets, couched her response within the state of pending science projects that could be responsible for making the discovery. Those projects include a host of space-based telescopes, but none will be working any time soon.

“Assuming they get selected and they get built it’ll still be awhile,” Seager said. “So I’ll say 20 years.”

But these are all guesses, albeit educated ones, and that showed in how some confronted the question. “I certainly would like to think within my lifetime,” Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute, said. “Hopefully that’s more years than I think, but I absolutely think within my lifetime. Probably in the month of March, and hopefully the discovery comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”

And Diamond wasn’t the only one to peg a potential discovery to their own personal timeline.

“I like the idea of my birthday,” Pete Worden, moderator of the panel and executive director for Breakthrough Initiatives, said to close out the session, which began with belated birthday wishes. “So my 80th birthday, which is 10 years from now.”

Asteroid Hygiea could become the tiniest dwarf planet

As the debate rages on whether Pluto, currently a dwarf planet, should be given back its planet status, it may soon be joined by an asteroid that could wind up being the smallest dwarf planet in the solar system.

Asteroid Hygiea, the fourth largest space rock in the Asteroid Belt, was observed for the first time by astronomers in high-resolution. It’s spherical in shape and may wind up taking the crown for the smallest dwarf from Ceres, also located in the Asteroid Belt.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the [Very Large Telescope], which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” said the study’s lead author, Pierre Vernazza, in a statement. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

A new SPHERE/VLT image of Hygiea, which could be the Solar System’s smallest dwarf planet yet. As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass that its own gravity pulls it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea. (Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

A new SPHERE/VLT image of Hygiea, which could be the Solar System’s smallest dwarf planet yet. As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass that its own gravity pulls it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea. (Credit: ESO/P. Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)

“By comparing Hygiea’s sphericity with that of other Solar System objects, it appears that Hygiea is nearly as spherical as Ceres, opening up the possibility for this object to be reclassified as a dwarf planet,” the study’s abstract states.

In addition to the spherical requirement for dwarf planet status, Hygiea already orbits the Sun, is not a moon, and has “not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit,” the ESO added in its statement.

The research has been published in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy.

Though Hygiea may eventually be given dwarf planet status, it’s significantly smaller than Pluto or Ceres, with a diameter of just 267 miles. Pluto’s diameter is approximately 1,490 miles, while Ceres’ diameter is approximately 590 miles.

Following the discovery, the International Astronomical Union will eventually vote to determine whether Hygiea can be given dwarf planet status or if it will remain an asteroid.

Earlier this month, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the International Astronautical Congress that Pluto should be given back its planet status. “I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet,” he said to applause during a wide-ranging speech.

The ‘Mole’ on NASA’s InSight Mars Lander Just Popped Out Of Its Hole (and That’s Not Good)

In this image from Oct. 26, 2019, the InSight Mars lander's heat probe, or "mole," is seen after backing about halfway out of the hole it had burrowed.

In this image from Oct. 26, 2019, the InSight Mars lander’s heat probe, or “mole,” is seen after backing about halfway out of the hole it had burrowed.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A metal mole’s up-and-down saga on Mars has taken yet another turn.

The burrowing heat probe aboard NASA’s InSight Mars lander was originally supposed to dig 10 to 16 feet (3 to 5 meters) beneath the planet’s red dirt, using a self-hammering tool called “the mole.” Shortly after deploying onto the Martian surface in February, however, the instrument became stuck about 1 foot (0.3 m) down.

Earlier this month, InSight team members announced that they’d managed to get the mole moving again by pinning it down with the lander’s robotic arm. The breakthrough suggested that the digger had previously lost friction with the dirt, perhaps as a consequence of Mars soil’s weird properties, rather than having run up against a big buried rock.

This sequence of images shows the burrowing heat probe on NASA’s InSight Mars lander popping back out of the hole it had dug on the Red Planet.
This sequence of images shows the burrowing heat probe on NASA’s InSight Mars lander popping back out of the hole it had dug on the Red Planet.

But that downward progress was short-lived. The mole has backed about halfway out of its burrow, mission team members announced yesterday (Oct. 27). 

“Preliminary assessments point to unusual soil conditions on the Red Planet. The international mission team is developing the next steps to get it buried again,” NASA officials wrote in an update yesterday.

“The next step is determining how safe it is to move InSight’s robotic arm away from the mole to better assess the situation,” they added. “The team continues to look at the data and will formulate a plan in the next few days.”

The heat probe, officially called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), was provided by the German Aerospace Center (known by its German acronym, DLR). HP3 is one of InSight’s two main science instruments. The other is a suite of supersensitive seismometers that were provided by the French space agency CNES and its partners, which are measuring and characterizing marsquakes.Click here for more Space.com videos…CLOSEVolume 0%This video will resume in 27 seconds 

The data gathered by InSight, which touched down near the Martian equator in November 2018, will help scientists to construct a detailed 3D map of the Red Planet’s interior. This information, in turn, should reveal a great deal about the formation and evolution of rocky planets in general, NASA officials have said.

The seismometers have detected 150 events to date, 23 of which have already been confirmed as marsquakes, InSight project manager Tom Hoffman, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California said earlier this month during a presentation at the 22nd Annual International Mars Society Convention in Los Angeles.

Thomas Zurbuchen@Dr_ThomasZ · Oct 27, 2019Replying to @Dr_ThomasZ

The Insight mission overall is functioning very well.

Thomas Zurbuchen@Dr_ThomasZ

Remember that, even though the international team will continue to do their best to get this mole into the ground, the mole working is not a so-called Level 1 for mission success.491:05 PM – Oct 27, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacySee Thomas Zurbuchen’s other Tweets

So, InSight remains on track despite the mole’s struggles, said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“The Insight mission overall is functioning very well,” Zurbuchen said via Twitter yesterday.

“Remember that, even though the international team will continue to do their best to get this mole into the ground, the mole working is not a so-called Level 1 for mission success,” he added in another tweet.

US Air Force’s X-37B Space Plane Lands After Record 780-Day Mystery Mission

A U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane, an unpiloted miniature space shuttle, is seen after landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Oct. 27, 2019 to end its record 780-day OTV-5 mission.

A U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane, an unpiloted miniature space shuttle, is seen after landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Oct. 27, 2019 to end its record 780-day OTV-5 mission. (Image: © U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force’s unpiloted X-37B space plane landed back on Earth Sunday (Oct. 27) after a record 780 days in orbit , racking up the fifth ultra-long mission for the military’s mini-shuttle fleet. 

The X-37B’s Orbital Test Vehicle 5 (OTV-5) mission ended with a smooth autonomous touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:51 a.m. EDT (0751 GMT), Air Force officials said. The mission originally launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Sept. 7, 2017.

With the successful landing, OTV-5 broke the previous X-37B mission record of 718 days set by the OTV-4 mission in May 2017. OTV-5 is the second X-37B mission to land at NASA’s Shuttle Landing Facility (OTV-4 was the first), with previous missions landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. 

“The safe return of this spacecraft, after breaking its own endurance record, is the result of the innovative partnership between Government and Industry,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in a statement. “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”

The U.S. Air Force has at least two reusable X-37B spacecraft in its fleet, and both have flown multiple flights. The solar-powered space planes were built by Boeing and feature a miniature payload bay to host experiments or smaller satellites. They were originally designed to spend up to 240 days in orbit.

“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said in the same statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”

The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 27, 2019.
The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 27, 2019. 

Air Force officials have said that the exact nature of X-37B missions are classified, though they have dropped hints about the types of experiments OTV-5 performed in orbit. One payload was the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, an experiment designed to “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment,” according to an Air Force statement.

OTV-5 also flew to a higher-inclination orbit than previous X-37B flights, suggesting it had new experiments or technology tests in store. In a statement today, Air Force officials confirmed OTV-5 carried multiple experiments and carried smaller satellites into orbit. 

“With a successful landing today, the X-37B completed its longest flight to date and successfully completed all mission objectives,” Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director, said in the statement. “This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites.”

The X-37B space plane was originally developed by NASA in 1999 to serve as a technology test bed for future spacecraft and looks much like a miniature version of  a space shuttle. In 2004, the military’s Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) took over the project, ultimately turning it over to the U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office a few years later. 

X-37B vehicles are 29 feet (8.8 meters) long, 9.5 feet (2.9 m) tall and have a wingspan of just under 15 feet (4.6 m). Their payload bays are about the size of a pickup truck bed, about 7 feet long and 4 feet wide (2.1 by 1.2 m).

NASA Europa Mission Could Potentially Spot Signs of Alien Life

Jupiter's ocean-harboring moon Europa, as imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft.

Jupiter’s ocean-harboring moon Europa, as imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft.(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

If there’s life swimming in the dark, frigid ocean of the Jupiter moon Europa, an upcoming NASA mission might be able to sniff it out.

The agency’s Europa Clipper spacecraft is scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s on a mission to characterize the icy moon’s subsurface sea and its life-hosting potential. But Clipper is capable of making even bigger discoveries, if everything falls into place just right.

“We’re a habitability mission. We’re trying to understand, Is Europa a habitable environment?” Europa Clipper project scientist Robert Pappalardo, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said Wednesday (Oct. 23) at the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington, D.C.

“We’re not a life-search mission,” Pappalardo added. “But, if Europa’s interior happened to be rich in organic microbes pouring out of it, we would be able to tell from the mass spectra — probably, possibly — that we’re sensing life. That’s a longshot, but it’s not impossible.”

Pappalardo was referring to measurements made by Clipper’s mass spectrometer, one of nine science instruments the probe will carry. Mass spectrometers determine the masses of ions (charged atoms and molecules) in a sample, helping scientists identify what those ions are.

Clipper will collect these samples during dozens of flybys of Europa, which the probe will make from Jupiter orbit over the course of its 3.5-year operational life. Circling Europa itself was not a viable option, given the intense radiation environment around the moon, mission team members have said.

The samples will come from Europa’s wispy atmosphere and, the team hopes, from plumes of water vapor and other material wafting from the icy moon’s surface. Scientists have spotted evidence of such plumes on multiple occasions, but their existence has yet to be confirmed.

“Early in the mission, we’ll be searching for plumes and trying to understand, Are they real? Are they there? Where are they? Are they sporadic or continuously active?” Pappalardo said.

“And maybe we’ll fortuitously go through a plume, or maybe we’ll be able to adjust the orbit slightly in order to go through a plume,” he added. “And if we do, then our in situ instruments, especially the mass spectrometer and the dust detector, will be able to sample that material in extreme detail to search for organic materials and to understand the detailed chemistry of Europa’s interior.”

Pappalardo cautioned that Europa’s plumes, if they do indeed exist, might be very different than the confirmed one emanating from the south polar region of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. The Enceladus plume is generated by powerful geysers that are continuously blasting material from the Saturn satellite’s subsurface ocean into space. Although the Europa material could be coming from its ocean, the source could also be lakes of liquid water within the moon’s ice shell, Pappalardo said.

And he stressed that plume sampling won’t make or break Clipper’s mission.

“That’s essentially bonus science, not required by the mission,” Pappalardo said. “But I sure hope it happens.”

The other instruments carried by the solar-powered Clipper, whose total mission costs are estimated at around $4 billion, include a magnetometer and a radar instrument, which will allow the team to characterize in detail Europa’s ocean and ice shell, respectively. Scientists think the ocean is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) deep and the ice shell about 13 miles (20 km) thick, but those are estimates, and there will certainly be regional variation.

In case you just skimmed over that last sentence: A 50-mile-deep ocean is pretty amazing, considering that the deepest point on Earth’s seafloor is just 7 miles (11 km) beneath the waves. At 1,900 miles (3,000 km) wide, Europa is smaller than Earth’s moon but is thought to harbor twice as much liquid water as our planet’s surface does.

Europa’s ocean is also thought to be in contact with the moon’s rocky core, potentially enabling a wide range of interesting and complex chemical reactions. As a result, Europa is widely regarded as one of the solar system’s best bets for harboring alien life. Others on the short list include Enceladus and Saturn’s huge moon Titan, which has hydrocarbon seas on its surface and likely a buried ocean of liquid water as well. 

The Clipper will also tote powerful cameras, which will snap photos with a resolution of about 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) per pixel. That’s 10 times sharper than the best existing images of Europa’s surface, which were captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, Pappalardo said. Galileo orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003.

While Clipper’s photos will be revelatory enough in their own right, they should also help pave the way for the next step in Europa exploration: a life-hunting lander that Congress has instructed NASA to develop. Clipper’s data will help researchers identify good places for the lander mission to touch down, NASA officials have said. (The lander mission remains a concept for the moment, however; it’s not officially on NASA’s docket.)Click here for more Space.com videos…NASA’s Europa Mission Assessed by Office of Inspector GeneralVolume 0% 

NASA had long been targeting a 2023 liftoff for Europa Clipper. Congress has told the agency to launch the mission using NASA’s powerful Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, which would allow Clipper to travel directly to Jupiter and get there after just 2.4 years of flight. 

But SLS is still in development and has experienced multiple delays and cost overruns. In addition, NASA plans to use the first three SLS vehicles for its Artemis lunar-exploration program. As a result, the first SLS available for use by Clipper won’t be ready until 2025 at the earliest, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) recently concluded.

The OIG therefore recommended that NASA should be allowed to consider launching Clipper on a commercial rocket, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. These vehicles aren’t as powerful as SLS is expected to be, so going the commercial route would require a different trajectory for Clipper — a roundabout one that employs planetary “gravity assists” and features a total transit time of nearly six years, according to the OIG report.

Asteroid the Size of a Skyscraper Flew by Earth on Friday (Video)

An enormous asteroid flew by Earth today (Oct. 25), and you can watch it zip by in a video from the Virtual Telescope Project.

Asteroid 1998 HL1 was 3.86 million miles (6.21 million kilometers) away from Earth — about 10 times the average distance to the moon — when it makes its closest approach at 1:17 p.m. EDT (1717 GMT), according to NASA.  

The Virtual Telescope Project, an online observatory founded by astrophysicist Gianluca Masi of the Bellatrix Astronomical Observatory in Ceccano, Italy, hosted a live webcast about the asteroid during the close encounter today. You can watch a replay here at the Virtual Telescope Project’s website.

Video: Giant Asteroid 1998 HL1 Seen by Virtual Telescope Project
Related: 
Potentially Dangerous Asteroids (Images)

Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project captured this image of the potentially hazardous asteroid 1998 HL1 on Oct. 23, 2019, at 1:41 p.m. EDT (1741 GMT), when the asteroid was about 4.1 million miles (6.6 million kilometers) away from Earth. The image comes from a single 300-second exposure captured remotely using the Virtual Telescope Project’s Elena telescope. The telescope tracked the asteroid’s movement, so the asteroid appears as a white dot in front of a background of star trails.
Gianluca Masi of the Virtual Telescope Project captured this image of the potentially hazardous asteroid 1998 HL1 on Oct. 23, 2019, at 1:41 p.m. EDT (1741 GMT), when the asteroid was about 4.1 million miles (6.6 million kilometers) away from Earth. The image comes from a single 300-second exposure captured remotely using the Virtual Telescope Project’s Elena telescope. The telescope tracked the asteroid’s movement, so the asteroid appears as a white dot in front of a background of star trails. 

NASA classifies asteroid 1998 HL1 as “potentially hazardous” because the space rock has the “potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth.” That doesn’t mean the asteroid poses a threat this time around. The agency defines all asteroids whose orbits around the sun come within 4.6 million miles (7.8 million km) of Earth’s orbit, and that have a diameter of at least 500 feet (meters) as “potentially hazardous asteroids.”

Asteroid 1998 HL1 measures about 1,800 feet (550 m) in diameter, or about the height of the Sears Tower in Chicago, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This will make it quite bright around the time of the flyby,” Masi wrote in a description of today’s webcast

This sky chart from the Virtual Telescope Project shows the path of asteroid 1998 HL1 through the night sky from Oct. 25 to Oct. 28.
This sky chart from the Virtual Telescope Project shows the path of asteroid 1998 HL1 through the night sky from Oct. 25 to Oct. 28. (Click the top right corner of the image to expand it.)

Today’s flyby will be the closest one until Oct. 26, 2140, when it will be just slightly closer to Earth at a distance of 3.84 million miles (6.18 million km). So, 1998 HL1 won’t pose a real threat to Earth for the foreseeable future. 

Here’s How We Could Detect a Wormhole

Diagram of a wormhole.

Diagram of a wormhole.(Image: © Shutterstock)

Weird star wiggles could betray the presence of wormholes, if these fabled space-time tunnels do indeed exist, a new study suggests.

Wormholes are sci-fi staples; over the years, many stories, books and movies have sent their protagonists zipping between widely separated locales via these cosmic shortcuts. Wormholes are possible, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but nobody has ever spotted one.

The new study provides a possible way to make the first tentative detection: look for slight but strange movements of stars.

“If you have two stars, one on each side of the wormhole, the star on our side should feel the gravitational influence of the star that’s on the other side,” study co-author Dejan Stojkovic, a cosmologist and professor of physics at the University at Buffalo in New York, said in a statement. “The gravitational flux will go through the wormhole.”

Wormholes require extreme warping of space-time, which in turn depends on very powerful gravitational forces. So, a good place to hunt for these theoretical tunnel is near the supermassive black holes that lurk at the cores of galaxies — such as Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), the four-million-solar-mass behemoth in our own Milky Way, Stojkovic said.

“So if you map the expected orbit of a star around Sagittarius A*, you should see deviations from that orbit if there is a wormhole there with a star on the other side,” he said.

Current observing techniques likely aren’t sensitive enough to make such a detection at the moment, he added. But it may be possible to do so in the next decade or two with advances in instrumentation as well as long-term monitoring of appropriate target stars, such as S2, which circles near Sagittarius A*.

Don’t get too excited, however; such a detection, if astronomers ever manage to make one, is unlikely to be a slam dunk.

“When we reach the precision needed in our observations, we may be able to say that a wormhole is the most likely explanation if we detect perturbations in the orbit of S2,” Stojkovic said. “But we cannot say that, ‘Yes, this is definitely a wormhole.’ There could be some other explanation, something else on our side perturbing the motion of this star.”

And there’s some more bad news on the space-exploration side: Wormhole travel will probably remain a mere sci-fi dream for a very long time, if not forever, Stojkovic said.

“Even if a wormhole is traversable, people and spaceships most likely aren’t going to be passing through,” he said. “Realistically, you would need a source of negative energy to keep the wormhole open, and we don’t know how to do that. To create a huge wormhole that’s stable, you need some magic.”

The new study, which was led by De-Chang Dai of Yangzhou University in China and Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, was published earlier this month in the journal Physical Review D.

Pioneering NASA Asteroid Mission Clears Key Hurdle on Path to 2021 Launch

An artist's depiction (not to scale) of the Lucy spacecraft visiting the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter.

An artist’s depiction (not to scale) of the Lucy spacecraft visiting the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter.(Image: © NASA/SwRI)

The first mission to visit a mysterious swarm of asteroids that circle the sun along Jupiter’s path has cleared an important hurdle on the way to its 2021 launch.

NASA’s robotic Lucy mission, which will visit six Trojan asteroids during its operational life, passed its critical design review (CDR) on Friday (Oct. 18), agency officials just announced.

During the four-day CDR, independent experts assessed all aspects of Lucy’s design, ultimately deeming the mission fit to proceed to the manufacturing phase.

“This is a very exciting time for us, because we are moving beyond the design phase and are really starting to build the spacecraft,” Lucy principal investigator Hal Levison, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement Monday (Oct. 21). “It is finally becoming real!”

The Trojan asteroids orbit the sun in two clumps, one ahead of Jupiter (the “leading swarm”) and one behind the gas giant (the “trailing swarm”). Scientists think these space rocks are leftover relics from the long-ago formation of the outer planets, so they’re eager to get some close-up looks.

“These primitive bodies hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system, and perhaps even the origins of life and organic material on Earth,” NASA officials wrote in a Lucy mission description.

If all goes according to plan, Lucy will launch in October 2021, zoom past Earth twice for “gravity assists” and fly by its first asteroid in April 2025. That rock, known as (52246) Donaldjohanson, lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Lucy will then fly by four Trojans in the leading swarm, with the rendezvous occurring in August 2027, September 2027, April 2028 and November 2028. The spacecraft’s orbit will bring Lucy back toward the sun, and when it heads outward again, it will be on a trajectory toward the trailing swarm. The probe will cruise past a trailing-swarm binary Trojan in March 2033, marking the mission’s grand finale.

No other space mission has ever visited so many different destinations in independent orbits, Lucy mission team members have said.Click here for more Space.com videos…Lucy and Psyche – New NASA Missions To Metal and Trojan AsteroidsVolume 0% 

The mission’s name, by the way, is a nod to the famous, 3.2-million-year-old hominid fossil discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 by paleontologists Donald Johanson and Tom Gray. (The Lucy team named after Johanson the main-belt asteroid that the probe will visit.)

Just as discovery of the fossil Lucy shed considerable light on humanity’s origins, the Lucy spacecraft will reveal key insights about the solar system’s early years and evolution, mission team members have said.

Lucy is part of NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost, focused planetary exploration missions. Lucy’s development costs are capped at about $450 million, NASA officials said.

Other Discovery missions include the InSight Mars lander, Kepler planet-hunting space telescope, Messenger Mercury spacecraft and Dawn probe, which orbited the dwarf planets Vesta and Ceres. Another Discovery mission called Psyche is scheduled to launch in 2022, to explore the mysterious metallic asteroid of the same name.

Monstrous galaxy from dawn of the universe accidentally discovered

Astronomers accidentally discovered the footprints of a monster galaxy in the early universe that has never been seen before. Like a cosmic Yeti, the scientific community generally regarded these galaxies as folklore, given the lack of evidence of their existence, but astronomers in the United States and Australia managed to snap a picture of the beast for the first time.

Published in the Astrophysical Journal, the discovery provides new insights into the first growing steps of some of the biggest galaxies in the universe.

University of Arizona astronomer Christina Williams, lead author of the study, noticed a faint light blob in new sensitive observations using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, a collection of 66 radio telescopes high in the Chilean mountains. Strangely enough, the shimmering seemed to be coming out of nowhere, like a ghostly footstep in a vast dark wilderness.

“It was very mysterious because the light seemed not to be linked to any known galaxy at all,” said Williams, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Steward Observatory. “When I saw this galaxy was invisible at any other wavelength, I got really excited because it meant that it was probably really far away and hidden by clouds of dust.”

The researchers estimate that the signal came from so far away that it took 12.5 billion years to reach Earth, therefore giving us a view of the universe in its infancy. They think the observed emission is caused by the warm glow of dust particles heated by stars forming deep inside a young galaxy. The giant clouds of dust conceal the light of the stars themselves, rendering the galaxy completely invisible.

Study co-author Ivo Labbé, of the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia, said: “We figured out that the galaxy is actually a massive monster galaxy with as many stars as our Milky Way, but brimming with activity, forming new stars at 100 times the rate of our own galaxy.”

The discovery may solve a long-standing question in astronomy, the authors said. Recent studies found that some of the biggest galaxies in the young universe grew up and came of age extremely quickly, a result that is not understood theoretically. Massive mature galaxies are seen when the universe was only a cosmic toddler at 10% of its current age. Even more puzzling is that these mature galaxies appear to come out of nowhere: astronomers never seem to catch them while they are forming.

Smaller galaxies have been seen in the early universe with the Hubble Space Telescope, but such creatures are not growing fast enough to solve the puzzle. Other monster galaxies have also been previously reported, but those sightings have been far too rare for a satisfying explanation.

“Our hidden monster galaxy has precisely the right ingredients to be that missing link,” Williams explains, “because they are probably a lot more common.”

An open question is exactly how many of them there are. The observations for the current study were made in a tiny part of the sky, less than 1/100th the disc of the full moon. Like the Yeti, finding footprints of the mythical creature in a tiny strip of wilderness would either be a sign of incredible luck or a sign that monsters are literally lurking everywhere.

Williams said researchers are eagerly awaiting the March 2021 scheduled launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to investigate these objects in more detail.

“JWST will be able to look through the dust veil so we can learn how big these galaxies really are and how fast they are growing, to better understand why models fail in explaining them.”

But for now the monsters are out there, shrouded in dust and a lot of mystery.

Fireball that flew over Japan in 2017 was tiny piece of giant asteroid that might one day threaten Earth

A still from a video shows a fireball passing over Kyoto, Japan after 1 a.m. on April 28, 2017. (Credit: SonataCo Network)

A still from a video shows a fireball passing over Kyoto, Japan after 1 a.m. on April 28, 2017. (Credit: SonataCo Network)

In the early morning of April 28, 2017, a small fireball crept across the sky over Kyoto, Japan. And now, thanks to data collected by the SonotaCo meteor survey, researchers have determined that the fiery space rock was a shard of a much larger asteroid that might (far down the road) threaten Earth.

The meteor that burned over Japan was tiny. Studying the SonotaCo data, the researchers determined that the object entered the atmosphere with a mass of about 1 ounce (29 grams) and was just 1 inch (2.7 centimeters) across. It didn’t threaten anyone. But small meteors like this are interesting because they can offer data on the bigger objects that spawn them. And in this case, the researchers tracked the little rock back to its parent: an object known as 2003 YT1.

Arecibo Radar Images of 2003 YT1

2003 YT1 is a binary asteroid, composed of one large rock about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) across orbited by a smaller asteroid that’s 690 feet (210 meters) long. Discovered in 2003, the binary system has a 6% chance of hitting Earth at some point in the next 10 million years. That makes the object what researchers call a “potentially hazardous object,” even though it’s unlikely to hurt anyone in your lifetime.

The binary didn’t pass by Earth in 2017, so there wasn’t an immediately obvious link between the meteor and its parent. But the researchers studied how the fireball moved across the sky and were able to reverse-engineer the object’s orbit through space, pinning it to 2003 YT1 with a high degree of certainty.

The researchers said they aren’t sure how the little rock split off from 2003 YT1 but believe it’s part of a larger stream of dust that got flung off of the asteroid. And they offered a few potential explanations for how that stream formed: Maybe tiny micrometeorites routinely strike the bigger asteroid in the binary, fragmenting it like bullets striking a rock wall. Or maybe changes in heat cracked one of the asteroid’s surfaces, spitting small pieces into the dark.

One scenario the authors offered is that the shards are a result of the process that formed the 2003 YT1 system in the first place.

Most people likely imagine asteroids as great, big rocks, scaled-up versions of the stones they’d find here on Earth. But 2003 YT1, the authors wrote, is more likely a “rubble pile,” a jumble of stuff loosely bound together by gravity that coalesced into two orbiting bodies at some point in the last 10,000 years. The forces holding the masses together as individual asteroids are likely weak, and as the two piles spin chaotically around one another every couple hours, they could fling more of themselves into space.

There are other, more exotic possibilities, the authors wrote. Water ice might be sublimating (turning from solid to gas) off one of the asteroids’ surfaces and reforming as small balls of ice in open space. But that and other models are unlikely, the researchers wrote.

For now, we know that Earth has been visited by a little piece of a big asteroid. And that little piece is likely part of a stream of other little pieces that sometimes enter the Earth’s atmosphere unnoticed. And at some point far down the road, that big asteroid might follow its small children and slam into Earth. That fireball would be much, much bigger.

The paper describing these findings has not yet been peer-reviewed. A draft was published Oct. 16 in the preprint journal arXiv.

Japan’s 1st Moon Rover to Touch Down in 2021

The little robot, called Yaoki, will fly on the commercial Astrobotic lander.

An artist's illustration of Dymon's little Yaoki rover and Astrobotic's larger Peregrine lander on the surface of the moon.

An artist’s illustration of Dymon’s little Yaoki rover and Astrobotic’s larger Peregrine lander on the surface of the moon.(Image: © Astrobotic/Dymon)

The firsts keep rolling in for a 2021 moon mission. 

The Pittsburgh-based company Astrobotic plans to send its robotic Peregrine lander to the lunar surface in July 2021, on a mission sponsored by NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The flight will be the first for Peregrine and its rocket, United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur vehicle, and may mark the first successful moon landing by a private spacecraft. (Another commercial lander and CLPS awardee, Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C, is scheduled to launch around the same time.)

Peregrine will also carry the United Kingdom’s first-ever moon rover, a little, four-legged craft built by London-based company Spacebit. And another little pioneer will be on the flight as well, it turns out: Japan’s first lunar rover, a tiny, wheeled robot named Yaoki, which was developed by Tokyo-based company Dymon.

“We are really excited to fly our mission with Astrobotic. This lunar rover Yaoki will result in the first lunar rover from Japan to explore the lunar surface, and marks a unique contribution to Peregrine’s mission,” Dymon CEO Shinichiro Nakajima said in a statement. 

“Yaoki has already successfully passed more than 100 tests and has the smallest but most effective rover wheels ever produced,” Nakajima added. “We are ready to complete development and fly in 2021.”

This first mission could be the start of something big on the moon for Dymon. The company aims to land 100 Yaokis by 2030, Dymon representatives have said. 

“Dymon’s unique, single-axle rover is a creative design that we look forward to delivering on Peregrine in 2021,” Astrobotic CEO John Thornton said in the same statement. “We’re excited to deliver this groundbreaking Japanese rover to the moon.”

Yaoki and the “walking rover” from Spacebit will have a lot of company on the 2021 flight. Peregrine is toting to the lunar surface about 30 payloads, 14 of which will be provided by NASA. 

The U.S. space agency is funding the mission, via CLPS, to the tune of $79.5 million. Intuitive Machines is getting $77 million for its first mission. (The company Orbit Beyond got $97 million in this round of CLPS awards, which were announced in May. But Orbit Beyond has since dropped out, saying it could not meet its September 2020 launch target.)Click here for more Space.com videos…Private Moon Landers – Target Landing Sites UnveiledVolume 0% 

NASA views the CLPS-funded missions as key enablers of its Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration. That project aims to put astronauts down near the lunar south pole by 2024 and establish a permanent, sustainable human presence on and around the moon by 2028. For example, some of the science gear flying on the robotic landers will assess stores of lunar water ice, an important resource for potential explorers and settlers.

To date, just three entities have successfully soft-landed a spacecraft on the moon: the Soviet Union, the United States and China. The private Israeli outfit SpaceIL and the government of India tried to follow suit this year with the Beresheet and Chandrayaan-2 missions, respectively, but both came up short.

Dymon isn’t the only Japanese company that wants to explore the moon. Tokyo-based ispace plans to put down a lander toting customer payloads in 2021, following that up with a rover-deploying surface mission in 2023.

This Poofy, Inflated Exoplanet Is One of the Puffiest Ever Seen

An artist's depiction of a hot Jupiter.

An artist’s depiction of a hot Jupiter. (Image: © NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI))

Giant alien worlds known as hot Jupiters, with searing, close orbits to their host stars, can inflate like balloons. Now, astronomers have discovered a hot Jupiter so puffy that it is one of the least dense planets ever found, the researchers reported in a new study.

In the past three decades, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 4,000 worlds outside of Earth’s solar system. Scientists found that some of these exoplanets are very different from those seen in Earth’s solar system; for example, researchers have found hot Jupiters, gas giants that orbit their stars closer than Mercury does the sun.

Previous research showed that a number of hot Jupiters were unusually large but not especially massive, suggesting that they had inflated, perhaps due to heat from their stars. However, “it has not yet been understood why some hot Jupiters are so inflated,” lead author of the new study Luigi Mancini, at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, told Space.com.

“There’s probably a list of 20 or so theories for the physics behind the inflation of these planets, such as tidal effects or strong electric currents,” study co-author Gaspar Bakos, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, told Space.com. “It hasn’t been figured out yet — inflating a planet that big is not easy.”

Now, scientists have discovered a highly inflated hot Jupiter, “a very low-density planet,” Bakos said. “The hope is that the more of these inflated planets we find, the more we understand why and how they are inflated.”

The researchers focused on a planet orbiting WASP-174, a yellow-white dwarf star about 1.25 times the mass of our sun and 1.35 times the sun’s diameter. This 2.2-billion-year-old star is located about 1,325 light-years from Earth.

Previous research spotted a giant planet that orbited at a distance of just 5.5% of an astronomical unit (AU) around this star. (One AU is the average distance between Earth and the sun, which is about 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers.) This hot Jupiter, dubbed WASP-174b, seemed to be at most 1.3 times the mass of Jupiter, but estimates of its diameter ranged anywhere from 70% to 170% that of Jupiter.

To shed light on WASP-174b, the scientists in the new study analyzed data gathered by ground-based telescopes stretching across the Southern Hemisphere, plus the orbiting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

The scientists pinned down WASP-174b’s diameter at more than 1.4 times that of Jupiter, meaning the planet is highly inflated. With a density of just 8.4 lbs. per cubic foot (0.135 grams per cubic centimeter), about the same density as light balsa wood, WASP-174b is among the least dense planets ever discovered.

WASP-174b’s highly inflated nature might make it an ideal subject for scientists to analyze an exoplanetary atmosphere, compared to less puffy targets that are smaller and harder to see, Bakos said.

“There will be future studies trying to detect what molecules make up its atmosphere,” Bakos said. “The better we characterize these inflated planets, the more data points we will have to create a consistent theory for why they exist.”

The research is described in a paper that was accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and that was posted to the preprint server arXiv.org on Sept. 18.

NASA scientist creates engine concept that can reach ‘close to the speed of light’

NASA scientist has created a new concept for an engine that he says can move “close to the speed of light” – all without any moving parts or need for fuel.

The paper, written by David Burns from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, discusses a “helical engine” that can be used to travel across interstellar distances, send astronauts to the moon in approximately one second and Mars in less than 13 minutes, according to The Sun, which first reported the news.

“A new concept for in-space propulsion is proposed in which propellant is not ejected from the engine, but instead is captured to create a nearly infinite specific impulse,” Burns wrote in the paper’s abstract. “The engine accelerates ions confined in a loop to moderate relativistic speeds, and then varies their velocity to make slight changes to their mass. The engine then moves ions back and forth along the direction of travel to produce thrust. This in-space engine could be used for long-term satellite station-keeping without refueling.”

“It could also propel spacecraft across interstellar distances, reaching close to the speed of light,” Burns added in the abstract. “The engine has no moving parts other than ions traveling in a vacuum line, trapped inside electric and magnetic fields.”

Burns’ idea is novel, as it completely removes one of the heaviest components of space flight–fuel.

NASA is looking into the possibility of using ice and water on the surface of the moon as rocket fuel, but any potential solution would likely be years, if not decades, away.

The concept, which Burns admitted he is not sure is viable, takes inspiration from high-tech particle accelerators, similar to what is seen at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

“If someone says it doesn’t work, I’ll be the first to say, it was worth a shot,” Burns said in an interview with New Scientist. “You have to be prepared to be embarrassed. It is very difficult to invent something that is new under the sun and actually works.”

A Faux Saturn Moon Titan on Earth Could Solve Solar System Mystery

Dunes on Saturn's moon Titan as seen by the Cassini probe in 2006.

Dunes on Saturn’s moon Titan as seen by the Cassini probe in 2006.(Image: © NASA/JPL)

Big, schmancy compounds keep popping up all over the solar system, and new research may help clear up confusion about how they form in so many places.

That research is based on laboratory experiments inspired by a weird quirk scientists have noticed about sprawling dune fields on Saturn’s moon Titan. These dunes are full of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that have ring-like structures. On Titan, the dunes stockpile a significant proportion of the moon’s carbon. And because that moon is one of astrobiologists’ most tempting quarries for potentially finding life beyond Earth, carbon matters.

“These dunes are pretty large,” study senior author Ralf Kaiser, a chemist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told Space.com, nearly as tall as the Great Pyramid in Egypt, he added. “If you want to understand the carbon and hydrocarbon cycle and the processes of hydrocarbons on Titan, it’s really important to understand, of course, where the dominant source of carbon comes from.”

On Titan, there’s a straightforward mechanism that scientists know likely builds polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: These large molecules can form in the moon’s thick atmosphere and settle down to the surface. But the same family of compounds has been found on plenty of worlds that boast no such atmosphere, like the dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres and the Kuiper Belt object Makemake.

Kaiser and his colleagues wanted to figure out how polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons could come to exist on a world lacking an atmosphere to create them. And when the researchers looked at Titan, they saw a clue: Where the dunes are, there aren’t many hydrocarbon ices that are otherwise fairly common on that moon.

The researchers wondered whether a second process, one taking place on the surface, could turn ices like acetylene into polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In particular, the scientists thought the culprit might be galactic cosmic rays, energetic particles that ricochet across space.

So the researchers designed an experiment: Take some acetylene ice, expose it to a process that imitates galactic cosmic rays, and see what happens. They mimicked the effect of 100 years’ worth of pummeling from these particles, then measured the amounts of different compounds that had formed.

The scientists found several different flavors of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This suggested to the team that the interaction between hydrocarbon ices and galactic cosmic rays could indeed explain the prevalence of the compounds even where no atmosphere can form them.

“This is a pretty versatile process which can happen anywhere,” Kaiser said. That includes not just Titan, but also other moons and asteroids, but even grains of interstellar dust and neighboring solar systems, he said.

Next, he and his colleagues want to pin down what specific process is causing the transformation, Kaiser said. That will be tricky, he said, since the ionizing radiation the team used to simulate cosmic galactic rays includes multiple simultaneous processes.

The line of research is intriguing aesthetically as well as scientifically, Michael Malaska, who studies planetary ices at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and who wasn’t involved in the current research, told Space.com in an email. “Their work further supports that some of Titan’s sand may glow pretty colors under UV light,” he wrote.

The research was described in a paper published yesterday (Oct. 16) in the journal Science Advances.